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

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