Question Category: Building a Better Relationship
Question: Dear Julie,
I have a 5 year old Tennessee Walker that I have had for almost a year. I am not sure if some of the things that he is doing are disrespectful, or if it is his personality. He is a very playful horse, loves to pick up cones, chairs, and anything else he can get into his mouth. He is always trying to get my other horse to play with him also. When I go to see him at the barn (I board him), when I open his stall he comes over and places his head on my shoulder and just lets it rest there. He moves out of my way when I ask him and stands still when I put his halter on and waits for me to go out the door before he goes out. I have been told I shouldn’t let him do that, but I feel it is his way of showing affection and I don’t feel it is a bad behavior to punish him for. I don’t want to discourage him from being him, but I also know he is a big animal that could hurt me without meaning to. Should I discourage him from this? Also, I have noticed in the last month or so, he likes to lick my hand and will sometimes lip my shirt. He has never bit me, but this does concern me a little since I don’t want him to start biting. How do I stop this? I know I am suppose to be the boss mare in our group, but also we are to be partners and I don’t want to stop his personality from coming out.
Thank you for your question; it is a VERY important one and I think many people that read this will be able to relate. It sounds like you have a wonderful horse with a great temperament and that you have to potential to have the ideal relationship with the horse, but right now you are headed down a slippery and slimy slope.
As for the head resting behavior, there are two critical facts of horse behavior you must know and understand. First, space. The horse should NEVER be allowed to come into your space uninvited by you. If he does, he controls your space and is therefore dominant over you. Secondly, horses display dominance over their ‘playmates’ by reaching over the subordinate’s withers with their head and neck. That’s why when you are stroking your horse in praise, you should always take that opportunity to reach over his withers as a ploy of dominance (not with your head- that would be stupidly dangerous, but with your arm). I would never allow my horse to put his head on me. Besides, it is dangerous to have your head that close to a horse’s head. Biting is the most dominant behavior of horses and biting is the end result in a series of progressive behaviors. The first in the series is lipping behavior, then comes nipping then comes biting. All of these are progressive tests of dominance and so far you are failing this test. I would not allow any horse to ever put his lips on or near me. If I want to show some affection to my horse, which I do, once he has become totally and completely subordinate to me, I will rub him vigorously in his sweet spot (look for puckered lips) and/or rub down his face. While I will not let the horse reciprocate this affection, these moments can be very close and intimate with the horse. However, these grooming sessions are initiated entirely by me and ended by me (the dominant member in our herd of two).
You should dispel yourself of the myth that you and your horse can be equal partners. That is not possible because of the linear hierarchy. One of you has to be dominant; it is either you or him. Your horse needs and wants you to be dominant; the benevolent leader of the herd; the captain of the ship. Horses are comfortable and happy when there is a true leader in the herd to keep order, offer guidance and keep them safe. Then and only then can you truly have a partnership with a horse, and that is what you are looking for, right? You just need to readjust your thinking a little so that you can think form the horse’s point of view.
There are numerous articles and Q&As on my website about all of these behaviors and how it relates to your interaction with the horse. Please read up and that will help you get a better understanding and enhance your relationship with the horse.
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