Can a Spooky or Flighty Horse be Trained/Retrained to Drive?
I get asked this question a LOT. Recently, my friend in Canada, Carolyn Aarup, summed up this answer perfectly on her Facebook page (click the link with her name above, you can see it even without a Facebook account). She is the owner of Dakota Winds Farm Miniature Horses which is a breeding/training farm raising quality Miniature Horses in Meaford Ontario Canada.
So, please see her answer below. I think her summarization is perfect. Let me know if you have questions! Also, Carolyn is a wealth of knowledge, especially with the miniature horses, so feel free to reach out to her with your questions.
"I have successfully trained a few skittish horses to drive (they weren’t rescues).
I have also “not successfully” trained a few skittish horses to drive; two were formerly known rescues (one of which was my own horse that I had purchased at an auction) and the others weren’t rescues.
In my opinion, with any driving horse, it’s success in training completely depends on the horse: their personality, their demeanor, the amount of handling/experience/training they’ve had, what issues they’ve had in their past (trauma, former driving accident, abuse, etc), the amount of trust they have in their handler, etc.
In general, the skittish horses whom I have successfully trained to drive have needed extra time to work on the basics like trust issues, ground work, desensitization.
Those who were unsuccessful in their driving training with me, in my opinion, had either deeply rooted fear/trust issues or just couldn’t get past one of the stages in my training program to move on, again in my opinion, to be a safe driving horse (e.g. couldn’t handle the feel of drag poles on either side of them, couldn’t handle the cart come up behind them, couldn’t relax while wearing a harness, too highly reactive/unpredictable to stimuli, etc).
Keep in mind, these skittish horses may never be 100% as solid of a driving horse as a horse who has a naturally mellow personality, was raised without fear, given a good trusting start in life, had a lot of handling throughout its life, been exposed to a lot of different experiences/new surroundings etc.
Horses have strong instincts which can kick in at any time and these strong “flight” instinct can often make a skittish horse too unpredictable to train or drive safely.
Also one of the important aspects in a solid driving horse is relaxation ... this can be hard to achieve in a skittish horse but again, may be able to achieve over time with a lot of consistent work and patience.
So in general, it doesn’t mean there is no hope for that type of horse ... it just means you have to be more adaptable in your training methods and what happens subsequently if you do get them driving safely.
For instance, it may mean they will always need an experienced driver to drive them (i.e. it won’t make a good beginner lesson horse).
You may need to tailor what you do with them/when/where you drive them (e.g. only drive them in familiar places, don’t drive them in high stimuli situations like in traffic/at shows/around other horses, etc). If you want to drive them out of their “comfort zone”, realize you need to take extra precautions to help them adapt (take them to the new surroundings in hand not while hitched so they can get used to it, etc).
The sad reality is that not all horses can (or will) drive safely. This is often the case with skittish horses. At some point in their training, the human must make the decision whether the horse can mentally handle the driving training exercises and eventually pulling the vehicle. If you watch the horse’s body language and pay attention, it will often tell you.
Overall always remember, any training you put into a horse is not wasted ... with skittish horses, they often just need more time and patience then the average horse."