For No Apparent Reason: Learning to understand why horses behave the way they do

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When folks tell me about problem behaviors, I hear one phrase often. I admit I’ve even said it myself when I was a young trainer. “For no apparent reason, my horse….” You can fill in the next part with any frightening horse behavior. Choose from a list such as: bucked me off, kicked me, bit me, ran away, spooked, refused to get in the trailer, refused to go in the arena, reared. The list of behaviors that follows this phrase is long.

This one little phrase—for no apparent reason—seems to absolve the human of all responsibility. Surely the horse was to blame for his unexpected reaction. The phrase implies that there’s something wrong with the horse’s behavior. But there’s an important word buried within this phrase: apparent. Just because the human doesn’t yet know what caused the behavior, doesn’t mean the horse didn’t sense something real. It wasn’t apparent to the handler, but the horse knows what caused the behavior. It’s our job as horsemen to find out what was apparent to the horse.

Behaviors Have Purpose

All behaviors have a reason or purpose. There is always some purpose or meaning behind the behavior that a horse displays. It doesn’t always seem purposeful to us, but it is to the horse. You cannot watch a horse more than a minute without seeing behaviors.

Let’s get this fact straight: just because we do not like a horse’s behavior doesn’t mean that it is a bad behavior. For instance, a horse that kicks is not a bad horse; he’s a horse—they all kick. Horses may kick when they are startled or feeling the need to defend their space—or to ward off a predator. Or it may be an aggressive move to gain dominance. Kicking does not make him a bad horse and it is not a bad behavior from the horse’s point of view. He actually finds it quite useful. It’s just a behavior we humans don’t like, so we think of it as bad.

There should not be any value judgment when observing a behavior. Behaviors that are undesirable to us humans are not bad they just are. The challenge we as horse people have, is to promote the behaviors we want and try to eliminate, or extinguish the behaviors that are undesirable, unsafe or unmanageable– not to get caught up in the horse’s drama and react in an emotional way or take his behavior personally.

I talk a lot in my clinics about horse training—teaching the horse manners, cues, obedience and responsiveness. We are all horse trainers—anytime you interact with a horse, you are either training him or un-training him. It’s just that some people are better at training –or promoting the good behaviors– than others.

Find the Motivation

To me, after a half-century of training horses, the most effective way to have an impact is to first understand the natural and instinctive behaviors of horses. Then try to understand the motivation for the specific behavior. Only once you have an idea of the motivation, employ well-known, science-based training techniques that are proven to be effective (such as classical conditioning, operant conditioning, negative and positive reinforcers, replacement training vs. punishment, finding the amount of pressure needed to motivate change, etc.). If you understand the behavior first, you’ll see that it doesn’t come “out of the blue.” You’ll think of reasons that may have caused the behavior and choose your plan to teach the horse to act another way.

You will always be more effective in changing a horse’s behavior if you can understand the origins of that behavior: is it instinctive or learned behavior; how is the horse benefitting from this behavior; how motivated is he in this behavior; and how engrained or habitual is the behavior (how long has he been doing this)? These answers are sometimes hard to know, but the more you understand about the horse’s behavior, the easier it is to affect change.

Calm and Carry On

Noticing the horse’s body language and state of mind can only happen if you’re calm and paying attention. There is often a mystique around some horse handler’s ability to “read” the horse. You know, some people are nicknamed “horse whisperers.” But reading a horse and understanding his language doesn’t have to be confusing or mystical. If you understand the communicative language of horses (they speak through postures and gestures), they are actually pretty transparent. But you do have to be aware and pay attention. Even a person that has no experience with horses ought to be able to look at one and tell you whether it is relaxed or nervous, attentive or distracted, agitated or content. The information is there—all you have to do is observe and think about what the horse may be sensing.

But keep in mind that because they are herd animals–and prey–they are hard-wired to take on the emotions of the other animals in the herd—and that includes you! If one animal becomes frightened—all the horses in the herd will tend to respond the same way. So when things get tough, it is incredibly important that we humans try to keep our emotions in check. No matter how you feel on the inside (scared, angry, frustrated) keep your body language and emotions in check and remain calm. No need to throw gas on the fire.

