Becoming The Leader

Abby on Skippy with Julie standing beside them.

Abby on Skippy with Julie standing beside them.I love when kids are interested in riding. Most of the time the best horses for learning are the lazy and slow ones. Even if they are usually well-behaved, these horses can learn quickly that –when kids are aboard– they don’t have to stop, go, turn, or do much of anything. If youth riders want to move forward in the horse industry, they need to learn how to be in charge–even when they are learning the basics. Here’s some advice to help your youth rider stop being frustrated, and start gaining control.

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.

Becoming the Leader

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 an 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, let’s 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.

Treats Versus Training

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 an audio MP3 on my Academy site ( called Building Confidence with Horses. It 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 

Video Help for Youth Riders

Need more help? In the Horse Master with Julie Goodnight episode, “Not Gonna Take It,” Goodnight helps a youth rider, Abby, gain confidence and stop her horse, “Skippy,” from pulling the reins from her hands. Watch this video (plus many more educational videos, articles, podcasts, and more) by joining the Horse Master Academy. Go to to watch now.

Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Success Logo

Anyone who has ever invested in the stock market has seen this disclaimer: Past performance is no guarantee of future success. Yet when we invest our resources into a well-trained horse, we expect a guarantee that the way he is today, in his current reality, is the way he will be a month or a year from now.

I wish I had a dollar for every person that has told me that the horse they bought was misrepresented to them by the seller in some nefarious way, “Surely, he must have been drugged when I rode him before purchase!” The horse was perfect at the trainer’s barn then a “different horse” as soon as the check cleared and the trailer parked at his new home—or so the new owner believes. The truth is, a horse’s training can unravel quickly when he is mishandled or when his life-circumstances change—like when he’s in a new home, around new humans, in a new herd, getting used to a new training regime. These are considerable stressors for a horse and he’ll act much different in the new setting. If a horse was in a regimented training barn or with a trainer and suddenly doesn’t have to obey rules, he may challenge the new order and act up in the new setting.

“Anti-training,” or teaching the horse the wrong thing, is quite easy to do. And since horses are extremely fast-learning animals, he can learn the wrong thing the very first time you make the mistake. A common example is circling a horse when he throws a fit about leaving the barnyard. The moment you turn him toward the barn, you have reinforced his fit. It doesn’t matter that you circle back away because he knows how to fix that, he just throws another fit so you’ll circle him again. Even a well-trained horse can be anti-trained in short order.

I would like to say that it is easy to un-train a horse, but the truth is, you cannot unlearn information. Once a horse knows something about you (that you won’t enforce the rules, you will not discipline him even when he deserves it, you won’t make him work if he threatens you, you won’t push if you get scared), he knows it. The only thing you can do is change you.

Dodger’s Challenge

Dodger and Julie
Dodger & Julie

I remember selling one of our horses to a good friend, a number of years ago (and we are still friends). Dodger was an admittedly quirky horse–although a very well-trained ranch horse—an experienced pro in all matters of ranching. He lived 13 years as a working horse on a big ranch in Texas, then two years on my ranch, then we sold him and he was taken to live in the city of Denver (an old part where horses were still allowed). Poor Dodger thought he had landed on another planet and was understandably nervous in his new urban setting. But what happened on the first day there, set some serious unraveling in motion.

Dodger was not happy in his new box stall and when she went to get him out the next morning to head to turnout, he plowed right over the top of his new owner– forcing her out of his way. How she handled that moment was critical to setting the tone of their brand new relationship. Instead of scolding him and backing him up and insisting that he remember his manners and be respectful and patient, she felt sorry for him (“he was nervous in his new home”). She decided to overlook his momentary indiscretion. But the next day, he did the exact same thing (of course), since apparently the rules in this strange new place were different than what he had known all of his life. Soon, he was pushing all sorts of boundaries and making up his own rules.

When I called a week later to see how my old horse was getting along with his new owner, I was appalled to hear how badly he was behaving! Turns out one thing led to another and in just a few days this perfectly mannered horse had become an ill-mannered pig on the ground. We talked it through and I told her what to do to fix it. In short order, Dodger turned back into the horse he knew how to be.

What horses want most is the safety and the comfort that the herd provides them. Life in the herd involves respecting authority, following rules and routines, earning the acceptance of the leader and being treated fairly. Well trained horses in particular, tend to be handled in a strict regimen and worked daily, living up to the high expectations of the trainer. Horses love structure, routine and sameness; it makes them feel safe. Horses crave and worship leadership, so going from a strong leader to a passive one is a change any horse would notice. You cannot buy respect from a horse and you cannot buy a relationship with a horse; you can only earn it.

Adjustment Time

Horses in transition to a new owner and a new home, need time to adjust to and get comfortable with their new surroundings and new handlers. It is unreasonable to expect all horses to perform at the same level in a new place with a new rider. But it is important to start your new relationship off with structure and to build your horse’s respect and trust.

