Julie Goodnight Q&A
Feed-Time Aggression; Maintaining the Right Lead
Q: Why do some horses feel threatened when it comes to their food, and in return behave in an aggressive way at meal times? What can I do to prevent food-time aggression and stay safe at feeding time? –Chloe Martin
A: A horse’s aggression at feed time may be as major as pinning his ears, baring his teeth and charging you or as minor as grabbing the hay out of your arms when you arrive to distribute dinner. Horses may behave this way to establish who’s dominant in the herd—and if you are present with food, you’re part of the herd for the moment! When horses establish who’s in charge in the herd, they show they are dominant by controlling space and controlling resources. The resources are food, water and shelter. With food aggression, the horse is often simultaneously invading your space and taking away the food. That’s his way to control space and resources all at once. Keep in mind that he doesn’t know the difference between horse food and people food—he doesn’t know you won’t eat it. He knows he wants it and he can take it from you.
Why does your horse think he’s dominant over you? Hand feeding treats can lead to the horse thinking he is in charge and allowed to take food from your hand. He also learns that by pushing into you he can control where you stand and where you’ll go. Sometimes horses develop food aggression just because their dominant behavior has been tolerated in the past; it becomes worse over time. Sometimes aggression develops when feeders don’t go into the pen with the horse at all. When horses are fed only twice a day (instead of eating all day long like nature intended) there is a lot of stress and anxiety over when the next meals comes.
Some horses will be so anxious that they start acting out, like pawing, pinning the ears or baring teeth, then when the feeder dumps the hay in, the horse comes to believe his aggressive gestures are causing you to feed him. Even though you aren’t going into the pen so his gestures don’t concern you, to him it is as if he intimidated you into dropping the food and leaving, so his aggressive gestures were rewarded.
There is also herd stress if you’re feeding in a group and only feeding twice a day—horses may be worried about getting their food and also worried if another horse will allow them to eat. Those two factors—the herd and the limited food resource—may make the horses aggressive toward one another and just agitated to anyone present at feed time. That kind of stress in addition to only being fed twice a day causes a competition for the food. In that case, I would recommend separating them for feeding to reduce the competition for food. Or feed more often. Giving horses free access to hay 24 days, seven days a week will virtually eliminate all food aggression.
If a horse is acting out against you as you bring the food, that’s easy to fix. I would use a flag whenever I approach the horse’s pen, whether I intend to go into it or not. Wave the flag at the horse to back him up. Once he yields his space, he will then look forward at you to see what is going to happen next. While his ears are forward and after he has backed up, drop the food and walk away. If his aggressive antics don’t get him what he wants, he will stop acting that way. Make sure you have a flag or stick to make sure you can defend yourself.
Remember, he doesn’t have to act well for long—just has to be acting right at the moment you feed him. It’s not that the alpha horse never lets the other horses eat—they get to eat when she walks away from the food.
Relationship Fix Series
Bonding Dos and Don’ts
By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco
Top trainer Julie Goodnight discusses how to show your horse affection without deteriorating your leadership in your herd of two.
How do you show your horse affection while also maintaining respect? There’s nothing wrong with having a bond with your horse. In fact, it’s desirable. But you have to show your affection and bond with your horse in a safe way and in a way that your horse appreciates. Horses don’t think like we do—especially when it comes to how to bond and show affection. Be aware and make sure not to instill human affection behaviors on the horse—such as kissing on the lips. Instead, find out what your horse likes.
We, as humans, are so drawn to the head of the horse. The head and lips are so soft and smell so good. You may want to get your head next to his and love on him. But horses have blind spots around his head and many horses don’t like to have you so close to their heads. For the most part, the head is a good place to stay away from. The horse’s head is big, weighs a lot and moves quickly. I can personally vouch for several concussions and some busted teeth from having my head too close to a horse’s head. Even if it’s a horse you know well, he may accidentally turn quickly and spook–moving with force.
Affection in Horse Terms
Kissing and hugging are human ideas of affection. Horses do spar (play fight) and bite at the lips but that’s more of a reason not to kiss on the lips. That’s a reason to keep your horse’s lips away from your lips. You don’t want him to think you’re playing and be bitten.
Horses only have one known affectionate behavior that isn’t associated with reproduction. Allo grooming (also known as mutual grooming) occurs when two bonded horses face each other and give one another a deep massage with their teeth. Horses mostly groom around the withers and down the neck and back. The more dominant horse in the pair will tell the other horse when to start and stop the grooming sessions and both horses will let each other know where they like to be groomed. .
