When Sweet Leads to Spooky

An otherwise-calm gelding gets jumpy. Could his sweet feed have anything to do with it?

I couldn’t believe it. My dream horse had become a nightmare.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Marsha Hoh Author Marsha Hoh of Pennsylvania says she’s glad she didn’t give up on her Tennessee Walking Horse gelding, Bonner.

Gaits of Heaven Bonner came into my life about three years ago. At that time, he was a 7-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse gelding who gave me a consistent ride every time out. I trail ride a lot, plus I show at the fair once a year just for fun. Bonner seemed perfect for these purposes and, true to his breed, he was as smooth as glass under saddle.

After a few months, however, things started to go downhill. My sweet, loving boy became tense and spooky. He still stood when asked, never bolted, and mostly did what I asked, but now he was spooking at practically everything. When I groomed him, he’d startle if the little bunches of hair coming off the currycomb blew across the aisle. If his own long mane blew across his face, that would spook him.

‘Not Safe to Ride’

Soon his behavior made me so nervous I didn’t want to ride him anymore. He didn’t do anything terrible under saddle; he was just so jumpy it took all the fun out of being on him.

I took him to a local trainer for an evaluation. He told me Bonner needed a lot of work and, until he got it, wasn’t safe to ride. Heartbroken, I considered my options. I didn’t want to sell him, but I also didn’t know how I’d ever feel safe on him again.

What to do?

After much thought, I decided I loved this horse too much to give up on him. So off I went to see Patrick King, a horsemanship trainer I’d met at a clinic in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, about 20 miles from where I live in DuBois. Patrick assured me the problems I was having with Bonner were correctable. I told him I was too fearful at that point to ride my gelding, so he suggested I come and learn what I needed to learn on one of his horses.

So I did. I wound up spending two weekends at Patrick’s Maple Lane Farm in Mount Pleasant, about two hours away. The work boosted my confidence, and I learned to be much more aware of what a horse is thinking and feeling. Patrick teaches you to become an extension of the horse you’re riding, rather than just a passenger.

I returned to my barn with a fresh attitude and a new bag of training techniques. I spent a lot of time just being with Bonner, talking to him quietly as I eased him into situations I knew made him nervous. Gradually, his trust in me increased, and he began looking to me for approval.

He was improving in many ways, but he was still spooky enough that I began to feel discouraged again. I even started wondering, once more, about selling him. I loved him still, but his spooking completely unnerved me, and I wasn’t sure I had the courage to provide the training he needed to overcome it.

They Are What They Eat

Then my farrier asked what I was feeding him. I told him hay and sweet feed. He suggested the sweet feed might be contributing to the problem. Really? I had trouble believing this; after all, Bonner didn’t bolt off or otherwise act “juiced up,” just spooky. Still, I was desperate and willing to try anything. I talked with the people at the mill where I buy grain and learned they had a formulation similar to what I had been feeding, only with no molasses.

So I weaned Bonner off the sweet feed, gradually substituting the dry mix until he was getting as much of the plain stuff as he had been getting of the sweetened grain. I watched him closely, and at first saw no difference in his behavior. Then, about the second or third week, he began relaxing more and spooking less. He even willingly approached and sniffed objects he’d been terrified of before.

I could hardly believe the difference! Without the sweet feed, I had my sweet horse back. Once I’d feared I’d never trust him enough to ride him again; now I was riding him all over the trails, amazed at his transformation.

I’m so glad I didn’t give up on my horse. I’d caused the situation, after all, by what I was feeding him. It felt so great to pinpoint the problem and fix it. The bond we now share is strong, and I’m thankful to Patrick King for giving me the tools and confidence I needed to hang in there until I figured things out.

Thanks, too, to my farrier, for bringing up something that horse owners everywhere need to remember: What you feed your horse can influence his behavior. Believe it!

Marsha Hoh and her husband, Michael, live in DuBois, Pennsylvania. They have two grown children, Jessica and Kyle. Marsha loves trail riding and is happy to report that Walking Horse Bonner is still the enjoyable, trustworthy trail partner she always knew he could be.

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