All my friend had to do was scold Dodger and spend 10 minutes doing some groundwork to remind the horse that he had rules to follow and authority to respect. And that if he acts the way he is trained to act, things will be safe and predictable for him. Right away Dodger snapped out of his bad manners and after taking the time she needed to establish a meaningful relationship with the horse, one he could trust, he reverted back to his old trained self.

When starting a new relationship with a horse, make sure you get off on the right foot and build a relationship based on trust, respect and authority. This is easily gained through round pen and lead line work from the ground, if you follow a systematic approach like I outline in my From the Ground Up series. If you don’t know how to do effective ground work, get help; enlist the services of a trainer. If you buy a well-trained horse, it is probably worth getting lessons from the trainer, to protect your investment.

The best trainer in the world can train a horse to do almost anything for him, but he cannot train him to do it for you. You would have to build your own relationship with the horse, learn his cues, make your expectations/intentions/determination/capabilities clear to him and then lead in a way that makes him want to follow you. That may take an hour or a month or a year—that depends on you, not on the horse’s past performance.

You and only you are responsible for the investments you make and past performance is no guarantee of future success. But if you are smart, aware, take responsibility and give guidance, your investment should grow. Treat any new relationship with your horse as a serious investment; be smart and accept responsibility for your own actions and make sure your investment is growing.


Ground Manners; Audible Sounds of the Horse (Rick Lamb with Julie Goodnight)

Julie and Rick talk about ground manners and what happens when your horse moves into your space– with his nose or taking an unauthorized step. Learn about herd dominance and how the herd operates in the wild. Julie describes the sounds horses make. for more radio shows.

Does The Lead Horse Participate In Mutual Grooming? Logo

Ask Julie Goodnight: Does the Lead Horse Participate in Mutual Grooming?

Dear Julie,
First of all, I would like to thank you for your website and the information you share on it. Your Training Library is quite extensive and I am learning so much by reading through your responses. I am new to horsemanship and the background and experience you provide are invaluable to me. The other thing I appreciate is how clearly and systematically you explain/describe things. Your step-by-step directions are exactly what I need! I don’t feel so overwhelmed when you break things down into smaller pieces like you do. Thank you.

My question is regarding grooming. I love to groom my horse and frequently go into the pasture to do so. However, I am now wondering if a “lead” horse grooms other horses. In other words, am I losing ground with my horse, from a leadership perspective, by grooming her (especially at times when she isn’t being saddled or unsaddled)? I am trying very hard to make sure I am being the leader my horse deserves. With the information on your website I have really begun to look at everything I do, and I want to make sure that I am not inadvertently giving her mixed signals.
Thank you for everything,

Answer: Tracy,
It’s a good question you propose, regarding both the horse’s natural herd behavior and the practicality of what you are doing. Armed with the right information, you’ll be able to evaluate what you are doing and possibly make some positive changes.

Mutual grooming (technically referred to as allo-grooming) is the only known affectionate behavior of horses that is not reproductive related. It occurs only between bonded horses within the herd and they stand facing each other and groom each other using their teeth and lips, mostly in the wither area and down the back.

Yes, lead horses mutual groom with other subordinate horses, BUT the lead horse always begins and ends the grooming session. And she ends it by biting the subordinate horse as a little reminder of who is indeed the boss. It’s okay for you to rub on your horse and scratch him where it feels good, but make sure you are the one initiating and ending the grooming session and never let your horse put its mouth on you and “groom” you back. If at any time the horse gets rude or is demanding to be groomed, you should hiss and spit at him and shoo him away.

I do have a practical concern about grooming your horse in the pasture. If you are working on your horse while she is loose out in the field and she can walk away from you or move around whenever she wants, you may be instilling some bad manners in your horse. I want my horses to stand perfectly still any time I am working on them and, like most rules, this one has to be strictly reinforced. I would prefer to put a halter and lead on my horse and either ground tie or hard tie her so that I can take control of her if needed, to remind her of her ground manners.

As an example, a friend of mine liked to go in his colt’s pen and rub on him and play with him. Of course the colt loved it too and then my friend started grooming the colt and picking up his feet—all without a halter on. He was very proud of being able to pick up the colt’s feet, but paid no attention to the fact that the colt would just pull his foot away and walk off any time he wanted. All this time, my friend had been teaching this horse that he could walk off and move away while he was being groomed and pull his feet out of your hands anytime he wanted and that the human had no control over him. He was not learning to respect authority, hold his feet up, stand patiently or have any restraint put on him. Additionally, foals are so tactile and love being rubbed on so much that when over-handled they start leaning into you demanding to be scratched. When you comply, not only are you letting the horse control your actions (in other words, be dominate over you) but you are also teaching him to lean into pressure—a VERY bad habit since normally we train horses to move off of pressure not lean into it.

It’s excellent that you are taking the time to understand the horse’s natural behavior and reflecting on how that impacts the way you handle your horses. What you are doing with your horse might be okay, as long as you keep these concepts in mind. But with a better glimpse at the big picture, you may find you want to modify what you are doing just a little to make sure you maintain authority with the horse.

