Feed-Time Aggression Fix Q & A

Feed-Time Aggression Fix
Q: Help! What do I do, my horses are crowding me when I go into their pen to feed them and it’s just scary to have them so close and on top of me. Plus, I want my husband to help with feeding, but having the horses so pushy and not allowing you space to get from the gate to their feeders is making him too scared to help with chores. What do I do? —Kate Brenday, Alabama
Julie’s Answer: Entering a pen full of horses, even just to catch one can be quite risky and at feed time, it can get really dangerous! You are smart to be afraid– interactions between dominant horses and their subordinates can be lightning quick and very violent and you don’t want to be caught in the middle of that. Often, with large groups of horses, the herd dynamics escalate fast and the horse that is trying to get away from another aggressive horse can easily run right over the top of you.

Not only that, but one way in which horses establish dominance in the herd is to take away food from other horses, so food aggression is common, especially if the horses are only fed once or twice a day and go stretches with no food. If you walk into a pen full of horses with feed and they are crowding you and trying to attack the food, it is incredibly dangerous and your horses have no manners and little regard for your authority or well-being.

Sometimes unsafe food-based aggressive behaviors can develop even if you don’t go into the pen with the horses to feed them. Often handlers will ignore the aggressive gestures of the stressed-out horse and drop the feed over the fence into the pen, but the horse comes to believe his gestures are making you give him the food so the same sense of dominance and rude behavior may develop in the horse.

I am very particular about how my horses behave at feed time since it is such a contentious issue and relates to dominance and therefore aggression. Whether my horses are being fed individually or in a group, I expect them to back away from me as I feed and watch patiently wait for me to set the feed down and they should not approach until I indicate that it is okay, by walking away from the feed. Crowding, rushing, vying for position or trying to take the feed out of my hands is absolutely not allowed because I do not want that to become their habitual behavior.

Along the same lines, I’ve seen some boarding situations where horses are kept in large groups and may be rowdy or jealous or jockeying for position when you go into the pen to catch your own horse, outside of feed time. When I walk into a group of horses, with feed or without, I like to be well-equipped to deal with fractious horses, should the herd dynamic get rowdy and I expect all the horses in the pen to show some deference toward me (“Better be careful, the boss is here!”).

My tool of choice for keeping this kind of order in the pen would be a flag. The 4’ long rigid stick with a nylon flag on the end allows you to wave the flag as hard as needed to get the horses attention and should a horse come close enough to endanger me, I can tap him with it to get him out of my space. Because horses are flight animals and highly sensitive to all sensory input, the sound, color and movement of the flag makes it an excellent attention getting device, even when the horses are getting wild.

For safety reasons, we try to limit the situations where you have to walk into a pen full of horses with feed—either by laying out the feed before the horses are turned-out, or while they are out of the pen or stall or by putting it over the fence. But I realize in some situations you may have to enter the pen with the feed; and in these cases I would always carry a flag, especially if it is a group pen.

When I hire new people on my barn staff, no matter their experience level, we always discuss feed-time behavior and how important it is to not allow horses to rush you or act aggressively when you feed. If the new-hire has little experience or a lack of confidence, I make sure they carry a flag and see how easy it is to keep the horses back and acting respectful.

Around my farm, we have quite a few flags, strategically located to be handy when you need them. I’ve found that if a person has to go all the way back to the tack room and rummage through the bin for a flag, they won’t do it. But if the flag is handy—hanging on the gate where it’s needed, it will get a lot more use.

There’s one in each horse trailer I own (to help with trailer loading if needed); one in the indoor arena for groundwork; one on the round pen gate and one on the gate that leads to the big turn-out pen. They hold up well to weather although the flags will deteriorate over time if they are in direct sun—like the one on my round pen. After 6-7 years, I may have to replace the flag (the stick holds up fine) but I figure that is a very small price to pay for that many years of convenience.

I’d suggest you get a flag or two and wave it vehemently at your horses when you approach their pen with the feed. Cause them to back off and pay close attention to you and only let them approach the feed after you have relinquished it and are ready to walk away. You don’t have to make them wait forever—just make them back off a little, then they will turn and look at you to see what is going to happen next. If you walk away while the horse is looking at you and before he approaches, he will learn to be patient and respectful.

It shouldn’t take long for you to teach your horses some safer feed-time manners; when the feed is used to reinforce the right behaviors, they will learn the right things quickly. Then you can give your husband the flag and show him how safe and easy it is to control your horses with the right tool in hand.

Good luck and be safe!

Grieving The Loss

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A grieving horse may constantly look for his missing friend—checking out the empty stall and waiting for a return that won’t come. When horses realize another won’t return, dynamics within the herd can quickly change.

