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Dear Julie,
My Rocky Mountain/Arabian horse cross is five months old—I’ve had him for two months. He is calm and usually well behaved. However, he’s starting a new and scary behavior. He turns his rump to me when he’s in the paddock or when I enter his stall as he eats. Today he kicked at the man who owns the barn where I board. Please help—how do I stop him from doing this? I don’t want a horse that kicks.
Kicked Out

Dear Kicked Out,
Yep, it sounds like you have a problem. What your horse is saying to you and anyone else that enters his stall is, “This is my space and you are not welcome here.” Turning his rear-end toward you is a threat to kick. It sounds like a threat he is perfectly willing to make good on.

This behavior is an indication that your horse does not respect you as his leader. In the horse herd (you and your horse are a herd of two) you are either leader or follower. Horses establish dominance in the herd by controlling the space and the resources of the other herd members. When you walk into a stall (the horse’s personal space) and he is eating (food is a primary resource to the herd) it’s normal for the horse to defend his space and food. Therefore, clearly your horse feels like he is in the dominant (leader) position over you.

Every time your horse is successful in pushing you away, it’s confirmation to him that he is in charge and you are a subordinate herd mate. The kind of relationship you need to have with your horse is that you are the herd leader and he is the follower (subordinate to you). To develop this kind of relationship, you will need to do lots of quality ground work during which you control your horse’s space and actions. When doing ground work, it’s important to ask your horse to turn towards you. With a rope halter and long lead line in hand, you’ll have the tools to correct his movements if he angles his hindquarters close to you. Leading your young horse, in general, will help him realize you’re in charge and he is to follow. As you work, make sure he doesn’t enter your space. For more tips and step-by-step directions, consider checking out a ground work DVD or attending a horse handling clinic. You can find my groundwork DVDs at www.juliegoodnight.com.

In the meantime, enter the horse’s stall with a lariat or long rope (or use your horse’s halter with a lead rope attached). Once the horse turns his rump to you, just start throwing the rope toward his rear-end and reel it back in (do not approach the horse at all). Toss the rope continuously at his rear end—not viciously but persistently—until he turns around to face you. The instant he turns to face you, turn away and walk out of the stall. Wait a couple minutes then start over. By throwing the rope at him, you’ll irritate him until he does the correct thing (turns and faces you). If you don’t feel comfortable with the process, ask an experienced horse person or trainer to help you.

Remember, it’s quite likely, even expected that the horse will kick at you (he has already proven that he’s willing to do that). So it’s your job to stay well out of the horse’s kick range. Sometimes this can be hard to do in a stall. That’s why I like to use a 12′ training lead for ground work. The reason you are using a rope is so that you can stay well out of the horse’s kick zone. Unless you are totally confident in your ability to stay clear, have someone more experienced help you with this. This little trick will teach your horse that it’s polite and expected of him to turn and face you when you enter his stall.

Good luck and be careful not to get kicked!

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight

Issues From The Ground: Head Shy In Stall

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Question Category: Issues from the Ground

Question: I have been noodling this problem through for a long time but I don’t really know how to help my horse further. My big gray QH (“Saul”) and I have been together for almost 10 years now. We have come a long way together in that time. He was my first horse and we have a terrific bond. The only problem I am encountering usually happens only in the stall. Prior to my getting him he was kept in his stall for months at a time and completely ignored. Then when show season would come around the owners would go into his stall with a bat and beat him before trying to bring him out and ride him. He was a young horse (about 4 or 5 years old) and needed to run outside and be a horse. He was then sold to the people I bought him from. I boarded with them for the next 7 years and never found out until recently that they abused him as well by whipping him with reins, kicking him as he stood in cross ties and punching him in the head when he poked his head out the stall window to be social.

Obviously, I never witnessed any of this or I would have taken him out of there long ago. We have our own place now where he is safe. He has come a long way in the trust department, especially since he has come here. The one problem remaining is that he resists me patting/rubbing/touching his head and face when he is in the stall. He tosses his head and occasionally lips/nips me. (When I’m on the ground with him he, quite contentedly, lets me wrap my arms around his head and stroke his face.) The other morning when I was putting on his blanket he did the head nodding and nipping. I waved my arms and stomped my feet while yelling at him (lasting maybe 2-3 seconds) and he ran for cover against the back wall shaking and cowering. Of course, I felt terrible on the one hand and justified on the other. But his reaction was far greater than the punishment merited. I approached him quietly and finished putting on the blanket then stroked him until he relaxed.

I understand entirely his point of view and I think, considering his past, that he sure could be a lot worse and a lot angrier. I want to help him though. I want him to understand that no one is going to hit him for hanging his head out of the stall and that head rubs are pleasurable. We have done an enormous amount of groundwork, as well as mounted work, and he does pretty much whatever I ask without questioning it. In the pasture he is neither at the top nor the bottom of the chain, he would rather just eat and socialize and prefers not to have to fight for dominance. Right now he is out with my 8-month-old colt (Saul is an awesome teacher!) and a 14 year old, very mellow Thoroughbred. He seems very much at peace. How do I help my boy? Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Answer: You are right that Saul has a right to not want people in his face and you need to be understanding of his emotions. I would avoid messing with his face at all, except when necessary. Just because you think he should think rubbing his face is pleasurable, doesn’t mean he does. Many horses, abused or not, do not like us in their face. Some horses love it but others do not. That said, he does need to accept that you will handle his head when necessary, like when blanketing, bridling or brushing.

I suggest you use the technique of “advance and retreat” to desensitize the horse to having his head handled (there is an article and several Q&As on my website about this technique). First, start outside the stall where he is most comfortable, then work on it in the stall. This should take care of him being head-shy.

Also, you need to remember to be more empathetic about his emotional baggage. Your correction when he misbehaved while blanketing was more pressure than he could handle at that moment, as you obviously realized in hindsight. He has a lot of anxiety when in the stall, and for good reason. Chances are, his “misbehavior” was actually an emotional expression. While we do not want to condone a horse’s disobedience, sometimes we have to understand that he is having an emotional moment and make sure that we do nothing to exacerbate his emotions. A smaller correction or a step back to let him calm down may have been more effective.

We cannot let a horse’s emotions be an excuse for disobedience or manipulative behavior, but in the case of a horse that has been abused, we have to be very careful not to put him into the context of his abuse and dredge up those old emotions. I suggest you give Saul lots of space when he is in his stall and always approach him very slowly (a hard thing for us humans to do) to give him time to understand what you are asking of him.
It sounds like you have made a lot of progress with this horse; he just needs time and patience. He is lucky to have found a kind and empathetic human!

Julie Goodnight

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