Attacks In Round Pen

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Dear Julie,

My friend’s paint gelding has started a very unsavory habit. When asked to move out in a round pen at liberty he will do it for a moment, then pins his ears and violently attacks who ever is doing the asking. He comes at full throttle striking, rearing and bucking and will not back off.

If he is on a line with halter and lead he is mild mannered and accepts the cue, but off lead he is very mean. He will even come back and attack over and over again. He is boarded and has a fairly large turnout. He is completely fine to handle although a little rough under saddle, great with dogs, bikes, noises, etc. Just sometimes rears for no reason, slightly. He will snake you and pin his ears and come at you full fisted if there is no halter on him. He eats hay with a small oat supplement. His owners are becoming more and more afraid of this horse. He appears to be head shy during these moments and very twitchy. Also very lazy and will stop and turn his rump toward you and not move. Only after carefully planned moves, can you reach over and move him over. He was imprinted as a foal, will not “join up,” never licks and chews but overall seems a kind horse. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Sounds like this horse has learned to buffalo his handler and has become dominant as a means to get out of work. Unfortunately, this is not an entirely uncommon behavior of horses and is the main reason I will not allow a horse to turn toward me in the initial stages of round pen work. This is also the reason why you should never work a horse in the round pen without a rope, stick, whip or some kind of “weapon” with which to defend yourself. This very subject is addressed thoroughly in my Round Pen Reasoning DVD.

In the round pen, we are using natural herd behaviors to teach the horse that we are dominant over him and that we can control his actions, just like horses do in real life in the herd. The dominant horse controls the space of the subordinates. In this case, the training has backfired and the horse is round penning the human.

If you think about the way horses act naturally out in the herd, you see this type of charging behavior all the time. It means, “Back off buster, I am in charge of you and I say, get the heck out of my space!” When the horse being charged complies, by backing off and showing signs of submissiveness, the charging horse will give it up, as long as the subordinate remains in his place and does not challenge the dominant horse.

The reason why this horse acts this way at liberty, but is manageable when on the lead or under saddle is because of his life experience. He has had positive training under saddle and lead and knows how he is expected to act in those situations. Unfortunately, the fact that he was imprinted may be a factor in this behavior. Imprinting done correctly is great and results in a calm and willing horse, but sometimes, when done poorly, imprinting can cause a horse to lose his respect for humans because of too much handling and over-familiarity. Whatever the cause of the behavior, the fact is that his antics have given him a great deal of success and have taught him that he can control the humans and make them back off and move out of his space whenever he wants. Therefore, he is dominant.

The solution is to back the horse off and move him out of your space when he charges. This should only be attempted by an expert and confident hand and may take a considerable amount of force. Unless and until a person has experienced this kind of aggressive behavior from horses, it is hard to imagine how aggressive you have to get back at the horse. If a person is not willing or capable of being aggressive and assertive right back at the horse, s/he has no business in the round pen.

With this type of horse I would use a four-foot rigid stick with a six-foot lash on the end. When the horse charges, I would strike the lash straight toward his face, in order to deflect his nose. Make certain that you stay out of kicking or striking reach of the horse; don’t wait until you see the white of his eyes, attack early. Using aversive sounds at the same time, you will let him know you mean business (I call this “hissing and spitting” at the horse). Once he moves away from you, leave him alone. By not backing off when he charges and by moving him out of your space, he will come to realize that he is not dominant.

Let me repeat: this should only be attempted by a very confident and competent trainer. Chances are that the charging horse is just bluffing you, but it is also quite possible that he is willing to act fully on his aggression.

As food for thought, one time I trained a horse that would get very aggressive in the round pen or on the lounge line, but only if you had a whip in your hand. No doubt, the horse had been abused by the whip at some point in his life. So instead of using a whip I used a coiled lariat and would gently wave it toward the horse’s nose until he moved away from me. Once he understood what I wanted and that I was not going to whip him for no reason, he willingly and obediently moved away and the aggression disappeared.

In the case of this horse, his aggressive antics have been very successful, thus his behavior has been rewarded. Essentially, he has been trained to be aggressive. Un-training a horse is much more difficult and time consuming than training them correctly to begin with. This issue certainly needs to be resolved and I would suggest the horse be taken to a competent trainer. Once this issue has been resolved, the owners are likely to discover that the horse works much better in other areas and that the horse is much happier too.
–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Horse Behavior: Proper Handling Of A Foal

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Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: Dear Julie,