Dear Julie,
My 8-year-old Thoroughbred gelding just lost his favorite buddy and is having a tough time adjusting. My older horse died after a long bout with Cushings Disease. They had been together most of the Thoroughbred’s life and my gelding saw the older horse as a mentor. If his buddy didn’t panic, he knew it was OK to relax. When I realized my older horse wasn’t doing well, I purchased another buddy to add to the group—so my gelding would never be alone. The Shetland mare is quiet and well behaved and entered the herd very easily.
When it was time to put my older horse to sleep, a friend told me to allow my gelding to see the body—that he’d understand that his friend wasn’t returning. He galloped off wildly and screamed. After about five minutes he settled down and started to eat. The next morning he seemed like he was looking around to see if his buddy was around the barnyard. He was calm until he heard a noise, then he’d rush to the door to see if his buddy was there.
All seemed well, but then my gelding started exhibiting very strange and dangerous behavior. Before his buddy died he was quiet well mannered but now he’s very excitable and aggressive. He charges around the paddock to disrupt his buddy and runs close to the fencing. I’m worried he might hurt himself or the mare. In the stable, he shakes his head and bares his teeth when I go to get him. He’s pushy when I halter or lead him and it’s making me nervous to be around him. Its as if he’s insecure. How do I get my calm and polite horse back?
So Sad
Dear So Sad,
First, let me share my condolences for the loss of your older horse. I have no doubt but that horses go through a grieving process when one of their herd mates dies. Whenever I have put a horse down or had one die, it always caused an uproar in the herd and sometimes the closest buddies are visibly depressed for a few days. However, I do not think that this aggressive behavior he’s showing is directly related to grieving. The snaking (head tossing) and baring teeth is strictly dominance related behavior. It may be that his buddy was dominant and kept him in line and now that his buddy is gone, he is thinking he is an alpha horse.
No matter why your horse is exhibiting poor behavior, it’s time to do some serious groundwork to establish your authority and regain control. Your gelding is doing his best to find out if he can be dominant in the herd and with you (when you’re in the stable). He needs to relearn his manners and respect. I would do this first with round pen work and then with some lead line work (see Julie’s Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership DVDs at www.juliegoodnight.com.products.html). To establish dominance and respect from a horse, you need to control his space and control the resources (food). Controlling space is most easily done in the round pen by driving the horse away from you and controlling his direction and speed. Controlling the resources means that he is not “taking away” food from you. Wait until he is calm and respectable before you hand over his feed. With the lead line work I would be making sure the horse leads in a responsive and respectful manner (not getting in front of you and not lagging behind). I would also make sure I could back him up and drive him in a circle around me. And make sure he will stand still as a statue when you ask him to (ask him by saying “whoa” and turning to face him). If you are uncertain, you find a trainer to help you. The behaviors that you describe are dangerous and may need a more confident person to handle.
Training issues aside, let’s also look at the behaviors your horse exhibited after the loss of his older pal. I’ve often seen horses become anxious when a herd member disappears. They’ll run around, dodging here and there as if they feel like they should be going somewhere but don’t know where. It’s similar to what horses in a pasture will do when they see a horse trailer come or go, like they know a horse may be coming or leaving and it is exciting and/or disruptive to the herd. It seems like they are looking and waiting for the horse to come back; maybe he’s just around the corner and will pop out at any moment.
I had one mare that was very attached to a gelding I had to put down. We intended to bury him in the pasture, so laid him down out there. She stood over him all day and was visibly upset: calling, nervous, worried. After we buried the gelding, she still stood in that spot and wouldn’t come up for meals or move with the other horses when they moved around. After a few days, she became active in the herd again and went on with her life.
Some horses show emotions much longer than others. You’ll know your horse is sad or depressed when you see a dull look in his eyes, if he doesn’t eat, if he’s distracted when he does eat (eats a few bites, then wanders off like they are looking for something), if he lacks interest in other horses, or if he looks or turns away when you or another horse approaches.
The dominant and disruptive behavior is most likely a result of changes in the herd. Check out last month’s column “Settling in” for more advice about how to help your horses learn their places in the herd. Your gelding’s head tossing is known as “snaking.” It is an aggressive behavior used in the wild by stallions and dominant mares to herd or drive other horses into submission. The dominant horse in the herd will often use this gesture, where he or she drops her head down, snakes her nose out and sometimes bares the teeth. This is normal behavior, although it is an aggressive behavior. A properly trained horse should never act this way around people or once it is haltered and is under your control and authority.