When I show affection to my horse, I like to mimic this grooming behavior by approaching the horse as another horse would. Then I like to find the horse’s “sweet spot.” If I’m bonding with a new horse, I approach the horse slowly then put my hand out (palm down) to allow him to sniff me. That’s just polite to the horse. Next, I go to the withers and rub him to show him I’m friendly.
Scratching and rubbing on the horse’s favorite “sweet” spot is a great way to show your affection. How do you find this spot? Horses pucker their lips when they feel pleasure. With your fingers all pressed together, dig in with your fingertip pressure in a circular motion and rub around your horse’s withers, neck and chest. When you find a spot he likes, you may see your horse slightly move his lips or you may see your horse reach high in the air, wiggle his lips and show his teeth. Many horses like a deep pressure—if he doesn’t like that deep of a pressure, he’ll let you know by moving away.
Sometimes I give my horse a hug at the withers. On a rare occasion you’ll have a horse that wraps back and hugs you as you stand at his shoulder. That could be another affectionate behavior of the horse but it is less studied. I have had that happen just a few times in my life but it does feel like a bonded and sincere behavior. I’ve heard of a few other similar reports and would love to see research about it!
Know the Consequences
What happens if you pamper and kiss on your horse without first setting boundaries? Your horse may become oblivious to your actions and disrespectful of your space. He may at first turn his head away from you. Then he’ll bump into you. That’s not accidental, that’s sending you a message. If your horse is oblivious to your existence, that’s not a relationship that is bonded from the horse’s perspective.
Horses want a leader and respect and want to bond with a leader. If the behavior is allowed to go on, the horse may escalate from turning away to more aggressively dragging away or turning and biting. Make sure to pay attention to your moves and think about who “owns” the space at any given moment. I can invite a horse into my space but he can never come into that space without permission. Be very aware of space when you’re around your horse. Make sure your horse is conscientious about your space and careful not to crowd you.
Boundaries have to be established before you choose to be “touchy feely” with your horse. If you don’t set boundaries, horses can push you around and run you over. Horses can also manipulate and “train” the people around them. They may train you to give them attention if they paw or reach for your hand with their lips. Think of a Golden Retriever that comes over to you when you sit down. He’ll bump your elbow with his nose until you start to pet him. He has trained you to pet him when he asks for it. Similarly, your horse may be training you to be subordinate by using horse language—moving you out of his space instead of understanding that he must move from your space. You may not be in danger when a dog trains you. When a horse is in charge, there are safety risks.
Your horse being the dominant in the herd of two becomes a problem when you want to ask a horse to do something he doesn’t want to do. If he’s the boss from the moment you enter his stall, he’s not likely to follow your leadership as you tack up or from the saddle.
Pay Attention and be Affectionate
Notice when horses move into your space and make sure to move them out of your space immediately. You want your horse to be careful about your space and conscientious of your moves. This doesn’t mean making your horse fearful, but using visual and corrective pressure to move the horse out of your space so that you maintain your safety.
Of course I’m all for affection. There’s nothing wrong with being affectionate and offering praise—when it’s deserved. Once you know the rules and establish boundaries, you will know your horse and you can stretch the rules if you want to. Make sure the affection you give is appropriate for the horse and is something they will appreciate. If your horse is mindful of your presence, your affection is appropriate to how horses communicate and you don’t reward bad behavior, you’re on your way to a respectful and bonded relationship.
I have a 15-year-old quarter horse that has decided he must be in the lead on the trail. I ride alone most of the time but do enjoy the company of others. When he feels any competition from another horse, he arches his neck and sets his head as if he’s ready to attack. Then he’ll hop and rear. It all happens so fast, I don’t see it coming. He’s rearing more and more often. I have been working on the behavior by allowing another horse to lead off on the trail and having my horse follow. As soon as my horse gets excited, I ask him to move away from the lead horse. I’ve also thought about outfitting him with a tie down. What would you do?
Dear Trail Woes,
This is not a matter of your horse rearing or whether or not you can ride with others. It’s a serious indication that your horse is dominant (over you and the other horses), aggressive and in need of further training (and/or disobedient.) It’s certainly not an issue that a tie down could resolve, since these behavior problems are related to herd behavior, not raising his head (head raising and rearing are symptoms not the cause of the problem).
