Q&A On Horse Behavior; Protecting the Alpha; Aggression over Feed Time; Ground Tying; Catch a Horse; Pawing (Rick Lamb with Julie Goodnight)

Have you ever had a horse stand over you in protection? If you’ve fallen or become injured on the trail? I have a photo of my horses where 7 are laying down and one is standing sentry. The boss is in the very middle– laid out and snoring. The horses around her are laying down but have their heads up. They know she is dominant, but she has to sleep sometimes. The leader can’t always be on but they look up to her and protect her. They know she has to sleep sometimes. This same thing can happen with you and your horse if your horse sees you as the leader and has that bonded respect. I have heard of horses protecting or taking over momentarily when they know that you need a rest or are injured.

 

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Feeding Frenzy

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Dear Julie,
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,
Julie Goodnight
www.juliegoodnight.com

Starting Over With A Fractious Horse

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In the episode of Horse Master that we aptly called “Starting Over,” we worked with Clare and her horse “Lux” at a farm outside of Portland, Oregon. Our shoot site, Tanz-Pferde Dressage Farms (www.tanz-pferde.com, the name means dancing horses) was a beautiful backdrop. We shot in their new outdoor arena and were surrounded by incredible trees—beautiful back drops in 360 degrees. With six really good episodes “in the can,” I think all of the crew would agree that one episode that really stood out was Clare’s. In the episode, you’ll see a dramatic change made in this once-injured and defiant horse.

Clare is an outstanding rider, partly because of Lux’s crazy bucking temper tantrums. Lux is a huge warm blood who hates to move forward and doesn’t mind fighting. But, the great thing about big lazy horses is that they can only buck so hard before they get lazy and quit. The key to riding horses that buck in a refusal to move forward is to ride them forward through the bucks and only let them stop when they are relaxed in the back and moving freely forward (without any pedaling from the rider). Once they figure out that bucking buys them more work and relaxing gets them less work, they’ll never buck again; at least not with the same rider. Clare did an exceptional job of riding Lux through his temper tantrums and it looked as if she knew his every move. But, in spite of all this, riding was not really what this horse’s problem was—it was far more fundamental than that.

Lux’s sordid history includes winning championships in the hunter ring as a five year old, when Clare was only ten; although he was already displaying some naughty behavior then, it wasn’t until he broke his hind leg that his behavior spiraled down. With a long recovery period, Lux was sound within a year, but he had become spooky, fractious and aggressive—with no resemblance of the former show champion. Clare’s parents spent thousands of dollars on vets exams, acupuncture, chiropractic, calming supplements, new saddles, therapeutic pads, bits, shoeing and three years later, the trainers were still stumped at what they could do to resolve Lux’s fractiousness. Now a mature 16 year old, Clare sees that her beloved horse is not getting better so she pulls him out of training, thinking it’s time for a break and she turns him out to pasture in a large herd. In the pasture, Lux immediately takes over as alpha. Now, a year and a half later, six years after Lux’s injury, Clare is ready to try again to resolve his behavior and she has studied natural horsemanship and is certain that’s the answer. And she was right.

It only took a fifteen-minute session in the round pen before Lux was hooked on and followed me around the pen like a puppy. Of course, that was after he threatened to jump out of the pen, bucked, kicked, snorted and tossed his head in defiant gestures. At first, he was very determined not to acknowledge my presence, but being out of shape got the better of him and his head started dropping. Soon he was giving me great head bobs in a deliberate gesture of submission. Again, once lazy horses figure out the path of least resistance, they take it.

I showed Clare how to correct his ground manners and develop a larger perimeter of space around her so that the big Lug, uh, Lux isn’t walking all over her. Clare turned out to be an exceptional student and absorbed what happened as I round-penned the horse and made the necessary changes in her handling of Lux. My assistant trainer, T Cody, did a little more ground work with Lux and watched carefully as Clare work him to make sure Lux maintained his subordinate demeanor and respected his boundaries.