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight

Settling In

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It can take weeks for new horses to settle into an established herd—be prepared to see aggressive behavior during the initial introduction. Adding a male to a female brood can extend the time and add extra stress

Dear Julie,
Two weeks ago I introduced my new Appaloosa gelding to my well-established and friendly mare and mule. The mare and mule—both female—are sweet and quiet. They have been in with other horses in the past, but that was about two years ago. When I first introduced the new gelding, all three had time in stalls to snort and touch noses. When I first turned them out together, they seemed calm and fine. After a few days, the gelding became increasingly aggressive to both females. All three horses are in a pasture with a 32 by 36-foot run-in barn. There‘s plenty of room for all to run free, then stand separated in the barn if they choose. However, the gelding is intimidating the females and pushing them out of the shelter whenever they approach. It’s getting cooler and I want all three to have access to the shelter. How long does it take for new horses to settle into the herd? What can I do to facilitate the process?
Driven Out, via e-mail

Dear Driven Out,

It sounds like normal herd behavior going on with your bunch and yes, sometimes it can take weeks for the pecking order to be fully re-established after a new horse is added to the herd. The gelding is trying to make the mares submit so that he has total control over them. Naturally, mares are more likely to form bonded relationships with other mares; while a mare in the wild might bond to a stallion too, mostly they are tight with each other. Probably they are more bonded to each other than to him and that is driving him crazy. A stallion in the wild will herd his mares until they become submissive and obedient. Hopefully they will accept his authority soon, show the appropriate signs of submissiveness and respect then he will settle down.

If you look at the natural herd setting, there are brood mare bands and bachelor bands. The broodmare band generally consists of a stallion, any number of mares he might possess, and their young off-spring. They are a bonded herd. The bachelor band consists of all the colts and stallions that don’t have their own mares and they are not particularly bonded, they have just formed a herd of convenience, since horses are reliant on the herd for survival.

In domestication, we generally turn the natural herd setting upside down and horses are grouped together for our convenience. Most large operations keep all the geldings in one pen and all the mares in another; this makes for very peaceful coexistence. As soon as you add one member of the opposite sex to either group, the sparks will fly and horses will start vying for position: “It’s my mare, not yours,” or “I am the favored mare, not you.” While it is certainly possible for a mixed gender herd to get a long well, it can also be a recipe for disaster.

Whenever you introduce a new horse into a herd, especially a more dominant horse, it is likely that sparks are going to fly and it is quite possible that someone will get hurt. It’s a good idea to introduce them slowly in adjacent pens, over a week or two, preferably so that they can touch and sniff over a tall, sturdy, safe fence. When you turn out the new horse to the herd, there will still be some posturing so you may want to supervise for a while, to make sure things don’t blow up into a full-scale war. I usually hang out in the pen for a while with a whip in my hand, in case I need to break up a scuffle. Try to introduce them in an area free of traps, like corners or stalls where a dominant horse might trap a subordinate and wail on him. It is also very effective to introduce one horse at a time to the new one, by putting one horse from the herd in with him, let them become comfortable, then turn the two out together. Sometimes, if the new horse already has a buddy, he’ll be less likely to be aggressive.

It is possible that your gelding is just a bully. A good herd leader will establish his/her authority and then leave the other horses alone, only discipline them if they are disrespectful or disobedient. However, some horses are just bullies and will pick on the other horses in the herd relentlessly. In time, the herd hierarchy should have straightened out and he should start treating the mares better, or at least ignore them. If not, he may be a relentless bully and may need to be separated from the girls.

If the gelding’s aggressive behavior continues, you may want to start separating him for feeding or pull him out altogether. An incorrigible bully either needs to be put in with a more dominant horse that will put him in his place (at the risk of injury to both horses) or be kept separate from other horses. If you choose the latter, make sure he’s in a pen where he can see and touch other horses—that way he won’t feel alone.

If his aggressive behavior continues or if separation is a problem, consider the use of an electric shock collar called “Vice Breaker.” It is only used in cases where it is in the horses’ best interest (we’re talking about safety for the bully and for the females) to eliminate the unacceptable behavior–in this case the unacceptable behavior is aggressiveness. People have had remarkable and quick success with aggressive horses using a shock collar. The shock collar is similar to what they use on dogs, but with a much lower level of stimulation (at the lowest level, a human cannot feel anything). Basically, you put the collar on the horse, stand at a distance, and (unbeknownst to him) hit the remote button to shock him every time he acts aggressively. Like all training, timing is quintessential and it requires skill to use this device effectively. With good timing, you could eliminate the undesirable behavior on the first session, but generally it will take a few sessions. The remote control works up to half mile away so it is easy to stay ‘hidden’ so that your horse doesn’t associate the correction with your presence. This device is also very handy for barn or trailer kickers, aggressive biting, etc. Generally, in one or two sessions the horse is cured.

