Grieving The Loss Logo

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.

Dear Julie,
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?
So Sad
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 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,

Julie Goodnight

Riding Skills: Using Your Upper Body Properly Logo

Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: How should my upper body be as I ride?

Answer: Much focus is given to the rider’s seat and leg position, as it should be, for these are critical areas that effect equitation. However, the upper body (head, neck, chest, shoulders and arms) should not be forgotten and constant diligence must be given to these body parts as well, to develop effective riding skills.

Remembering the all-important balanced riding position of ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment, you might say that half of your balance comes from upper body position. And for the horse, nothing is more important than correct arm and hand position, which in turn leads to soft and clear communication from the rider’s hands to the horse’s mouth. In this article, we will consider each of these upper body parts, their proper position and effective use.

Starting at the top and working our way down, we must first consider head and neck position. The most common equitation mistakes in this area are eyes looking down and the rider’s chin jutting forward with the ear stretching in front of her shoulder in a position I fondly refer to as “the Cro-Magnon look.”

As discussed in previous articles, your eyes are an important means of communication with your horse, not to mention a critical tool for balance (look down and you’ll go down, look forward and you’ll go forward). Your horse is naturally programmed to look and go where the boss mare (alpha individual of the herd) looks and goes. This is an important survival tool and ingrained herd behavior. If you have developed the kind of relationship that you should with your horse, he should consider you to be his leader and will be tuned into your eyes and where you look, so it is important to keep that line of communication open.

As for balance, our heads are pretty large and heavy so any fraction of an inch out of the balance position (you are balanced when your ears are over your shoulders) will throw your balance off considerably. If you struggle with ear alignment, think of keeping your nose behind your belt buckle or touching the back of your neck to your shirt collar.

Shoulders are another common area for equitation faults, but often the root of the problem of rounded shoulders is over-looked. An old-fashioned style of teaching is to ask riders to “put their shoulders back” in an effort to keep the rider more upright and fix poor posture. I find that the rider with rounded shoulders does not really have a shoulder problem at all but is instead collapsing in the rib cage. The solution does not lie in stiffening the shoulders and back, but rather in lifting the sternum (breast bone) and lifting the rib cage off the spine.

If rounded shoulders and poor upper body posture are a problem for you, try lifting your sternum toward the sky or inflating your lungs fully and just breathing off the top of your lungs. Remember, poor posture in the saddle probably started with poor posture on the ground, so work on these issues when you are not riding too. Arm and hand position can be all over the map instead of in the neat and tidy “box” of proper position. Upper arms should stay close to your body with your shoulders hanging straight down and the line from your neck to your arms should be long and relaxed. Elbows need to stay bent and will open and close to act as shock absorbers as your horse moves, allowing you to maintain a steady amount of contact with the horse’s mouth. Any pulling action on the reins should come from your elbows, pulling your hands toward your hips, not pulling down or up on the reins. Your upper arms and elbows should always be connected to your ribcage and your arms should move with your ribcage and body, not independently.

There should always be an imaginary straight line from your elbow to the horse’s mouth. Try to visualize this line as you ride and realize that your hand position will change as the horse’s head changes in elevation. A common problem in beginner riders is hands held too high, and a common fault of more experienced riders to keep their hands too low. Imagine a six-inch square box in front of the pommel of your saddle and try to keep your hands always “in the box.”

Another common problem seen in hand position is broken wrists or flat “piano hands.” The straight line from elbow to mouth can be broken in many ways through the wrists. Wrists should always remain straight with the hands angled slightly inward, just as if you were reaching out to shake someone’s hand. Hands must not be too close together or too far apart because this too can break your straight-line from elbow to horse’s mouth.
Straight lines are an important component of proper riding position, whether it is the straight line of ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment, a straight head and neck, a straight spine (flat back) or the line from your elbow to the horse’s mouth. A straight line is always the shortest distance between two points and the strongest, most balanced and most effective line of communication with your horse.

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