The next day Lux was still a changed horse– respecting Clare’s authority, keeping his focus on her at all times and keeping his head down and relaxed. With a great sense of accomplishment, we wrapped-up Clare’s episode and as I was leaving the round pen to go change into clothes for the next show, I told Clare she should take advantage of the work we’d done in that round pen over last 24 hours and saddle him up and see how he rides. When I came out 10 minutes later, Clare was cantering figure eights in the round pen, doing beautiful flying lead changes with each turn as her mother shouted with glee into her cell phone, sharing the success with Clare’s dad.

I’ve had one update from Clare, in the past three weeks and she asked an astute question and immediately put the answer to work on Lux with great success. I think Clare will do great things with this horse. It takes two to maintain this kind of change in a horse—both the horse and the handler/rider need to change their ways. With horses, it always boils down to the human stepping up to the plate and showing some leadership—either you are the boss of them, or they are the boss of you—that’s the way it works in a horse herd. Horses are much happier when there is a competent leader in charge, so that they can relax and not have to think.

Be sure to watch the “Starting Over” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://www.youtube.com/juliegoodnight
–Julie Goodnight

Hierarchy At Feeding Time

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Hierarchy at Feeding Time

Here’s a question from a reader:
I have a question about hierarchy. I still treat my oldest horse (17) like he is alpha because I love him the most. I also have a 12 year old that is very submissive and backs down to all other horses. I just got third, a 7 year old and when they are out, he is obviously the boss. Should I be recognizing the shift and changing feeding patterns etc… or do I determine the herd hierarchy when I am with them and let them do their own thing in the pasture? I probably know the answer, I just have a soft spot for my old guy.

My thoughts: There’s no sense in fighting the natural order but the dominant horse doesn’t get to dictate what you do. If I am feeding a group, I let the horses decide who eats first but ALL have to follow their manners and respect my authority. If I am feeding individually, I just put them in pens/stalls according to who is first in line and feed in the most efficient manner. No one gets to fuss about it if he doesn’t get fed first.

My Horse Is Herd-Bound And Barn Sour

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My horse is herd-bound and barn-sour–calling to others constantly

Would your horse rather stay with his buddies? Is he letting his voice be known? Follow Julie Goodnight’s behavior and training advice to help your horse willingly leave the herd and be focused on you as the center of his universe.

Does your horse refuse to respond to your aids and throw a wall-eyed fit if you try to ride him out of the barnyard alone? Does he scream in your ear, calling to his herd mates every time you take him out of the pen? Is he unruly in-hand when you take him away from his buddies, stomping his feet and ramming into you?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above questions, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying behavior then give you steps to take to make your horse want to be part of your herd–willing to go with you anywhere.

The Reason
Horses are herd-bound animals. The behavior known as gregarious—defining animals who live in groups and have a specific social order. A herd-bound tendency is one of seven instinctive behaviors a horse acts out—the others center around flight, reproduction, combat, investigation, ingestion and elimination. Being herd bound is a survival skill for horses. They need the protection of the herd for comfort and security–which they want more than anything else in life.

The whinny, one of four audible communications a horse makes, is a high-pitched scream, sometimes ending in a nicker. It’s the loudest and longest audible a horse makes and can be ear-splitting, carrying over long distances. Like all four audible communications, it has specific meaning. The whinny is a social call; a searching call. It means, “Where are my friends,” or “Is anyone out there willing to be my friend?” When a horse is separated from his herd and feels vulnerable and exposed, he will whinny and search frantically until he finds it or a suitable replacement.

The leader of the herd–the alpha individual–is responsible for maintaining the safety and comfort of the herd. As long as the leader is in charge, her subordinates can relax, live in peace, munch grass, roll in the mud and commune with their buddies. Life doesn’t get any better.

You and your horse comprise a herd. At least that’s what you’d like your horse to believe. Due to the hierarchy of the horse herd, within your herd of two, you have two choices: you can be the leader or the follower. There’s no option for equality. Just wanting to be the leader of your herd of two doesn’t make it so; your horse is very adept at detecting leadership skills–or lack there of. In his mind, his very survival depends upon good leadership.