I recently purchased two Thoroughbred mares, because I want to breed Hunter Under Saddle Quarter Horses and Paints, and am really excited to tell you that I have a foal on the ground now, a Coats N Tails stud colt who’s all legs with a little bit of horse attached. He’s four days old today, and we’ve had the mare since January. We didn’t do very much of the classic imprinting techniques before he got up after being born, but we did do some, and every day since then we’ve been petting and scratching him all over, with particular emphasis on the areas where tack will be and down his legs for the farrier. He’s also been wearing a halter since he was a day and a half old. The mare has been extremely protective: wringing her neck, snaking her head at people and emphatically biting the air, as well as keeping herself between us and him, but we’ve found that she’s bluffing–if I go right in, tell her “no” or “whoa” in a stern voice and grab her halter, she settles right down and behaves. She doesn’t try to bite when I’m actually reaching for the halter and, although she’ll turn her butt to me, she hasn’t tried to kick–yet, anyway, and we’re always very careful and aware of that possibility. We’ve found that we have to pay a lot of attention to her while we’re paying attention to the foal. Before she foaled she was extremely easy to handle and work with, and very calm, so I think her behavior now is mostly hormones with a little bit of jealousy thrown in. When we go in to work with the baby, I put the mare on a lead rope so I can follow her around without being stepped on while she follows the baby (and I watch her closely for kicking or biting). I scratch and pet her and whatever part of the baby is closest to me, and my daughter pets the other end of the baby and the mare if she can reach her. He seems to like people–he’ll leave his mom and come to the stall door when someone opens it.

This little guy’s career will be showing and trail riding, and then, if he’s good enough, standing at stud. Things are going well now, but what else should we be doing? Also, can you recommend any books or videos to help with this process?

Thanks,

Sandy

Answer: Sandy,

Congratulations on your new foal. I am sure he is a cutie and you are having lots of fun with him. However, I do have a few words of caution for you.

As for your mare, she is not jealous, she is simply doing her job in protecting her foal. Do not assume she is bluffing and do not interfere with her doing what she is programmed to do. Many people are shocked when their gentle mare foals and becomes a different animal. It is not only her right to protect her foal; it is what every cell in her body tells her to do. Usually this behavior diminishes after the foal is a week or so old, but in the meantime, do not push it and never assume that any horse making threatening gestures is just bluffing. Maybe they are, but it is quite likely they horse is willing to act on the threat. Be patient, gentle and understanding with the mare and give her the time she needs with her foal.
Imprinting can be a great thing and it can also be painfully overdone. It is probably good you did not do a lot at first because you never want to interfere in any way with the bonding between mare and foal in the immediate hours after birth.

In my experience, foals are often over handled, particularly when they are treated like pets. This results in a spoiled, pushy foal that has absolutely no respect for humans. Foals love to be scratched all over and if you indulge them too much, pretty soon they are running up to you and slamming their butt into you so that you’ll scratch them. Be careful not to let a horse control your actions and elicit the scratching from you. When this happens, you are teaching the horse to be dominant over you because he can control your actions.

You can go overboard on desensitizing a foal to the point where he is oblivious to any touch, or worse, learns to lean into pressure. That will come back to haunt you when he is ready to be ridden and is insensitive to pressure.

I am not a big fan (as you can probably tell) of too much handling as a young foal. I want them to be accustomed to humans and to like humans, but I want them to be a baby horse too. I will usually halter a foal when he is about a week old, but never leave the halter on. When you do come into handle him, slip the halter on so that he gets used to being haltered. I will generally teach them to lead at a pretty young age, with very light pressure (just a jiggle of the lead, releasing the pressure as soon as the foal moves his nose forward), and work with him occasionally for very short sessions.

There is lots of time in the next few years to start training him, starting with when you wean him. For now, let him be a baby horse and romp and play and explore his world. Don’t get in a hurry to train him. Like most trainers, I give young horses minimal handling the first year. As a yearling, we start teaching them to have good manners on the lead, stand tied, etc. But they are still babies at that age (training a yearling is like sending a child to kindergarten when he is three). I will wait until the horse is 2-3 before even thinking about any saddle training. Foals that are over handled and spoiled are not fun to train later on because they have no respect. I would way rather start a colt that has never been handled than one that has been spoiled. So be careful with your foal. He is a horse, not a pet.

I geld ALL my colts as weanlings or earlier if I have reason to. The longer you wait, the more likely he is to develop reproductive behaviors that you do not want. Just like dogs; if you wait to neuter them until they are lifting a leg on every thing and running off to hound-dog, those behaviors are already ingrained and neutering him will not eliminate the unwanted behaviors.

Your colt would have to be in the top 1% of quality AND bloodlines to be worth keeping a stallion, and even then, I doubt you want to mess with a stallion. Stallions are more challenging to handle and there is a much greater responsibility and liability associated with owning a stallion. And besides, you will never make money on a breeding stallion, especially if his sire is still breeding (why would a mare owner settle for diluted genes when she can go right to the source). My suggestion would be to geld him as soon as your vet thinks it is appropriate. His value is as a performance horse, not a breeding stallion.

For any breeding program, the best thing to do is invest in high quality mares. You can find world champion stallions to breed to all over the world and with shipped semen, you can breed to anything and keep variety in your breeding program. Put your investment into the mares and buy semen when you need it.

I know John Lyons has a lot of books and videos on foal handling, but I am not personally familiar with them. Also, Cherry Hill has a great book on the subject (and many other subjects). Her website is www.horsekeeping.com.

Good luck on your new endeavor and enjoy your horses, but do not spoil them!

JG

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