Difficult young horse - WWYD?

I have a three year Connemara Sporthorse gelding. I bred him for myself out of my OTTB mare - foaled him out and have done all of his training to date. This is my first baby, but otherwise consider myself an experienced horse person, having ridden for 30+ years including restarting multiple OTTBs myself.

Anyways, I brought my gelding to a well respected cowboy type trainer to be started under saddle. He did okay the first week, even participating in a versatility/desensitizing clinic with me as the handler. Since then, his behavior has completely deteriorated. He has become extremely explosive, over reactive and sensitive to work around. We thought maybe ulcers, as he also had anorexia and weight loss, and have been treating with Ulcerguard for three weeks. His weight has improved, but he continues to be reactive and difficult to work with, to the point that the trainer told me he couldn’t ride this horse.

I had the vet out to rule out physical causes. We did pull a Lyme and he came back mildly positive for a chronic infection (Osf 2862). He has an appointment to get scoped for ulcers next week. He also had a lameness exam as he was briefly “off” last week, though that has since resolved.

Here is my concern. He has always been challenging. Even as a foal, he hated to be touched and had no use for humans. We got through that, then he started bolting when being led. I had another trainer out to help me with that and we made some real progress. I have not consistently worked with him because of other commitments, so I jokingly say he is semi-feral. But he got to the point where I had tack on him and was hand walking him up and down the road and all around our farm. He is now fairly sweet and sometimes even cuddly, but is always looking for that cheeky opportunity to misbehave.

But now it has just completely deteriorated to the point where I was appalled and embarrassed by how terrible he was for the vet, like borderline dangerous! And this is with five days a week of training with a well-regarded trainer with extensive experience with problem horses and babies.

I’m going to bring him home this week and with my vet, will continue to try and rule out physical causes. I am so disheartened that this young horse who I have waited so long for has turned out this way. Is there anything else I should be looking at or considering? For all you experienced breeders out there, have you ever had a young horse that is just too difficult to even be backed?

Caveat, not an experienced breeder, but did breed my own (now coming 5) and had life get in the way a bit along the way so not dissimilar to you. I had backed a good handful of horses before and am a competent rider. I contemplated sending her away a few times but pressed on and luckily besides some spookiness she should be going to dressage shows at training level easily this year.

My mare is very easy in some ways, but very mareish and difficult in others plus she’s big and knows it. She kicked the vet about 5 minutes after standing when she was born and is only into people if you have food or will itch her itchy spots or massage her ears, otherwise she’d like to be left alone on the ground, thank you very much.
She ”‹”‹”‹did get much better with 24/7 turnout and a feed change. I’d be looking at what his turnout and feed is like especially since you say he was getting better at home and deteriorated at the trainers. I’d also be inclined to check for any hormonal balances. He is only 3 so I’d say you have a bit of time before giving up, some just need a bit of age and wet saddle pads to knock off shenanigans (assuming no physical issues)


Not a breeder but I have experience with starting babies. Personally, I don’t care for a lot of the cowboy type colt starters. I think they work fine for 90% of horses, but for the horses they don’t, they REALLY don’t. Purely from my own observations, I’ve noticed that a lot of the horses that don’t do well with those types of trainers are sport horses. I think a lot of the natural horsemanship cowboying around works fine for quarter horses/ paints/ and applies/ but I’m sorry you can’t just muscle around a warmblood… they’ll win.

Now, I’m not saying that’s definitely what’s going on here, but that’s my best guess. If I were you, I would explore other training options with people who typically work with sport horses and avoid the cowboys.

And I say this as someone who grew up practicing natural horsemanship from a Clinton Anderson/ parelli type trainer so it’s not that I don’t understand that philosophy. I’ve just transitioned into the hunter jumper world and ride very different horses than I did growing up and because of that, my training principles have changed A LOT especially when it comes to starting babies.


Thanks, Skip! That is reassuring!

He was previously turned out 24/7 with in and out stall access and on free choice hay with 1lb ration balancer per day. He is now only turned out 9-5 and they did start feeding him a concentrate because of the weight loss. I do think the drastic change in living situation has absolutely contributed, but I would think a month in, he would have adjusted?

I had originally planned on backing him myself, but because he’s been so difficult, I decided to send him out. I’ve apparently become a chicken in my old age!

Hmmm…good food for thought. Thank you!

