Help for a horse owner whose gelding has less than desirable ground manners.
Help for a horse owner whose gelding has less than desirable ground manners.
Prepare your trail horse for the veterinarian with these lessons in ground manners from noted clinician Julie Goodnight
My colt is now 11 hands and 275# and he’ll be 5 weeks old on Monday. He’s learning what ‘no’ means and understands he’s not supposed to bite, but he still is invading my space. When he comes too close, I bump into him with my whole body until he moves back. He does move back, but then starts all over again. The mouth thing is better as far as putting it on me, although he tries every second to get his mouth on me, when he’s not doing that, he’s got the shank of the lead or the lead rope itself in his mouth. That pacifies him but I can’t let him do it forever.
So, any suggestions? I use my elbow, the stick, and have always pinched him when he disobeys, but what of this mouth/biting/putting stuff in it? Unfortunately his mother does not discipline him and neither does his grandmother, my mare’s dam. It seems like I’m always correcting him and I feel he’s going to resent me. But, he cannot be allowed to bite or always have his mouth on something.
Lee Ann Hull
Hi Lee Ann,
Well, the good news is that at some point, your horse will grow up and these juvenile behaviors will diminish. Young horses (like young humans) are very mouthy and will push their boundaries until they find the limit.
You must persist in corrections and moving him out of your space. If you seem to not be making progress at all, it probably means you are not using enough pressure; that your corrections are not harsh enough to motivate the horse to change. Horses love to play games, especially the younger ones, so be careful that he doesn’t think you are just playing a game with him. Remember, when male horses play, it is called sparring. They play fight, practicing important skills they will need later on in life (in the wild). Your colt could easily think your corrections are just play and that may be why he persists. If this is the case, you need to make it clear to him that you are not playing and be careful not to let him engage you or start a game.
There is a concept in training that says that however a horse is behaving at the moment, is the way he is most motivated to act. In order to change his behavior, you must apply enough pressure to motivate him to change. Depending upon how motivated he is to act that way to begin with, that will dictate how much pressure is required to motivate him to change. With feisty colts, that is sometimes a considerable amount of pressure.
As for mouthing the lead, nothing works better than the old cayenne pepper trick. Sacrifice a lead or two and coat it with cayenne pepper mixed with Vaseline. This will break him of the habit (this will also break the habit of chewing on the mare’s tail, if you coat it with cayenne). Also, make sure he has plenty of ways to use his mouth effectively by munching on all the grass hay he wants, letting him play with other colts and/or giving him stall toys to play with.
Raising horses is a lot like raising kids. They both do better with rules to obey, lots of structure and consistent discipline. My DVD called Lead Line Leadership will show you how to take a horse, young or old, through a systematic process that teaches him good ground manners and to respect your space and authority. Good luck with your colt!
Until next time,
My 11-year-old horse recently started biting at his sides—digging deep and mutilating his skin and hair coat. Before I bought him last year, he was gelded and was away from other horses during his healing time. That’s when this strange behavior started. When I purchased him, the former owner barely mentioned the behavior. He just told me if you rode him each day, he’d be too tired to bite his sides. At my place, we keep him turned out with a larger herd. He exhibits the behavior when he’s around his buddies—not only when he may feel lonely. The horse is so sweet to people. He’s kind and respectful. He’s just terrible to himself. What can I do to help him? Why is he doing this?
Bit To Pieces
Dear Bit To Pieces,
Horses that self-mutilate (bite at their own flesh causing open wounds) are generally either in severe pain or experiencing severe stress. Have your veterinarian evaluate your horse to rule out any pain that may be causing the habit. You may also consider having an equine chiropractor (a veterinarian specially trained in spinal alignment) check your horse’s back and range of movement. If you resolve the pain or take away stress, the behavior should go away. That sounds easy, right? However, I wonder if your horse may be hurting himself because of pain or stress he experienced in the past. He may have felt stressed and frustrated when he was isolated at another barn. That stress-time behavior may have become habitual—meaning your horse may not feel pain or stress now, but he has the undesirable behavior nonetheless. If that’s the cause, your horse may need some time to realize he no longer needs the stress-relieving behavior. An interesting note, some research indicates that self-mutilation is related to Tourrettes Syndrome in humans. That link may explain why some horses continue to harm themselves long after a prompt is present.
