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.
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?
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,
Clear Fun with Julie Goodnight
Fun Fundamentals with Julie Goodnight
These are fun exercises to do with a friend or with your riding club. We’ll start on the ground then play and work in the saddle. You’ll improve your horsemanship, riding and find a fun challenge at the barn.
1. “Wax On—Wax Off”, Power Grooming
Riding takes a lot of coordination. For example: you use your right hand and left leg to make a turn as you ride. That means you’re using both sides of your body and both sides of your brain (bi-lateral means both sides). To help strengthen your muscles on both sides and to help improve your bi-lateral coordination, warm up your brain while you groom with two hands. Choose two curry combs or two dandy brushes. Put one in each hand. Move both hands in the same direction—following one brush with the second. At first, it may feel awkward to hold a brush in your non-dominant hand. Stick with it! Your horse will enjoy being brushed twice as much!
Caveats: Make sure your brushes are sized for your hands; work both arms equally and in the same motion on both sides of the horse.
2. “Leader-Follower”, Where You Lead Me,
When you ride a horse, you’re the leader—it’s your job to guide your horse with confidence. In this on-the-ground activity you can do with a riding buddy, you’ll find out what it feels like to be guided and what it takes to be a good leader.
Stand close to your partner so that your jeans seams touch. Link your arms together; this simulates the contact between you and your horse. Decide which one of you is the horse and which is the rider. Begin to ‘ride’ your horse around the grounds, turning, walking, trotting, cantering, backing, etc. You cannot use your voice, but only your body to tell your horse what you want her to do. See if you can communicate slowly and clearly to your horse, using your eyes, shoulders and your feet to let your horse know what she is supposed to do. Ideally, your horse will move off smoothly with you, matching you step for step, as if you were dancing together. Switch roles and let your friend be the rider too!
Talk about what it felt like to be the leader and the follower. How will this help you communicate more clearly with your horse?
Caveats: Move your bodies in slow motion, moving your shoulders and arms before your feet; use your eyes as a hint to where you are planning to go.
3. “Tack Check Game” Safety Search,
Before you get on any horse, it’s important to complete a final check of all of your tack—looking at both sides. Check all the adjustments, keepers, connectors, fit, and any points of wear. This safety check may save you from a big riding emergency or may save your horse from undue pain during the ride.
To learn what to watch for, play this game with your barn buddy. Tack both your horses, but secretly set up some ‘problems’ in your tack. You might stuff the saddle strings under the skirt (an achy feeling for your horse), make the pad crooked (can lead to saddles slipping or an uneven saddle wear), keepers out (making it easy to catch your tack on a rail or anything you may pass ), throat latch too loose (making it easy for the strap to catch on debris, or for the bridle to slip), etc. Then ask your friend to check your tack and see if she can find all the issues you set up. Be sure to fix everything before you get on! Tip: have an adult or horse-expert friend teach you how all tack should look before you play the game again. You can double check your new learning by adding new ‘problem’ items each time.
Caveats: don’t do anything the makes your horse uncomfortable; fix all problems and perform another tack check and cinch check before mounting.
4. “Martial Arts Game” Martial Arts Master=Riding Master, Your Best Shot, Absorbing Action
This game will help you and your friend learn to absorb a horse’s motion. You’ll learn what it takes to ride with your horse as if you are one unit–just like martial arts practitioners learn to absorb the energy of their opponent, rather than bracing against it.
Stand facing your partner, with your feet a little more than shoulder width apart, your knees bent and all of your joints loose and relaxed. Take a far off focus in front of you and have your friend push you on one shoulder. Your goal is to absorb the energy and let it ripple throughout your body all the way down to your feet, without losing your balance; feel it ripple through every joint, from your neck to you ankles. Make sure your joints and muscles are loose and relaxed; if you tense or brace, you’ll loose your balance. See how much energy you can absorb and still stay in balance as your friend pushes harder and harder. Switch roles and let your friend try it to!
Caveats: Relax all your muscles and joints; only push on one side of the shoulder, never both at the same time; do not anticipate the push by sucking back—instead absorb the energy.
