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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

Why Are Horses So Spooky?

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Question:

Why are horses so spooky?

Answer:

Before we can ever hope to understand, let alone control the movement of a horse, it is important to know the various behaviors that motivate a horse to move in the first place. Being a prey animal means the horse’s first reaction to danger is to run, hell bent for leather, away from the perceived threat. React first, think later.

Everyone knows that horses are flight animals; in fact, horses are the very definition of flighty and depend on this behavior for survival. What is often misunderstood about horses is, how deep the flight response goes in a horse’s nature and that every movement a horse is capable of and every step he takes has some significance. Everything about the horse is linked to its flight response. Crazy as it sounds, even their laziness is related to the flight response. By nature horses are generally lazy, for the sole purpose of preserving energy in case it is needed in flight. In the current trend of natural horsemanship, far too much is sometimes made of the predator-prey relationship, since horses, after all, have been domesticated for thousands of years and don’t really think of humans as carnivorous predators. However, it is important to understand that the prey instinct is the origin of the horse’s behavior as we know it today and it is what motivates their movement.

Horses are herd animals, again related to prey-dom, meaning their survival is dependent on the herd. There are safety in numbers. Herd behavior is another important motivating factor for a horse and is present in our everyday dealings with horses, more so than is often recognized. Again, every movement a horse makes has meaning and when given a choice, the horse will always move toward the protection of the herd. These are fundamental and deep layers of horse behavior and the subject could fill many volumes, but the one thing we can deal with here, is to develop an understanding of how we can control the movements of a horse in our presence.

The first thing to understand is that the horse feels safer when he is moving his feet, and the more nervous or uncertain he gets, the more he wants to move his feet. Yet there is nothing a horse likes better than to feel protected enough that he can snooze, standing or prone, knowing that the herd leader is watching out for his safety. The herd leader, a/k/a boss mare, is responsible for the safety of the herd and with a second’s notice, must be able to motivate the entire herd to flight. She earns the respect, admiration, obedience and, most importantly, attentiveness of the herd by dominating every move they make and by controlling the resources of the herd (you’ll recognize the boss mare easily, she’s the one standing in front of the water trough, playing in the fresh clean water and slowly sipping until she is satiated, while the rest of the herd stands in line, thirsty but patient, awaiting their turn in the pecking order). The boss mare controls the actions of each herd member through her body language. When her head is down in the grass and she is quietly munching, her herd mates will be relaxed. When her head comes up, ears prick forward and her muscles tighten, the rest of the herd knows to prepare for flight. They will follow her anywhere on her signal.

Just to make sure the horses all pay attention to her in times of stress, the boss mare will periodically push the herd individuals around a little so that they are in the habit of responding to her. When she directs her gaze at an individual flattens her ears and takes a step toward him, the subordinate horse knows to immediately move away. If they don’t respond quickly enough, she might leave some teeth marks on his rear end. Subordinate herd mates will quickly learn to watch the body language of their leader at all times and to respond without question to her movements.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have that kind of relationship with your horse? If you have the opportunity to observe a herd, you will learn to recognize the subtle communications that constantly occur. For instance, a frightened horse will elevate his head, tense his ears, stiffen his tail and hold his breath; all of these actions communicate an outside threat to the other horses and they will instantly act the same way and look in the same direction. A relaxed and safe horse will lower his head (the lower it goes the more relaxed he is), relax his ears, lick his lips, chew, drop his tail and take a deep sigh.

Horses communicate with their body language, with the head position, ear position, facial expressions, feet, tail, mouth and nose. Horses receive communication from us in the same way, whether we know it or not. The desired relationship between horse and human is that of a herd of two. According to the laws of the herd (the only rules horses really understand) the hierarchy is linear, meaning each and every individual of the herd is either dominate over or subordinate to each and every other individual. In your herd of two, your choice is clear: you must be the dominant member, the alpha individual, the “boss mare.” You must earn this respect, admiration and obedience by controlling the space of your horse and the “resources” of your herd (if your horse is frisking you for treats, HE is controlling the resources).

The first step in controlling your horse’s movement is to control your own body language. Your horse will notice your posture, eye contact, your foot movements, the elevation of your shoulders, the tone of your voice and the rhythm of your breathing. Be aware of the actions on your part and know that you are constantly communicating with your horse through your body language.

