Relationship Fix Series

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Relationship Fix Series

 

Bonding Dos and Don’ts

 

By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco

 

Top trainer Julie Goodnight discusses how to show your horse affection without deteriorating your leadership in your herd of two.

 

How do you show your horse affection while also maintaining respect? There’s nothing wrong with having a bond with your horse. In fact, it’s desirable. But you have to show your affection and bond with your horse in a safe way and in a way that your horse appreciates. Horses don’t think like we do—especially when it comes to how to bond and show affection. Be aware and make sure not to instill human affection behaviors on the horse—such as kissing on the lips. Instead, find out what your horse likes.

We, as humans, are so drawn to the head of the horse. The head and lips are so soft and smell so good. You may want to get your head next to his and love on him. But horses have blind spots around his head and many horses don’t like to have you so close to their heads. For the most part, the head is a good place to stay away from. The horse’s head is big, weighs a lot and moves quickly. I can personally vouch for several concussions and some busted teeth from having my head too close to a horse’s head. Even if it’s a horse you know well, he may accidentally turn quickly and spook–moving with force.

Affection in Horse Terms

Kissing and hugging are human ideas of affection. Horses do spar (play fight) and bite at the lips but that’s more of a reason not to kiss on the lips. That’s a reason to keep your horse’s lips away from your lips. You don’t want him to think you’re playing and be bitten.

Horses only have one known affectionate behavior that isn’t associated with reproduction. Allo grooming (also known as mutual grooming) occurs when two bonded horses face each other and give one another a deep massage with their teeth. Horses mostly groom around the withers and down the neck and back. The more dominant horse in the pair will tell the other horse when to start and stop the grooming sessions and both horses will let each other know where they like to be groomed. .

When I show affection to my horse, I like to mimic this grooming behavior by approaching the horse as another horse would. Then I like to find the horse’s “sweet spot.” If I’m bonding with a new horse, I approach the horse slowly then put my hand out (palm down) to allow him to sniff me. That’s just polite to the horse. Next, I go to the withers and rub him to show him I’m friendly.

Scratching and rubbing on the horse’s favorite “sweet” spot is a great way to show your affection. How do you find this spot? Horses pucker their lips when they feel pleasure. With your fingers all pressed together, dig in with your fingertip pressure in a circular motion and rub around your horse’s withers, neck and chest. When you find a spot he likes, you may see your horse slightly move his lips or you may see your horse reach high in the air, wiggle his lips and show his teeth. Many horses like a deep pressure—if he doesn’t like that deep of a pressure, he’ll let you know by moving away.

Sometimes I give my horse a hug at the withers. On a rare occasion you’ll have a horse that wraps back and hugs you as you stand at his shoulder. That could be another affectionate behavior of the horse but it is less studied. I have had that happen just a few times in my life but it does feel like a bonded and sincere behavior. I’ve heard of a few other similar reports and would love to see research about it!

Know the Consequences

What happens if you pamper and kiss on your horse without first setting boundaries? Your horse may become oblivious to your actions and disrespectful of your space. He may at first turn his head away from you. Then he’ll bump into you. That’s not accidental, that’s sending you a message. If your horse is oblivious to your existence, that’s not a relationship that is bonded from the horse’s perspective.

Horses want a leader and respect and want to bond with a leader. If the behavior is allowed to go on, the horse may escalate from turning away to more aggressively dragging away or turning and biting. Make sure to pay attention to your moves and think about who “owns” the space at any given moment. I can invite a horse into my space but he can never come into that space without permission. Be very aware of space when you’re around your horse. Make sure your horse is conscientious about your space and careful not to crowd you.

Boundaries have to be established before you choose to be “touchy feely” with your horse. If you don’t set boundaries, horses can push you around and run you over. Horses can also manipulate and “train” the people around them. They may train you to give them attention if they paw or reach for your hand with their lips. Think of a Golden Retriever that comes over to you when you sit down. He’ll bump your elbow with his nose until you start to pet him. He has trained you to pet him when he asks for it. Similarly, your horse may be training you to be subordinate by using horse language—moving you out of his space instead of understanding that he must move from your space. You may not be in danger when a dog trains you. When a horse is in charge, there are safety risks.