I have seen a handful of self-mutilators in my training career. I’ll never forget the little mare that had been in training with a brutal hunter-jumper trainer who rode her in draw reins with her nose cranked to her chest. She began to bite her chest while being ridden. Both sides of her shoulders dripped with blood at the end of every course of jumps. Eventually her owner figured out that she was in pain and under stress because of the trainer’s methods. The owner removed the horse from the trainer’s barn and the problem behavior went away. Unfortunately, that trainer is still in business—or so I’ve heard. The other horses I’ve known were stallions with exacerbating medical conditions that caused them great pain. When the horses were brought back to a healthy condition, the self-mutilation went away.
To stop the flesh-eating behavior, you can put a neck cradle on your horse to prevent him from reaching to his sides or legs with his mouth. A cradle is made with dowels strapped together and buckled around his neck when he is alone in his stall. Look for a cradle in any vet catalogue’s bandaging section. It’s not a good idea to have a neck cradle on your horse when he’s turned out with other horses—he won’t be able to turn away from dominant horses or defend himself. Other horses may also become tangled in the cradle. Keep in mind, this cradle can stop the behavior, but not the horse’s desire to self mutilate. It’s important to find a way to help your horse inhibit his desire while his body begins to heal.
Dr. Katherine Houpt from Cornel University has researched self mutilation extensively. In her book, Domestic Animal Behavior for Veterinarians and Animal Scientists she says “self-mutilation is a very common behavior problem. Although it occurs in both sexes, it is much more common in stallions. The behavior consists of biting at or actually biting the flanks or, more rarely, the chest. The horse usually squeals and kicks out at the same time. The signs mimic those of acute colic, but can be differentiated because self-mutilation does not progress to rolling or depression and is chronic. The cause of the behavior is unknown, but because it usually responds to a change in the social environment it is probably caused by sociosexual deprivation. Most breeding stallions do lead similarly deprived lives in that they are kept in stalls in isolation from other horses, particularly from mares, but do not self-mutilate. Castration usually, but not always stops self-mutilation.” I got my copy of Houpt’s book from Knight Equestrian Books by calling 207-882-5494.
It sounds like you’re on the right track when evaluating your horse’s psychological needs. You said you have him turned out with other horses. That social arrangement—much different than his sole time in a stall–may help the behavior disappear after he becomes more comfortable with the herd. If health problems have been ruled out, your best recovery bet is to experiment with different herd arrangements until your horse feels comfortable and realizes chewing on his sides isn’t necessary any more. I wish you the best of luck!
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.
This Issue: Burned Out
Recently I was a speaker at the PATH International therapeutic riding conference—the annual convention. The crowd was full of hundreds of physical therapists, mental health specialists, therapeutic instructors, horse handlers, side walkers and barn managers that work for therapeutic riding programs. My presentation was on avoiding and resolving burnout in therapy horses.
Now, this is a very popular subject because every therapeutic riding program out there shares this problem. While only the best-tempered and most qualified horses are used in such a program, their job is stressful (both physically and mentally), tiring, boring, repetitive and sometimes downright obnoxious. Sometimes as many as five adults are hovering over the client and micromanaging the horse’s every step. With a high dependency on volunteerism in TRPs, the horse has to get used to a revolving door of handlers. Sometimes the client is off balance, moving spasmodically or unpredictably, laughing or screaming loudly. Most therapy horses work hard for a living and many of them also have to make ends meet by working extra hours packing around able-bodied riders in lessons—a novice rider that thinks she knows what she is doing is often harder on the horse than a therapeutic client. As you can imagine, burnout is an occupational hazard in these horses.