Instincts Rule

Recently, the results of scientific research into horse behavior proved something that horsemen have known for centuries. Horses are prey animals and as such, they instinctively hide their pain. Think about it—which horse gets eaten first by the predator? It’s the one in the back of the herd—the slowest, sickest or lamest horse. Horses don’t want to show pain if they can mask it because showing pain shows weakness. This one fact of life explains a lot about horses.

Some horses have a very high threshold of pain and will mask any discomfort they feel (while others, like my horse Dually, will let you know if a hair is out of place). That means it is up to us to become the investigator, to know each horse as an individual, and also we have the responsibility to address every problem as a pain issue first, and rule out any possible physical cause for undesirable behavior before we address it as a training issue. After more than three decades of training horses, I can tell you that more “training problems” originate from physical problems than most people realize.

Also, related to this same instinct, is the horrific instinctive fear that most horses have about being left behind. If you only have two horses at home and you take one out of the pen to ride, it is the horse that is left behind that throws a fit. If you try to hold your horse back in a group trail ride while the others gallop off into the sunset, you are picking a huge fight with your horse that you may not win. The horse’s desire for safety and to be part of the herd is strong.

Horses are herd-bound according to their instinct—it is called gregarious behavior. They simply want to be friendly and be around the herd. Yet we tend to speak of herd-bound, barn-sour behavior as an affliction. The behavior is deemed bad by humans, but it’s simply a typical horse behavior. It is a simple fact of horsemanship that unless and until the horse gets the same sense of security and comfort from you that he gets from the herd, he is not going to want to leave with you. It is not the horse’s affliction—it is your lack of leadership and authority that is at issue; you have to change, not the horse.

Listen to the Horses

We owe it to our horses to understand their behavior and learn more about effective training techniques and to be the strong leader that they need, including accepting responsibility for our own actions or failures. Nothing happens “out of the blue.” Nothing happens “for no apparent reason.” The horses are telling us something with their behavior and we need to help them by finding out what doesn’t feel right.

A great example of this concept happened at one of the shoots for my TV show. In this instance, it would have been easy to blame the horse, but he indeed had something to tell us. His behavior only seemed “out of the blue.”

Several of us were fussing with a horse to get him ready for the segment we were taping (wiping his nose, adjusting the tack, checking the microphone on the rider, etc.). Several people rushing around a horse at one time is a recipe for disaster indeed. But this was a horse we knew and he’s known to have a calm and accepting attitude. Still, it’s just too easy to not notice something that you would see if you were the only one checking tack and doing all in a slow, intricate order. We were saddling the horse with brand new tack—fixing the cinches, adjusting all of the new leather. In the mix and chaos, one of my crewmembers was suddenly kicked.

Some may have said the horse’s kick was “for no apparent reason.” It did seem out of the blue for this horse. But a little investigating showed us it was us humans, not the horse who needed a lesson. As it turns out, the new saddle we placed on the horse had a back cinch that wasn’t connected to the front. In the chaos and hurry, we hadn’t noticed that the hobble had come untied. The back cinch slid back to an uncomfortable position for the horse. It was in the position of a bucking strap! To the horse, the reason for his behavior was obvious. His kick was a behavior to get that out of his space.

Later that evening, my crewmember called his wife—who happens to be a horse trainer. He told her he had gotten kicked. I’m sure he was expecting her to say, “OMG, are you ok?” Instead, her response was, “What did you do to the horse to make him kick you?” (A woman after my own heart!) The fault was with us humans. What wasn’t apparent to us was apparent to the horse. And we now have practices in place to make sure that we slow down and check details instead of being in such a rush to hit record. Only two crew members attending to a horse at any given time. It was a lesson for us to learn. Slow down, notice, and think about what the horse is experiencing.

We, as humans, must accept responsibility for understanding horses better. We must think about why and how our interactions with horses work or don’t work. Horses will never study human behavior or effective training techniques. It’s our job to learn about them. Embrace it—horsemanship is a journey— and the more you learn, the more rewarding it becomes!

Enjoy the ride,

Julie

Horse Turns Toward Gate And Stops Working

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Common Complaints

My horse heads for the gate and stops while we’re working.