5. “Get in Sync with Your Horse”, Follow the Motion, Match the Motion
This game will help you and your partner learn what it is like to be a horse, when the rider is only a passenger, or when the rider is interfering with the horse’s movement, and best of all, when the rider is moving in synch with the horse and helping to enhance its movement. One of you will be the horse and one is the rider. The rider should stand directly behind the horse, with one hand on the front of each shoulder of the horse (this simulates the contact between the horse and rider). The ‘horse’ will begin to ‘walk’ with her arms, swinging them as if they were the front legs of the horse, but do not move your feet. First, the rider will just try to keep the horse’s rhythm, neither getting in the way of the movement nor helping the horse. Then feel the rhythm of the ‘walk’ and gently begin moving your hands in time with the ‘horse’s’ walk, adding a little pull back with each hand as her arm swings back. The ‘horse’ will instantly feel her ‘gait’ improve, swinging more freely and reaching out further. Now try the opposite rhythm and pull back gently with your hands when the ‘horse’s’ arms swing forward and see how the horse’s movement falls apart. Switch partners so both of you can feel what it’s like from the horse’s point of view to have a rider that is interfering with her motion instead of moving in rhythm.
Caveats: make sure you place your hands on front of your buddy’s shoulders, not on top.
6. “Leap Frog”
This is a fun mounted game to play with a friend or two; you can do it with as many riders as you want. Ride in a single file line, head to tail, but pay very close attention to your spacing, maintaining at least one horse length between each horse. The lead horse sets the pace and all the other riders have to rate their horse’s speed to maintain the same pace as the lead horse. Start at the walk and once the line is moving, the horse in the back will trot up to the front of the line and take the lead. After a moment, the last horse will again trot up and take the lead, continuing through the line-up until the original lead horse is back in front. You can also ride at the trot and have the last horse canter up to the lead or you can reverse the order, having the line trot, then the first horse pulls over, breaks into the walk, until the line goes by. This game is fun for you and your horse and gives you a lot of skills to work on such as transitions, rating your horse’s speed, leading the line and communicating between each other.
Caveats: watch your spacing—don’t get too close and don’t let the line get spread out too far; make sure all horses are in control; designate a leader who supervises and calls out who does what; ride at the speed of the least skilled rider in the group.
7. “Transition Game” On your Mark, Timing your Transitions
Set up a row of 4-6 cones in your arena, spaced about four feet apart. Ride in a straight line through the cones practicing a transition each time your shoulders are in alignment with the cones. You can practice both upward and downward transitions at the cones: from trot to halt, from walk to trot, from walk to lope, from lope to halt, etc. Try to make smooth and precise transitions so that you are perfectly aligned with the cones each time and you are riding in straight lines both before and after the cones. Have one person stand at the end of the line of cones and be the judge of whether or not the riders hit the mark; you can keep score by scoring a plus one each time you hit the mark, minus one every time you blow it and zero if you are close. This game will help you refine your communication to the horse and improve your ability to ride patterns.
Caveats: don’t let your horse come into the cones by cutting corner; make ninety degree turns off the rail and ride to a point on the opposite side, making another ninety degree turn, preferably in the opposite direction. Make sure you ride your horse smoothly and with good position and subtle cues; don’t punish his mouth for the sake of the game.
8. “Toilet Paper Game”, Teamed Up with TP
This fun game will require you to ride in pairs, with a friend right beside you. You’ll need a roll of toilet paper; pull off an eight to twelve foot section of TP and hand one end to each rider. Now the pair of riders, each holding their reins in one hand and the end of the TP in the other, is sent off around the arena and tries to keep the TP from breaking. If your horses are well trained and mannerly, you can make the TP shorter and ride closer together for extra challenge. This can become a contest between many pairs of riders if the leader/instructor calls out orders to the group such as trot, halt, reverse directions, back up, etc. The last remaining pair still holding one piece of TP wins. If it is just you and a buddy, try riding figure eights, serpentine and other drill maneuvers. This game is a LOT of fun to play and it will also help you ride your horse with greater control, use your legs, ride one-handed, rate your horse with another horse and ride drill patterns.