Every therapeutic riding program I’ve worked with has problems with horses biting, horses that learn bad habits or avoidance techniques (particularly around the mounting block), horses that develop bad manners, and worst of all, the horses that learn that they can get away with stuff like biting the handler when there is a client on its back because they know the handler won’t take the risk of disciplining the horse with the client on its back. Maybe you’ve had some personal experience with this, if not in a therapy horse how about in a show horse? I consulted with Disney World a few years ago and they had this problem with some of Cinderella’s ponies (you know, the little white ponies that pull the pumpkin carriage). Disney horse handlers are strictly forbidden from taking any disciplinary action at all when the horses are in the park in front of guests and unfortunately sometimes clever little devil ponies learn they can get away with stuff like biting the handler in the park, but they never do it outside where the handler could take disciplinary action. This is a very bad deal because once they learn that there is a certain place that they can get away with stuff, you cannot unlearn it. So we must do our best to prevent the horse from learning this to begin with by being diligent to the horse’s behavior and obedience and taking corrective action before the horse figures it out. Fortunately, most horses are not that smart.
Have you ever had a horse that learned he can get away with things in certain settings? It reminds me of when my sisters and I were little and my parents dressed us up and took us to a very fancy restaurant where we promptly staged a revolt and crawled under the white-linen table and refused to come out (it was my sister’s idea; I was just a pawn in her scheme). We just knew they wouldn’t do anything to us there and that there would be no spanking in the fancy restaurant. Little did we know that later, at home, we would come to regret our actions. Unfortunately, with horses, punishing them after-the fact will serve no purpose other than to confuse the horse and teach him not to trust you. Regret is not a train of thought your horse will follow. As I am fond of saying—once three seconds goes by, it’s a whole ‘nother day to the horse and there is no connection whatsoever.
Although a lot of these behavior problems in therapy horses have to do with the difficult and stressful job they do, much of this it has to do with poor handling and the ever-revolving door of handlers with varying degrees of competence. Many larger and well-funded programs employ a full-time trainer whose job it is to maintain the therapy horse’s training, avoid bad habits and take care of the horse’s mental and physical needs. But the smaller programs are scrapping for every labor dollar they have and usually can’t afford this luxury, so they have to do the best they can, with the people they have.
I wish I had had more time for the presentation because we had about 8-10 therapy horses from several different programs here in Colorado, with a variety of interesting issues. It was way too many horses to work with in the 90 minutes allotted to me. There were a many points that I wanted to stress in training the volunteers and in the day-to-day handling of the horses, but I found myself focusing again and again on a few key points: don’t micro-manage the horse, don’t crowd and grab the horse and be sure to maintain a level of authority with the horse.
Biting horses is probably the most common problem TRPs deal with, a problem that many horse people encounter, but the therapy horses are way more prone to it than any other population I know of. I’ve spent some time pondering this problem and have observed many different operations and to me, the cause is quite clear—the horses are sick and tired of everyone being in their space! These horses get so over-handled with so many well-intentioned people that don’t always do the right thing. The horse handler crowds the horse’s face, often choked up on the lead rope and micro-managing every movement the horse makes (if he’s being used in a TRP, he knows what he is doing; he does it every day and usually knows it better than the handler). Worse, the handler sometimes leads with the reins or clamps down on the reins just behind the bit; both of these actions are VERY hard on a horse’s mouth. Is it any surprise so many therapy horses bite?
It’s just like with riding a horse—at some point you need to quit micro-managing him and just trust the horse to do his job, especially when it is something he knows how to do. Step back, put some slack in the lead (or reins) and let him do his job. You cannot prevent a horse from moving by holding him still (who are you kidding if you think you can hold a 1000 pound horse still?) but you can train him that it is an expectations of yours that he not move his feet without a cue, then step back, loosen the lead and expect him to stand; correct him if he doesn’t. Don’t try to prevent him from making a mistake, just correct him when he does.
This will only work if you have authority over your horse and he respects your leadership; otherwise, when you step back or loosen up, he just does whatever he wants. I have written a lot about this subject—it’s all over my Training Library—and I spent a lot of time in my NARHA presentation just teaching simple ground manners to the horses (and teaching the handlers what to do and what not to do). A horse doesn’t automatically respect you, trust you or accept your authority over all things unless you earn it. And if everyone knew how to do that, I’d be out of a job!
