Horses Need Horses

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Relationship Fix Series

 

By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco

 

Top trainer Julie Goodnight discusses how horses gain a sense of calm and necessary interaction with the herd—and how their time with other horses can benefit your time together.

 

Horses Need Horses

Do you want your horse to be happy, relaxed and ready for your next ride? For your horse to feel his best, he needs time with other horses when you can’t be around.

Horses need the herd. They are social animals and they only exist in natural settings in a herd—horses are never alone for long in the wild. They depend on the herd for social stimulation as well as a sense of security.

Horses actually depend on the herd for a feeling of wellbeing. In the herd, they exist cooperatively: they stand head to tail to help keep pests away; they guard one another so that they can feel safe enough to sleep. If a horse is alone, he may never fully relax. He’ll always be the one that has to watch the horizon— constantly on guard.

When horses are alone, their behaviors can change and they are often depressed. They may begin repetitive stress behaviors—such as weaving or pacing in a stall.

While not all horses can always be with a herd, you can make housing and turnout choices to include his socialization needs. If you have a small property, a performance horse that needs to be kept safe, or a horse with health or behavior issues, you may need to keep alone for part of the day. That’s OK, as long as you do your best to provide natural elements.

A horse would rather be with other horses (envision how mustangs live in the wild as what your horse would choose for himself). A horse wants wide-open spaces so that at any moment he can flee from a predator. While humans think that a small, warm space with high walls is comforting, horses are comforted by seeing the horizon and accessing open spaces. Your horse wants turnout time outside with other horses. It’s time to think like a horse and think about how your horse wants to live.

Horses Home Alone

If your horse is an only horse, I think you have a responsibility to provide 24-hour-a-day companionship. At the very least, your horse will feel more comfortable if he can see other horses. If possible, make sure your horse shares a safe fence line with a neighboring horse. However, he will be most comfortable if he can touch another horse. Touching, nipping, grooming, swishing tails and even being able to bite is important to a horse’s overall well being.

If you are the only one your horse has, make sure to enrich his life. In addition to riding, stimulate his mind and occupy his time with long walks. You may also give him obstacles and novel items to interact with in his paddock.

Ideally, getting a buddy horse is the best answer. A miniature donkey or even a goat can be a great companion. I’ve even seen a horse bond with a duck or a cat! Your horse can even bond with a dog, but that doesn’t work if you take your dog inside. Your horse can get companionship from any animal and that companionship is best provided by another horse or a similar species.

Horse Boarding Choices

My horses are together outside all day then come into stalls with runs in the evening. That separation time works for us because that’s how we feed separately and manage their different supplement and diet needs. At that time, they can all see one another, touch each other through openings in the dividers and access their outdoor runs so that they can see the horizon. They are all ready to go out first thing in the morning. They don’t tend to stay in their stalls unless they are seeking shelter from rain or snow.

If you board your horse, the most ideal scenario is having your horse turned out with other horses. Choose as much outdoor access and herd time turnout as possible.

Horses can learn to like their stalls, but I say learn purposefully. If your horse is stalled, choose a stall with a window that allows him to see the horizon. New, high-class barns have indoor walls made of mesh so that horses can see one another and even touch through the walls. That is more preferable to a solid wall.

Choose an attached run so he can move in and out –to see other horses. That is preferable to a stall that is dark and inside only.  A long and narrow run is preferable to a square pen. A long run is designed for the horse’s benefit because he wants to play and act out his flight response and run in a straight line. A square pen that only allows him to run in a circle is not satisfying to the horse.

No matter where your horse lives, take a moment to evaluate his interaction with others and his ability to see the horizon. Build in as many natural views and interactions as possible and you’ll have a healthy horse—and a healthier relationship with your relaxed and calmer riding partner.

Horses Living Alone

Julie's herd

I first started riding horses more than half a century ago. I was a shy and introverted kid, so growing up on a small horse farm was like heaven to me. The horses in the pasture were the only friends I needed and I learned a lot about their herd life from my tree fort, in the shade of a towering live oak tree in our pasture—a favorite hangout of the herd on hot days.