Follow Julie Goodnight’s advice to teach your horse ignore the gate and work steadily.

If your horse thinks turning toward the gate is his cue to slow down, ride with a purpose and direct him straight past the opening.

Does your horse slow down as you pass the gate and speed up when you turn toward home? Does he break gait again and again in the same place in the arena? When leaving the barn, do his legs suddenly become leaden and you feel like you’re dragging a ship’s anchor?

If you’re nodding your head, knowing the scenario describes you and your horse, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying and disobedient behavior then give you steps to take to teach your horse to work steadily around the arena and leave the barn at the same pace he returns. Soon you’ll have a steady horse that acts like a champ and respects your authority.

The Reason
Gate gravity is actually herd gravity; it’s a horse’s nature to be herd-bound—staying safe by remaining close to his fellow horses. The instinct is strong. Whether this problem occurs while you’re riding in the arena, trail riding or working on the ground, your horse is being disobedient and making unauthorized decisions. Your horse needs to see you as his trustable leader and know that he’s safe in a herd of two with you.

What horses seek beyond all else in life are two simple things: safety and comfort. When you ask your horse to leave the safety and comfort of the herd to go out and work, you’re asking a lot of him. He may feel alone and vulnerable.

Horses are also instinctively lazy, preferring to conserve their energy for flight, should it be necessary. Your horse doesn’t really want to lope circles and leap obstacles in the arena. He’s looking for any relief available and thinks he may get a break if he heads to the gate. He’s always thinking about going back to the herd; if he can get away with slowing down or stopping for a moment or two, he may think he’s made progress and that you’re allowing him to head for home.

Horses also challenge for hierarchy within the herd. When your horse challenges you—by stopping at the gate—he’s testing to see who’s really in charge. Within the herd, each horse is either dominant over or subordinate to every other individual. One horse is at the top (the “alpha”) and one is at the bottom (the “omega”), with all the other individuals fitting somewhere in between. Subordinate horses respect and admire the leader of their herd and will willingly go with them anywhere; the alpha can herd and direct subordinates and the latter will go at any direction or speed dictated by the boss.

If your horse respects your authority as the leader in your herd of two, he’ll go in a direction and speed that you indicate—without making any unauthorized decisions such as slowing down or speeding up. You’ll have to convince your horse that you’re taking the helm and accepting the captain’s seat and that he’ll either toe the line or be swabbing decks.

Whether your horse just slightly slows down at the gate or gives you a constant battle leaving the barn, there are some simple steps you can take to fix this common complaint.

The Solution
First, you have to realize that your horse’s “problem” stems from your lack of authority. It’s time to take charge.
Examine other areas within your relationship with your horse. Is he responsive to you on the ground? Does he respect your space? Does he focus on you, looking to you for directives and guidance? Is he peaceful and docile in your presence, knowing you’re in charge? Or is he looking at the herd and whinnying? When you ride, is his head down and his nose pointed in the direction you have asked for? Or is his head up and is he changing his path and speed impulsively?

If you’re nodding your head, you and your horse are good candidates for a systematic series of groundwork exercises. You’ll have to teach him to accept your authority on the ground first then carry your newly found authority to mounted work. My groundwork DVD called Lead Line Leadership will take you through this process with step-by-step explanations. The Complete Groundwork Package includes two DVDs and all the equipment you need for groundwork.

After spending some quality time with your horse from the ground, you’ll also have to address your authority with your horse from his back. You must act like the captain and your horse must accept his position as first mate. As captain, you dictate both the direction and speed of the ship and your first mate carries out your orders. The captain makes all of the decisions and any insubordinate behavior from the crew is met with strict consequence.

Your authority in the saddle starts when you put your foot in the stirrup to mount and ends when you hop off.

Professionals teach horses that they should keep doing what they’re told until they’re told differently. If you allow small infractions, such as making the unauthorized decision to slow down at the gate or veer from the dictated path, you’re eroding your authority. Once your horse realizes that you don’t have complete control, he’ll push the limits and the erosion continues until the dam gives way.

