Issues From The Ground: Aggressive In The Round Pen

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Question Category: Issues from the Ground

Question: Dear Julie,

My friend’s coming-4 yr old 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 a very mean. He will even come back and attack over and over again. He is boarded and has a fairly large turnout (60x 75, big for California). 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 3 way 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.

Officer Jamie Trujillo Chino Mounted Patrol

Answer: Dear Officer,

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 an aversive sounds at the same time, 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 longe 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. Untraining 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. If you could channel this horse’s aggressive tendencies, he might make a good police horse. There are few criminals that would be willing to face a charging horse!

JG

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