I have just taken in two mares, ages 27 and 20. Both were well trained as performance horses in their youth, but have recently been neglected and poorly fed (pastured on 140 acres and left to fend for themselves). The older mare is smaller, but is the alpha. She’s very skinny right now. At feeding time she becomes aggressive toward the younger mare—charging around her feeding area. The two mares are in separate areas, but the older mare is out of control until there’s something in her bucket. When she has her food, she settles down for a bit. Then when she’s finished, she attempts to ram into the other feeding area and to make the other mare (who’s a much slower eater) nervously leave her food.
Fed Up, via e-mail
Dear Fed Up,
Feeding is an anxious time for domesticated horses–food is a resource that determines which horses are dominant in the herd. If your horses have been recently deprived of food, their anxiety over feed is probably even greater than usual—and much greater than it would have been in the wild.
To illustrate the point a little more, let’s look at how horses act in the wild and how those conditions change in our pastures and paddocks. In the wild, horses eat all the time–grazing up to 20 hours a day. They eat a little and walk a little and will sometimes cover as much as 20 miles in a day to find good forage and water. In domestication and confinement we have drastically changed these eating habits to give them two lump sums of very rich food. Domesticated horses typically gobble up their rations in an hour or less, leaving the rest of the day to stand around and wonder when they get to eat again. Horses can get very frustrated and anxious at feed time because they have gone so long without eating and because the food comes to them without them having to work to get it. This explains why bad behaviors tend to develop around feed time.
Your older mare is probably reacting to this natural feed-time stress. Her dominance and recent deprivation are likely compounding to create very visible and agitated behaviors. Aggression at feed time is often related to dominant behavior. The dominant horse in the herd controls the resources of the herd (food, water, shelter) and even the other horses. Controlling the resources of the herd is one of two major factors that determine a horse’s dominance (the other factor is controlling the space of the subordinate horse).
At feeding time, when a horse displays aggressive behavior, it is in an attempt to take away the food from a subordinate and thus reinstate her own dominance. Horse owners often train horses to be dominant and aggressive at feed time by feeding a horse when she is displaying aggressive behavior. In the horse’s mind, she thinks she took the food away from you and therefore you must be subordinate. (Tip: this is why hand feeding treats isn’t a good idea. See Communicating Clearly with Julie Goodnight “Paw Power” in the previous issue.)
At my ranch, the feeders are under strict orders not to feed any horse that is displaying aggressive or unwanted behavior. When the feeders are approaching the pens or stalls with feed, the horses are expected to back up and wait patiently and politely for their food. If we have a horse that is displaying aggressive behavior, we will use a stick or rope to wave at the horse and back him away from the food. Once the horse has backed-off and is showing respectful behavior, we will drop the feed in and walk away. This insures that the horse does not think he is taking away the food from you and keeps him in a subordinate frame of mind.
In your situation, your older mare is frantic because the natural order is upset. If she is dominant, she should be eating first. That is a fundamental rule of herd behavior. I would suggest that you separate the horses even more. Make sure they can’t see each other while eating. Also make sure to feed the more dominant horse first. You’ll be respecting the horse’s natural behavior and herd instincts.
To recap: make sure your horse’s aggressive antics aren’t aimed at you and that she doesn’t think she is taking away food from you. Second, do not reward the horse with feed when she is displaying unwanted behavior. Be patient and wait until she is acting in a desirable way and then give her the feed.
Until next time,
In the Horse Master episode, “Raising Her Right,” I worked with Elaine Shabazian, a longtime horsewoman and Friesian breeder with a farm on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Elaine was recovering from knee surgery and wanted to make sure she was doing all she physically could to prepare her young Friesian filly for an upcoming breed inspection. It was great to see such a nice young horse and to share some young-horse handling techniques with Elaine and the audience. So often, I see horse owners who want their young horses to be cuddly and snuggly—then they don’t know what to do with a mature horse that still insists on being petted and moving into your personal space. Handling a foal right is a great responsibility that Elaine was prepared to take on. Read on to learn more about handling young horses—especially what to do when young horses become “lippy” and need to mouth everything, including you. Then watch the “Raising Her Right” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight February 5 and March 16, 2009 on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/episodes.html
There’s a progressive set of behaviors in horses in which lipping behavior (when the horse puts his lips on you and nuzzles) leads to nipping (a small quick pinch with the teeth) leads to biting. These are all progressive signs of dominance leading to aggression. If the lipping behavior goes unchecked, the horse begins to nip and if the nipping goes unchecked, he begins to bite. As the horse goes through this progressive behavior, he is simply testing his boundaries to see if he can gain dominance over you. It sounds like your colt is still in the nipping stage and you need to “nip it in the bud,” so to speak. It has been my experience that people bring these behaviors on themselves by allowing horses to be in their space and by nuzzling, smooching and playing with the horse’s muzzle all the time. Another common action that leads to nipping/biting is when you hand feed treats to horses. In the herd setting, there is a “linear hierarchy” which means that each and every individual of the herd is either dominant over or subordinate to each and every other individual. This means that between you and your horse, one of you’ll be the dominant leader and one of you’ll be the subordinate follower. It sounds like you haven’t quite got this settled between you and your horse yet. If you were dominant in his mind, he would not dare move into your space or put his lips or teeth on you.
