Question Category: Issues from the Ground
Question: Dear Julie,
I have an AQHA gelding that will be 2 on April 26, who has started to become unpredictable. When my trainer bought him as a yearling he was skittish but had a very kind eye and he has never shown any signs of aggression towards people. However, in the last three weeks he has struck at one person and reared up & placed his front legs over the shoulders of another. Obviously this is very dangerous and unacceptable behavior. While I realize he is only two years old and is bound to have rebellious moments, I feel that this behavior goes way beyond the scope of “normal rebellion”.
In the first rear and strike incident, the barn worker was petting his face and then went to adjust his halter that had slipped over his ear. Thankfully his hooves did not make contact with the worker. While he is still somewhat head-shy the only opposition he had ever shown until this point was to pick his head up to avoid his ears being touched. He has never violently thrown his head, pinned his ears, threatened to kick etc. Before this incident happened he had escaped the pasture with five of his pasture mates and went on about a 2 mile run. While there is no excuse for him striking at someone, I mostly chalked it up to the fact that he is sensitive about his ears & was probably still wound for sound from his run when the worker tried to adjust his halter. After discussing the matter with my trainer we agreed that the pasture escape and run had most likely been a huge contributing factor but that we definitely needed to nip the behavior in the bud. The second incident happened yesterday when my trainer was leading him out to his pasture. The horse has been boarded indoors for the last 4 months and is led between the pasture & barn twice a day by the same individuals – he knows the routine. Since being gelded in October he has been nothing but docile while being handled. Normally he will walk on a loose lead with his head hanging low and relaxed. However, yesterday while being led to the pasture he came up and put his front legs over the shoulders of my trainer with his chest landing on her head & neck. Thankfully she was able to get out of the situation but she did end up with a migraine and sore neck/shoulder muscles. It was only her experience that allowed her to escape the situation mostly unscathed. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if he had done this to someone without her experience, such as myself or another barn employee. What makes the situation more worrisome is that he gave no forewarning. My trainer said that she never felt the lead pull, he wasn’t dancing around and she never heard him spook she just all of the sudden felt hair on the back of her neck & weight on her.
Obviously both of the situations could have ended very badly – thankfully no one was seriously hurt. However, I am very concerned that he is showing this behavior all of a sudden and with no warning signs. Nothing has been drastically changed in his routine or diet, he gets hay & Nutrena Safe Choice in amounts appropriate for his age/size. He has been at the barn since my trainer purchased him at the production sale in August so he should be well acclimated to the surroundings. He has never been handled roughly or abused by anyone at the barn and had very minimal handling before the production sale, so I wouldn’t think he should be recalling prior bad experiences. He was gelded in October and never used as a stud, he also was never aggressive before being gelded & calmed down right after. The only time either my trainer or I had seen him on his back legs was the first time we introduced him to being led with a chain and he was still intact that that point. Even then he had it figured out in less than 10 minutes and was walking & lunging like a pro with no complaints. He did have majority of the winter off from training due to the extremely cold winter we had but he was still handled daily going from stall to pasture.
When we worked with him on the lunge line last night we did end up using a stud chain because of his behavior in the morning. Instead of being the complacent willing gelding he usually is, he was wide-eyed and high strung. I know every horse has its bad days, some more than others, but it was his behavior while we were working with him that worried me. I had my trainer showing me how to reinforce the idea of personal space with him, how to stay firm without being harsh etc. After he had been lunged and appeared to be settling down she started to work with him on giving his head to pressure. He was getting it but then he started coming up on his hind feet when she asked him to give. She gave a backwards tug on the line which theoretically should have caused him to come down in order to get away from the pressure. Instead of moving away from the pressure he started to hop towards her while still on his back feet. Every time she tugged the chain to get him to stop, he would advance further in a very defiant “what are you going to do now” manner, they ended up moving from the center of the arena to about 10 feet away from the outside wall before she finally succeeded in getting him to listen.
My trainer said that with 3 days of consistent work he should stop the rearing foolishness on the lunge line. However, it is the other aggressive behavior that worries both of us. The breeder mentioned that he was one of the few that didn’t take well to being brought in from the field to be prepared for the sale. Because of that he was purposely given extra time to settle in and get acclimated before we attempted to do any work with him. After he settled in he took very well to human companionship, handling and grooming. As I’ve said several times, he became down right docile and easy to work with. Even last night my trainer said that up until yesterday he has been so good & well mannered, we are both shocked that he behaved like he did. I realize that he had the winter off and very likely has extra energy but I don’t feel that it should be exhibited in aerial maneuvers like it has been.