The sensitive, intelligent types do not do well with drastic changes like the one you’re describing. I think it is absolutely a combination of the stalling at night, the five days a week work, the new person working with him, then the change in feed… Poor guy. It just fried his brain. :frowning:


So are you treating the Lyme infection? I was a Connemara breeder and I had a nice filly who had a sudden, scary personality change apparently caused by Lyme. I treated her and it went away and she was back to normal.

I also had a colt (gelding) who was TOUGH from day one. I swear he wanted a job from birth. He did some big athletic moves that were dangerous on occasion. We were careful and stayed safe. Then, from the moment he finally got a job at age 3 with a wonderful cowboy, he has been a superstar. All that athleticism is great in the right circumstances.

So, don’t give up on him. Do treat the Lyme and ulcers if any (I’ve not had these) and then find yourself the right trainer and right living situation and figure out what job he loves. Chances are he’ll be okay and you’ll be happy.

Good luck!

Re: the Lyme infection - our vet said that generally she does not see them symptomatic with that number. Not that it’s impossible, just unlikely for that to be causing the behavioral issues. The trainer is convinced that it’s Lyme. Plan is to scope him next week, and if negative, then treat for Lyme.

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Thanks all for your responses!

My next question is should I bring him home, back to a low stress environment, or keep him at the trainers? And, if I bring him home, should I turn him back out with his dam and the rest of the herd again, or is that part of what has gotten him so stressed?

He was previously weaned at 6mos, but at 18mos, we started turning him out with the rest of our herd again. He is now the herd boss of four, which can’t be good for his young mind!

If I sent my horse out to a trainer and it wasn’t working then I’d bring him home to see if I could figure it what the problem is myself.


I would try a different trainer. BTDT, have the T shirt. Sent my Dutch filly off to one well-regarded trainer to be started and while she made some progress, she was completely stressed and never really calmed down. After she had a terrible colic requiring surgery, I brought her home and reset for the rest of the year.

This year I sent her to someone different, who is much farther away but also very, very experienced. She is doing much better. It’s funny, I used to call her “feral” too – but now she has learned to channel her sensitivity into something non-explosive/dangerous, and I’m ready to take over.

I never considered starting her myself because I knew she was going to be too much for me. I think she was too much for the first trainer too, despite the good reputation (and that trainer does a lot of sport horses, not NH stuff).

I would call this trainer more of a Ray Hunt type. I wouldn’t send a colt to a Pirelli or Clinton Anderson devotee. Good training shouldn’t involve hocus pocus. I wish I had brought the filly home from the first trainer sooner.


Is there a place with a small herd that you can have him turned out for a few weeks?

There’s nothing like an old boss mare for teaching a cheeky 3 year old what’s what.

Also, once you’ve ruled out physical causes, I’d put his butt to work.

Lots of work in hand, with a saddle.

Everything starts with good ground work.

if you have confidence issues with him then work with a trainer who can teach you body language and timing so that you will feel more comfortable correcting him.

I also recommend Warwick Schiller videos. You can find them on YouTube. You can also subscribe.

He is a western trainer, but his methods will work for any discipline.

There is also the TRT method but I personally prefer Schiller.

Your horse may never really like people or be super affectionate but he can still be a good riding partner that you can take pleasure in.

Good luck.
Hope this helps.


It must be regional because I don’t find the trainers here “muscle” WBs into anything… So I’d argue the quote above comes from experience with some really poor representatives of “colt starters”, or maybe, not much experience at all.

There are “cowboy starters” here and top WB breeding facilities routinely send their horses to them to be started/backed, and then they get the year off and return in the spring for work U/S.

“Cowboy starter” is really just a buzzword for a (usually western) trainer that installs good, solid, basics… And I’m sorry to say it, but those durn cowpokes and their QHs have much better manners across the board than the sport-horses I’ve handled. For whatever reason in dressage and eventing, those ground manners have gone to the wayside and I am still scratching my head on why.

OP, I’d go with occam’s razor. You mention he was unsound, and anorexic - that is a sign of ulcers. I’d bet the change was a lot for him, and in the stress he’s developed ulcers… soundness issues and stomach issues will make even the most charitable horse become reactive in the wrong circumstance.