That was way back in the day when kids were left free to climb any tree that was climbable and play outdoors without supervision, as long as you were home by 6:00 for dinner. It was also only a few decades removed, one generation really, from the time when horses were work animals—beast of burden, helping to pave the way to civilization.
The human relationship to horses was much different back then and I have seen my own philosophical outlook change through the decades, as horses have acclimated to new societal norms wherein horses fill a much different role in our society.

Just as our knowledge of human psychology, the brain and human behavior has grown exponentially in the last half century, so has the study of animal behavior evolved. It wasn’t long ago that behaviorists believed that animals did not feel pain and suffering, or that animals may share the same emotions as humans—like happy, sad, angry, bored or frustrated.

It’s only been in the last decade that some behaviorists have begun to accept the idea that animals can form friendships—defined as a reciprocal altruistic relationship between two animals of the same species that are not related by blood. A friendship based on, “I’ll get your back if you get mine,” or benefitting others at a cost to yourself. Not all species demonstrate this kind of relationship, but research has shown that horses do. This comes as no great surprise to anyone who has been around horses a lot.

Thirty years ago, if you asked me if it was okay to keep your horse at home alone, without the companionship of other horses, I would’ve said, “Sure, he’ll get used to it.” Today, my answer would be much different.

Horses are incredibly good at adapting to their environment and to changes in society. They are the most sensitive domesticated animal and the most easily DE-sensitized. They can adapt rapidly from a hot climate to a cold one; they can get used to the most disturbing stimuli in minutes. Over the millennium, their relationships with humans have evolved from a source of food, to transportation, to mechanisms of war, to sport, to entertainment, to items of luxury, to powerful tools of therapy.

Today, our use of horses is much different and our understanding is much greater. Plus, we have the undeniable luxury of not being reliant on our horses for surviving and thriving. We can afford more perspective on the horse’s well-being.
Indisputably, horses are herd animals. They get great comfort and security from the herd and they are very tactile animals—rubbing and massaging each other, nipping and biting, providing shade and tail swishing to each other.

Their herd behaviors are very distinctive and the structure of the herd is quite complex—rankings within the herd, cooperative behavior, bonding. Seeking acceptance into the herd is a huge instinctive drive of horses and banishment is the ultimate punishment. Simply put, horses are happiest in the herd, where they can touch other horses, push each other around and give each other comfort.

There’s safety in numbers and all horses know that. He feels safest when other horses surround him and he may only lie down to sleep if another horse remains standing. He relies on the senses of the other horses in the herd to help keep him safe, so that he does not have to be hyper-vigilant at every waking moment.

I’ve known horses that have adapted well to living alone. I’ve also seen horses that are frantic or severely depressed. Often, circumstances dictate the living arrangements for the horse and not ideals. Not all horses can run free 24/7 in belly-deep grass with a herd. Many horses are separated from the herd for their own health or well-being. Some may be separated because they are aggressive or dangerous. Often health and nutrition, as well as daily usage, means that our horses are separated part or most of the day.

Location and logistics sometimes limit the choices we have, but what most horses want is life in the herd. So how would I answer the aforementioned question today, about whether or not it is okay to keep your horse alone? I’d say, you owe it to him to provide some sort of 24/7 companionship, even it if cannot be another horse.

A companion horse is best—they share the same behaviors and motivations. An older horse that needs a home, an infirm horse that can’t be ridden, better yet, a friend’s horse that will share chores with you or off-set your costs. A miniature horse is perfect, since they don’t eat much, but the upfront cost may be high. A miniature donkey can fill the bill as well.

There are lots of options to fill the horse’s need to live in a herd and deciding what is right for you and your horse may be challenging. If all else fails, get a goat, a duck or a pig. I’ve even seen horses bond with barn cats, but a similar species is best.

Goats have long been used as companion animals for race horses that are kept in stalls. To help keep the racehorse calm in his isolated stall, you give him a goat for a roommate. The term, “Get your goat,” refers to the nasty trick of stealing your opponent’s goat the night before the big match race, thus leaving the horse frantically pacing all night and exhausted on the day of the race.

The biggest downside to horses living in the herd is their undying mission to stay with the herd. This is an instinctive behavior of horses, but highly inconvenient and sometimes downright irritating to us humans. Barn sour, herd-bound, tantrum throwing, nappy horses are a drag. Fortunately, not all horses are that bad.