Unless and until your horse can look up to you as his leader, trust that you’re in charge of the universe and able to make him feel safe and comfortable, he’ll not be willing to go anywhere with you and will always be drawn back to the herd he knows.
The Solution

You’ll have to convince your horse that you’re in charge, that you’re a worthy leader. He’ll need to know you can be trusted to enforce rules, keep order in the herd and that you direct all his actions. You’ll tell him when to eat, when to sleep, when to work, when to rest, when to be alarmed, when to be relaxed. You’ll teach him that when he is quiet, obedient and focused on you, you’ll make him comfortable; when he is not, you’ll put him to work. He won’t have to make any decisions because you’re the leader, the Captain of the ship, and you make all decisions. That’s a tall order to fill!

Horses establish dominance in the herd with swift and certain actions, by controlling space and resources. The alpha individual of the herd owns the space of all the subordinate herd members; she can enter their space at any time—and the herd will move judiciously out of her way. A subordinate can never enter her space. Horses are very spatially oriented (unlike us humans) and highly respect the space of their leader. In natural horsemanship, we do groundwork with horses to control their space and actions, gain their respect and focus, until the horse is hooked-on, following with admiration because he feels safe and comfortable in your presence.
Resources include anything the herd values, like food, water, shelter or other horses, and the dominant horse always controls the resources. The quickest way to determine the pecking order of any herd is to watch when they are fed; the alpha always eats first, followed by the beta horse; the last to eat is the omega, if he gets anything at all. Be careful when you feed horses, that you do not reward rude or bullying behavior, even when there is a fence between you and the horse; if he comes to believe he is taking the food away from you and controlling your actions, he believes he is dominant. For this reason, I’m not an advocate of hand-feeding treats to horses; it doesn’t take long before he’s calling you to him by nickering (the second of the horse’s four audible communications), controlling your actions and your resources (keep in mind he doesn’t know it’s horse food and humans won’t eat it).

Do groundwork exercises with your horse every time you get him out, so that he is in the habit of listening to you. There are many excellent exercises outlined in my groundwork DVDs, Lead Line Leadership and Round Pen Reasoning (available at JulieGoodnight.com or 800-225-8827).
If you invest some time in groundwork, your horse will learn to accept you as a suitable leader. Once he begins to accept your authority, do your groundwork further and further away from the barn so it becomes habitual behavior for him.
When you’re riding, be aware of barn gravity and be diligent for any disobedience from your horse, no matter how small. If he cuts corners, slows down going away and speeds up coming back, breaks gait or deviates from the path and speed you have dictated and gets away with it, you’re telling the horse you’re not in charge; not a worthy leader. If you’re in charge, you’re the Captain, there should never be any negotiation, compromise or turning a blind eye to his bad behavior– no matter how minor the infraction.
I ride literally hundreds of different horses each year; between clinics and expos, I sometimes ride or work with as many as 10-15 different horses a week on a one-time basis. In five minutes or less, what I call “the golden moments,” I can convince the horse that I’m in charge by simply controlling 100 percent of his actions and demonstrating my leadership ability. Horses figure this stuff out quickly.
When people come to look at one of my horses for sale, I want to make sure they start off in the Captain’s seat. I tell them to take the horse directly to the rail and go all the way around keeping the horse right next to the fence and controlling every step he takes; then thy can start telling him to do something: stop, go, turn, etc. A well-trained and obedient horse (the only kind I sell) knows immediately that you’re a worthy leader and falls happily into the role of your first mate, eager to carry out your orders without challenge.
When your horse accepts your authority without question, and feels safe and comfortable in your presence, he will no longer be herd bound and you’ll b able to take him anywhere you want to go without so much as a whinny or nicker.

To learn more about teaching your horse to respect your authority and accept you as his leader, check out Goodnight’s groundwork training package with the DVD series, Round Pen Reasoning, and Lead Line Leadership and other training tools at www.JulieGoodnight.com.