Good luck with your new horse. I hope they all settle soon!

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight

Attacks In Round Pen

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Dear Julie,

My friend’s paint gelding has started a very unsavory habit. When asked to move out in a round pen at liberty he will do it for a moment, then pins his ears and violently attacks who ever is doing the asking. He comes at full throttle striking, rearing and bucking and will not back off.

If he is on a line with halter and lead he is mild mannered and accepts the cue, but off lead he is very mean. He will even come back and attack over and over again. He is boarded and has a fairly large turnout. He is completely fine to handle although a little rough under saddle, great with dogs, bikes, noises, etc. Just sometimes rears for no reason, slightly. He will snake you and pin his ears and come at you full fisted if there is no halter on him. He eats hay with a small oat supplement. His owners are becoming more and more afraid of this horse. He appears to be head shy during these moments and very twitchy. Also very lazy and will stop and turn his rump toward you and not move. Only after carefully planned moves, can you reach over and move him over. He was imprinted as a foal, will not “join up,” never licks and chews but overall seems a kind horse. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Sounds like this horse has learned to buffalo his handler and has become dominant as a means to get out of work. Unfortunately, this is not an entirely uncommon behavior of horses and is the main reason I will not allow a horse to turn toward me in the initial stages of round pen work. This is also the reason why you should never work a horse in the round pen without a rope, stick, whip or some kind of “weapon” with which to defend yourself. This very subject is addressed thoroughly in my Round Pen Reasoning DVD.

In the round pen, we are using natural herd behaviors to teach the horse that we are dominant over him and that we can control his actions, just like horses do in real life in the herd. The dominant horse controls the space of the subordinates. In this case, the training has backfired and the horse is round penning the human.

If you think about the way horses act naturally out in the herd, you see this type of charging behavior all the time. It means, “Back off buster, I am in charge of you and I say, get the heck out of my space!” When the horse being charged complies, by backing off and showing signs of submissiveness, the charging horse will give it up, as long as the subordinate remains in his place and does not challenge the dominant horse.

The reason why this horse acts this way at liberty, but is manageable when on the lead or under saddle is because of his life experience. He has had positive training under saddle and lead and knows how he is expected to act in those situations. Unfortunately, the fact that he was imprinted may be a factor in this behavior. Imprinting done correctly is great and results in a calm and willing horse, but sometimes, when done poorly, imprinting can cause a horse to lose his respect for humans because of too much handling and over-familiarity. Whatever the cause of the behavior, the fact is that his antics have given him a great deal of success and have taught him that he can control the humans and make them back off and move out of his space whenever he wants. Therefore, he is dominant.

The solution is to back the horse off and move him out of your space when he charges. This should only be attempted by an expert and confident hand and may take a considerable amount of force. Unless and until a person has experienced this kind of aggressive behavior from horses, it is hard to imagine how aggressive you have to get back at the horse. If a person is not willing or capable of being aggressive and assertive right back at the horse, s/he has no business in the round pen.

With this type of horse I would use a four-foot rigid stick with a six-foot lash on the end. When the horse charges, I would strike the lash straight toward his face, in order to deflect his nose. Make certain that you stay out of kicking or striking reach of the horse; don’t wait until you see the white of his eyes, attack early. Using aversive sounds at the same time, you will let him know you mean business (I call this “hissing and spitting” at the horse). Once he moves away from you, leave him alone. By not backing off when he charges and by moving him out of your space, he will come to realize that he is not dominant.

Let me repeat: this should only be attempted by a very confident and competent trainer. Chances are that the charging horse is just bluffing you, but it is also quite possible that he is willing to act fully on his aggression.

As food for thought, one time I trained a horse that would get very aggressive in the round pen or on the lounge line, but only if you had a whip in your hand. No doubt, the horse had been abused by the whip at some point in his life. So instead of using a whip I used a coiled lariat and would gently wave it toward the horse’s nose until he moved away from me. Once he understood what I wanted and that I was not going to whip him for no reason, he willingly and obediently moved away and the aggression disappeared.