If your horse takes a step toward you and you back away, you have just told him he is in charge. If you get scared, tense your muscles and hold your breath, your horse will mirror your actions and instantly become frightened. All horses, no matter how high in the hierarchy, will gratefully accept the leadership of another individual, as long as the leader has demonstrated their commitment to controlling and protecting the herd.

For a horse to accept a human as leader, that human must be able to control the horse’s space and must never betray his trust by causing him fear or pain. Once they have accepted the individual (horse or human) as leader, they will be relaxed, compliant, obedient and happy. In natural horsemanship, we use ground work (round pen and lead-line) to control the horse’s space so that he becomes subordinate.

Beyond just controlling his space, we learn to communicate with the horse through our body language, to develop a strong bond and trust between leader and follower. The horse must be treated firmly but with kindness and above all, your interactions with the horse must be consistent so that he can learn to trust them. This kind of relationship with the horse is the ideal, but one that many horsemen find illusive.

To have a horse that is happy, respectful and obedient, who willingly does whatever you ask and responds to your most subtle cues, you must first become his leader and earn his respect. Learn to control your horse’s space and communicate with your own body language in a way that he understands, and you will not only earn his respect, but admiration as well.

–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Issues From The Saddle: Gate Sour Horse And A Tom Thumb Bit

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Julie,

You have a similar question presented to you being great on the trail but terrible in the arena that you have already answered. That statement is also mine but a different problem. This seventeen-year-old Fox Trotter gelding is new to me and is being ridden western with a tom thumb. All tack fits but I believe there is a small amount of barn sour in this horse’s mind due to his speed home on the trail (holding him to a walk is constant) and having to push him in the arena at the gate. He does ok at the walk and trot in the arena until you get to the gate and have to apply more pressure. Asking him to turn half way down the arena, I really have to pull his head around and his hindquarters fall to the outside. The big problem starts when you ask for a canter. He acts like he’s never done it. For instance, he will take the correct lead half way around the arena, as he makes the turn toward the gate (even half way across the arena) he will break. When I attempt to correct him, he picks up the incorrect lead. I tried ignoring leads entirely and just tried to get him to complete a circle without breaking and I have been unsuccessful, I even tried spurs. I decided to go back to basics, meaning groundwork. He will longe at the walk and trot but I am not able to get him into a canter at all. I have tried a round pen and I am unable to put enough pressure on him to go into a canter. I have found myself becoming very frustrated. I realize it is hard without seeing the exact situation, however, any helpful advice would be appreciated.

Sincerely,
Charlene

Answer: Charlene,

The problems you describe are certainly very common and while that might not make it less frustrating for you, at least there is some hope in knowing that you are not alone and that you can resolve these issues with your horse.

Your horse is certainly gate sour (or barn sour) and this is simple disobedience that he has learned he can get away with. All horses go through this stage but when a skilled rider is riding them, these problems go away quickly because the horse learns it doesn’t work or it is not worth the effort. Sometimes when we think we have won a certain battle (because we got the horse past the gate, for instance) the horse also thinks he won (because maybe he got to pause momentarily or break gait).

One of the best ways to resolve these types of issues is to simply think ahead of the horse. You know exactly where he is going to cause a problem each time around so instead of waiting for the problem to happen and then taking action, be proactive and do something ahead of time, like make the horse speed up before you get there. Also, make sure you are not reinforcing his behavior by stopping him at the gate or dismounting at the gate or, heaven forbid, riding him out of the gate. I always make sure not only that I dismount as far away from the gate as possible and lead my horse out, but also that I work the horse extra hard when he is near the gate so he comes to associate the gate with a not so pleasant place to be. If your horse is disobedient in these areas, chances are he is disobedient in other areas as well, whether it is leading, standing, staying on the rail, staying at a steady speed, or whatever. This is generally one symptom of a horse that is not subordinate to you and does not think that you are in control of him. So, as always, more groundwork is in order.

I prefer to use a flag to do ground work with a lazy horse. A flag is simply a 4’ long stick with a plastic bag in the end. Often, the lazy horses that do not respond to the physical pressure of while, rope or spur will run off easily with a shake of the flag. There is more info on this in an article on my website called “Understanding Natural Horsemanship.”

One final thought: the Tom Thumb is a very harsh bit and not a very useful training tool. There is a Q&A on my website that explains the Tom Thumb that you may want to take a look at.

JG

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