As soon as you mount, begin by not letting your horse walk off without a cue (see last month’s issue about standing for mounting), then take him directly to the rail and deep up into the corners. Immediately correct the smallest infraction of direction or speed until your horse gives it up and just does what he’s told to do. Depending on your assertiveness, this process may take one time around the pen or a few weeks.

Make sure your corrections are adequate to motivate your horse to change his ways. If he stops at the gate or breaks gait at any time, there must be ramifications and the punishment must involve enough pressure to motivate your horse to change. If the ramifications are insignificant to your horse, he’ll happily endure it if it means he gets to rest for a moment.

In this case your corrections might range from more leg pressure to a bump with the spur or a spank with a crop or the tail of your reins. If he breaks gait with me at the helm, I’ll make sure he not only gets a spanking, but that he has to work harder. I only allow him to stop or slow down when he’s working willingly forward, without me having to push him.

Each horse is different in the amount of pressure it takes to motivate him to change, but you’ll know if it’s enough by his reaction to the correction. If he blows it off with an expression meaning “so what?” then you didn’t use enough pressure. If his head comes up and he jumps to attention with a look on his face like, “what do I have to do to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” then you’re making an impact. I don’t want you to cause your horse undue pain. However, you’ll need to use enough of a correction to let your horse know you’re in charge. If your horse doesn’t see you as a leader, you may be in much more danger later on.

There’s an old saying in horse training that says it always gets worse before it gets better. That means that if your horse has been getting away with things for a while, he’s not going to immediately give it up the first time you lay down the law with him. If he has been stomping on your authority for a while, he’ll challenge your first attempts to correct him by threatening you with a kick or buck. Make sure you have the ability to ride through his resistance or engage the help of a more qualified hand to help you. Never let his antics get to you emotionally—if he learns he can control your emotions, he’ll keep pushing your buttons. Instead, be calm, firm and persistent in your request for obedience.

Once you learn to be the 100% authority figure that your horse needs, he’ll gladly do what you ask. To reach this point, you’ll need leadership and consistency.

With repetition, good timing and lots of enforcement on your part, your horse will soon be steady, responsive and obedient.

 

For a wealth of information on the skills and knowledge needed to gain complete authority over your horse and cue him correctly visit www.juliegoodnight.com.

My Horse Is Herd-Bound And Barn Sour

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My horse is herd-bound and barn-sour–calling to others constantly

Would your horse rather stay with his buddies? Is he letting his voice be known? Follow Julie Goodnight’s behavior and training advice to help your horse willingly leave the herd and be focused on you as the center of his universe.

Does your horse refuse to respond to your aids and throw a wall-eyed fit if you try to ride him out of the barnyard alone? Does he scream in your ear, calling to his herd mates every time you take him out of the pen? Is he unruly in-hand when you take him away from his buddies, stomping his feet and ramming into you?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above questions, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying behavior then give you steps to take to make your horse want to be part of your herd–willing to go with you anywhere.

The Reason
Horses are herd-bound animals. The behavior known as gregarious—defining animals who live in groups and have a specific social order. A herd-bound tendency is one of seven instinctive behaviors a horse acts out—the others center around flight, reproduction, combat, investigation, ingestion and elimination. Being herd bound is a survival skill for horses. They need the protection of the herd for comfort and security–which they want more than anything else in life.

The whinny, one of four audible communications a horse makes, is a high-pitched scream, sometimes ending in a nicker. It’s the loudest and longest audible a horse makes and can be ear-splitting, carrying over long distances. Like all four audible communications, it has specific meaning. The whinny is a social call; a searching call. It means, “Where are my friends,” or “Is anyone out there willing to be my friend?” When a horse is separated from his herd and feels vulnerable and exposed, he will whinny and search frantically until he finds it or a suitable replacement.

The leader of the herd–the alpha individual–is responsible for maintaining the safety and comfort of the herd. As long as the leader is in charge, her subordinates can relax, live in peace, munch grass, roll in the mud and commune with their buddies. Life doesn’t get any better.