Your horse being the dominant in the herd of two becomes a problem when you want to ask a horse to do something he doesn’t want to do. If he’s the boss from the moment you enter his stall, he’s not likely to follow your leadership as you tack up or from the saddle.

Pay Attention and be Affectionate

Notice when horses move into your space and make sure to move them out of your space immediately. You want your horse to be careful about your space and conscientious of your moves. This doesn’t mean making your horse fearful, but using visual and corrective pressure to move the horse out of your space so that you maintain your safety.

Of course I’m all for affection. There’s nothing wrong with being affectionate and offering praise—when it’s deserved. Once you know the rules and establish boundaries, you will know your horse and you can stretch the rules if you want to. Make sure the affection you give is appropriate for the horse and is something they will appreciate. If your horse is mindful of your presence, your affection is appropriate to how horses communicate and you don’t reward bad behavior, you’re on your way to a respectful and bonded relationship.

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.

Canter Control

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Dear Julie,
I have had my horse for 10 months. I am scared to ride her outside because every time I ask her for a canter, or if another horse canters off ahead of her, she does her best imitation of a bucking bronco then takes off like her tail is on fire. So far I’ve managed to hang on, but it’s very scary. If I ride her in the arena, she’s fine. She’s also a very buddy and barn-sour horse. I am working on that with her by riding a short distance from the barn and bringing her immediately back. I do this over and over. It’s pretty boring, but I don’t know what else to try. She’s a really sweet-natured horse except for these two problems. I go back and forth between keeping her and selling her. I would like to use some natural horsemanship methods to overcome these problems. Can you help? I’m turning into a scaredy cat!
Scared Enough to Sell

Dear Scared Enough to Sell,
First of all, there’s nothing wrong with being scared in this instance. If your horse is out of control, it’s perfectly normal to be frightened! So don’t call yourself a scaredy cat.

When your horse takes off her herd behavior is over-riding her training and her flight response is triggered. The solution is more training. You’ll need to do a lot of ground work—both round pen and lead line work. Once your horse is totally focused on you and accepts you as her leader, she will no longer resist leaving the barn with you. You’ll be a herd of two and you’ll be the leader.

You’ll also need to work on your mounted training. Start out in the arena. There’s an important saying that is thousands of years old, “The best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot.” It’s very, very true. You need to work in the arena doing lots of trotting and lots of transitions. Also, work on circling and other school figures so that your horse is very obedient and responsive to your aids. Then you can begin working on the canter in the arena, doing the same transitions and riding maneuvers. Focus on the transitions and not the cantering. Cue her up, canter six or eight strides, then return to trot and repeat. Your upward transitions should be very smooth. As long as your horse is leaping into a canter, she’s not ready to progress. You’ll know she’s ready for more when she quietly and obediently changes gaits. If your horse is exploding into a canter, chances are you’re over-cueing her.

While you’re in the arena, also make sure you know how to effectively use the one-rein stop. If you pull on two reins to stop the horse, the pressure on his mouth is so great that the horse will tend to lean into the pressure and brace against it—your horse may even run off to escape the pressure. When you want to slow down or stop your horse, simply lift one rein up and diagonally toward your opposite hip. At the same time, shift your weight back into the saddle. This will cause the horse to yield his hip as he turns and to disengage his hindquarters. Disengagement of the hindquarters simultaneously causes the horse to stop his forward motion (putting the engine in neutral) and become submissive. The instant you feel a change in the horse (well before he actually comes to a stop) drop your hand dramatically to his neck in a clear and meaningful release. You can pick up the rein again if he doesn’t come to a complete halt, but it’s critical to release the horse when he first makes an effort to do the right thing. Timing is everything in horse training and the sooner the release comes, the better. A horse’s natural reaction to pain and discomfort is to run away from it. Therefore sometimes the horse inadvertently is taught to speed up when the rider is asking for the stop. My videos on riding, particularly Goodnight’s Principles of Riding Volume 2, Communication and Control, show in great detail how to use your seat effectively and how to cue the horse to stop with your seat and not the reins.

