Horse Illustrated – Julie Goodnight Q & A

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Cheating the Circle During Round Pen Work; Following the Herd Hierarchy at Feed Time

Q: How can I get my horse to longe or round pen in a complete circle? He keeps cutting in to the middle and making his circles too small. –Amber Verbena

A: This is a common occurrence in the round pen and your horse may show the same “cutting corners” behavior when you’re riding. Your horse is only obedient if he goes on the path that you choose. If he is veering off course—no matter how you’re working him–he isn’t paying attention to you and he thinks he can go where he wants.

When you work in a round pen, it can be intense for the horse and it’s possible that he’ll have an emotional outburst. Because of that, make sure that your round pen is made of a solid material that won’t bend or shift if he moves toward it and that it is at least five feet tall. Also make sure you have a tool (such as a stick and flag) to defend your space and direct your horse.

Ask your horse to trot in the round pen and be aware of when and where he starts in to the middle. He knows that he is cutting in and h finds that he benefits in some way. Is he being lazy and wanting to make the circle smaller? Or is he chopping off one side of the circle so that he is closer to the gate or to the herd? Watch his path closely. Either way, the fix is to take away the benefit for him and to teach him that it will be easiest to follow the path you dictate. You’ll change his direction to get him working harder at the moment he was choosing to go off course.

As soon as he comes off of the track, take a step to cut him off (using your body language and position to change his direction while staying safely out of his way) and use your stick to cue him to turn toward the fence then let him continue in the opposite direction. Watch again for his feet to come off the path and at that point, turn him into the fence again. Turning is difficult for the horse—it’s not easy to stop, roll back to his hocks and turn toward the fence.

Soon, he’ll learn to take the path of least resistance and stay to the outside of the pen instead of cutting in because it’s physically easier. When he turns toward the fence, it is the opposite direction from what he wanted, so you have taken away his benefit. That means he loses ground and realizes that you are choosing the direction and that he is not in charge.

If you’re working on a longe line, you can’t turn the horse away from you, but you can move more aggressively toward your horse’s shoulder and point your flag toward that point. You’ll drive him forward and make him speed up any time he steps in toward you. Your new posture and cue to move out and forward takes away the benefit for him. He no longer finds it easy to cut in to the middle; in fact, he’ll have to work harder if he tries that again.

 

Q: Knowing my horses and which is more dominant— should I feed in a specific order at feeding time and turn them out in a certain order? –Sherry Patron

The pecking order of your herd matters and it’s helpful to observe the order and note any changes. That’s great info to know, but it shouldn’t dictate everything that you do.

I want to know the hierarchy in my herd so I can watch to see if those at the bottom of the pecking order need help. Those horses may need to be separated for the night (to have a rest from a dominant or bully horse) or for feeding time (to make sure that they have access to food). Plus, if you see a change in the pecking order, it may indicate a change in health. If a horse that is usually alpha is suddenly lower in the order, it may mean he has a health issue and needs attention. I have seen a dominant horse move from the top to the bottom of a herd in a matter of hours and it was indeed a sign that he was getting very sick fast.

With my own herd of horses, I want to make sure that as soon as I step into the pen, they see me as the leader. The pecking order should change as soon as I step in– and suddenly I am the one they should be paying attention to. And my horses gladly obey, because they are happy to be in the herd and want to stay on good terms.

We train horses so that they don’t get to display herd behavior when a human is around. That’s a safety rule. I don’t want a horse to treat me as a new horse when I enter the pen or attack another horse who then runs over the top of me. That’s not a safe way for horses to act around humans.

I don’t want herd hierarchy to dictate how I go about my horse chores. If I want to feed them in an order that goes against the pecking order—by walking down a barn aisle and feeding in order of the pens—I want to be able to do that without making my job more difficult. I wouldn’t feed the alpha horse first if his pen was halfway down the row. He’ll need to be patient and have manners, just like everyone else.

I also don’t want to make my job harder than it needs to be. If I bring horses in from the pasture and they know that they’ll be fed in their pen when they return, I may allow the dominant horse to come in first. It may cause more problems than it’s worth to work out of the herd’s natural order in that scenario.

No matter their place in the herd, horses will learn the routine; they are very good at learning manners and following rules. They can learn to be respectful and patient and learn the process. Make sure that no matter what order you feed horses in, they are patient and acting properly at the moment you give them food. I want the horses to stand back respectfully and wait for the food (even if I am on the other side of the fence).

Horses often display anxious and aggressive behavior at feed time. All horses will nicker to you at feed time—the nicker means come to me and they know you will bring them food. But it is important not to let a horse control your actions or your emotions. Don’t stop what you are doing and feed them just because they are being demanding.

If a horse is displaying dominance and you walk by and throw hay, he may think that his behavior caused the food to appear.Some of my horses are on fee-choice hay access and 24/7 turnout—this is the most peaceful and least stressful feeding situation in the herd because everyone takes their turn eating and the omegas can steer well clear of the alpha/betas and eat without being harassed.

If a horse has learned to display dominant behavior at a scheduled feed time (such as pinning his ears, moving into me, pawing, or even charging) I would approach that horse with a flag and stick in my hand. I would wave the flag at any horse that approached me and encourage him to back up, out of my space. He doesn’t have to act perfectly for long, he just has to pay attention and be calm at the moment that I relinquish the food. If he backs up and stands still, I can give the food and know that he saw me as the herd-member to respect.

After I leave and step away from the food, the horses will go back to their own pecking order. But while I’m present, I want to make sure that no horse is moving into my space and acting disrespectful. Again, the horse doesn’t have to act right for long, he just has to be acting patiently and attentively at the moment you give the food. With a flag in hand, you’ll teach the horse that backing up, moving out of your space and being patient will cause the food to appear.

 

–Julie Goodnight, JulieGoodnight.com

Settling In

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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

Hierarchy At Feeding Time

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Hierarchy at Feeding Time

Here’s a question from a reader:
I have a question about hierarchy. I still treat my oldest horse (17) like he is alpha because I love him the most. I also have a 12 year old that is very submissive and backs down to all other horses. I just got third, a 7 year old and when they are out, he is obviously the boss. Should I be recognizing the shift and changing feeding patterns etc… or do I determine the herd hierarchy when I am with them and let them do their own thing in the pasture? I probably know the answer, I just have a soft spot for my old guy.

My thoughts: There’s no sense in fighting the natural order but the dominant horse doesn’t get to dictate what you do. If I am feeding a group, I let the horses decide who eats first but ALL have to follow their manners and respect my authority. If I am feeding individually, I just put them in pens/stalls according to who is first in line and feed in the most efficient manner. No one gets to fuss about it if he doesn’t get fed first.