You and your horse comprise a herd. At least that’s what you’d like your horse to believe. Due to the hierarchy of the horse herd, within your herd of two, you have two choices: you can be the leader or the follower. There’s no option for equality. Just wanting to be the leader of your herd of two doesn’t make it so; your horse is very adept at detecting leadership skills–or lack there of. In his mind, his very survival depends upon good leadership.

Unless and until your horse can look up to you as his leader, trust that you’re in charge of the universe and able to make him feel safe and comfortable, he’ll not be willing to go anywhere with you and will always be drawn back to the herd he knows.
The Solution

You’ll have to convince your horse that you’re in charge, that you’re a worthy leader. He’ll need to know you can be trusted to enforce rules, keep order in the herd and that you direct all his actions. You’ll tell him when to eat, when to sleep, when to work, when to rest, when to be alarmed, when to be relaxed. You’ll teach him that when he is quiet, obedient and focused on you, you’ll make him comfortable; when he is not, you’ll put him to work. He won’t have to make any decisions because you’re the leader, the Captain of the ship, and you make all decisions. That’s a tall order to fill!

Horses establish dominance in the herd with swift and certain actions, by controlling space and resources. The alpha individual of the herd owns the space of all the subordinate herd members; she can enter their space at any time—and the herd will move judiciously out of her way. A subordinate can never enter her space. Horses are very spatially oriented (unlike us humans) and highly respect the space of their leader. In natural horsemanship, we do groundwork with horses to control their space and actions, gain their respect and focus, until the horse is hooked-on, following with admiration because he feels safe and comfortable in your presence.
Resources include anything the herd values, like food, water, shelter or other horses, and the dominant horse always controls the resources. The quickest way to determine the pecking order of any herd is to watch when they are fed; the alpha always eats first, followed by the beta horse; the last to eat is the omega, if he gets anything at all. Be careful when you feed horses, that you do not reward rude or bullying behavior, even when there is a fence between you and the horse; if he comes to believe he is taking the food away from you and controlling your actions, he believes he is dominant. For this reason, I’m not an advocate of hand-feeding treats to horses; it doesn’t take long before he’s calling you to him by nickering (the second of the horse’s four audible communications), controlling your actions and your resources (keep in mind he doesn’t know it’s horse food and humans won’t eat it).

Do groundwork exercises with your horse every time you get him out, so that he is in the habit of listening to you. There are many excellent exercises outlined in my groundwork DVDs, Lead Line Leadership and Round Pen Reasoning (available at JulieGoodnight.com or 800-225-8827).
If you invest some time in groundwork, your horse will learn to accept you as a suitable leader. Once he begins to accept your authority, do your groundwork further and further away from the barn so it becomes habitual behavior for him.
When you’re riding, be aware of barn gravity and be diligent for any disobedience from your horse, no matter how small. If he cuts corners, slows down going away and speeds up coming back, breaks gait or deviates from the path and speed you have dictated and gets away with it, you’re telling the horse you’re not in charge; not a worthy leader. If you’re in charge, you’re the Captain, there should never be any negotiation, compromise or turning a blind eye to his bad behavior– no matter how minor the infraction.
I ride literally hundreds of different horses each year; between clinics and expos, I sometimes ride or work with as many as 10-15 different horses a week on a one-time basis. In five minutes or less, what I call “the golden moments,” I can convince the horse that I’m in charge by simply controlling 100 percent of his actions and demonstrating my leadership ability. Horses figure this stuff out quickly.
When people come to look at one of my horses for sale, I want to make sure they start off in the Captain’s seat. I tell them to take the horse directly to the rail and go all the way around keeping the horse right next to the fence and controlling every step he takes; then thy can start telling him to do something: stop, go, turn, etc. A well-trained and obedient horse (the only kind I sell) knows immediately that you’re a worthy leader and falls happily into the role of your first mate, eager to carry out your orders without challenge.
When your horse accepts your authority without question, and feels safe and comfortable in your presence, he will no longer be herd bound and you’ll b able to take him anywhere you want to go without so much as a whinny or nicker.

To learn more about teaching your horse to respect your authority and accept you as his leader, check out Goodnight’s groundwork training package with the DVD series, Round Pen Reasoning, and Lead Line Leadership and other training tools at www.JulieGoodnight.com.