As you’re teaching any new cue to the horse, make sure you sequence the cue
into three parts. For instance when I teach horse to stop I exhale and say “whoa” then shift my seat/weight, then finally pick up on the reins, in a one-two-three rhythm. This gives the horse two opportunities (cues) to stop before the pull comes on his mouth. If you use this sequence consistently, the horse will learn to stop before you ever touch his mouth. All horses are happy to do that if they know it to be an option; no horse wants his mouth pulled on.

Stay in the arena as long as it takes and be confident of your control and her obedience before you try your transitions and stopping cues outside. When you’re ready, keep her at a trot for a while. Let the other horses canter off around you, but make her stay at a trot. When you do ask her to canter, just go a few strides and return to a gentle trot. If you have done this enough in the arena, your horse should be thinking stop as soon as you begin cantering, and that is the thought you want for this horse.

It sounds like your horse has great potential—she just needs more training. If you don’t have the time or the ability to invest in her training, maybe you want to consider an older, better-trained and seasoned horse. There’s nothing wrong with her that time and training won’t cure, but then again, there’s nothing wrong with recognizing when you’re in over your head and making a change. After all, you didn’t get into this sport to cause more stress in your life! You’ll have to decide for yourself what the best course of action is for both you and your horse. Good luck and be careful!

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight
www.juliegoodnight.com

About Face

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Dear Julie,
My Rocky Mountain/Arabian horse cross is five months old—I’ve had him for two months. He is calm and usually well behaved. However, he’s starting a new and scary behavior. He turns his rump to me when he’s in the paddock or when I enter his stall as he eats. Today he kicked at the man who owns the barn where I board. Please help—how do I stop him from doing this? I don’t want a horse that kicks.
Kicked Out

Dear Kicked Out,
Yep, it sounds like you have a problem. What your horse is saying to you and anyone else that enters his stall is, “This is my space and you are not welcome here.” Turning his rear-end toward you is a threat to kick. It sounds like a threat he is perfectly willing to make good on.

This behavior is an indication that your horse does not respect you as his leader. In the horse herd (you and your horse are a herd of two) you are either leader or follower. Horses establish dominance in the herd by controlling the space and the resources of the other herd members. When you walk into a stall (the horse’s personal space) and he is eating (food is a primary resource to the herd) it’s normal for the horse to defend his space and food. Therefore, clearly your horse feels like he is in the dominant (leader) position over you.

Every time your horse is successful in pushing you away, it’s confirmation to him that he is in charge and you are a subordinate herd mate. The kind of relationship you need to have with your horse is that you are the herd leader and he is the follower (subordinate to you). To develop this kind of relationship, you will need to do lots of quality ground work during which you control your horse’s space and actions. When doing ground work, it’s important to ask your horse to turn towards you. With a rope halter and long lead line in hand, you’ll have the tools to correct his movements if he angles his hindquarters close to you. Leading your young horse, in general, will help him realize you’re in charge and he is to follow. As you work, make sure he doesn’t enter your space. For more tips and step-by-step directions, consider checking out a ground work DVD or attending a horse handling clinic. You can find my groundwork DVDs at www.juliegoodnight.com.

In the meantime, enter the horse’s stall with a lariat or long rope (or use your horse’s halter with a lead rope attached). Once the horse turns his rump to you, just start throwing the rope toward his rear-end and reel it back in (do not approach the horse at all). Toss the rope continuously at his rear end—not viciously but persistently—until he turns around to face you. The instant he turns to face you, turn away and walk out of the stall. Wait a couple minutes then start over. By throwing the rope at him, you’ll irritate him until he does the correct thing (turns and faces you). If you don’t feel comfortable with the process, ask an experienced horse person or trainer to help you.