I choose not to use tie downs to resolve training problems. When it comes to rearing, a tie down simply masks the symptoms and can get in the way of a horse’s natural carriage and balance. If your horse were to rear with a tie down in place, it’s possible he could lose his balance and turn over.
Your horse needs to learn, right here, right now, in no uncertain terms, that his aggressive, herding and dominant behavior is absolutely intolerable when he is under saddle. Any transgression should be met with a firm, direct correction. Aggression and rearing are potentially life-threatening behaviors. Young horses should be taught this rule from an early age and this fundamental expectation should be strictly enforced at all times when you’re riding alone or in the company of others. Saddle horses must be taught not to fraternize or interact with other horses at any time that they are being ridden or handled by humans. Horses are good at obeying rules when the rules are clearly explained and enforced.
Your horse’s behaviors—arching his neck and rearing— are all natural herd behaviors. Your horse wishes to be in front because that is where the alpha horse should be. He is intolerant of any subordinate who dares to get in front. He is arching his neck in a display of might in a prideful manner. It’s a warning to “his” subordinates that he is about to become aggressive, should they persist in their insubordination.
Horses have three weapons in their personal arsenal when they choose to become aggressive or combative: bite, strike, and kick. Your horse is displaying threatening gestures with all three weapons. The rear is the threat to strike and the arch and whirl is the threat to kick; horses make biting gestures with their head and mouth making snaking or herding gestures.
Clearly your horse thinks he’s dominant and does not think of you as the herd leader, or he would never act this way. There’s no quick fix to repair this relationship between you and your horse. You’ll have to work at it by doing ground work and changing your impression to the horse both on the ground and in the saddle. For an more in depth review of ground work, check out Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership (www.JulieGoodnight.com or 800- 225-8827).
Your horse must learn that certain behavior is simply not tolerated while under saddle—specifically displays of aggression and herding behaviors. My expectations of any horse I ride would be even greater: no fraternization at all with other horses and its nose must remain right in front and it must not deviate from the path and speed that I have dictated. There should only be one conversation between you and the horse, “Horse, this is your Captain speaking.”
Any deviance to the expected rules of behavior should be met with immediate correction (within less than three seconds, preferably less than one second), since this behavior is dangerous for both the horses and the humans. The best way to correct a horse is to “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.”
Remember, the pressure you put on the horse should be no more and no less than the pressure required to motivate him to change. If it’s not enough pressure, he will continue the unwanted behavior (all the while learning to ignore and disobey your commands). If it’s enough pressure to motivate him to change, he will then immediately look for a way out of the pressure. As soon as he finds the right answer, he gets an immediate and welcomed release and life gets easier.
Comfort and security are the two greatest motivating factors for horses. It’s always best when the motivating factors are something that come naturally to the horse. One of the greatest motivating stimuli for horses doing something you perceive as wrong is to make them work hard and remove companionship. The release (reward) is letting the horse rest and be with the herd. Thus the hard thing is work and isolation, the easy thing is rest and companionship (comfort and security).
While you’re out on the trail, anytime your horse even hints that he is concerned about another horse in the group, at the very first flick of an ear, you should immediately take him away from the herd and put him to hard work (turn, circle, change speeds, lope circles, go-stop-go). When he becomes obedient and responsive to you, let him rest and come back to the herd. When and if he becomes aggressive again, immediately take him away and put him to work again. Repeat this process until the horse makes an association between his behavior and the negative stimuli. Depending on how effective your timing is (both with the correction and the reward), he may make the association the first time or it may take dozens of times.
Remember, there’s an old axiom about horse training that says, “It always gets worse before it gets better.” Since your horse has been displaying dominant and aggressive behavior, chances are he will not easily be dissuaded from his bad behavior and he may challenge your authority and control to an even greater degree. Therefore, be very careful and make sure you’re up to the task. If you have any doubt about your ability to get the job done without a greater risk of getting hurt, consider enlisting a professional to help retrain your horse and teach him some manners. From the sounds of it, this horse might be a tough customer. But in the right hands, he can learn these fundamental manners in short order.
Until next time,
I have a two-year-old mare that’s an eager learner and wants to spend time with me. She readily approaches me and wants to be in on the action when I work with other horses. It’s been snowy and icy here so I have not had the opportunity to do the groundwork I usually do with her. So today I spent time brushing and cleaning her up and I took her for a walk. When I brought her back, I let her loose while I was grooming another horse—a gelding I am bonded to and have worked with for many years. While I was grooming him, the mare put her head on his back and placed her nose on his hoof. I continuously backed her off and returned to grooming. Then she nipped at my arm. To my surprise, I hit her and said “no.” I’m embarrassed to admit what came automatically. How do I teach her to not to interfere when I work on another horse and how to I teach her not to bite to get my attention?