Horses In Confinement

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Question: Dear Julie,

I just moved to a home on 40 acres (with a live creek) in Missouri. I’ve never owned a horse (of course, always wanted to) and haven’t been around them for a number of years now. In order to get them the care they need, I have to catch them first. I watched the episode of your TV show on [the hard to catch horse] and was thrilled to see my instincts were correct. I’ll be putting up a round pen to start working with them. My question is this: The former owner had allowed them to roam the entire 40 acres; I want to section off an acre for them to stay in. I’d love to have three sectioned off, but just can’t afford it right now. I have cleaned out a section of the barn for them to get protection, but they must have a favorite spot “out there” because they don’t use what I made them. They’ll also be getting more of a stall set-up. Can I change them from “free roam” to confined? I love animals so much and just want to be sure these horses get the best care I can provide. Thanks for any help you are willing to give. By the way, I have two mares and two colts (yearlings) quarter horses.

Sincerely,
Mary

Answer: Mary,

Your horses should not need to be confined in order to catch them. As you saw on Horse Master, training a horse to be easy to catch is not too hard. The method demonstrated on the show is very effective and I call it “walking a horse off.” It is explained in an article on this site.

You can also easily train your horses to come when you call by using a grain reward. Start at feed time by yelling or whistling a unique call. Then shake the grain can to get their attention. If they get a small bite of grain every time you call, in no time, you’ll be able to call them in at any time day or night. If you establish a routine of when you call them in, they’ll be waiting for you every time.

As for your horses not coming in the nice protected barn you made for them—that is the oldest joke that horses play on humans. Countless people before you have spent time and money on what they thought were ideal, cozy shelter for their horse, only to find him standing out in the pouring rain, through gales, blizzards and heat. Many a horse owners have made this frustrating realization, but it should really come as no surprise—horses are flight animals—confinement is not their thing. Plus, they are well-equipped to survive in adverse conditions.

Research has shown that run-in sheds are more favored by horses if they are not fully enclosed and there is ventilation at the bottom and tops of the walls. Being able to see the horizon is a key factor in how comfortable a horse is when he is confined. The better he can see his environment, the safer he feels.

Horses can become habituated to a shelter, particularly if you feed them in there. Horses do like to have shade and a wind break in extreme weather conditions, but they have to feel comfortable and safe in there. If you spend quality time with your horses in the barn, they’ll come to feel safe in there and seek out its comfort more often.

While I am sure you can get your horses habituated to confinement, it may not be necessary. Your horses will be happier if they can run around and be horses. I would bring my horses in the barn for feeding and grooming and get the youngsters used to being tied up in there, etc. But then let them be turned out the rest of the time.

If you wanted your horses to get used to being in stalls—which is not a bad thing for a horse to be comfortable with, especially if you plan to show him or go to events—you could bring them in at night then turn them out for the day (or visa versa). Horses get used to this routine easily and seem to enjoy it.

You will probably need to figure out ways to separate the youngsters from the mares at some point so they do not become too herd bound. In fact, you’ll probably want to find opportunities to separate the all horses at various times so that they learn to be calm and independent away from the herd and are easier ride out.

Good luck with your new herd!
Julie

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Issues From The Saddle: Distracted Herd-Bound Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I was at your clinics last year at the Equine Affair Massachusetts. I tell you, you were the greatest trainer there! My horse, Rufus (an 8 year old large pony trained by my 14-year-old self with my trainer, after being abused for six years) was not trained until he was 6 years old. He isn’t what you’d expect from a rushed horse, he’s doing great and we compete a lot in eventing.

Since he was thrown in a field with other horses until he was 6, he is very social. We don’t have another horse, but when we go to shows or I trail ride with my friends, he goes nuts. He won’t pay attention to me at all, and is constantly neighing to others, especially mares (he did try to breed mares in his old field, and he’s a gelding, we can’t ride him if there’s a mare in heat in the area, he goes CRAZY).