To me, the ultimate honor my horse can bestow on me, comes with his willingness to leave the herd with me—happily and voluntarily. To do as I ask, take me where I want to go and respond to my signals, because I give him the same sense of safety and security he gets from the herd. To get that kind of relationship with your horse, you must give him fair and strong leadership, give him the comfort, the structure, the praise and the discipline he deserves. Once again, horses make us better people.

But in his free time, let him be with other horses as much as you can. As much as I want my horses to look up to me and work hard for me, I know I can never replace the contentment he gets from being a part of the herd.

Fix A Grass Grabber

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight tells you how to stop your horse from grabbing mouthfuls of grass during trail rides.

Q. My young Quarter Horse gelding is always grabbing a “snack” while I’m riding through tall grass on the trail. I don’t like his eating with a bit in his mouth while we’re walking down the trail. I try to stop him, but nothing works. How can I stop him once and for all?

Colleen Frank
via e-mail

A. You’re right to correct your gelding for snacking during work time. Snacking on the trail is a rude behavior and may be a sign that he doesn’t accept your authority.

While some riders allow the behavior and think of it as a horse’s natural instinct to graze constantly, it’s important to think about how horses act when part of a herdand how they associate food with dominance.

Your grass-grabber thinks of you as the subordinate herd member, because you give him first dibs on the tasty grass.
Your grass-grabber thinks of you as the subordinate herd member, because you give him first dibs on the tasty grass.

The Problem: Dominance
In the herd, horses establish the herd hierarchy by determining who controls food and water. Dominant horses always eat first and will run the subordinate horses away from the food supply until they’ve had their fill.

Horses think they’re dominant any time you allow them to get to food.

With this in mind, imagine what’s really happening when your gelding drags you toward grass as you’re leading him. And think about who’s really in charge if he’s eating as you ride, pulling the reins away from you to graze at ground level.

In your gelding’s mind, he’s in charge! He shows his dominance by controlling the food. He thinks of you as the subordinate herd member, because you give him first dibs on the tasty grass.

The Fix: Apply Pressure
To fix this bad habit, you’ll need to change who’s in charge in your herd of two. Examine all aspects of your relationship to see whether you can name other areas where your gelding makes decisions, calls the shots, and controls you.

Does your gelding step off without a cue as soon as you mount up? Does he paw and beg for food or treats when you get back to the barn? You’ll need to address all aspects of your relationship to make sure you’re firmly in charge.

When it comes to grass-grabbing on the trail, adhere to an age-old training principle that applies to all animals even humans: Find the amount of pressure that motivates change.

Whatever your gelding is doing at a specific moment is what he’s most motivated to do; in your case, he’s motivated to eat grass while you ride. To change his behavior, you’ll have to find the amount of pressure that motivates him to rethink this action.

It may be a little pressure or a lot, depending on how sensitive your gelding is and how motivated he is to eat grass on the trail. But one thing is for sure it’s more pressure than you’re using now.

Whenever a behavior isn’t changed by your correction, either the timing of the correction is wrong or you aren’t using the necessary amount of pressure.

Pressure can be physical (such as the spank of a rein or having to work hard immediately following an attempt) or mental (such as issuing constant directives that requires your gelding to focus on you).

What to Do
Here’s how to apply pressure to your gelding to correct his behavior and establish yourself as herd leader.

Use one rein. When you correct your gelding for eating grass while riding, jerk up harshly and quickly on one rein. Any time you pull on both reins, you start a tug-of-war with him and you’ll never win that contest. But with one rein, you have control.

Ask him to work. If you’re riding in a flat, safe location with good footing, ask your gelding to work immediately after you correct him. Trot him in one direction, then another. Make him move. Make him associate his grazing behavior with having to work hard.

Be strong. No matter what type of pressure you use, the consequences of eating without your authorization need to be harsh enough to overpower your gelding’s urge to eat.

Your grass-grabber thinks of you as the subordinate herd member, because you give him first dibs on the tasty grass.
Your grass-grabber thinks of you as the subordinate herd member, because you give him first dibs on the tasty grass.