Sick of Envy
Dear Sick of Envy,
First of all, give yourself a break for your reaction to your mare’s nip. You followed your instincts and acted much like a dominant horse would in the same situation. Think about what would happen in the natural herd setting if a subordinate horse bit a dominant one. The dominant horse immediately restates his or her position by biting, kicking and even running the subordinate horse away. Your reaction matches what would have happened naturally—and shows your reflexes are working! When a horse bites or nips she is challenging your dominance and he needs to be immediately and firmly corrected. You’re keeping yourself safe by teaching your horse you’re in charge and won’t put up with aggressive moves.
While we’re talking about safety, I think the scene you described may not be the safest way to teach your young horse or the safest place to groom your older horse. With one horse tied and the other loose in the same area, you’re inviting trouble. There’s no question that this is dangerous—I once saw a person get killed in a similar situation. I’m guessing that the older gelding is dominant over the mare. When he’s tied and can’t react like he usually would, the young mare may find it tempting to challenge him. Tie them both up or move the horse you’re working with to a separate area where you can’t be bothered. If you tie your mare, she’ll learn to stand patiently at the same time you are working on the other horse.
Now lets talk more about horses and jealousy. Horses are emotional animals with feelings more simplistic, but similar to humans’. Horses can certainly be jealous. Some of the behaviors you describe indicate that this horse is jealous of the attention you pay to your older horse. Horses can become very possessive over another horse and will sometimes go to great lengths to keep that horse from interacting with other horses. You may see a horse in the pasture or turnout herding another horse to keep it away from the others and he may even make threatening gestures and aggressive actions towards the others to keep them away from “his” horse. It is always helpful to understand how horses interact in the herd so you know the origins of their behavior and how you fit into the mix. You definitely don’t want your horse to treat you like another horse and you don’t want to be one of your horse’s possessions.
Even though it is pleasing to us when our horses want our attention and interaction, you must be very careful not to give the impression to this filly that she can control your actions and gain your attention any time she wants. Be very clear about not letting her invade your space and do not let her prompt you into giving her attention and learn that she can control your actions.
To start your anti-jealousy training, make sure you only give your mare attention when you choose. In other words, make sure not to give attention when she’s seeking it, but only when she’s calm and relaxed. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Horses will try to get your negative attention if they can–by acting up then causing you to come to them to provide discipline. Even though it’s negative attention, the horse is still in control when she nips, kicks, paws, chews, etc. in an attempt to get a reaction from you. For example, if I have a horse tied and I am doing something with another horse, the first horse may paw in impatience and frustration. If I go over to her and reprimand her, she has successfully won my attention—getting me to stop what I’m doing and move into her space. She’s controlling my actions. The best thing to do is ignore her behavior; it will eventually go away.
Your filly sounds very gregarious and that is a great quality. Just don’t let that turn into her being pushy. Biting is the most dominant behavior of horses and you need to “nip it in the bud,” so to speak.
Until next time,
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,
Question: I need advice for my daughter and her horse. My daughter is 10 years old and very interested in riding, however she lacks confidence in riding. Her horse has come to figure this out. Cheyenne is a very sweet and gentle horse and a tab bit on the lazy side. I would like to find out information or suggestions on how to teach my daughter to win her horse’s respect and have him respond to her commands. When she asks him to walk he refuses.He cocks his back leg and stands there no matter what she does. Also once she does get him to move he begins to pull her in the wrong direction and when she tries to bring him back he resists her. When I ride him he does perfectly. What can I do to help her? She is very frustrated and so am I.
Answer: Horses are herd animals and the social structure within the herd is known as a “linear hierarchy.” The definition of a linear hierarchy is that each individual in the herd is either subordinate to or dominant over every other individual in the herd. Since this is the only way that horses know to act, it is also how they relate to their human herd members. We need to think of the horse and its rider as a herd of two. So we have a choice, we can either be the dominant member (or the leader) or the subordinate member (the follower). There is no equality in a horse herd.
Clearly, in the case of your daughter’s horse, she is subordinate to the horse, while you are dominant over the horse. The horse has already made up his mind that this is the way it is and there have probably been countless little things that has lead the horse to this conclusion. So how do we change this? Well, I can think of a few options.
