Identifying the Abuse and Triggers
I don’t want to seem terribly negative about working with charroed horses, but the reality is that horses who have undergone this abuse carry that abuse with them throughout their lives. They can get better, but some are never completely safe, and may have outbursts if they are inadvertently triggered.
There are two issues I see most with these horses: one, they are “waiting” for the abuse- they rush the trot or the canter, they swing around to avoid the whip or chain, etc. You have to work so those behaviors are completely extinct. For example, we had a Thoroughbred who was rushed in her training and was waiting for me to hit her when we were at the canter. So, all we did for three months was walk while under saddle. I started the trot, and she would tense up, so we went back to the walk, where she was comfortable. Eventually the trot was OK, and when I finally reintroduced the canter, she was not as tense.
The second issue I see with these horses is that it is very difficult to overcome the fight-or-flight aspect. Horses by nature are prey animals, so they are already prone to fight-or-flight outcomes. Unfortunately, through the abusive charro training, this fight-or-flight response is heightened- as much or even more so than wild horses. This makes horses who have undergone this type of abusive training incredibly difficult to work with because they are going to respond first and think second, which can make their response incredibly dangerous to the person working or riding him. They are often so concerned that they will be hurt that they will do anything that they can do to get out of that situation, and it often ends up putting the person riding or handling the horse in danger. The horse isn’t trying to maliciously hurt the person; they are so conditioned to try to leave the painful situation that they don’t think.
I’m going to be honest- the majority of the charroed horses we’ve gotten have not been able to be turned around. They have gone through too much abuse and, while we’ve been able to get them to be safe on the ground, I would not trust them under saddle- or vice versa. The problem primarily is that you don’t know when or what exactly is going to trigger a reaction that may lead to the horse exploding.
Identifying the Triggers
Right now you are just looking for triggers- I will go into ways of working through these in a separate blog post. The goal here is just to identify what the issues are so you can work through them later, instead of being surprised and possibly put in danger.
Charroed horses often have been hit on their legs or lassoed, so they often have issues with ropes and will not allow people to touch their legs without kicking out or trying to run away. I would start on the ground, and when I’m working with the horse, I start in the round pen, with a halter and lead rope.
When I get a new horse in, I will just start touching the horse all over. Oddly enough, some horses have been so abused that they are just afraid of being touched, so just even a kind human touch will trigger a response.
Once the horse is accepting touch, I start with a dressage whip, and just “touch” the horse with the whip lightly, up and down, wherever the horse is the most sensitive. The whip itself may cause issues, so if it does and he can’t get over that, then don’t do this exercise. But, if it works, you can desensitize areas that may be dangerous to touch because the horse may kick or swing around. This is especially helpful for horses with leg and feet issues.
Again, charroed horses have often been hurt with whips, chains and some have been lassoed, so all of these can trigger a fight or flight response. With the horse still on the line, I will take another rope and first touch the horse all over the horse’s body. Then, I will drape the rope down and touch his legs- again, be prepared for a response. I may also take the rope and put it on the ground next to the horse and pull it around. Finally, I will take a rope and lightly wrap it around the horse’s leg- this can cause a response, so be prepared to let go of the rope and let the horse move away from the “scary” rope.
Whips can also be a trigger- longe whips, dressage whips, crops- anything. I do the same thing with the whips that I do with the rope to see what might trigger the horse’s fight or flight response.
When I start working with a charroed horse, I usually start from the ground up, as if I had a greenbroke horse. None of the charroed horses we have worked with have a solid foundation- they have bits of different types of training, but they are often rushed through their foundation training. Introduce tack the same way you would a completely greenbroke horse- with the pad first. The horse may freak out, or he may just stand there, but first show him the pad, then practice putting it on and off of his back. If he flinches, or if he roaches (pulls up) his back, you know that you’re going to have an issue with the saddle, so at that point you will need to go back to training with a surcingle before you introduce a saddle.
If the horse has no real reaction to the pad, you can try a saddle. Many, many horses have issues with being cinched because of people not knowing how to cinch correctly- this is not specific to charroed horses, but I have noticed most charroed horses have issues with being cinched. Some will just blow out (hold their breath), which is a perfectly normal and mild reaction, but some will explode. Be prepared for either. Go very slowly and don’t worry about riding yet- just focus on finding the triggers so you know what to work on.
The bridle is also a huge issue as many charroed horses have been subject to very severe bits. I’ve seen some horses who had scar tissue around their entire mouth, to horses who have tongues that have been split or even cut off. Make sure you have a vet look at your horse’s teeth and tongue before you try to put a bit in his mouth.
Usually when I start a horse I will start with leading and round penning. Unfortunately, these horses are often “cowboyed” in the round pen- another negative euphemism, but it is used in this industry and expresses the need to use force in order to get results, which was often the case with the historical cowboy, hence the expression. This means that the horse is run around in the round pen- and I mean RUN- for a long time until the horse is literally exhausted. This isn’t really round penning- you can read more about what I mean about round penning in a previous blog post: Round Penning 101A- What is it, what is it not? If you start working with the horse in the round pen and he just starts running, you know he’s been cowboyed and that is an issue you have to work on. It may take several months before he will listen to you in the round pen and won’t just start running the minute you stand in the middle.
When you do start riding, some horses will buck or bolt when under saddle, especially if you are not working them in very harsh equipment. This, unfortunately, is normal, and why I believe that it is important to go back to basics- start with ground driving and training as if the horse isn’t trained. Once you understand the triggers, you are better prepared for working on how to overcome these triggers. I will go into this in the next post: Rehabbing Charroed Horses: How to Overcome the Fight or Flight Response