It was a great workshop and I really enjoyed it. The session ended too soon and as usual, I could think of about a thousand things I wish I had time to cover. If you were there, let me know what you enjoyed the most and what you wished we could’ve covered. If you’re involved in a TRP—good for you! It is a valuable and satisfying field and TRPs are always in need of more volunteers, so check it out. If you cannot afford the time, maybe you can make a donation to your local therapeutic riding program(cash is king for these low-budget non-profits). If you are not involved in a TRP, perhaps you can still find some useful information here to help you avoid problems with your horse.
Enjoy the ride!
Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
Question: I have a 9 yr. old gelding that I have had for 3 yrs, I have shown walk trot English/Western for 2 yrs. My husband and myself are still novice to the show world, my gelding was a 4H show horse since they purchased him as long 2yr. old, so I know he knows his job. I am concerned because he has just recently tried biting, he pins his ears back when putting his saddle on (the vet sees no problem with his back), and he does rub his face on me when we are done riding. How do I solve these ground manner issues? He also consistently picks up the wrong canter lead when riding clockwise. I have tried leg, body weight, crop, side pass then lead off. I know that he knows what I am asking, when he gives me the correct lead I praise him and rub him. Any suggestions?
Thank you so much,
Answer: Dear Lori,
You’ve got a few different issues here, with complicated answers, but I think I can steer you in the right direction to find the information you need to progress with your horse.
As for the biting, pinning ears and rubbing on you, these are all signs that you have a dominance issue with your horse. Pinning the ears when you saddle him could be a sign of a poor saddle fit, so you should definitely have that checked by a professional. Biting is the most dominant behavior of horses , and if your horse is just beginning this behavior, it is a sign that you have done things to make your horse believe he is dominant over you — biting is a late-stage sign. This kind of behavior starts with allowing the horse to move into your space, to control your actions, to take away feed from you, etc. Biting is the third stage of progressive behaviors of the horse; first is lipping. If that goes uncorrected, the horse begins to nip; if nipping goes uncorrected, the horse begins to bite. There are numerous articles on biting and respect issues in the training library of my Web site that will help you work through these issues and position yourself as a true leader to your horse.
If your horse is indeed trained to pick up his leads reliably and now he is not, it could be a sign of soreness or an error in your cueing. You always have to consider a physical issue first because it could be a sign of soreness developing. If the horse does not take the right lead, it could be because of pain in the right fore or left hind; and visa-versa. Both the leading foreleg and the outside hind leg endure more stress in each canter stride because the horse suspends more weight on them. Rule out a lameness issue first.
To set your horse up for the correct lead, always cue coming into a corner — not during the turn or coming out of the turn, but just before the turn. In this position, the horse should know which direction he is going and he’ll be positioned with his hips in, the way his body needs to be to take the correct lead, so that he can push off with the outside hind leg.
The cue for the canter on the correct lead use your outside leg, back about 6 inches (to bring his hips in and his outside leg underneath him), slightly lift your inside rein (to shift his and your weight to the outside and free-up his inside shoulder to take the lead.) and push with your seat in the canter motion. You might also use the kissing sound as a voice cue, which gives your horse a hint of what you are asking. If you are weighting the inside when you cue your horse to canter or you are cueing when his hips are positioned out, he will have difficulty taking the correct lead.
The canter is the most complicated of gaits, and you need to not only understand the cue and why it works, but also the footfalls of the canter and the mechanics of leads. Check out my video, “Canter With Confidence,” with much more detail on cueing for the canter and correcting lead problems.
Good luck with your horse!
Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.
Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
I hope you can help me with my horse. He is a 15 y/o gelding, I ride him hunt seat. He gets very irritated when I girth him up. Even before the girth has touched his belly (when I am attaching it to the saddle), he pins his ears and starts bobbing his head. When I actually tighten the girth, his antics increase; he even opens his mouth and swings his head around to bite me (he never does actually bite). He’ll also try to kick at the girth (again, he never actually kicks). He will also become angry when I brush the girth area or even put my hand there. When he’s at horse shows or in the arena I can tighten his girth and he doesn’t seem to notice, it is only in his stall that he becomes crabby. Also, after I ride him and when I take the saddle off, he’s perfectly fine.