In the case of this horse, his aggressive antics have been very successful, thus his behavior has been rewarded. Essentially, he has been trained to be aggressive. Un-training a horse is much more difficult and time consuming than training them correctly to begin with. This issue certainly needs to be resolved and I would suggest the horse be taken to a competent trainer. Once this issue has been resolved, the owners are likely to discover that the horse works much better in other areas and that the horse is much happier too.
–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Safety Concerns: Introducing To New Herd, New Feed

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Question Category: Safety Concerns

Question: Hi Julie,

I am going to be moving my quarter horse mare (4 yr old) from a stall barn to a 3 acre pasture with 2 other mares who are 3 and 5. I was wondering if I should be thinking about how to introduce her to the other 2 horses or should I let them work it out? Also, she has been fed 2x per day on a dry grass/alfalfa mix and now she will have real green grass to eat (although the pasture is fairly sparse), should I be concerned about her diet change? They will still feed 2x per day grass hay, as the pasture is fairly bare.

One more question, I am going to get her shots done (west Nile and 3 way) 2 days after I move her. Will the stress of the move and food change have any effects on the shots?

Thank you so much for your help. I love reading your website and saw you at the horse expo in Denver last March. Very impressive!

Answer: Introducing horses to a new herd always comes with a risk that a horse might be injured while they sort out the new pecking order. Whenever possible, the horses should be introduced gradually by putting them in adjacent pens where they can first get to know each other over the fence (make sure it is a safe fence).

Another way to handle this is to put the new horse with one of the other horses, let them get to know each other, then introduce another, and so on until everyone is acquainted. Of course, you do not always have options and most of the time, when you put a new horse in, there is a little bit of a ruckus then things settle down. If there is one or more horse in the group that is very aggressive, dominant or a bully, then be very careful and supervise the introductions so that if things get out of hand, you can disrupt the herd and separate the horses (only expert hands should do this as it can be very dangerous).

Be very careful putting any horse onto green pasture and always introduce them slowly. This sudden change in diet from very bland dry hay to rich green grass can cause both digestive upset and grass founder (laminitis). It doesn’t sound like your pasture is very lush, so it may not be a problem at all. If they have to work fairly hard to get the grass, it is probably not going to cause a problem. If they are still feeding the horses a full ration, there is probably not enough grass there for the horse to get sick on. Still, anytime a horse’s feed is changed, it should be done gradually over a week or two and the horse should be watched closely during that time for any signs of sickness.

As for the inoculations, I try not to vaccinate horses during any time that they may be hot and bothered or upset. Chances are slim that the vaccine would cause a problem, but why risk it? Sometimes horses will feel a little off after inoculations, so why add to their grief? I don’t think two days later is an issue, but I wouldn’t do it at the same time you are introducing her to the herd. It has been said that it is best not to give West Nile at the same time as other inoculations, if it can be avoided. If your vet is coming out to give the shots, then she will probably give them all at the same time because it is not a big enough issue for her to make another trip. As always when you inoculate, make a note of where the shot was given and when (i.e., 5/5/05 WNV left hip) so that if the horse later develops any problems, you have the info you need. Also, whenever horses are inoculated, there should be a shot of epinephrine on hand in case a horse has an anaphylactic reaction to a shot. Finally, inter-nasal strangles vaccine should never be given on the same day as shots are given to the horse because the risk of the horse blowing out the vaccine onto his body or another horse’s body, and then the vaccine being injected into him with another shot and getting an abscess, is too high.

I hope your transition to a new facility goes smoothly.


Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Are Mules More Difficult Than Horses?

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Question: Dear Julie,

I was at the Ohio Equine Affaire and was able to sit in on one of your talks. It was the one on ‘herd dynamics.’ Very, very useful information!
I have a three year old john mule, imprinted at birth and basically a very nice, well bred mule. Do you work with many mules? Are their characters more difficult than a horse?

I want to get him started under saddle (western style riding), soon. Unfortunately, he has to have a hernia repair before I start riding him; I hope to get started by May or June. I do have a trainer that will start him for me, he too has mules…..I am just trying to get as much information as I can so that I do NOT make mistakes that can’t be “fixed” at a later date.
I am up for any information that you might be able to help with.

Thank you for your time!


Answer: Colleen,

Too bad I didn’t have more time in my presentations on horse behavior to get into a discussion on mules. While the training and the eventual outcome is about the same for a horse and a saddle mule, there are some very clear differences in how they behave. Mules are not horses.
Horses, as everyone knows, are flight animals—it is their strongest instinctive set of behaviors and defines them as a species. Donkeys, on the other hand, are not flight animals at all. And in the case of a cross between a horse mare and a donkey, mules tend to most often take their behavior from the donkey side when it comes to flightiness. This has a bearing on some of the training techniques you would use—for instance, chasing a mule around the round pen endlessly will get you nowhere.