Only your daughter will be able to step forward and take the leadership role with her horse. You riding the horse will not affect the relationship between horse and daughter, as clearly the horse does not question your authority. I do not recommend that your daughter take an aggressive approach (do this or else), because in the situation where the rider has a history of being subordinate, a challenge could prompt the horse to be fractious and start bucking or worse. Instead, your daughter needs to get inside the horse’s mind and learn to control ALL of his actions.
First, your daughter will need to make up her mind to resolve this situation and accept the fact that it may take some time. She will need to have a assertive, but patient attitude. I recommend that she address the issue of respect on the ground first. She needs to have a sense of awareness of her horse and she must take control of every move he makes. That means, when he is tied to the hitch rail, he should stand exactly where she told him to. If he steps sideways or back or forward, she should gently but firmly put his feet exactly back in the spot that she first asked him to stand. The horse should learn to respect her space and yield to it. She should be able to walk, trot and halt the horse at halter, back him up and disengage his hindquarters (make him cross his hind legs). All of these are examples of controlling the horse’s space and when the horse does these things without question, he is respecting her leadership authority. Disengaging the hindquarters is really important both on the ground and mounted, because it forces the horse into a subordinate frame of mind. When his hind legs are crossed, his number one line of defense (flight) is taken away from him, so subconsciously he becomes more dependent.
Your daughter must learn to only ask what she can enforce and ALWAYS enforce what she asked the horse to do. So for now, that probably means backing up and enforcing her control in areas where she can be successful. So often, I see people ask something of their horse, lets say to turn right, and the horse resists and refuses, so the rider caves in and lets the horse turn left. The rider thinks that she is winning because she got the horse where she wanted it by circling it all the way around to the left. But the horse sees it differently. He does not have the capability to realize that the rider got him where she wanted anyway. All the horse knows is that he didn’t want to turn right, he wanted to go left and if he refuses, the rider will cave into his wishes. To us humans, these little battles seem unimportant, but to the horse, the littlest things have big meaning.
Every time the horse gets his way, he scores a point and is further convinced in his mind that he is in charge. It sounds like your daughter’s horse has scored a lot of points. What your daughter will have to understand and commit to is that she has a lot of points to score, before she pulls ahead. She needs to realize that the tiniest things count toward this score: the horse moving around at the hitching rail, not trotting on the lead line, the horse taking a step toward the person, the horse nudging the person with his head, taking one step off the rail in the arena, or not going when asked. The rider that is dominant and in control is the one that controls every movement the horse makes. The more she can make this horse yield to her, the more points she will score. But start small and build up to the big issues. If she can gain some respect from the ground, it may be a little easier for her.
To address the specific problem in the arena, your daughter should look for the areas that she is still in control and focus on those and reward the horse when he responds. If the horse is balking, the issue is to get his feet moving. Usually the easiest way to do this is to turn him in a tight circle (this has the added advantage of disengaging the hindquarters). Be sure to reward him when he responds (even if he responds reluctantly) and immediately take control of the situation. How? As soon as she gets the horse to move, she should ask him to stop. Why? By doing this she has accomplished two things: she has rewarded his response by asking him to stop (which is what he wanted to do), but more importantly she has taken control by issuing a command and getting a response. It does not matter that the horse wanted to stop anyway, because he stopped on her request, not his. By successfully getting a response to a command, she puts the horse in a responsive frame of mind. So, she will get the horse to move (by turning a tight circle if she has to) and once the horse has taken a few steps, ask him to stop and reward him with a pat on the neck and leaving him alone for a few minutes, then ask again. Initially, when the horse had responded a few times, find a good stopping point and put him away. Gradually build on what she asks the horse to do.
It is critical that once she has asked something of the horse that she insists upon his response. This does not mean that you kick or hit harder and harder, but that you continue to apply the aids until the horse responds. Sometimes children do not have the strength to keep legging the horse until he moves and the horse learns that the rider will get tired and give up before he does. If this is the case, she might need a stick or spurs. HOWEVER, use these artificial aids with caution because this could drive the dominant horse to more drastic and fractious responses. Whatever aids she is using to make the horse go (and it should be all of the aids), she should continue to apply them until the horse goes. Not necessarily harder and harder, but with persistence. Eventually, the horse will learn that the only way to make that annoying action go away is to move forward.