We’ve had him for about five years and his cinchiness only seemed to start about a year ago, but it was mild then and now he has become increasingly worse when I try to girth him up. I know I should have done something as soon as I noticed the problem but this was our first horse and since I’ve seen other horses do the same thing, I didn’t think anything of it; now that it’s become worse I know I need to do something about it. I’ve read an article about how to stop this behavior, but it didn’t seem to explain the process completely and I don’t want to do anything unless I am positive about how to do it, for fear of making the problem worse. I don’t like to see my horse is such discomfort and I hope I can solve this problem soon.
Thanks for the great question and as you said, this is an issue with which many horse owners are dealing. I am so glad that you view this is an issue of discomfort for your horse and not just write it off to bad behavior. Cinchiness is definitely a problem and can be a safety factor as many of these horses will resort to biting, kicking or pulling back in reaction. However, as far as I am concerned, cinchiness is a problem created by humans and horses are just expressing their emotional discomfort. Generally the term “cinch” is used for a Western saddle and the term “girth” is used for English; for the purpose of this article it does not matter whether you are saddling English or Western and you can consider the term girth and cinch to be interchangeable. Having started hundreds of colts in my career, I know that a certain number of them will have a strong negative reaction to the girth the very first time it is tightened. Whether it is pain or panic that causes the reaction, it is most definitely a real emotion on the part of the horse. On the first saddling, if the horse is girthed up abruptly and tightly, the pain or panic the horse feels is very traumatic and is permanently logged in the horse’s brain as a “fear memory.” Research has shown that once a fear memory has been logged in a horse’s brain, it will always be there. You cannot erase the fear memory; the only option is to over-ride the reaction caused by the fear memory with training or replacement behavior.
When we saddle a colt for the very first time, we spend a lot of time desensitizing the colt to the feel of the girth before it is ever tightened. Before that, we have already spent a lot of time desensitizing the horse to having the saddle placed on his back and the feel of the saddle on his back when he is moving. When it is time to start desensitizing the horse to the feel of the girth, first we simply massage the girth area and watch for any negative reaction.
If the horse is not at all bothered by the girth massage, then we progress by pulling the girth up around the horse and gently pulling it tight (just with our hands) and releasing, with many repetitions, with increasing pressure. Gradually we start pulling down on the saddle at the same time we pull up on the girth, always with a release in between. If the horse has come this far with no adverse reaction, we will proceed to actually fasten the girth. At this point we want the girth just tight enough to hold the saddle in place (it is extremely critical at this stage that the saddle does not slip under the horses belly), but not so tight that it will cause the horse discomfort. The next step is to get the horse desensitized to the feel of the tightened saddle and girth while he is moving. We’ll do this by moving the horse one step at a time, stopping and praising the horse with each step and allowing him to relax and accept the new stimulus and gradually work toward the horse moving relaxed and steady. This is the process we go through to desensitize a young horse to the feel of the girth if he does not show serious signs of sensitivity.
If at any time, the horse shows a negative response to pressure at the girth area (tensing, raising head, pinning ears), we slow down and stay at that stage until he is ready to move forward. If he shows discomfort at the first stage of desensitization when massaging the girth area, we will continue gently massaging and watching the horse for an adverse reaction. During this time, whenever the horse relaxes and indicates that he accepts this pressure, we stop massaging and step away from him just for a moment, to reward the correct response. We will use the technique of “advance and retreat” (see article on my website) advancing only as far as you can until the horse tenses, then holding that ground until the horse relaxes and accepts the pressure and then retreating (momentarily releasing the pressure or walking away from the horse) as a reward. However long it takes for the horse to accept the pressure to his girth area is how long we will spend to assure that he is adequately desensitized before fully saddling the horse.
