Building A Better Relationship: Ground Manners For Showmanship

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Question Category: Building a Better Relationship

Question: Hi Julie,

The following is from my daughter Anna. (she’s 11)

Dear Julie Goodnight,

This year was very exciting for me. It was my first year showing at the Quarter Horse Congress!! I was sooooo nervous! I went into the ring for my Novice Youth Showmanship class. I was next…several judges sat quietly on the side as I waited for the nod from the ringmaster. Finally the nod came, all eyes were looking at me….and my horse Slick decided he would give me a nod of his own! He bumped me on the arm…I knew I wouldn’t get called back but I did my best anyway. The rest of the pattern went great! Can you give me some tips on how to keep my horse from bumping me? He usually doesn’t do this. I think he just lost his focus because we were standing there so long. Please help:)

Thank you! Anna

Answer: Anna,

Thanks for the great question. It sounds to me like your horse was just giving you a little help. He knew it was your turn and thought maybe he needed to give you a little nod himself! And, no doubt he was ready to get the ball rolling. Nonetheless, it is not a good thing to happen in a showmanship class. But good for you for keeping your composure and finishing the class with style! That shows me you have the competitive spirit to do well horse showing. Once you solve this little problem, you’ll be unbeatable!

I am guessing that your horse doesn’t normally do this sort of thing and that this was an isolated instance. However, it could be an indication the he is not certain of your leadership status. Horses establish dominance in the herd by controlling two factors: resources and space. The dominant horse always controls the resources; she eats first, drinks first and gets first shot at whatever she deems valuable or important. Also, the dominant horse controls the space of any subordinates. You can see this in action all the time when you observe a pen of two or more horses.

Horses are very aware of personal space issues; they are aware of it 100% of the time, even though we humans often tend to ignore invasion of space at times. When your horse gave you a nudge, although he may have thought he was helping you, or stating the obvious, it could be an indication that he is not certain you are in charge. And in your hesitation, the horse may have felt a void of leadership. Whenever there is a void of leadership, the horse will always step in and take control.

Spatial issues are constantly at play in the horse herd. The dominant horse will always push around subordinates. At first, this pushing may be somewhat violent, with lots of biting and kicking, like when you turn a new horse into the herd. Eventually, once everyone has figured out his place in the pecking order, the pushing will become much more subtle. Just a flick of the ear or a gesture with the nose is enough to make the subordinate horse move out of the space of the dominant one.

A lot of people are turned off by the term ‘dominant,’ but it doesn’t bother me at all. Dominant simply means ‘in control of.’ The horse herd is a “linear hierarchy,” meaning each and every individual of the herd is either dominant over, or subordinate to, each and every other individual. There is no equality in the horse herd. Although we like to think of ourselves as being partners with our horse, there has to be a leader and a follower. In order for us to interact with horses in a way that they understand, we have to be aware of herd behavior and act accordingly. This means that we must consider our horse and our self to be a herd of two. In that herd of two, you have two choices; you can be the dominant one (the leader) or the subordinate one (the follower). Clearly, we want to be in the leadership role.

Keeping in mind that horses establish dominance by controlling resources and space, look at your relationship with your horse, look at each and every encounter, and determine whether or not you are the clear leader. If there are occasions where your horse tends to take control, by pushing you around or moving into your space, it may be an indication that the leadership position is not clearly defined within your herd of two.

Giving hand fed treats to horses is one of the quickest ways I know of to erode your leadership position, because every time that you give him a treat, in the horse’s mind, you are surrendering your food to him (he has no idea that it is horse food and you wouldn’t eat it even if you were hungry). Also, with the hand feeding of treats, you have encouraged the horse to move into your space and put his lips on you (a dominant behavior). Once the horse becomes accustomed to the free handouts, pretty soon he starts begging for it, by nickering and sniffing and butting you with his head. Once this is happening, the horse is totally controlling you, your space and your actions and he is clearly the one in charge.

I like to encourage people to think of the simple concept of action-reaction, when handling horses. If you are in charge, you make the actions and the horse reacts. If you are reacting to actions your horse made, he is controlling you. It sounds to me like your horse is pretty obedient and subordinate most of the time and that you have a good relationship with your horse. I suggest you pay a little closer attention to the casual times you spend around your horse and make sure there is always a clear line of space between you and your horse.

In other words, there is never an appropriate time for your horse to move into your space with any part of his body and when he does, he should be corrected by immediately moving him back out of your space. The harshness of the correction is determined by the degree of the infraction. In other words, if he mildly and accidentally moves into my space, I would give him a gentle correction by just moving him away. If it were a gross infraction like head butting, I would harshly move him out of my space, perhaps hissing and spitting a little, and probably make him back up a ways. This is not something you could do during a Showmanship class, so it is important to do your home work.

When I teach groundwork to horses and people, one of the first things that we work on is controlling the horse’s nose. My rule around every horse is that he must keep his nose in front of his chest at any time that I am working around him or riding him. Horses I am around will learn this rule very quickly and in short order will follow the rule, because I enforce it 100% of the time with gentle but consistent correction.

Using a rope halter and 12′ training lead, I teach the horse to stand with his nose in front of his chest. Any time his nose moves in either direction, a gentle tug on the rope will correct it. If he moves his nose toward me, that is a bigger infraction, since he is moving it into my space. When he moves the nose toward me, I simply twirl the end of my rope like a propeller blade and slowly move it toward his nose. He has two choices, he can move his nose back to its proper place or he can get hit by the propeller blade. It is worth mentioning that I am not actually hitting the horse with the rope, I am using the rope to define my space. If he happens to be in my space when he shouldn’t be, the rope may hit him. In short order, the horse will not only learn this rule, you’ll be able to just point with your finger to correct his nose (because he will recognize the gesture to mean “move away”).

It is also important to make sure that you have a clearly defined space between you and your horse at all times. Hanging on your horse, smooching on his face and getting in his space all the time will blur this line. When you are standing holding him, make sure you are not standing too close to him. This will sometimes cause a horse to get defensive of his space and want to push you away. Your horse should learn to stand quietly and focused no matter how far away your are standing from him. Practice controlling your horse from greater and greater distances; he should stand still not because you have a death-grip on the halter rope, but because you told him to stand and because you control his actions.

Anna, it sounds like you and your horse are off to a good start. Inspect your relationship closely to make sure that some of the problems listed above are not happening on occasion and eroding your authority. Your horse should be respectful, obedient and subordinate at all times, not just in the show pen. Keep up the good work! I can tell you are on your way to making great accomplishments and I can’t wait to hear about them!

Julie Goodnight

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