Avoid a Rut
Your grass-grabber thinks of you as the subordinate herd member, because you give him first dibs on the tasty grass. If you’ve been trying to correct your gelding’s grazing behavior for some time with no success, he’s learned to ignore your corrections. He now thinks that you’ll never use enough pressure to bother him.

With this ingrained behavior, you’ve gotten in a rut. Your gelding tries to eat; you say no. He doesn’t worry about the consequence and tries again; you say no. He tries again and on and on.

It’s better to give one strong correction than to get into a nagging relationship such as this. A firm correction will motivate your gelding to change. This is much kinder than pulling on his mouth over and over for years. Make one correction, and be done with it.

Establish your leadership role in your herd of two. Invest time in your young gelding to give him the best manners you can.

This investment will increase your gelding’s value and your riding enjoyment for the rest of his life. He’ll also be better behaved for your veterinarian and farrier.

Horses are happier in the presence of authority.

Settling In

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

It can take weeks for new horses to settle into an established herd—be prepared to see aggressive behavior during the initial introduction. Adding a male to a female brood can extend the time and add extra stress

Dear Julie,
Two weeks ago I introduced my new Appaloosa gelding to my well-established and friendly mare and mule. The mare and mule—both female—are sweet and quiet. They have been in with other horses in the past, but that was about two years ago. When I first introduced the new gelding, all three had time in stalls to snort and touch noses. When I first turned them out together, they seemed calm and fine. After a few days, the gelding became increasingly aggressive to both females. All three horses are in a pasture with a 32 by 36-foot run-in barn. There‘s plenty of room for all to run free, then stand separated in the barn if they choose. However, the gelding is intimidating the females and pushing them out of the shelter whenever they approach. It’s getting cooler and I want all three to have access to the shelter. How long does it take for new horses to settle into the herd? What can I do to facilitate the process?
Driven Out, via e-mail

Dear Driven Out,

It sounds like normal herd behavior going on with your bunch and yes, sometimes it can take weeks for the pecking order to be fully re-established after a new horse is added to the herd. The gelding is trying to make the mares submit so that he has total control over them. Naturally, mares are more likely to form bonded relationships with other mares; while a mare in the wild might bond to a stallion too, mostly they are tight with each other. Probably they are more bonded to each other than to him and that is driving him crazy. A stallion in the wild will herd his mares until they become submissive and obedient. Hopefully they will accept his authority soon, show the appropriate signs of submissiveness and respect then he will settle down.

If you look at the natural herd setting, there are brood mare bands and bachelor bands. The broodmare band generally consists of a stallion, any number of mares he might possess, and their young off-spring. They are a bonded herd. The bachelor band consists of all the colts and stallions that don’t have their own mares and they are not particularly bonded, they have just formed a herd of convenience, since horses are reliant on the herd for survival.

In domestication, we generally turn the natural herd setting upside down and horses are grouped together for our convenience. Most large operations keep all the geldings in one pen and all the mares in another; this makes for very peaceful coexistence. As soon as you add one member of the opposite sex to either group, the sparks will fly and horses will start vying for position: “It’s my mare, not yours,” or “I am the favored mare, not you.” While it is certainly possible for a mixed gender herd to get a long well, it can also be a recipe for disaster.

Whenever you introduce a new horse into a herd, especially a more dominant horse, it is likely that sparks are going to fly and it is quite possible that someone will get hurt. It’s a good idea to introduce them slowly in adjacent pens, over a week or two, preferably so that they can touch and sniff over a tall, sturdy, safe fence. When you turn out the new horse to the herd, there will still be some posturing so you may want to supervise for a while, to make sure things don’t blow up into a full-scale war. I usually hang out in the pen for a while with a whip in my hand, in case I need to break up a scuffle. Try to introduce them in an area free of traps, like corners or stalls where a dominant horse might trap a subordinate and wail on him. It is also very effective to introduce one horse at a time to the new one, by putting one horse from the herd in with him, let them become comfortable, then turn the two out together. Sometimes, if the new horse already has a buddy, he’ll be less likely to be aggressive.

It is possible that your gelding is just a bully. A good herd leader will establish his/her authority and then leave the other horses alone, only discipline them if they are disrespectful or disobedient. However, some horses are just bullies and will pick on the other horses in the herd relentlessly. In time, the herd hierarchy should have straightened out and he should start treating the mares better, or at least ignore them. If not, he may be a relentless bully and may need to be separated from the girls.