Often mules are cussed as being “stubborn,” when in fact, this is simply a matter of their natural behavior. They are more likely than horses to stop and think, or even turn and fight, when faced with a problem. This is one reason why you’ll see mules and donkeys chase after dogs more aggressively than horses and why they are sometimes placed in a herd to protect the herd from feral dogs, coyotes and the like.
The thinking side of their nature makes them better problem solvers than horses and also makes them less appreciative of repetition in their training. Once I get a mule to give me the correct response, I’ll generally move onto the next thing. If I ask it repeatedly, he’ll eventually refuse and look at me like I am an idiot—and then I’ve taught him to refuse me.

Unlike a horse, you cannot compel a mule to do something that may cause him harm. He’s smarter than that. A horse, will jump off a cliff if you ask him to and if he is accustomed to obeying your commands; a mule thinks for himself and has a higher sense of self-preservation. And if you ask him to do something stupid, you risk training him to be defiant and disobedient.

In fact, mules think so well that they often out-think their human handlers. They are very good at training people, which is one reason they don’t always have the best reputation. Mules learn dirty tricks easily, like dragging you around and running through their shoulders (when you ask them to turn right and they go left instead) and they can learn to avoid work and make you do their bidding. But like horses, mules have different temperaments—some are easy and compliant; some are tricky and shifty.

I’ve trained and ridden quite a few mules in my day and since all I knew was horse training, I pretty much used the same procedures and cues for mules as I did for horses. But I learned with mules to avoid repetition and keep the work sessions purposeful. Because mules may learn a little faster than some horses, you must be very careful that bad habits do not develop in his ground manners and over-all obedience. Getting help from a trainer that knows mules will certainly help and giving him a good foundation of training, combined with good handling will put you on your way to having a great saddle mule.

Mules are often considered superior to horses when it comes to trail riding—there’s nothing better for riding in the steep mountains. They are more sure-footed, tend to be smoother gaited and because of the aforementioned self-preservation and less flight response, some consider them safer than horses. Although mules compete in pretty much every discipline of riding and driving that there is, they usually don’t have quite the athletic ability of a well-built horse.

Have fun with your mule!
Julie Goodnight

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Issues From The Saddle: Must Be In Front On Trail

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Ms. Goodnight,

I have a 15-year-old quarter horse, MAX, who decided he does not want to be the second horse out on the trail. I ride alone most of the time but do enjoy the company of others. When he feels any competition from another horse he starts to arch his neck sets his head. He is not on the bit at all. After he gets mad enough he just hoops once and then rears. This can happen so fast I don’t see it coming until he is up. He is getting very good at rearing. I have been trying some things like another horse being in the lead, Max and I going by the first horse and stopping letting the second horse become the first, as soon as he gets “excited” I ask him to go away from the first horse, as soon as his direction is to the other horse he starts with the neck, head and the rear is very soon to come. How do you feel about tie-downs? Any suggestions besides don’t ride with others or be the lead horse all the time, those are some answers I have been given. Thank you in advance,

Ruth from Pennsylvania

Answer: Ruth,

This is not a matter of your horse rearing or whether or not you can ride with others, but a serious indication that your horse is dominant (over you and the other horses), aggressive and inadequately trained. A horse this out-of-control is dangerous to you and those you ride with. It is certainly not an issue that a tie-down would resolve, since these behavior problems are related to dominance and herd behavior, not raising his head (head raising and rearing are symptoms not the cause of the problem).

Just for the record, there is no situation in which I would use a tie-down on a horse to resolve a training problem because in this application it simply masks the symptoms of the horse’s problems and can get in the way of a horse’s natural carriage and balance. A tie-down is particularly dangerous in the event of a rearing horse because the horse is more likely to lose his balance and fall over when he rears.

Your horse needs to learn, right here, right now, in no uncertain terms, that this aggressive, herding and dominant behavior is absolutely intolerable when he is undersaddle or in the presence of humans. Any transgression should be met with the harshest correction; the punishment should fit the crime and the more aggressively your horse behaves, the harsher the punishment.

Always in horse training, you have to apply enough pressure to the horse to motivate him to change. In the case of your horse, because he is acting abnormally aggressive, it will likely take a lot of pressure to gets his attention and motivate him to change. Based on the history you have with this horse, it is questionable whether or not you will be assertive enough or in control enough to motivate this horse to change his behavior. In capable hands, this horse could be taught to mind his manners and be obedient in a short amount of time; you may want to consider taking this horse to a qualified trainer.