How can I make Rufus behave on trails and at shows? It’s not really in the nature of the breed to be this hyper and, for lack of better term, nuts! (He’s a small quarter horse) When I go to shows, I constantly school him, trying to get him to pay attention, but at times it’s dangerous (like the time he broke the hitching posts to get to another horse). What else can I do? My parents are talking about getting another horse, but since Rufus is still in training, I really don’t think he needs that distraction, since he’s already a bit barn sour and I believe that we should wait until Rufus can listen to ME around other equines…am I correct in this thinking? Well, please get back to me!

Gennie and Rufus

Answer: Gennie,

Your horse’s problem is from a lack of discipline and a factor of not starting his training until later in life. When a horse has not been taught certain rules of behavior by the time he is six or older, he has come to believe that his life ought to be a certain way- and that way is the way it has been for his whole life out in the herd where he could interact with horses as he pleased and be impulsive in his behavior.

The solution to this bad behavior is groundwork, so that your horse learns that you are in fact in charge of every movement and action he makes. My video series on groundwork explains this process in great detail and gives you specific exercises to do to help build a solid relationship with your horse and teach him ground manners. Through groundwork a horse learns that you are in charge, you make the decisions and you dictate the actions he makes—you become his central focus, rather than all the other horses. Horses must learn that when they are around humans, there are certain rules that must be followed, just like there are expected rules of behavior out in the herd.

There are many articles in my Training Library about doing ground work with horses to teach ground manners, obedience, fundamental rules of behavior and to develop the leader-follower relationship with your horse. The most important thing you need to work on with your horse is getting control of his nose. If you can control his nose, both from the ground and from the saddle, you can prevent the problems you are having. Read up on nose-control from the Training Library on my website and get some help doing ground work with your horse.

Horses must learn at some age (the sooner the better) that they cannot act out their impulsive herd behaviors when they are in a working situation or around humans. Even a stallion that is bred a lot can easily learn when that behavior is acceptable and when it is not. Never let your horse fraternize or interact with other horses when you are handling him or riding him. This just should not be allowed; it is not safe and it is not good for herd health, when the horses are from different herds.

In a situations like you describe, it is best to use the training theory known as “replacement training.” This means that when a horse displays undesirable behavior, rather than punish the bad behavior, replace it with another more desirable behavior. In the instance of your horse losing his focus, it might work to put him to work doing something else. I would start immediately working the horse, not in a harsh, quick or punishing way, but just making him do something that would probably involve changing directions again and again. So I might put him to the trot, ask him to turn right, then go straight, then go left, then go straight, then go right, etc. Throw in some transitions so that the horse has to listen to you. When the horse focuses on you, let him rest, but away from the other horses. Do not let him come back to the “herd” until he is quiet, obedient and relaxed. Take him away and put him to work as soon as he becomes distracted again.

From the incidents you describe and the herd-bound behavior you are dealing with, it sounds like your horse is emotionally needy. His herd-bound behavior will only get worse as he ages if you don’t keep a handle on it. Find opportunities to keep him by himself—tied at the trailer alone, in a turn out pen by himself, riding by yourself, etc. This will help him gain independence and also make him more eager to be around you for company.
When you are handling him—riding or groundwork– his focus should be totally on you. If he looks around or is noncompliant, put him to work, take command, get inside his mind and draw his focus back to you. Start with this process while you are riding alone and then insist on the same level of obedience when you are with others. With a real needy or really herd-bound horse, I would have a zero-tolerance policy—focus stays on me at all times.

Examine your relationship with this horse. Chances are there are little things that you are doing that you may not even be aware of that are eroding your authority with him. He needs stronger leadership from you. Does he ever control your actions? Does he invade your space at times; eat grass while you are leading him; ignore your cues? Does he go exactly where you point him and maintain a steady speed that you dictate when you are riding? Has he trained you to feed him treats? If you examine it closely, you’ll probably find some holes in your authority that are not instilling confidence in your horse about your leadership ability.

I’ve said this many times before, there’s only one conversation to have with your horse and it goes like this: “Horse, this is your Captain speaking.” Everything else that follows is a direct order. The horse is your first mate and his job is to carry out your orders—not to ignore orders, suggest alternatives or argue about your decision. If he’s a good first mate he will be the apple of the Captain’s eye and have many privileges, but if he’s not, he’ll be fired and made to walk the plank. This is the kind of relationship your horse knows and seeks—acceptance into the herd of a strong and fair leader and banishment if he cannot abide by the rules. Once he accepts you as that strong and benevolent leader, then the other horses won’t matter so much to him.