If the gelding’s aggressive behavior continues, you may want to start separating him for feeding or pull him out altogether. An incorrigible bully either needs to be put in with a more dominant horse that will put him in his place (at the risk of injury to both horses) or be kept separate from other horses. If you choose the latter, make sure he’s in a pen where he can see and touch other horses—that way he won’t feel alone.

If his aggressive behavior continues or if separation is a problem, consider the use of an electric shock collar called “Vice Breaker.” It is only used in cases where it is in the horses’ best interest (we’re talking about safety for the bully and for the females) to eliminate the unacceptable behavior–in this case the unacceptable behavior is aggressiveness. People have had remarkable and quick success with aggressive horses using a shock collar. The shock collar is similar to what they use on dogs, but with a much lower level of stimulation (at the lowest level, a human cannot feel anything). Basically, you put the collar on the horse, stand at a distance, and (unbeknownst to him) hit the remote button to shock him every time he acts aggressively. Like all training, timing is quintessential and it requires skill to use this device effectively. With good timing, you could eliminate the undesirable behavior on the first session, but generally it will take a few sessions. The remote control works up to half mile away so it is easy to stay ‘hidden’ so that your horse doesn’t associate the correction with your presence. This device is also very handy for barn or trailer kickers, aggressive biting, etc. Generally, in one or two sessions the horse is cured.

Good luck with your new horse. I hope they all settle soon!

