On The Rail: Teaching Horse Behavior To Youth: Q & A

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By Julie Goodnight

Q: Dear Julie,
I am a big believer in natural horsemanship and how effective it is to handle horses with an understanding of their natural behaviors. I’d like to instill these principles into my teaching and I wonder if you have any ideas for getting my youth students interested in studying horse behavior? Seems like all they want to do is ride! ~ Mary

A: Dear Mary,
I applaud your efforts to instill good principles in your students and an awareness of what life is like from the horse’s point of view. I have found it fascinating to study horse behavior, even as a child when I had no idea I was studying it. Learning behavior through observation is a valuable tool; but I think there are lots of ways to stimulate their interest. One of my most popular demonstrations is about reading the language of horses and I think that once you give people (and for the record, I don’t teach kids much differently than adults) clues to look for in understanding and “reading” a horse’s language, they love it. Even non-horse people enjoy watching horses, when they have a basic understanding how they communicate.

Horses communicate primarily with postures, gestures and body language; however, some of their communication is an audible language. I find that once people become aware of this, almost anyone, regardless of their experience level, can start understanding the horse’s language. Just by pointing out a few basics, your students can observe a group of horses and start calling out the communications they see, “Back off! “Gee, that looks interesting.” “Warning, warning!” “Come here and feed me!” “Stay away from me.” “Do you want to be friends?” I have written much about behavior and the Training Library on my website has hundreds of articles that elaborate on both the instinctive and learned behaviors of horses. A few of the fundamentals I would teach before playing this basic observation game with your students include postures, gestures and audible expressions. A horse’s head is entirely indicative of his emotional state—when the head goes up he is tensing, when the head lowers he is relaxing. As you ride and as you observe horses, watch their head level for indicators how they are feeling. The same thing is true of his tail—all the way up shows excitement/flight/prideful behavior; a cowering horse will tuck his tail like a dog.

Horses have numerous gestures—some of them we may not want to know about! The head drop/bob shows submission; ears back shows anger; baring teeth is a threatening gesture. Horses gesture a lot with their feet— cocking a foot can be a kick threat; pawing means “I’m frustrated and I want to be moving;” stomping feet means “that makes me mad!” A toss of the head with the nose moving in a circular motion is a defiant gesture that teenagers would get in trouble for doing. Horses have many gestures that have meaning if you know what to look for.

Horses are limited to just a few audible expressions that they use to communicate: the squeal, whinny, nicker, and snort. Each has a specific meaning and I find students of all ages and even non-horse people are interested to learn about these behaviors and interpreting them as they watch horses.

Squeal: The squeal is a high-pitched outcry, which acts as a defensive warning or threat. It tells another animal to be ready for a stronger reaction if further provoked. Squeals are typical during aggressive interactions between horses, during reproductive encounters when the mare protests the stallion’s advances, and when a pre- or early-lactating mare objects to being touched anywhere near her sore teats.

Nicker: A nicker is a guttural, low-pitched pulsating expression that means “come closer to me.” It occurs most often just prior to being fed and announces the horse’s presence and anticipation. Stallions will also nicker at mares during a reproductive encounter and seems to signal the stallion’s interest in the mare. Mares typically give a third type of nicker to their young foals when the mare is concerned about the foal.

Whinnies or Neighs:  Whinnies or neighs are high-pitched calls that begin like a squeal and end like a nicker. It is the longest and loudest of horse sounds and is distinctive for each horse (you can learn to recognize the sound of your horse’s whinny). The whinny seems to be a searching call that facilitates social contact from a distance. It’s a form of individual recognition and most often occurs when a foal and mare or herd peer companions are separated, or when a horse is inquisitive after seeing a horse in the distance.

Snorts and Blows:  Snorts and blows are produced by forceful expulsion of air through the nostrils. The snort has a rattling sound, but the blow does not. The snort and blow communicate alarm and apparently serves to alert other horses. The snort may also be given when a horse is restless but constrained; in this case, it should be taken seriously as a sign that the horse is feeling trapped and alarmed and may become reactive.