I think that if you invest some time in groundwork so that you learn to control your horse’s nose, feet, shoulder and hip, and you gain control over his impulsive actions; you will no longer have the problems you describe. However, I am not disagreeing with your parents, as far as you getting another horse, because if you were my daughter, I would prefer that you have a well-trained, obedient and therefore safer horse that was ready for you to go out and enjoy and accomplish your personal competitive goals.

Julie

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

Building A Better Relationship: New Horse Has Become Herd Bound

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Question Category: Building a Better Relationship

Question: I got my first horse last October and things started out great but through the winter he started to become very buddy sour and now it is starting to get to the point where I can’t even take him out of the pen without him getting very upset. Do you have any suggestions?
Jennifer

Answer: It is not at all unusual for horses to become more herd bound through the winter, especially if they are turned out with the herd all winter and perhaps living in a more “natural” herd setting and being handled less by people.

For your horse, it is probably compounded by the fact that you had not had him long and therefore didn’t have a lot of history and depth in your relationship with him, before putting him with the herd. Through the winter, his herd mates became much more important to him than you. I’ll address how to resolve these issues and strengthen your relationship with the horse so that he is happy to walk away from the herd, knowing that he is safe with you.

But first, I should address another common theme that I read in your question. Many people buy a well-trained horse and then after a few months they discover that the horse has become untrained. The easiest thing to do and what I hear most often is to blame the seller for having misrepresented the horse. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me. The hardest thing to accept, but most often the truth, is that the buyer has deteriorated the horse’s training through indulgence and inadequate leadership. Horses do well when there is structure, authority and consistency in their daily routine. When a horse changes ownership and goes from structure and authority to no rules and a lack of leadership, he either takes charge himself or starts calling all the shots or he turns back to the herd for comfort and security.

It is never enough to just go out and buy a well trained horse. No matter how well he is trained, you can erode his behavior. When you get a new horse, you have to take on the responsibility of maintaining the horse’s training and establishing a relationship with him based on respect and authority—you can’t buy that, you have to earn it. To a horse, you have to demonstrate good leadership qualities 100% of the time—not just when you are thinking about it. Horses are excellent judges of leadership; in their minds, their lives depend on it. For a horse to be willing to leave the safety of the herd and go with you somewhere, he has to trust that you have the same leadership ability that the leader of the herd does and that you will keep him safe and provide the structure he needs to remain calm.

The most effective means for establishing a productive relationship with your horse—one in which you are the supreme leader and he is the willing follower, is through ground work exercises. In my groundwork program, we work on controlling all parts of the horse—his nose, shoulder, hip and feet, moving him out of your space, controlling his actions and getting his focus on you so that he is looking to you for the next directive and he tunes out all else in his environment.

You may want to start in the round pen and then advance your work on the long lead. As you gain control of the horse’s direction, speed and can move different parts of his body, he learns that you control him and he gets the sense that you control everything—and that gives him a great sense of security and peace. He will relax and focus more on you and less on the herd and he’ll tune out the rest of the world and relax once he feels that you have everything under control and are qualified to be making all the decisions, so he doesn’t have to think, worry or make any decisions. That is what horses want most—comfort and security; but that only is possible in the presence of a strong leader.

I have written a lot about the specific exercises you should do in the round pen and on the lead line and I think you need to go back to this basic work to establish your leadership with this horse. I have two DVDs on the subject, Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership, which take you through a step-by-step process and explain thoroughly what to do, how to do it and why it works. In these videos I work with several different types of horses from hot to cold, lazy to fast, so you can see how the same process is applied even though the horse may respond differently at first. In the end, they all act the same as they accept authority and relax in the presence of strong leadership.

Check out related articles in my Training Library and consider ordering the groundwork videos so that you have a structured and purposeful plan to work on with your horse. With a little investment of your time and energy, your horse will gladly leave the herd and be happy with you.

Good luck!

Julie

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