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight
www.juliegoodnight.com

Becoming The Leader

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Question: I need advice for my daughter and her horse. My daughter is 10 years old and very interested in riding, however she lacks confidence in riding. Her horse has come to figure this out. Cheyenne is a very sweet and gentle horse and a tab bit on the lazy side. I would like to find out information or suggestions on how to teach my daughter to win her horse’s respect and have him respond to her commands. When she asks him to walk he refuses.He cocks his back leg and stands there no matter what she does. Also once she does get him to move he begins to pull her in the wrong direction and when she tries to bring him back he resists her. When I ride him he does perfectly. What can I do to help her? She is very frustrated and so am I.
Answer: Horses are herd animals and the social structure within the herd is known as a “linear hierarchy.” The definition of a linear hierarchy is that each individual in the herd is either subordinate to or dominant over every other individual in the herd. Since this is the only way that horses know to act, it is also how they relate to their human herd members. We need to think of the horse and its rider as a herd of two. So we have a choice, we can either be the dominant member (or the leader) or the subordinate member (the follower). There is no equality in a horse herd.
Clearly, in the case of your daughter’s horse, she is subordinate to the horse, while you are dominant over the horse. The horse has already made up his mind that this is the way it is and there have probably been countless little things that has lead the horse to this conclusion. So how do we change this? Well, I can think of a few options.
Only your daughter will be able to step forward and take the leadership role with her horse. You riding the horse will not affect the relationship between horse and daughter, as clearly the horse does not question your authority. I do not recommend that your daughter take an aggressive approach (do this or else), because in the situation where the rider has a history of being subordinate, a challenge could prompt the horse to be fractious and start bucking or worse. Instead, your daughter needs to get inside the horse’s mind and learn to control ALL of his actions.
First, your daughter will need to make up her mind to resolve this situation and accept the fact that it may take some time. She will need to have a assertive, but patient attitude. I recommend that she address the issue of respect on the ground first. She needs to have a sense of awareness of her horse and she must take control of every move he makes. That means, when he is tied to the hitch rail, he should stand exactly where she told him to. If he steps sideways or back or forward, she should gently but firmly put his feet exactly back in the spot that she first asked him to stand. The horse should learn to respect her space and yield to it. She should be able to walk, trot and halt the horse at halter, back him up and disengage his hindquarters (make him cross his hind legs). All of these are examples of controlling the horse’s space and when the horse does these things without question, he is respecting her leadership authority. Disengaging the hindquarters is really important both on the ground and mounted, because it forces the horse into a subordinate frame of mind. When his hind legs are crossed, his number one line of defense (flight) is taken away from him, so subconsciously he becomes more dependent.
Your daughter must learn to only ask what she can enforce and ALWAYS enforce what she asked the horse to do. So for now, that probably means backing up and enforcing her control in areas where she can be successful. So often, I see people ask something of their horse, lets say to turn right, and the horse resists and refuses, so the rider caves in and lets the horse turn left. The rider thinks that she is winning because she got the horse where she wanted it by circling it all the way around to the left. But the horse sees it differently. He does not have the capability to realize that the rider got him where she wanted anyway. All the horse knows is that he didn’t want to turn right, he wanted to go left and if he refuses, the rider will cave into his wishes. To us humans, these little battles seem unimportant, but to the horse, the littlest things have big meaning.
Every time the horse gets his way, he scores a point and is further convinced in his mind that he is in charge. It sounds like your daughter’s horse has scored a lot of points. What your daughter will have to understand and commit to is that she has a lot of points to score, before she pulls ahead. She needs to realize that the tiniest things count toward this score: the horse moving around at the hitching rail, not trotting on the lead line, the horse taking a step toward the person, the horse nudging the person with his head, taking one step off the rail in the arena, or not going when asked. The rider that is dominant and in control is the one that controls every movement the horse makes. The more she can make this horse yield to her, the more points she will score. But start small and build up to the big issues. If she can gain some respect from the ground, it may be a little easier for her.
To address the specific problem in the arena, your daughter should look for the areas that she is still in control and focus on those and reward the horse when he responds. If the horse is balking, the issue is to get his feet moving. Usually the easiest way to do this is to turn him in a tight circle (this has the added advantage of disengaging the hindquarters). Be sure to reward him when he responds (even if he responds reluctantly) and immediately take control of the situation. How? As soon as she gets the horse to move, she should ask him to stop. Why? By doing this she has accomplished two things: she has rewarded his response by asking him to stop (which is what he wanted to do), but more importantly she has taken control by issuing a command and getting a response. It does not matter that the horse wanted to stop anyway, because he stopped on her request, not his. By successfully getting a response to a command, she puts the horse in a responsive frame of mind. So, she will get the horse to move (by turning a tight circle if she has to) and once the horse has taken a few steps, ask him to stop and reward him with a pat on the neck and leaving him alone for a few minutes, then ask again. Initially, when the horse had responded a few times, find a good stopping point and put him away. Gradually build on what she asks the horse to do.
It is critical that once she has asked something of the horse that she insists upon his response. This does not mean that you kick or hit harder and harder, but that you continue to apply the aids until the horse responds. Sometimes children do not have the strength to keep legging the horse until he moves and the horse learns that the rider will get tired and give up before he does. If this is the case, she might need a stick or spurs. HOWEVER, use these artificial aids with caution because this could drive the dominant horse to more drastic and fractious responses. Whatever aids she is using to make the horse go (and it should be all of the aids), she should continue to apply them until the horse goes. Not necessarily harder and harder, but with persistence. Eventually, the horse will learn that the only way to make that annoying action go away is to move forward.
A couple of more thoughts, if you or your daughter feed treats to this horse, stop immediately. Chances are, the horse has become demanding and rude and this has contributed to his dominance. When horses are subordinate (whether to you or another herd member), they will always yield to the space of the dominant individual. When people feed treats, the horse learns to move into the space of the person and thus you are yielding to his space, therefore he is dominant. Every treat that is fed, reinforces his dominance.
And now having said that, I have one more thought that seemingly contradicts what I just said. There is a form of training called “clicker training” that is being used on horses although it was originally developed to train marine mammals. It uses a clicking device as reinforcement and the first step is to make the horse associate the clicker with positive reinforcement (grain). Then, just like in Pavlov’s Response, every time the horse hears the clicker, he associates it with good thoughts (grain) and knows he is doing the right thing. I have seen this training method used specifically in the same situation that your daughter is in, with good success. So it might be worth looking into. You would have to do the clicker training and then would be able to use the clicker to control the horse’s mind while your daughter is up. The clicker and grain reinforcer just gives the horse a different motivation for doing the right thing.
My personal preference would be for your daughter to establish herself as the leader of their herd of two by doing the groundwork and gaining her horse’s respect. But the clicker method might be worth looking into. There’s a CD called Building Confidence with Horses on my website that gives a pre-ride meditation and some tips to help you look at horses in a new light. I hope that might help, too.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
http://www.juliegoodnight.com

Why Are Horses So Spooky?