Enjoy the ride,

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician

Issues From The Saddle: Must Be In Front On Trail Logo

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

Answer: Ruth,

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.


Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.


Keywords: In Front on the Trail, Front on the Trail

Horse Behavior: Aggressive Kicking In The Pasture Logo

Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: Hi Julie-

My husband and I have both benefited so much from your training DVDs, halters and lead ropes, as well as your wonderful television show. We look forward to continuing to learn from you and gain even more from other products. Thank you so much for sharing your wealth of knowledge and experience!

We have a four-year-old draft cross mare. We are training her under harness and she is coming along nicely. In most ways she is a wonderful horse: calm, respectful and gentle. But we have an area of concern and aren’t sure how to best handle it. We board a friend’s gelding. Generally they get along fine. However, sometimes she just lays into him kicking, biting, running at him and charging him. Sometimes we are in the pasture with them when this behavior is going on. Needless to say, we are a bit nervous about getting caught in the crossfire. We have recently decided to separate the two for the winter, as we downsize their pasture in winter quite significantly.

Two questions for you: 1) Some of this is no doubt just normal horse behavior. Is there an underlying training issue though that we should be addressing with our mare? 2) She has never demonstrated any tendency at kicking towards us. We do recognize the risk to our safety when she is acting this way towards the gelding and we happen to be in the way. But is it likely that a horse acting this way with another horse will start getting that kicking tendency with humans?

Thanks so much for your time and any advice you can offer us in handling this situation!

Sherri in Spokane, WA

Answer: Sherri,

While the behavior you describe could be chalked up to normal herd behavior, some horses can be classified as bullies. These horses are unnecessarily aggressive towards others. In other words, even after dominance has been fully established, they continue to attack other horses around them—seemingly for no good reason other than just to pick on them. If the gelding is not doing anything to deserve these attacks, then I’d say your mare is a bully.

You are absolutely correct in that this behavior poses not only a safety issue for you and your husband, but also for the gelding. One thing to think about is whether or not this is primarily happening when you are in the pen with them. It is possible that she is very jealous and is trying to keep him from coming near you. This is not necessarily a good thing either because it could indicate that she thinks you are her property—so it could indicate a dominance issue between you and your horse.

In answer to your second question—will this lead to her kicking you—I’d say that is doubtful. It sounds like she knows how to act properly when she is haltered or tacked-up but I’d make darn sure she is harshly punished if she even thinks about displaying any type of herd behavior toward another horse when she is in-hand or being ridden. This is absolutely forbidden behavior and should be met with a zero-tolerance policy. There are several articles in my Training Library on this subject.

When you enter any pen of horses, the pecking order should immediately change to where you are the alpha in the pen. One thing you might consider is to go into the pen with a stick or whip (for your protection—not to beat on the horse with) and actually defend the gelding, by chasing away the mare’s attacks. This will only help him when you are present but it may help resolve the dominance issues that may be under-lying between you and the mare.

Good luck and be safe!


Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Horse Behavior: Snaking Behavior Logo

Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: Thanks for responding to my first email. Now, the deal is that the mare is neighing, which she has NEVER done in the year and half that I have had her. She also makes this donkey bray sounding noises, when her head is down and ears pinned back. She is mostly doing this with the little minis that are in the next pasture. This seems to be with the mare more than the stallion. With the gelding, she is kind of coming around. She is a bit buddy sour, I guess, cause when I took her out with the gelding to their “spot”, she heard the goats and started to go toward them, as far as the rope would allow, then, gets tangles up in the rope!!!!!!!!! I went on and took her back, since I was alone, and felt that my safety might be at stake, as well as hers. She didn’t hurry to the pen, she was good. Once she was in the pen, and off the lead rope, she walked to the end of the pen, where the goats were, and started neighing. We also have a stallion about 3000′ from our pasture, I wonder if that could be part of the problem? The gelding and her are doing better, and we are pleased with their progress. We are not able to work with them everyday, but mostly on the weekends as my husband works nights and I work days…………..

Answer: The behavior you describe, “head down and ears pinned back,” is known as snaking. It is an aggressive herding behavior most often seen in the wild when a stallion is herding up his mares or fighting with another stallion, but any horse can snake and it is always a sign of aggression and dominance. The sound you are describing is probably a squeal; which is what horses do when they are very irritated and about to become aggressive. This is a dominant behavior and your mare is trying to get control of her herd. The stallion in close proximity could be contributing to the mare’s need to gather her herd and establish control over them. Hopefully the herd hierarchy will eventually straighten out, once all the horses are secure about who is the leader and who are the followers.

Anytime a horse is displaying snaking behavior, you should be very careful around the horse. If the horse is out in the herd and there are no humans around, it is probably just a herd thing that needs to be sorted out, but it is an indication that the horse is fairly aggressive so you should always be careful when interacting with the horse in a way that may provoke him to become aggressive. If the horse ever acts that way when a human is around or toward a human, that is a big problem and one that needs to be dealt with by an expert hand.

Good luck and be careful.

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.