You don’t mention what his routine is like, how much it has changed, what he’s being fed, etc… If you think the trainer is worth paying still, see if you can replicate your old management style at this new place… the same turnout regime, food, etc… And if that isn’t working, it may be time to bring him home, let him recover, and possibly try again at a new trainer’s place with a slightly less intense work load.


What Beowulf said.


It depends. If you like trainer and are in it for the long-haul, I’d treat horse at the trainers. That Lyme number is high enough that we’d treat, so I’d be doing that in addition to scoping. While horse is recovering, trainer can spend more time developing a relationship through groundwork and lunging. In 45-60 days when horse is feeling well, they can start back under saddle.

Alternatively, you can bring horse home, get him healthy, and then either find someone to come to you, or find a facility that will make the transition easier, and perhaps take things slower.

He’s only 3. No matter what, you have time. In an ideal world, he’d learn go, steer, stop, and go back out to finish growing. If he ends up doing go, steer, stop in the fall instead of the spring - it won’t impact his life.


Obviously the horse has ulcers and Lyme.

I would bring him home and solve these issues.

I’m one of those who think that most cowboy trainers have no place with anything outside of stock breeds.

When starting a horse, the obvious question is what do you want to do with the horse?

Then start shopping for a good trainer in that discipline who ALSO is well known for starting babies. In many disciplines, these trainers are scarce as hens teeth which is why some resort to the cowboy types.

Go to some shows and watch these trainers work in the schooling ring and back barns. That’s where you learn who runs a sh!t show and who’s the real deal.

Good luck and give this guy a chance. He had an inconsistent start and you had no prior experience with babies.

There’s still plenty of time to fix him.


I grew up with western cowboy- type colt starting. I studied natural horsemanship extensively. I’m not saying it never works. It does work for most horses. But a lot of it is rooted in negative reinforcement and positive punishment which is fine for most horses but not all. In my experience MOST cowboy like colt starters over focus on getting the horse to “respect” the trainer and obey every little movement, but for a lot of situations, respect and obedience turns into fear and they shut down. That happens a lot with the introverted and intelligent ones.

To be clear, I am referring to MOST, not all, cowboy type trainers. I actually love Mark Rashid and have read every single one of his books. I think Warwick Schiller is provably one of the best horse people alive right now. But I dont care for the Parelli or Clinton Anderson’s out there and there’s still a lot of those. I actually just went to the Rocky Mountain horse expo and watched the colt starting challenge and a lot of those “trainers” were appalling. There’s a lot of the “I say jump, horse asks how high” mindsets still out there and I’m sorry I think that ideology is dated.

When it works it works. When it doesn’t it doesn’t. I think if people can learn differently horses can too. And for what it’s worth, my mare is a 3 year old holsteiner and she has as good of ground manners as any quarter horse.


@Equkelly - I think what beowulf is getting at is that there is an assumption made by non-western riders about what “cowboy” means in this context, and it is usually exactly as you are describing: the CA, Parelli, et al types.

But those of us who know better know that those types are pretty much garbage for all the reasons you describe.

The true “cowboy” types who can get the job done and done well with any horse of any breeding are those who have studied and work in the ways of Dorrance, Hunt, etc. Those folks are the real deal. There is no force, coercion or overarching desire to command respect, it’s all about getting to a place of understanding and trust. But to be honest, IME, people naturally comprehend “show 'em who’s boss” more than they naturally comprehend “let’s work together” because humans have an ego. Horses don’t. That and the CA/Parelli types have the market cornered in terms of self-advertising. They are snake oil salesmen if there ever were such a thing.

So if the OP’s “cowboy” trainer is the former type, the one you’re describing, then I can see why this has turned into a mess for the horse. If they are the latter, the one I described, I highly doubt this is a matter of incompetency on the part of the horseman and more likely a shock to the horse’s system to have so many changes occur at once.


@Abbie.S Right, but just because they’re not as bad as Clinton Anderson, doesn’t mean that the trainer’s approach might still not click with that horse. I agree that Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman are worlds better than Parelli and Anderson but personally I still don’t always agree with their approach either for certain horses.


I will second (or third) checking out the warwick schiller videos. He gives you super easy to understand and SAFE ways to work with horses like this. The process was a saviour for my ottb mare who runs on the anxious side.

If it was my gelding I would bring him home and work through the groundwork videos until it is easy and confident for him. I don’t think theres any purpose in getting a horse backed who isn’t calm and responsive on the ground… its just putting you or the trainer at risk.