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Question:

Why are horses so spooky?

Answer:

Before we can ever hope to understand, let alone control the movement of a horse, it is important to know the various behaviors that motivate a horse to move in the first place. Being a prey animal means the horse’s first reaction to danger is to run, hell bent for leather, away from the perceived threat. React first, think later.

Everyone knows that horses are flight animals; in fact, horses are the very definition of flighty and depend on this behavior for survival. What is often misunderstood about horses is, how deep the flight response goes in a horse’s nature and that every movement a horse is capable of and every step he takes has some significance. Everything about the horse is linked to its flight response. Crazy as it sounds, even their laziness is related to the flight response. By nature horses are generally lazy, for the sole purpose of preserving energy in case it is needed in flight. In the current trend of natural horsemanship, far too much is sometimes made of the predator-prey relationship, since horses, after all, have been domesticated for thousands of years and don’t really think of humans as carnivorous predators. However, it is important to understand that the prey instinct is the origin of the horse’s behavior as we know it today and it is what motivates their movement.

Horses are herd animals, again related to prey-dom, meaning their survival is dependent on the herd. There are safety in numbers. Herd behavior is another important motivating factor for a horse and is present in our everyday dealings with horses, more so than is often recognized. Again, every movement a horse makes has meaning and when given a choice, the horse will always move toward the protection of the herd. These are fundamental and deep layers of horse behavior and the subject could fill many volumes, but the one thing we can deal with here, is to develop an understanding of how we can control the movements of a horse in our presence.

The first thing to understand is that the horse feels safer when he is moving his feet, and the more nervous or uncertain he gets, the more he wants to move his feet. Yet there is nothing a horse likes better than to feel protected enough that he can snooze, standing or prone, knowing that the herd leader is watching out for his safety. The herd leader, a/k/a boss mare, is responsible for the safety of the herd and with a second’s notice, must be able to motivate the entire herd to flight. She earns the respect, admiration, obedience and, most importantly, attentiveness of the herd by dominating every move they make and by controlling the resources of the herd (you’ll recognize the boss mare easily, she’s the one standing in front of the water trough, playing in the fresh clean water and slowly sipping until she is satiated, while the rest of the herd stands in line, thirsty but patient, awaiting their turn in the pecking order). The boss mare controls the actions of each herd member through her body language. When her head is down in the grass and she is quietly munching, her herd mates will be relaxed. When her head comes up, ears prick forward and her muscles tighten, the rest of the herd knows to prepare for flight. They will follow her anywhere on her signal.

Just to make sure the horses all pay attention to her in times of stress, the boss mare will periodically push the herd individuals around a little so that they are in the habit of responding to her. When she directs her gaze at an individual flattens her ears and takes a step toward him, the subordinate horse knows to immediately move away. If they don’t respond quickly enough, she might leave some teeth marks on his rear end. Subordinate herd mates will quickly learn to watch the body language of their leader at all times and to respond without question to her movements.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have that kind of relationship with your horse? If you have the opportunity to observe a herd, you will learn to recognize the subtle communications that constantly occur. For instance, a frightened horse will elevate his head, tense his ears, stiffen his tail and hold his breath; all of these actions communicate an outside threat to the other horses and they will instantly act the same way and look in the same direction. A relaxed and safe horse will lower his head (the lower it goes the more relaxed he is), relax his ears, lick his lips, chew, drop his tail and take a deep sigh.

Horses communicate with their body language, with the head position, ear position, facial expressions, feet, tail, mouth and nose. Horses receive communication from us in the same way, whether we know it or not. The desired relationship between horse and human is that of a herd of two. According to the laws of the herd (the only rules horses really understand) the hierarchy is linear, meaning each and every individual of the herd is either dominate over or subordinate to each and every other individual. In your herd of two, your choice is clear: you must be the dominant member, the alpha individual, the “boss mare.” You must earn this respect, admiration and obedience by controlling the space of your horse and the “resources” of your herd (if your horse is frisking you for treats, HE is controlling the resources).