A couple of more thoughts, if you or your daughter feed treats to this horse, stop immediately. Chances are, the horse has become demanding and rude and this has contributed to his dominance. When horses are subordinate (whether to you or another herd member), they will always yield to the space of the dominant individual. When people feed treats, the horse learns to move into the space of the person and thus you are yielding to his space, therefore he is dominant. Every treat that is fed, reinforces his dominance.
And now having said that, I have one more thought that seemingly contradicts what I just said. There is a form of training called “clicker training” that is being used on horses although it was originally developed to train marine mammals. It uses a clicking device as reinforcement and the first step is to make the horse associate the clicker with positive reinforcement (grain). Then, just like in Pavlov’s Response, every time the horse hears the clicker, he associates it with good thoughts (grain) and knows he is doing the right thing. I have seen this training method used specifically in the same situation that your daughter is in, with good success. So it might be worth looking into. You would have to do the clicker training and then would be able to use the clicker to control the horse’s mind while your daughter is up. The clicker and grain reinforcer just gives the horse a different motivation for doing the right thing.
My personal preference would be for your daughter to establish herself as the leader of their herd of two by doing the groundwork and gaining her horse’s respect. But the clicker method might be worth looking into. There’s a CD called Building Confidence with Horses on my website that gives a pre-ride meditation and some tips to help you look at horses in a new light. I hope that might help, too.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
Ask Julie Goodnight:
When Should You Geld a Colt?
I am planning on buying a yearling stallion. I do want to geld him, but I’m not sure at what age is it ok to geld. Also, is it ok to put a yearling stallion in a field with older horses? Is it true the longer you wait to geld the “prettier” he’ll be (a longer mane, more muscular)? What’s the best practice to help him on his way to being the best horse? Thank you for your time,
Great questions! And one of the few topics I haven’t already written about in my Training Library. This is a good time to talk about gelding colts since many people are dealing with youngsters this time of year.
First, it is important to recognize that almost all colts should be gelded. Few horses have the breeding, temperament and conformation to warrant becoming a breeding stallion, especially in these days of growing numbers of unwanted horses, a glut of horses on the market and the lack of owners interested in breeding. And since it is rarely if ever feasible to have a stallion, it is wise to geld your colt.
I have worked many years throughout my career on breeding farms and raised quite a few colts myself. Many breeders will geld at a young age, as soon as the testicles descend or around the six month mark. It is my personal preference to geld as a yearling, after weaning and after his first year of growth, which is the year he grows the most. This will generally be before the fly season, thus reducing the chance for infection. At the same time, we will remove his wolf teeth if he has them and we’ll generally follow-up the surgery with lots of groundwork and exercise to help in the healing and begin his training for ground manners.
No matter when I gelded him, I would want my young colt to be out with other horses for the socialization that will take place—there is an article in my Training Library about this, http://juliegoodnight.com/questionsNew.php?id=37. Even if you left him a stallion, you’d want him to stay with other geldings and learn how to get along. Preferably with a more dominant, older “uncle” gelding who will keep him in his place. When I geld the colt, I will keep him by himself for a week or so until he is healed from the surgery—too much frolicking and sparring could be dangerous for him right after the surgery.
Research does not indicate that a colt will grow bigger, stronger or prettier if he is left in-tact. However, it is true that a stallion will have certain “stallion characteristics” that are a result of more hormones floating around his system if he is left in-tact. These characteristics are more obvious in a mature horse and include bulging muscles around the jowl, over the eyes and in the neck and body. A mature stallion will have a certain presence that geldings rarely have. But these characteristics do not appear until the colt is a few years old; it is not worth the extra headaches of having a young stallion and they will disappear as soon as he is gelded. I have not noticed that the mane or tail will grow longer in a stallion.
My husband’s horse was a mature breeding stallion when we bought him. He does have an exceptionally thick mane and tail and the stallion characteristics were very prevalent. The day after we gelded him I could see the bulging jowl and eyebrow muscles deflating but his mane and tail have remained fuller than ever. He is still a gorgeous well-muscled horse, just not as extremely muscled as before we gelded him.
And he is much happier to be living with other geldings without a big fight. There’s no real benefit to keeping a colt in-tact when you know you are going to geld him eventually and I would suggest between 6 months and a year is a good time, depending on your weaning schedule and the seasons. Like dogs and cats, once a horse develops breeding behaviors (like teasing and mounting mares) he doesn’t forget them just because he is gelded. That’s why we have lots of “randy” geldings that will act like stallions when mares come into heat. I have written about this subject too- http://juliegoodnight.com/questionsNew.php?id=148.
Good luck with your colt and thanks for asking these important questions!