Horses establish dominance in the herd by controlling the resources of the herd (food and water) and by controlling the space of the subordinate members (running them off, pushing them around). If you allow your horse to move into your space at all, it confuses the dominant-subordinate relationship. Horses are much more aware of spatial issues than humans are. When we get horses in training here at my barn, whether youngsters or older horses, one of the first rules of behavior they will learn is to never move into our space with any part of their body, including the nose. Most people constantly allow their horses to move into their space especially with its nose. In fact, it is often encouraged by feeding treats or by playing with the horse’s nose. All of these actions confuse the horse and make him think he is dominant.
For your colt, you need to establish a more respectful distance between you and him. Don’t stand close to his face or pet him on the face and don’t allow him to move his nose toward you at all while you’re working around him. Every time he moves his nose toward you, correct it by poking a finger in his cheek or just pointing at his nose until he puts it back in its proper place, in front of his chest. If you establish this basic rule (your nose must stay in front of your chest at all times that I am working around you) and you correct him 100% of the time he makes an infraction, he will learn this important ground manner quickly. Also, any time any other part of his body moves toward you, vigorously back him out of your space. This will help him to learn a respectful distance and to be respectful of your space as the dominant herd member.
When the colt reaches out to nip or bite, you should instantly poke him with a pointed finger or smack him in the muzzle with the back of your hand. This correction must come instantly without any pause at all on your part. The optimal time for a correction is one-half second after the behavior, in order for a strong association between the behavior and the correction to be made by the horse. There is a three second window of opportunity within which to reward or correct a horse, but, the sooner in that three seconds, the correction or reward occurs, the more meaningful it is to the horse, and the optimal time is one half second. Your colt already knows that he is doing something wrong, that’s why he is backing up after he nips. If you feel you cannot poke him in a timely fashion, go ahead and jerk on the lead rope and back him up vigorously for a far stretch and yell or growl at him like you’re angry. John Lyons has an interesting theory about correcting horses that bite. He says that you should pick up whatever is handy and act like you’re going to kill the horse with it, but only for three seconds. Of course, he would never actually advocate beating the horse with something, but by the time you have picked it up, swung it over your head and lunged at the horse, at least three seconds has gone by so you would never actually have time to hit the horse. This puts the “fear of god” into the horse and makes him very leery of putting his mouth on you again (don’t ever try something like this with a tied horse because it will lead to a pull-back problem).
If you’re leery of poking the horse in the cheek, then you can give him a pinch on his neck, to simulate the alpha horse biting him. Take your thumb and index finger and give him a hard squeeze at the base of his neck muscle. Wrap your fingers around several inches of the big strapping muscle that defines the bottom line of his neck and then give a quick sharp squeeze. This will give him quite a shock and simulates biting. It gives him a taste of his own medicine, so to speak. One more time, I want to reinforce the fact that as likely as not, the human is the one that has made the horse nippy by crowding his space, playing with his mouth, feeding treats and allowing the horse to push him around. So make sure that you correct your behavior too, if necessary, so as not to encourage the horse to be disrespectful.
Like most horse trainers, when it comes to my barn, I run a tight ship and I like things very orderly and very systematic. Even though my barn is totally private—no outside horses for training, no boarders, no clients—for my horses and my staff, I have high expectations.
Rules for Horses:
Having happy, well-behaved horses is a high priority for me. The health and care of our horses is the absolute highest priority in my barn and, honestly, they have it pretty good. They have a clean, comfortable place to sleep every night and all the high quality food and supplements they can manage. They get to frolic in the fields all day with their friends and are only subject to forced exercise, with their own personal trainer, five days a week. In exchange for this country club treatment, there are certain things I expect in return.
Good manners from my horses are of utmost importance. Waiting politely and patiently for their room service to be delivered is a minimum expectation of mine. It’s okay if they are happy to see their food delivered and enthusiastic about its arrival, but crowding, demanding, stomping and aggression are not tolerated. If you deliver the food when a horse is acting poorly, you reinforce that behavior. Instead, our horses know that they will only receive their food when they are acting politely. Please and thank you gets you more. At our place, the feeders are under strict orders not to feed any horse that is displaying aggressive or unwanted behavior. When the feeders are approaching the pens or stalls with feed, the horses are expected to back up and wait patiently and politely for their food. If we have a horse that is displaying aggressive behavior, we will use a stick or rope to wave at the horse and back him away from the food. Once the horse has backed-off and is showing respectful behavior, we will drop the feed in and walk away. This ensures that the horse does not think he is taking away the food from you and keeps him in a subordinate frame of mind.