The behaviors you are describing are all natural herd behaviors. Your horse wishes to be in front because that is where the alpha horse should be and he is intolerant of any subordinate who dares to get in front. He is arching his neck in a display of might, in a prideful manner. It is a warning to “his” subordinates, along with the squealing, that he is about to become aggressive, should they persist in their insubordinance.
Horses have three weapons in their personal arsenal when they choose to become aggressive or combative: bite, strike, and kick. Your horse is displaying threatening gestures with all three weapons. The rear is the threat to strike and the whirl is the threat to kick; horses make biting gestures with their head and mouth making snaking or herding gestures. There is lots of information on my website about these behaviors.
Young horses should be taught at an early age that they may not act impulsively and interaction with other horses is not acceptable when being handled and ridden. They can act however they want when out in the herd, but once a human has haltered them and brought them in to work, they should refrain from displays of herd behavior and interacting with other horses in any way, even rubbing noses. This fundamental expectation should be strictly enforced at all times whether you are riding alone or in the company of others. Clearly your horse thinks he’s dominant and does not think of you as the herd leader, or he would never act this way. There is no quick fix to repair the relationship between you and your horse. You will have to work at it by doing ground work and changing your impression to the horse both on the ground and in the saddle. I have DVDs on this type of relationship building with the horse: Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership (order online or at 800-225-8827).

Your horse must learn that there is certain behavior that is simply not tolerated while under saddle, specifically displays of aggression and herding behaviors. My expectations of any horse I ride would be even greater: no fraternization at all with other horses and its nose must remain right in front of its chest and it must maintain the path and speed that I have dictated. There should only be one conversation between you and the horse, “This is your Captain speaking.” Any deviance to the expected rules of behavior should be met with immediate correction (within less than three seconds, preferably less than one second). The best way to correct a horse is to “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.” You have already touched on this concept, but not effectively.

Remember, the pressure you put on the horse should be no more and no less than the pressure required to motivate him to change. If it is not enough pressure, he will continue the unwanted behavior (all the while learning to ignore and disobey your commands). If it is enough pressure to motivate him to change, he will then immediately look for a way out of the pressure. As soon as he finds the right answer, he gets an immediate and welcomed release and life gets easier. Comfort and security are the two greatest motivating factors for horses. It is always best if the motivating factors are something that comes naturally to the horse. Therefore, one of the greatest motivating stimuli for horses doing something you perceive as wrong is to make them work hard and remove companionship. The release (reward) is letting the horse rest and be with the herd. Thus the hard thing is work and isolation, the easy thing is rest and companionship (comfort and security).

While you are out on the trail, anytime your horse even hints that he is concerned about another horse in the group, you should immediately take him away from the herd and put him to hard work (turn, circle, change speeds, lope circles, go-stop-go; possibly until he is dripping in sweat the first few times). When he becomes obedient and responsive to you, let him rest and come back to the herd. When and if he becomes aggressive again, immediately take him away and put him to work again. Repeat this process until the horse makes an association between his behavior and the negative stimuli. Depending on how effective your timing is (both with the correction and the reward), he may make the association the first time or it may take dozens of times. Remember, there is an old axiom about horse training that says, “It always gets worse before it gets better.” Since your horse has been displaying dominant and aggressive behavior, chances are he will not easily be dissuaded from his bad behavior and he may challenge your authority and control to an even greater degree. Therefore, be very careful and make sure you are up to the task. If you have any doubt about your ability to get the job done without a greater risk of getting hurt, consider enlisting a professional to help retrain your horse and teach him some manners.


Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.


Keywords: In Front on the Trail, Front on the Trail

Issues From The Ground: Horse Turns And Faces When I Ask Him To Longe

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Question Category: Issues from the Ground

Question: Hi Julie –

First, thank you for all of the helpful advice on your Web site. I also have a library of your DVDs about Lead Line Leadership and riding and several CDs having to do with confidence in riding and private lessons with you. Love it all! But I am now facing a problem with my horse that I have not seen advice for. I have an 8 year old paint gelding who generally is a very obedient, respectful and willing horse.

I have practiced your Lead Line Leadership exercises with him, and he does them willingly. But several times I have longed him for 10 minutes or so and then been interrupted by someone coming over to talk with me. After a few minutes of conversation, I try to go back to longing, but my horse decides that he’s done. (I use a fairly long longe line and longe whip, by the way.) When I try to start up again and move him into a circle, he faces me and backs up. If I try to get behind his drive line, he just moves his hips away from me and backs up again. I’m a little nervous about getting closer to his hip when I do this, and I have in the past just backed him up vigorously for refusing to go around me. After about 10 minutes of this, he finally gives in and goes in a circle.

My instructor has recommended that I get angry and hit him with the whip and run at his hip…she says he is disrespecting me with his attitude and I need to act angry and aggressive to get him to respond. But there has to be a better way to get him to respect what I’m asking him to do without harming him or me! I have always ‘outlasted’ him in these instances, but wondered if there’s a better way to get him to move around me.