I tend to be a big softy when it comes to dealing with my horse. Now I have created a horse that knows this and takes advantage of me, especially when doing groundwork. He pushes me and tries to pull me when I am leading. He does not do this to my husband, so I know he accepts him as the leader, but not me. What are your suggestions?
Dear Pushed Over,
I can tell you already know what the cause of your problem is: you have indulged your horse and through your lack of leadership he has become increasingly rude and thinks he is the boss of you. This is natural horse behavior in its finest and purest sense. And the solution involves natural horsemanship, and its logical and sensible approach. Natural horsemanship is simply knowing and understanding the horse’s natural behavior and using that information to train him in a language that he understands.
Horses are very communicative animals, communicating largely with non-audible language. The horse uses sign language with every part of his body: head elevation, ear position, nostril and mouth gestures, nose movements, front feet, hind feet, tail position, plus a few distinctive audible calls. It is an intricate language and a very distinctive one; once you can learn to ‘read’ the horse, you can understand his emotions, motivations and behaviors.
Horses are also very physical in their communications within the herd and even the most novice of horse people can watch any herd of three or more horses and see the bossiness, pushing, shoving, kicking and screaming that goes on in the herd. Horses are very demonstrative and make their emotions, directives and intentions known.
Horses are also very happy, serene and obedient in the herd when there is a kind but strict benevolent leader in the herd. That’s your job in your herd of two. They are also instinctively gregarious animals and they yearn to be with a herd mate that makes them feel safe, secure and comfortable; not unlike humans. It is your job as herd leader to make your horse feel safe, secure and comfortable, but you’ll never get there by indulging and babying your horse.
Only two factors are involved: resources and space. The resources of the herd are anything that the herd values, such as food, water, shelter, and companionship. The dominant horse always has first access to the resources; therefore one of the easiest ways to determine the pecking order of a herd is to throw some feed out and look for the sharks.
The second factor in establishing dominance is spatial. Spatial issues are constantly at work within the herd setting. The dominant horse controls the space of the subordinate horse. A subordinate horse would never think of invading the space of its superior; if he did, he would probably lose some hair and possibly some skin over the deal. In NH, we strive to be a kind and benevolent leader for our horse. This involves setting parameters and ground rules and giving fair and consistent leadership to the horse. Spoiling, pampering and coddling the horse will only lead the horse to disrespect you and search elsewhere for leadership.
If you are interested in improving your leadership to the horse, with the added bonus of teaching your horse good ground manners, to respect you and want to please you, you must learn to set boundaries and enforce good behavior. There are articles on my website about doing this kind of ground work with horses and my DVD on Lead Line Leadership available at http://www.juliegoodnight.com/products.html explains this process in an easy to understand, step-by-step process, showing three totally different horses move through the process.
The good news is that it is never too late to make a change and with the right approach, your horse will turn around immediately. If you get educated and learn to treat your horse as the herd leader (I know it sounds very cliché, but it is true), you will have the relationship with the horse that you want. Besides, doing groundwork is fun and rewarding!
Take the first step, make a change and you will be rewarded by your horse. Good luck!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer
Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
Question: Dear Ms. Goodnight,
I have a 15-year-old quarter horse, MAX, who decided he does not want to be the second horse out on the trail. I ride alone most of the time but do enjoy the company of others. When he feels any competition from another horse he starts to arch his neck sets his head. He is not on the bit at all. After he gets mad enough he just hoops once and then rears. This can happen so fast I don’t see it coming until he is up. He is getting very good at rearing. I have been trying some things like another horse being in the lead, Max and I going by the first horse and stopping letting the second horse become the first, as soon as he gets “excited” I ask him to go away from the first horse, as soon as his direction is to the other horse he starts with the neck, head and the rear is very soon to come. How do you feel about tie-downs? Any suggestions besides don’t ride with others or be the lead horse all the time, those are some answers I have been given. Thank you in advance,
Ruth from Pennsylvania
This is not a matter of your horse rearing or whether or not you can ride with others, but a serious indication that your horse is dominant (over you and the other horses), aggressive and inadequately trained. A horse this out-of-control is dangerous to you and those you ride with. It is certainly not an issue that a tie-down would resolve, since these behavior problems are related to dominance and herd behavior, not raising his head (head raising and rearing are symptoms not the cause of the problem).