When I approach my horses, whether in the stall or in the field, I expect to be greeted by a happy horse, eager to see me and eager to be haltered and led away. Of course, I cannot force this kind of emotion from the horse, but I can create the conditions that make them feel that way. My horses know what follows being haltered and led away is our undivided attention, a pleasant and thorough grooming and a training session during which there will be lots of praise and acknowledgement of their efforts, followed by another nice rubdown. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
Since our horses are happy to be with us and comfortable with our leadership, they walk quietly beside and behind us, matching us step-for-step. They ground-tie whenever and wherever asked and they do not act like they are caught or restrained and trying to escape—they want to hang out with us. This kind of willingness does not come for free—you have to earn it by being a confident leader, setting boundaries and trusting your horse.
I expect my horses to stand quietly and patiently when tied, no matter how long it might be. Our horses spend lots of time at the hitching rail and it is actually a very comfortable and content place for them. We keep them in the shade when it is hot and in the sun when it is cold and we make sure there are no flies to bother them. Just like little kids have to learn to sit quietly at their desks when they go to kindergarten, horses have to learn to stand tied by being tied often and for long durations. We start our yearlings learning to stand tied by getting them out with the mature working horses and letting them find their place at the hitching rail. Horses will learn by watching other horses—be it good or bad. So make sure there are always good role models present.
Finally, I expect my horses to try hard and put forth their best effort when I ask them to. I am not overly demanding, but I do ask for their best effort at times. I nurture the try in my horses by having high expectations and most importantly, by acknowledging their effort. If you can notice when your horse is trying, and reward it by letting him rest, leaving him alone, and offering your praise, he will work hard to please you. Who amongst us doesn’t want to be acknowledged for our efforts? If you miss the try in your horse and keep pounding away at him, even when he has put out his greatest effort, he will soon quit trying. On the other hand, I am ever vigilant for when my horse is cheating or trying to get away with something—and that gets my acknowledgement too. Praise is important, but so is admonishment when it is deserved. Your horse will rise to your level of expectation—be it high or low.
Rules for People and the Place:
Just as I have high expectations for my horses, I also have high expectations for my staff and anyone who enters my barn and has reason to handle my horses. I am so very fortunate to have awesome people working with me—they take as good care of my horses as I do. Knowing that I can leave town (as I do 130 nights a year) and never have any concern about the horses is quite a luxury!
Everyone in my barn knows that the horses are the number one priority—their health, their well-being and their comfort. I expect my staff to be highly observant of the horses—their mood, their appetite, their level of alertness. I expect each horse gets a stem-to-stern inspection every morning, looking over every square inch of his body for any scrapes, bumps or swelling. Observations are made on how much the horse did or didn’t eat, and whether or not his stall looks like he had a normal night. Each horse behaves differently in his stall at night and you should know what his stall normally looks like in the morning and it will tell you if there was a problem during the night.
Communication is a key component of a well-run barn, especially when more than one person manages the horses. We have a big white board front and center in the barn and all details get written down. Everyone knows to check the white board first and foremost when they arrive, to get updates on what went on and/or what needs to be done. Any boo-boos are noted, any changes in feed, or medicine given or any tasks that need doing. Good communication between all of the people involved is paramount—not only do you have to look for any notes, you have to acknowledge that you saw it and also be forthcoming with any information you might need to share.
Having a clean and orderly barn is extremely important to me. Not just cleaning the stalls every morning, but also picking up manure in the arenas, turnout pens and hitching rails. Our manure gets spread every day to help keep the flies at bay and to recycle the manure back into the fields.
I expect the barnyard to be raked and the aisle-way to be blown off. I’ll admit that my need for a neat and clean barnyard borders on obsessive-compulsion, but it makes me happy to walk into a beautiful barn. I gave up the tedious task of raking the barnyard in a herring-bone pattern a long time ago when I finally realized I had better things to do with my time and that no one else really cared. But a raked barnyard still pleases me.
I also expect an un-cluttered barn and for things to be put away in their rightful place. It’s amazing how junk accumulates in a barn if you let it. I travel a lot to different barns around the country and the junk and clutter, or lack thereof, is always something I notice. To me, it is important that the aisle-ways are free of obstacles and that we all know exactly where things are. I have learned to let go of silly things like making sure all of the halters and lead ropes are hung on each hook exactly the same way, but I do expect that the blankets are all folded and removed in a specific way, so that the next person doesn’t have to refold it before putting it on. Not all obsession are silly.
I expect the tack to be cleaned, the bits to be rinsed and the bridles be wiped down, each time they are used. While some might think this borders on OCD, I have a huge investment in my equipment and taking good care of it is important to me. But not just the tack—the horses too. Nothing erks me more than to see a horse put away with sweat marks on him; if we’ve made him sweaty, the least we can do is get him cleaned up and comfortable before putting him away.
Certainly not all horse trainers are highly particular and bordering on anal, but I have noticed that it is a common trait of our breed. Horses are not simple animals and riding is not a simple or easy sport. The people that are drawn to these animals and to this sport tend to be ones that embrace a challenge and have high personal standards as well as high expectations of others. When these qualities are absent, things fall apart rapidly with horses.
Horses thrive when there is a strong sense of order and sameness—it makes them feel safe and content. This is a luxury for a prey animal, who never knows what danger lurks around the corner. A sense of order is important to me too, so I guess that’s why I get along well with horses and why horses bring out the best in me.
Enjoy the ride,
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