Horses become cinchy because humans are insensitive to the amount of pressure they put on the horse, either the first time he is saddled or in subsequent saddlings. Whether or not the horse actually feels pain or discomfort we don’t really know, but certainly cinchy horses develop resentment about the action of girthing. It is quite possible that your horse had his girth tightened too much at some point, causing bruising in a very sensitive area, and that may be when his problem began. Around our place, when we saddle horses, young or old, we only snug up the cinch minimally at first and then gradually tighten the cinch as we get ready to ride. For the young horses especially, we do a final tightening of the cinch after about ten minutes into the ride when the horse has warmed up a little and is comfortable with the cinch tighter. In dealing with a horse that has already developed resentment toward the cinch and is reactive, there are a few important things to consider. First, make sure the horse is not tied when you girth him up; this can really exacerbate the problem and lead to the horse developing a pull-back problem. Secondly, make sure you are positioned in a way that will prevent you from getting hurt should the horse decide to bite or kick. It is a good idea to keep your left elbow out or even a stick or a crop so that if the horse swings his head around to bite, he hits his face against a hard solid object as a deterrent.
For the horse that is dealing with a lot of resentment over the cinch, sometimes the desensitization methods I described above for colts will help a lot. Take the time to massage the girth area gently before tightening the girth. Watch the horse for feedback and use the advance and retreat method, and make sure you reward the horse for relaxing and accepting the pressure. When you proceed to fastening the cinch, take a few minutes to pull up on and then release the cinch repeatedly, starting first with gentle pressure and gradually increasing the pressure until you are also pulling down on the saddle at the same time, again remembering to reward the horse anytime he shows a relaxed and positive attitude.
After this desensitization exercise, you can proceed to fasten the girth, but do not gut-wrench the horse right away. At first, just snug the girth up just enough to safely hold the saddle in place. Sometimes it is helpful to lead the horse around between tightenings so he can get accustomed to the tightness. As you finish tacking and getting ready to ride, tighten the girth gradually, going up a notch every few minutes, allowing the horse to relax and accept the new level of pressure for a few minutes before it is tightened again. Before you step up into the saddle, make sure the girth is adequately tight so that the saddle does not slip when mounting. Often it is helpful to tighten the girth again after the horse is warmed up, if needed.
As the horse warms up, the saddle and pad compress, the air in the horse’s hair coat is pushed out, the horse’s muscles contract as he works and all of these things contribute to a gradual loosening of the girth. Contrary to popular belief, horses do not “blow up” so that the girth is not tight. First of all, the girth goes across a ring of bone and the horse cannot really expand that ring. Secondly, horses do not have the ability to linear reason and put a series of thoughts together and take an action now that leads to a different outcome in the future. Horses that have been gut-wrenched will learn to flinch at the tightening of the girth and this is often mistaken for “blowing up.” If every time I walked up to you, I punched you in the stomach, you would soon learn to flinch at my approach.
We talk often about the safety issue of making sure your girth is tight before you mount and this is an important concern. Many wrecks are caused from the girth being too loose. However, it is also a safety concern if the girth is too tight. When the girth is too tight, it can cause pain and discomfort to the horse and may lead to behavior problems such as cinchiness or even bucking and balking. So although cinchiness is often caused when the horse is first started under saddle, it can also develop in a trained horse when they are mishandled. A horse with prominent and well-defined withers will not need a girth as tight as a horse with low withers and a very round shape. So the girth only needs to be tightened enough to keep the saddle centered during mounting and dismounting and how tight that is, will vary with the individual horse.
Furthermore, people often check for tightness by slipping their fingers in the girth just below the saddle and that is not the right place to check. Most horses are concave in shape in this area and the girth may always feel loose here. To get a really accurate check of how tight the girth is, stick your fingers under the back of the cinch at the horse’s sternum, right between his legs. This is an area where the girth crosses bone and you will get a much more accurate feel for how tight the girth truly is.