Getting your students started on understanding the horse’s communicative behavior is a good place to begin. Once they are engaged, the sky’s the limit on the lessons you can teach and the lessons that horses offer us every day. Studying their emotional behaviors, the seven categories of instinctive behaviors of horses, doing groundwork exercises to build a better relationship with the horse and studying the herd dynamics we see every day will be as interesting to your students, as it is to you.

Ground Manners; Audible Sounds of the Horse (Rick Lamb with Julie Goodnight)

Julie and Rick talk about ground manners and what happens when your horse moves into your space– with his nose or taking an unauthorized step. Learn about herd dominance and how the herd operates in the wild. Julie describes the sounds horses make. http://www.ricklamb.com

http://ricklamb.com for more radio shows.

Horse Behavior: Your horse’s Squeal–What It Means

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Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: Dear Julie,

I have a 9 year old quarter horse mare that for the most part is a very good horse. She is a pleasure horse that I go camping with or trail riding on. The only time she acts up is when she makes eye contact or gets too close with a strange horse she doesn’t seem to want to get to know. She makes a horrible squealing noise and then moves her rear end into the other horse and kicks. The last time I was on the ground and I was pinned between the two horses. Luckily, I wasn’t too badly hurt. Can you help?

Cathy

Answer: Dear Cathy,

The squealing sound you hear is one of only four audible communications a horse makes. Audible expressions count for relatively little of the horse’s language—mostly horses use gestures and postures to communicate their needs and wants. And there’s no clearer a statement than a hoof flying at your face to suggest, “Get out of my space!”

Like all four audible communications, squealing has a very specific meaning and it means ‘aggression is about to ensue’. In other words, it means, “I’m about to kick your butt!” Sometimes it’s a just a threat and sometimes the horse will take action. Anytime I hear a horse squeal, I make a quick check of the environment to make sure all humans are safe; my next concern is for a horse getting kicked (but I cannot walk into the middle of that fray without risk of a casualty). As you’ve seen firsthand, horses becoming aggressive is a dangerous, potentially deadly event if people are in the middle of it.

That explains what and why your horse is acting that way, but does not excuse her poor training and very bad manners. As I’ve mentioned and written about on numerous occasions, horses must be trained, from the earliest possible age, that absolutely NO herd behaviors can be demonstrated when being ridden or handled. There should be zero tolerance and the harshest of punishment when a horse acts this way. Check the training library on my website for more info. http://juliegoodnight.com/questionsNew.php?id=78

You must get this horse trained right away so that you can be safe and polite with others and so that no one gets hurt! Do not tolerate any social fraternization between any horses when you are riding. Give a harsh correction (yell, spank, back up hard, work hard, etc.) anytime the horse so much as notices another horse and let the punishment fit the crime—a slight glance at another horse gets a bump of the rein while the horse moving toward another horse with any part of his body or making an aggressive gestures gets hard punishment and time in solitary.

You have to find the amount of pressure that motivates the horse to change his behavior and sometimes that can be a lot of pressure. If you’ve used enough pressure, you’ll know by the horse’s reaction to your correction—it should be, “Wow! What happened and why? I didn’t like that at all and how do I avoid it happening in the future!” If your horse barely notices your correction or if he continues the bad behavior, you’re not using enough pressure to motivate him to start thinking about why he got in trouble.

By the way, there’s also more information in my Training Library on the audible expressions horses make and their specific meanings. Horses communicate constantly and it’s very handy to know what they are saying to you. Next time you hear your horse whinny or nicker, know what he is saying.

Good luck!

Julie

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Horse Behavior: The meaning behind audible expressions

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Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: Dear Julie Goodnight,

Several times this spring my mare has made a sound that sounds like a Donkey; she did it on the 28th of May when I put her back in her corral after grazing her for an hour when she met her next-door neighbor, who is a gelding. Then she did it again on the 12th of this month for no apparent reason.