Because of the seriousness of his actions, both my trainer & I are to the point of discussing the possibility of selling him. I love him to no end but I want any horse I own to be kid & beginner safe. We had high hopes that he would turn into an excellent all around mount and be kid/beginner safe when he was through with training. At this moment I’m even intimidated to work with him alone considering how he has behaved with my trainer. My trainer has said that I have to know in my heart what the right decision is so that I don’t regret it. I don’t want to give up on him without giving him a fair chance, but at the same time I do not want myself, him or anyone else getting hurt because of his behavior. If I knew we could put a couple months of hard work into him and he would straighten up that is the path that I would choose. However, considering that both of the incidents have been unprovoked & without warning, I worry that he may try to do the same things further down the road as the problems are not habitual at this point. I am still discussing the matter with my trainer to see what options we can come up with, but I would really appreciate any insight you could offer.
Thank you for taking the time to read this email & for any help that you may be able to offer.
Always, with sudden changes of behavior, you must rule out a physical cause. Have a thorough vet exam and give a full behavior history to your vet.
However, it is quite plausible that this is a training issue. He is an adolescent colt coming of age and it is spring, mares are coming into heat, babies are being born and he is pretty sure he is at the top of his game ready to find some action. This is a good time to start a training regimen with him.
None of the behaviors you describe are unusual and certainly this type of behavior is to be expected in an untrained two year old, especially if he has been in confinement and not able to spar (play ) with other colts. As you mentioned, the first incident was probably related to his feeling frisky after a nice run with the herd. I would disagree that it was unprovoked since the handler was messing with the horse’s head. Whether the horse thought he was attacking him or just sparring (that’s how colts play) I cannot say. Just because you don’t see or understand the provocation, doesn’t mean the horses didn’t.
In the second incident, it sounds to me like your colt was mounting your trainer. Again, this is fairly normal behavior in a young colt (practice fighting on the other colts, practice repro on the fillies), albeit misplaced. The fact that it is spring, mares are cycling, after their cycles have been fairly dormant for the winter, can definitely exacerbate these issues in a youngster that does not know his boundaries yet. Yes, he was gelded as a late yearling, but that is fairly late and no one has told him yet that he is not an up-and-coming stallion. I can see how you would think this was “unprovoked and without warning” but this is rarely the case with horses, and probably this is just a symptom of the overall picture and someone with more experience with colts might not have thought much of it.
I think your trainer is headed in the right direction and has given you some very good advise. The colt needs discipline and work. However, I do disagree with the technique a little. Using a stud-chain on a horse (no matter whether it is used under the chin or over the nose, will provoke a horse to rear and strike. A horse’s natural reaction to pain on his face is to strike at it; did you ever see a horse stung in the face by a bee? The last thing I would do is use a chain on him and would instead work him in a rope halter.
The rope halter, combined with a 12-15 foot training lead, is all the control and pressure you’ll ever need. While the chain puts constant harsh pressure on the face whether you jerk on it or not (and when you shank them they really feel it) while the rope halter puts very subtle, yet uncomfortable pressure on the horse’s face, giving you good control without over-stimulating the horse. A very gently and slight shake of your rope will give your horse enough pressure that he will look for a way out of it. And, unlike the chain, when you don’t want any pressure on him, there is none.
Your colt needs a rope halter and an effective and regular training regimen. As for the kind of groundwork he needs, everything you need to know is in my two ground work DVDs, Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership. In each 2 hour DVD I work with several young horses of different types (hot blooded, cold blooded) and show a step-by-step process for training manners, respect and obedience to your horse in a language he understands. There is also lots of good info on a horse’s natural behavior, which may make your interactions with your colt easier for your to understand.
Make sure your colt is getting plenty of playtime with horses he can get all his sparring energy out on and begin him on a training regimen that helps him develop a disciplined work ethic. It sounds like your trainer is on the right track, even though she is not using the same techniques I would. That is not to say you have to ride him, but he needs to get a job. There is lots of groundwork that can be done. I prefer to wait until a horse is three for much mounted work but in the case of a young colt that needs a regimen, I am not opposed to starting them as a two-year olds, with an altered training plan (heavy on ground work, light on mounted work).
As to whether or not you should keep the horse, I think your trainer is absolutely right that you have to make that decision yourself, in your heart. But from what I read in your email I would say it is clear that you really have no business with a two-year-old. Not because he is a bad horse, there’s nothing wrong with him at all. But you are not ready for a two year old of any kind, especially not a late-gelded colt. No two-year old in the world is “kid and beginner safe” and just the fact that you would say that makes it clear to me that you do not know what you are getting into with this young a horse (and we are not even talking about the riding part yet, which is far more challenging than ground manners) Ever hear the horse phrase, “Green plus green equals black and blue?” A 2 y/o kid-broke beginner horse is a contradiction in terms; an oxy-moron; it cannot be done. There is a long hard road ahead with training; then give him about a dozen years of life experience and he’ll be a kid-broke horse.
I hope this helps you make the right decisions as far as this horse’s training and what your future will hold with him. Nothing wrong with him that a little training won’t fix. Good luck and be careful. No horse is worth someone getting hurt over.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer
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