Replacement training is a method to replace one behavior or emotion with another. In this instance, since the horse is resentful even to your touch at the girth area, it might work to try and replace his emotion (and therefore his behavior) with another. Much like feeding a horse in the trailer to make him associate the trailer with a “happy place,” while you work at desensitizing the girth area, you might offer a treat to the horse when he demonstrates the appropriate behavior (relaxed acceptance of the pressure). Just make sure that you only reward the correct behavior and not inadvertently reward the wrong behavior. As you have noticed, the horse is only acting cinchy in a certain place and circumstance. This is very common since horses tend to associate a place with certain behaviors or emotions. Take advantage of this by changing your routine when you girth him or taking him to another place for the final tightening.
One final thought on cinchy behavior: although cinchiness is usually caused by humans, bad or aggressive behavior of horses should not be tolerated, regardless of the cause of the behavior. All horses should be trained that it is never appropriate to move into your space. It may be helpful to school this horse on the ground with frequent reminders to yield to, or move out of, your space. At my barn, horses in training learn a very basic rule that they must keep their chin in front of their chest at all times while we are working with them. Anytime the horse breaks the rule we make a correction and ask the horse to put his chin back in front of his chest. This correction might be just pointing your finger at the horse’s nose, a little poke in the nose or a tug on the lead. When a horse is acting cinchy he is generally just expressing his emotions of fear and anxiety; these are honest emotions and we cannot punish a horse for expressing his emotions. However, we can expect a horse to abide by certain rules of behavior that he has been taught and correct him when he breaks a rule. In other words, if a cinchy horse pins his ears back and bobs his head when you cinch him, he is not really breaking any rules, just expressing himself and we need to take note of the emotion he is expressing and try to understand the cause. If the horse reaches back to bite or kick, this is a clear infraction of the rules and a correction needs to be made and it may be an indication that more groundwork is needed or some remedial training is in order.
In summary, I think the most important things to consider in dealing with a cinchy horse is 1) your personal safety, 2) take the time to desensitize the horse and girth him slowly, and 3) do some remedial training in ground manners to reinforce the basic rules of behavior. Good luck to you and I hope this will help in some way to make both you and your horse happier.
Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.
Question Category: Issues from the Ground
Question: When I work with my horse on showmanship, she tries to bite me. What should I do? Should I hit her? Thank you.
Answer: Biting is an aggressive behavior and can be made worse by irritating and crowding a horse’s space. Does he bite at you at other times, or just when you are doing Showmanship or just when you are in the show ring?
My guess is that your horse is actually biting because you are using a standard halter chain under the chin, as is expected in a Showmanship class. Often horses that are trained excessively with a chain develop the habit of biting. The horse may also learn that he can only get away with the biting when he is in the show ring where he learns that you will not correct him for it.
Hitting him for biting will only increase his irritation with the whole thing. While some correction definitely needs to be made, I think you need to avoid escalating his irritation and anger.
Here are some strategies I would suggest for fixing your relationship with your horse:
1) Instead of using a flat halter with a stud chain, practice your showmanship training with a rope halter and 12′ training lead (available on my website). The rope halter gives you way more control than using a chain without the constant pinching, pressure and irritation that the chain causes. Teach your horse to respond to your body signals so that you can fully work him without ever putting pressure on the lead.
2) Once your horse can work well on the ground in a rope halter, practice working showmanship patterns with the lead tied around his neck, so that he is cueing totally off your body language on not from the rope. Then you should be ready to use a regular flat halter and get the same response. You may not even need to use a chain and that should impress a judge!
3) Make sure you are not playing with your horse’s mouth at any time or hanging all over his face. Learn to keep a respectable distance between you and your horse. Don’t crowd his head. He should stand still and keep his nose in front of his chest whenever you are working with him. If he moves his nose from in front of his chest, gently correct it by poking a finger at him or tugging on the halter rope. Set this clear rule with him, “You must keep your nose directly in front of your chest as long as I am working with you.” If you set this clear rule and enforce it 100% of the time, in very short order, your horse will know his manners.
4) Make sure that you are not encouraging biting in other areas by hand feeding treats or letting your horse move into your space. Make sure you have a clear understanding of spatial issues as they relate to dominance. Biting is a dominant behavior. Study up on herd hierarchy and understand how horses establish dominance.
