Q: Three years ago I bought a 6-year-old Appaloosa mare for my kids, but her behavior has changed recently, enough to make me reconsider her as a suitable mount for children. She has become more spooky and flighty, and I can think of two possible causes for her mood swings:
First, her time under saddle has been significantly reduced in the past couple of months. The last time I rode her, she wasn’t awful, but she wasn’t the same mare I had bought. Also, her behavior changed around the time we switched her pasturemate from a gelding her age to an older, gentler gelding. I’m wondering if her behavior change could have anything to do with herd dynamics. Does becoming the dominant leader also make a horse more prone to spooking? —Kate Holzer; Darlington, Pennsylvania
A: You are right to be concerned about the safety of your children. Your hypothesis—that your mare’s rise to the dominant position in her herd of two was responsible for her change in behavior—is intriguing, but I am not sure it is true. It would be interesting to test that idea by quantifying shies per hour in horses when they are the dominant and when they are subordinate. Of course, you would need a group of individuals who, like your mare, switch from a subordinate to a dominant position under different circumstances. But my personal experience has suggested that it is the subordinate horse who is more likely to exhibit anxiety when separated from the dominant. I call it the “battered horse syndrome.”
Your mare’s increased tendency to spook could have several other causes. First, have your veterinarian examine her for anything that might cause her pain, especially lameness, because that can increase a horse’s vigilant behavior and even bring about a refusal to work. In addition, because she hasn’t been ridden as much recently, she may have excess energy. The “cure” for many equine behavior problems is to increase the roughage and decrease the grain in their diets. To further drain her energy longe her either on a line or in a round pen before you or your children ride.
It’s also possible, if she hasn’t been out much recently, that she is “neophobic”—frightened because she is less familiar with the things she sees, hears and smells along the trail. Other than riding more often, you can’t do a lot about this. But you can instruct your children to notice and heed her signs of nervousness, such as snorting, and the things that can scare a horse, such as a new “For Sale” sign, cows, ribbons streaming in the breeze, or puddles or drains in her path.
Katherine A. Houpt, VMD, PhD