My sister suggested that maybe my horse’s body wasn’t working normally when she could bully the other horse that was with her out of his food, i.e. goats, when a doe is fat her body doesn’t work quite right so she does not come into season when she should. My sister thought that maybe the same thing has happened to my horse, and now that my horse can’t bully the other horse out of his food, her body is working correctly again. I would appreciate your advice on the matter. Thank-you for your time,

Mary Cruz

Answer: Mary,

Horses are limited to just a few audible expressions that they use to communicate, the whinny, nicker, snort and squeal. I am guessing that you are describing a weird sounding squeal. Each audible expression has a specific meaning. The squeal is a high-pitched outcry with meaning as a defensive warning or threat that the annoyed individual will become more reactive if further provoked. Squeals are typical during aggressive interactions between horses, during sexual encounters when the mare protests the stallion’s advances and when a pre- or early-lactating mare objects to being touched anywhere near her sore teats.

Nickers are the guttural, low-pitched pulsating expressions and occur most often just prior to being fed and announce the horse’s presence and anticipation. Stallions will also nicker at mares during a sexual encounter and it seems to signal the stallion’s sexual interest. Mares typically give a third type of nicker to their young foals when the mare is concerned about the foal. Basically all three types of nickers mean, “come closer to me.”

Whinnies or neighs are high-pitched calls that begin like a squeal and end like a nicker and it is the longest and loudest of horse sounds. The whinny seems to be a form of individual recognition and most often occurs when a foal and mare or peer companions are separated or when a horse is inquisitive after seeing a horse in the distance. The whinny seems to be a searching call that facilitates social contact from a distance.

Snorts and blows are both produced by forceful expulsion of air through the nostrils. The snort has a rattling sound but the blow does not. The snort and blow communicates alarm and apparently serves to alert other horses. The snort may also be given when a horse is restless but constrained and in this case it should be taken seriously as a sign that the horse is feeling trapped and alarmed and may become reactive.

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Horse Behavior: Snaking Behavior

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Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: Thanks for responding to my first email. Now, the deal is that the mare is neighing, which she has NEVER done in the year and half that I have had her. She also makes this donkey bray sounding noises, when her head is down and ears pinned back. She is mostly doing this with the little minis that are in the next pasture. This seems to be with the mare more than the stallion. With the gelding, she is kind of coming around. She is a bit buddy sour, I guess, cause when I took her out with the gelding to their “spot”, she heard the goats and started to go toward them, as far as the rope would allow, then, gets tangles up in the rope!!!!!!!!! I went on and took her back, since I was alone, and felt that my safety might be at stake, as well as hers. She didn’t hurry to the pen, she was good. Once she was in the pen, and off the lead rope, she walked to the end of the pen, where the goats were, and started neighing. We also have a stallion about 3000′ from our pasture, I wonder if that could be part of the problem? The gelding and her are doing better, and we are pleased with their progress. We are not able to work with them everyday, but mostly on the weekends as my husband works nights and I work days…………..

Answer: The behavior you describe, “head down and ears pinned back,” is known as snaking. It is an aggressive herding behavior most often seen in the wild when a stallion is herding up his mares or fighting with another stallion, but any horse can snake and it is always a sign of aggression and dominance. The sound you are describing is probably a squeal; which is what horses do when they are very irritated and about to become aggressive. This is a dominant behavior and your mare is trying to get control of her herd. The stallion in close proximity could be contributing to the mare’s need to gather her herd and establish control over them. Hopefully the herd hierarchy will eventually straighten out, once all the horses are secure about who is the leader and who are the followers.

Anytime a horse is displaying snaking behavior, you should be very careful around the horse. If the horse is out in the herd and there are no humans around, it is probably just a herd thing that needs to be sorted out, but it is an indication that the horse is fairly aggressive so you should always be careful when interacting with the horse in a way that may provoke him to become aggressive. If the horse ever acts that way when a human is around or toward a human, that is a big problem and one that needs to be dealt with by an expert hand.

Good luck and be careful.

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.