5) If you do correct a horse for biting (and you should), the correction must be made immediately. You only have 3 seconds to make a correction and the sooner the correction is made, the stronger the association between the behavior and the correction. If you can instantaneously correct, just poke the horse in the nose with a pointed finger. Do not hit at the horse’s head. If you are concerned about the horse becoming head shy (he won’t if the correction is timely) an alternative is to pinch the horse around the bottom neck muscle where it ties into his chest. The muscle is like a strap running down his neck and you’ll take about a 2-3 inch pinch between your thumb and index finger and the horse will really feel like he has been bitten back.
To me, the biting is always a symptom of a more important underlying issue that needs to be addressed, like a lack of respect and a lack of leadership. Hopefully in your case, getting rid of the chain is the only issue that needs to be addressed. Good luck! There are some informative articles on horse behavior in my Training Library that may help you.
Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.
Question: I have a 9 yr. old gelding that I have had for 3 yrs, I have shown walk trot English/Western for 2 yrs. My husband and myself are still novice to the show world, my gelding was a 4H show horse since they purchased him as a long 2yr. old, so I know he knows his job. I am concerned because he has just recently tried biting, he pins his ears back when putting his saddle on (the vet sees no problem with his back), and he does rub his face on me when we are done riding. How do I solve these ground manner issues? He also consistently picks up the wrong canter lead when riding clockwise. I have tried leg, body weight, crop, side pass then lead off. I know that he knows what I am asking, when he gives me the correct lead I praise him and rub him. Any suggestions?
Thank you so much,
Answer: Dear Lori, You’ve got a few different issues here, with complicated answers but I think I can steer you in the right direction to find the information you need to progress with your horse. First, when you bought your horse as a 2 y/o, he really couldn’t possibly have known much. Even if he had been in professional training since he was started, it couldn’t possibly have been even training to make him a finished show horse. For that, you are looking at a minimum of 6 months professional training and probably more like a year.
Chances are, what training he had was from an amateur, so it was probably somewhat sporadic and not as effective as professional training would be. So you may be over-estimating what your horse knows and a little time with a professional trainer might really help. As for the biting, pinning ears and rubbing on you, these are all signs that you have a dominance issue with your horse. Pinning the ears when you saddle, could be a sign of a poor saddle fit, so you should definitely have that checked by a professional. Biting is the most dominant behavior of horses and if your young horse is just beginning this behavior, it is a sign that you have done things to make your horse believe he is dominant over you—biting is a late-stage sign. This kind of behavior starts with allowing the horse to move into your space, to control your actions, to take away feed from you, etc. Biting is the third stage of progressive behaviors of the horse; first is lipping. If that goes uncorrected, the horse begins to nip; if nipping goes uncorrected the horse begins to bite. There are numerous articles on biting and respect issues in the Training Library that will help you work through these issues and position yourself as a true leader to your horse.
When it comes to cueing the horse for the correct lead, first you always have to consider a physical issue because it could be a sign of soreness developing. If the horse does not take the right lead, it could either be the right fore or left hind; and visa-versa. To set your horse up for the lead, always cue coming into a corner—not in the turn or coming out of the turn, but just before the turn. In this position, the horse should know which direction he is going and he’ll be positioned with his hips in, the way his body needs to be to take the correct lead, so that he can push off with the outside hind leg. The cue for the canter on the correct lead is to use your outside leg, back about 6” (to bring his hips in and his outside leg underneath him), slightly lift your inside rein (to shift his and your weight to the outside in order to free-up his inside shoulder to take the lead) and push with your seat in the canter motion. You might also use the kissing sound as a voice cue which gives your horse a hint of what you are asking. If you are weighting the inside when you cue your horse canter or your are cueing when his hips are positioned out, he will have difficulty taking the correct lead.
The canter is the most complicated of gaits and you need to not only understand the cue and why it works, but also the footfalls of the canter and the mechanics of leads. Again, there is information on my Training Library on this subject and I have a video called Canter with Confidence, http://shop.juliegoodnight.com/shop/trgpr4canterwithconfidence.html with much more detail on cueing for the canter and correcting lead problems.
Good luck with your young horse!