Caveats: make sure your horse is mannerly and knows he is absolutely not allowed to socialize with any other horses when you are riding him; be gentle on your horse’s mouth.
9. “Riding Aerobics”
These fun arm motions, practiced in rhythm to your horse’s trot, not only give you a fun aerobic workout but also will help your bi-lateral coordination, your balance and your ability to ride smoothly and rhythmically with your horse. Ask your horse to trot, then drop your tied reins. In beat to the trot, move your arms and shoulders in a creative routine. Be creative–making up new moves when you want. Be sure to maintain a good balanced position as you ride. You can even choreograph a routine to music and teach it to your friends! Tip: If you’re not confident at first, ask an experienced horse person to control your horse on a lunge line as you ride.
Caveats: start in a small confined area; stow your horse’s reins carefully and pick up the reins whenever you need them for control; if you do not have a safe, well-trained horse, keep one hands on the reins at all times.
10. “Count the Rhythm” Post the Pattern
No matter what saddle you put on your horse, learning to post the trot is a must. Posting can save your horse’s back when riding long distances. It can also save your seat if your horse has a bouncy or fast trot! Make posting fun by turning the chore into a game. By posting, you’ll also learn to feel your horse’s strides and improve your balance.
Ride at the posting trot and have a friend call out a rhythm to you, such as “Post four, sit two.” Then you will try to find that rhythm, posting up, two, three, four, sit two strides; post, two, three, four, sit two strides; continuing on in the rhythm until she calls out a change. You can mix the numbers up a little, like post three, sit one; post two, sit five, etc. This fun brain game will not only help you focus, but will help you move in closer rhythm to the horse and be able to feel and count his strides. For a variation, you can alternate between sitting and standing trot (sit six strides, stand for four), which will greatly improve your balance too.
Caveats: make sure you maintain a steady speed; sitting one stride of trot is actually two beats.
11. “Cruise Control with Your Seat”
As you walk your horse, make sure you are in good position (alignment between your ears-shoulders-hips and heels), and that your back is flat and your belly button is sucked in. Then you should be able to feel the horse’s back muscles move as he pushes off with his hind legs; you’ll feel your hips lift and drop in rhythm to his walk, alternating right, left, right, left. As he pushes off with his right hind, you’ll feel your right hip lift as the muscles on that side of his back contract; then you’ll feel him push off with his left foot, lifting your left hip. Once you can feel that rhythm, you can practice controlling the horse’s speed by controlling the rhythm in your seat and legs. Try increasing the motion in your seat and legs to extend the horse’s walk (add a little bump with your calves if you need to). Then try slowing down the horse’s rhythm by sitting a little longer and a little harder on each seat bone and slowing the energy in your seat and legs. When you get really goods at controlling your horse’s speed at the walk, try it at the sitting trot!
Caveats: do not let your shoulders and arms get into the rhythm, keep them perfectly still; do not try to slow your horse with the reins, the point is to get him to listen to your seat.
12. “Feel the Feet”
You’ll need two ground poles for this exercise, placed more than eight feet apart. You’ll also need a friend to watch your horse’s feet for you. Walk your horse in a straight line over the middle of the poles, looking far off in front of you at a focal point (like a tree or a telephone pole). Try to feel which front foot steps over the poles first and call out “right” or “left” as he steps over the pole. Your friend on the ground will watch for you and let you know if you got it right. Once you can consistently feel your horse’s front feet step over the pole, see if you can feel the hinds! This is very tricky and requires a lot of concentration and feel. Remember from last month, that you can feel your horse’s back muscles lift your hips when he pushes off. Hint: you’ll feel your hip drop when your horse is lifting his foot over the pole.
Caveats: resist the urge to look down, try to feel; the spotter will have to concentrate hard on the horse’s feet; make sure you are sitting up straight with a soft back so that you can feel your horse’s hind legs.
Julie Goodnight teaches horsemanship and horse training in clinics across the country. Check out more riding tips at http://www.JulieGoodnight.com or in her new “Exercises to Improve Your Riding” DVD.