Just for the record, there is no situation in which I would use a tie-down on a horse to resolve a training problem because in this application it simply masks the symptoms of the horse’s problems and can get in the way of a horse’s natural carriage and balance. A tie-down is particularly dangerous in the event of a rearing horse because the horse is more likely to lose his balance and fall over when he rears.
Your horse needs to learn, right here, right now, in no uncertain terms, that this aggressive, herding and dominant behavior is absolutely intolerable when he is undersaddle or in the presence of humans. Any transgression should be met with the harshest correction; the punishment should fit the crime and the more aggressively your horse behaves, the harsher the punishment.
Always in horse training, you have to apply enough pressure to the horse to motivate him to change. In the case of your horse, because he is acting abnormally aggressive, it will likely take a lot of pressure to gets his attention and motivate him to change. Based on the history you have with this horse, it is questionable whether or not you will be assertive enough or in control enough to motivate this horse to change his behavior. In capable hands, this horse could be taught to mind his manners and be obedient in a short amount of time; you may want to consider taking this horse to a qualified trainer.
The behaviors you are describing are all natural herd behaviors. Your horse wishes to be in front because that is where the alpha horse should be and he is intolerant of any subordinate who dares to get in front. He is arching his neck in a display of might, in a prideful manner. It is a warning to “his” subordinates, along with the squealing, that he is about to become aggressive, should they persist in their insubordinance.
Horses have three weapons in their personal arsenal when they choose to become aggressive or combative: bite, strike, and kick. Your horse is displaying threatening gestures with all three weapons. The rear is the threat to strike and the whirl is the threat to kick; horses make biting gestures with their head and mouth making snaking or herding gestures. There is lots of information on my website about these behaviors.
Young horses should be taught at an early age that they may not act impulsively and interaction with other horses is not acceptable when being handled and ridden. They can act however they want when out in the herd, but once a human has haltered them and brought them in to work, they should refrain from displays of herd behavior and interacting with other horses in any way, even rubbing noses. This fundamental expectation should be strictly enforced at all times whether you are riding alone or in the company of others. Clearly your horse thinks he’s dominant and does not think of you as the herd leader, or he would never act this way. There is no quick fix to repair the relationship between you and your horse. You will have to work at it by doing ground work and changing your impression to the horse both on the ground and in the saddle. I have DVDs on this type of relationship building with the horse: Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership (order online or at 800-225-8827).
Your horse must learn that there is certain behavior that is simply not tolerated while under saddle, specifically displays of aggression and herding behaviors. My expectations of any horse I ride would be even greater: no fraternization at all with other horses and its nose must remain right in front of its chest and it must maintain the path and speed that I have dictated. There should only be one conversation between you and the horse, “This is your Captain speaking.” Any deviance to the expected rules of behavior should be met with immediate correction (within less than three seconds, preferably less than one second). The best way to correct a horse is to “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.” You have already touched on this concept, but not effectively.
Remember, the pressure you put on the horse should be no more and no less than the pressure required to motivate him to change. If it is not enough pressure, he will continue the unwanted behavior (all the while learning to ignore and disobey your commands). If it is enough pressure to motivate him to change, he will then immediately look for a way out of the pressure. As soon as he finds the right answer, he gets an immediate and welcomed release and life gets easier. Comfort and security are the two greatest motivating factors for horses. It is always best if the motivating factors are something that comes naturally to the horse. Therefore, one of the greatest motivating stimuli for horses doing something you perceive as wrong is to make them work hard and remove companionship. The release (reward) is letting the horse rest and be with the herd. Thus the hard thing is work and isolation, the easy thing is rest and companionship (comfort and security).
While you are out on the trail, anytime your horse even hints that he is concerned about another horse in the group, you should immediately take him away from the herd and put him to hard work (turn, circle, change speeds, lope circles, go-stop-go; possibly until he is dripping in sweat the first few times). When he becomes obedient and responsive to you, let him rest and come back to the herd. When and if he becomes aggressive again, immediately take him away and put him to work again. Repeat this process until the horse makes an association between his behavior and the negative stimuli. Depending on how effective your timing is (both with the correction and the reward), he may make the association the first time or it may take dozens of times. Remember, there is an old axiom about horse training that says, “It always gets worse before it gets better.” Since your horse has been displaying dominant and aggressive behavior, chances are he will not easily be dissuaded from his bad behavior and he may challenge your authority and control to an even greater degree. Therefore, be very careful and make sure you are up to the task. If you have any doubt about your ability to get the job done without a greater risk of getting hurt, consider enlisting a professional to help retrain your horse and teach him some manners.
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