Remember, it’s quite likely, even expected that the horse will kick at you (he has already proven that he’s willing to do that). So it’s your job to stay well out of the horse’s kick range. Sometimes this can be hard to do in a stall. That’s why I like to use a 12′ training lead for ground work. The reason you are using a rope is so that you can stay well out of the horse’s kick zone. Unless you are totally confident in your ability to stay clear, have someone more experienced help you with this. This little trick will teach your horse that it’s polite and expected of him to turn and face you when you enter his stall.

Good luck and be careful not to get kicked!

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight
www.juliegoodnight.com

Jealous Little Girl

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Dear Julie,
I have a two-year-old mare that’s an eager learner and wants to spend time with me. She readily approaches me and wants to be in on the action when I work with other horses. It’s been snowy and icy here so I have not had the opportunity to do the groundwork I usually do with her. So today I spent time brushing and cleaning her up and I took her for a walk. When I brought her back, I let her loose while I was grooming another horse—a gelding I am bonded to and have worked with for many years. While I was grooming him, the mare put her head on his back and placed her nose on his hoof. I continuously backed her off and returned to grooming. Then she nipped at my arm. To my surprise, I hit her and said “no.” I’m embarrassed to admit what came automatically. How do I teach her to not to interfere when I work on another horse and how to I teach her not to bite to get my attention?
Sick of Envy
Dear Sick of Envy,
First of all, give yourself a break for your reaction to your mare’s nip. You followed your instincts and acted much like a dominant horse would in the same situation. Think about what would happen in the natural herd setting if a subordinate horse bit a dominant one. The dominant horse immediately restates his or her position by biting, kicking and even running the subordinate horse away. Your reaction matches what would have happened naturally—and shows your reflexes are working! When a horse bites or nips she is challenging your dominance and he needs to be immediately and firmly corrected. You’re keeping yourself safe by teaching your horse you’re in charge and won’t put up with aggressive moves.

While we’re talking about safety, I think the scene you described may not be the safest way to teach your young horse or the safest place to groom your older horse. With one horse tied and the other loose in the same area, you’re inviting trouble. There’s no question that this is dangerous—I once saw a person get killed in a similar situation. I’m guessing that the older gelding is dominant over the mare. When he’s tied and can’t react like he usually would, the young mare may find it tempting to challenge him. Tie them both up or move the horse you’re working with to a separate area where you can’t be bothered. If you tie your mare, she’ll learn to stand patiently at the same time you are working on the other horse.

Now lets talk more about horses and jealousy. Horses are emotional animals with feelings more simplistic, but similar to humans’. Horses can certainly be jealous. Some of the behaviors you describe indicate that this horse is jealous of the attention you pay to your older horse. Horses can become very possessive over another horse and will sometimes go to great lengths to keep that horse from interacting with other horses. You may see a horse in the pasture or turnout herding another horse to keep it away from the others and he may even make threatening gestures and aggressive actions towards the others to keep them away from “his” horse. It is always helpful to understand how horses interact in the herd so you know the origins of their behavior and how you fit into the mix. You definitely don’t want your horse to treat you like another horse and you don’t want to be one of your horse’s possessions.

Even though it is pleasing to us when our horses want our attention and interaction, you must be very careful not to give the impression to this filly that she can control your actions and gain your attention any time she wants. Be very clear about not letting her invade your space and do not let her prompt you into giving her attention and learn that she can control your actions.

To start your anti-jealousy training, make sure you only give your mare attention when you choose. In other words, make sure not to give attention when she’s seeking it, but only when she’s calm and relaxed. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Horses will try to get your negative attention if they can–by acting up then causing you to come to them to provide discipline. Even though it’s negative attention, the horse is still in control when she nips, kicks, paws, chews, etc. in an attempt to get a reaction from you. For example, if I have a horse tied and I am doing something with another horse, the first horse may paw in impatience and frustration. If I go over to her and reprimand her, she has successfully won my attention—getting me to stop what I’m doing and move into her space. She’s controlling my actions. The best thing to do is ignore her behavior; it will eventually go away.

Your filly sounds very gregarious and that is a great quality. Just don’t let that turn into her being pushy. Biting is the most dominant behavior of horses and you need to “nip it in the bud,” so to speak.

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight
www.juliegoodnight.com