Thank you,

Answer: Anne,

Yes! There is a better and a safer way to assert your leadership over the horse, rather than run aggressively at his rear-end—that’s a good way to get kicked. Remember, the kick is a defensive behavior of the horse for use when he is attacked by a predator or by a more dominant horse–the horse kicks and runs. Kicking buys him a little time to hopefully gain some distance from the attacker. Coming at the horse aggressively toward his flank or rear would naturally cause him to kick. That’s why you always longe/ground drive with some sort of “weapon” like a whip or flag to extend your reach and keep yourself out of the kick-zone.

In this instance, your horse knows exactly what you are asking him to do and is being willfully disobedient; you need to make your point in a more controlled, more strategic way. The good news is that your horse is obedient to you most of the time. It is only when you take a break and he thinks you ought to be finished that he challenges your authority. No doubt, he has had what he believes is success in refusing you (even if he only got to avoid working for 10 minutes) and so he challenges you again the next time the situation arises.

Your instructor is right that you need to insist on his obedience and you need to muster some assertiveness, but you need to out smart him, not get angry. Most horses are quick to figure out that all he has to do is face you and you’ll never get behind his drive line and be able to make him move forward. Pretty soon, every time you take a step toward his hip to move him, he faces you—next thing you know, and he is standing effortlessly in the middle with a smug look on his face while you are running circles around him.

Although horses make a game out of facing you when you try to longe them (they call it “stump the chump”), it stems from a natural behavior. Horses are very well equipped to defend themselves from the front—their teeth and the lightening-quick front feet are both deadly forces. It’s the flank area of the horse that is most vulnerable to attack and that is the last area where he will let you touch him—he has to build up a lot of trust in your before he’ll let you into his flank, but he’ll let you touch his forehead early on. A horse that does not trust you fully will turn to face you as you try to move toward his flank.

In your case, there is no trust issue—he has simply modified this natural behavior (instinct) into a learned behavior (stump the chump) that he has been rewarded for in the past. Like all things in training, it is important to understand the origin of the behavior before deciding on an effective means to change the behavior. Whether your horse is facing because of trust issues or in avoidance, the solution is the same.

Rather than trying to reposition yourself and run toward his rear end, you simply need to move your horse’s front end. If he is facing me and I want him to move in a circle around me to my left, I will pick up my right hand (holding the lead) and point and look in the precise direction I want my horse to go and tell him to move with a cluck—that is his cue to go the work. If he doesn’t hop right to it in a yes-Ma’am frame of mind, I will then use my right hand (holding the flag) to reinforce my cue and move the horse.

If he is facing me, it is not the hindquarters that I need to move, but the forehand—I need to move his nose and shoulder to the right, away from me, to put the horse on the correct track for the circle left. Once I do that, I’ll be conveniently positioned behind his drive line and able to drive him forward.

To move his forehand away from you is quite easy. Pointing with your ‘lead hand’ (which is the left hand in this instance) to gesture to your horse where is he is go, pick up your right hand (the ‘whip hand’)and wave your flag (or whip or stick) directly at his nose as you advance toward his head. Advance toward the horse with your flag waving vehemently right at his nose—if he doesn’t move it away from you, he’ll get in the way of your stick and get hit (it’s important that you convey this message strongly with your body language—if he gets hit, it is his fault—he had ample opportunity to move out of your way.) Once his nose moves away, point your flag and your body at his shoulder until it follows the nose and the horse is pointed away from you ready to trot a left-hand circle.

Your horse will probably back-up as you approach his head at first—but that’s okay. Now you are walking forward and he is backing up sideways as you move his nose to the right. You’ll easily be able to out-pace him and he’ll get tired of backing up real soon and forward will look like a good idea to him. As soon as he moves forward, you back off and signal him to continue around the circle.

No matter how bad your horse’s habit is of turning and facing you when you are asking him to go to work, once you get in the habit of moving his forehand away from you first, he’ll quit playing this game. Since he’s had a lot of success with this facing technique already, it may take you a few extra times before your horse gives it up entirely.

As you know, there’s lots of info on my website that relates to this and it is also addressed in my ground work videos. Sounds like you have done a lot of great work with your horse and you have a pretty good idea of your relationship with him and where the holes in your authority are. This facing game is an issue in every single clinic I do. Many people have this problem; so don’t feel too badly. This is a little easier to demonstrate than than it is to explain in an article, but hopefully you get the gist. Don’t try to change your position—just reposition your horse (make him do the work).

Good luck,

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.