The first step in controlling your horse’s movement is to control your own body language. Your horse will notice your posture, eye contact, your foot movements, the elevation of your shoulders, the tone of your voice and the rhythm of your breathing. Be aware of the actions on your part and know that you are constantly communicating with your horse through your body language.

If your horse takes a step toward you and you back away, you have just told him he is in charge. If you get scared, tense your muscles and hold your breath, your horse will mirror your actions and instantly become frightened. All horses, no matter how high in the hierarchy, will gratefully accept the leadership of another individual, as long as the leader has demonstrated their commitment to controlling and protecting the herd.

For a horse to accept a human as leader, that human must be able to control the horse’s space and must never betray his trust by causing him fear or pain. Once they have accepted the individual (horse or human) as leader, they will be relaxed, compliant, obedient and happy. In natural horsemanship, we use ground work (round pen and lead-line) to control the horse’s space so that he becomes subordinate.

Beyond just controlling his space, we learn to communicate with the horse through our body language, to develop a strong bond and trust between leader and follower. The horse must be treated firmly but with kindness and above all, your interactions with the horse must be consistent so that he can learn to trust them. This kind of relationship with the horse is the ideal, but one that many horsemen find illusive.

To have a horse that is happy, respectful and obedient, who willingly does whatever you ask and responds to your most subtle cues, you must first become his leader and earn his respect. Learn to control your horse’s space and communicate with your own body language in a way that he understands, and you will not only earn his respect, but admiration as well.

–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Dominance Rehabilitation

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Question:
I have a very dominant 9-year-old Tennessee walker. He is very proud, and was abused and starved. I’ve had him for 3 years. I am having problems with him on the ground and in the pasture. I am the “boss” of my three others, and they all respect me, except him. He rears up at me and attempts to bite me and chase me out of the pasture. We had a great respect and got along great, but lately I can’t get near him. Would like some info on what to do to gain back what we had before.

Thank you.

Dominance Rehab

Answer:

Dear Dominance Rehab,

This sounds like a tough horse! I would recommend that you separate him from the others. It sounds to me like he is becoming protective of “his” herd. Compounded by the fact that he has reason to dislike and distrust humans, he has reverted back to more natural or wild behaviors.

If you separate him from the others, he will not have the opportunity to protect his herd and he will be more reliant on you for companionship and to take care of his needs. Of course, to really gain respect and trust, you’ll need to build a relationship through groundwork. I would definitely start with round pen work, focusing on moving him away from you. I would not let a horse like this turn toward me when I ask him to turn around; instead, emphasize moving him out of your space.

Once he becomes more respectful of your space, then you can start doing inside turns with him. As he improves in the round pen, I would start doing lead-line work focusing on some basic rules of behavior like, stand still until I tell you to move, keep your nose in front of your chest while I am around you, and do walk-trot-halt transitions and turns away from you from both sides of the horse.

With any horse, and especially with one that has shown such aggressive tendencies, always make sure you have some sort of device in your hands when you work with him that allows you to keep a safe distance from the horse. A long whip, a lariat or a cattle sorting stick all work well; I prefer to use a “training wand” (available on my website). The purpose of the stick is not to hit the horse but it is an extension of your arm to give the horse communication and direction. And it allows you to keep a safer distance from the horse and protect yourself should he become aggressive.

With a horse that has been abused and has reason to distrust humans, you have to be careful not to get emotional or angry and escalate his emotions. Horses develop trust when they have basic rules of behavior to follow and you correct and reward them consistently. Start with some very fundamental issue, like moving him away from you, and then work just on that for a while.

I always like to remind people that you can only work on one issue at a time with a horse. So set your priorities and focus on one issue. A good example is when you are working on round pen and trying to control the horse’s speed, but then he starts coming off the rail and cutting off part of the arena. In this case, decide what your priority is at that moment: is it speed or is it staying on the rail? You cannot work on both at the same time. So maybe you step back and work on the horse staying on the rail for a few moments then when the horse is following that rule, you can go back and work on speed control.

Good luck to you and make sure you are very careful around this horse and watch yourself. Hopefully once he is separated from the herd, some of his aggressive behaviors will diminish.

–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

My Horse Is Herd-Bound And Barn Sour

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

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.