When we are riding or working with horses, is it important to “be the boss?”
Do we need to establish ourselves as being first in the pecking order, and does the horse need to view us as being the dominant or alpha individual in order to pay attention and follow our instructions?
Is leadership important? Do we need to possess the qualities of a good leader in order for our horses to trust us and to do what we ask of them?
Under many theories of horse training the answers to all of these questions is “yes – dominance is everything with horses and if we do not prove our dominance and leadership with a horse then we will never be successful working with them.”
I accepted this theory for a long time, but the more I learned about equine behavior and the more I started to look at horse training from a science based approach – looking for what is really true and not just what has been taught – the entire theory of dominance and leadership among horses was called into question for me. This has been a topic that has been of particular interest to me over the past year, and I wanted to share both my research and my thoughts with you in this article.
Let’s begin with defining dominance and dominance theory as it relates to training. Dominance is defined as having high status in a social group, usually (but not always) acquired as the result of aggression that involves the tendency to take priority in access to limited resources, such as food, mates, or space.
In a training context, dominance theory implies that an animal’s misbehavior is the result of that animal striving for a higher rank or looking to assert their dominance over the trainer or handler. Also, it is believed that a person must create submission in the animal to prevent and control behavior problems.
Horses are not the only species where dominance theory is applied in training. Traditional training approaches have applied this theory to all types of training, and it is also quite prevalent in dog training, with techniques like the alpha rollover.
What about the idea of leadership?
Here is where semantics (what words mean to individuals) can impact one’s views on this discussion. We all attach a slightly different meaning or emotion to different words, so for the sake of being clear I will do my best to provide definitions for the terms I use here.
Dominance is generally viewed as being gained through acts of aggression. In the case of our horses, aggressive acts would be biting, kicking, pinning of ears, etc.
Leadership is guiding or directing a group, and while leadership is often associated with positive qualities, such as assertiveness, confidence, fairness, and consistency, these aren’t actually part of the real definition of the word. Leadership can be gained through other means.
In a horse training context, leadership is often presented in this manner – if we possess the qualities of a good leader and emulate how a lead horse would behave then our horses will be more trusting of us and will willingly follow our commands.
In most of what is taught about wild horse behavior there is the idea that one horse in the group is the leader, typically seen as a lead mare, and she makes most of the decision for the herd. So this is the horse we want to emulate in our interactions with our own horses. However, the important question here becomes, is there really such a thing as a “lead” horse? Do groups of horses really have a leader?
The reason I feel it is so important to ask these questions and to look for the answers is there is a potential for real problems when we base our training and interaction with horses on either dominance theory or the idea of leadership.
Here are the potential problems:
If we focus on creating submission in our horses and we believe that we need to be dominant and be “the boss” in order to have success in training, and that misbehavior from the horse is often a result of the horse trying to assert their own dominance, then using harsher methods of training involving fear and pain are easily justified.
Likewise, if we believe the only way we can succeed with horses is by being a good leader, and that when the horse sees us a leader they will follow us and do what we want, this can create a lot of frustration and misunderstanding for both horse and human, even when the training techniques are kind, because there is an expectation that “if I am a good leader, my horse will follow and trust me and will be a willing partner.” This doesn’t take into account the fact that perhaps the horse simply doesn’t understand what is being asked of or expected of him.
Looking at the Facts
Let’s take a look at what we do know about horse behavior and wild horse ethology, and also consider what we might not completely understand about our horse’s social interactions to try and find the answer to some of these questions.
What we have to remember when considering behavior is that what we see in our domesticated horses can be very different from the natural behavior of wild horses or feral horses. We create all kinds of environments that would not be present in a natural situation, such as small living spaces, overcrowding, the need to compete for food, and for many horses, the constant changing of companions.
Difference between Wild and Domesticated Horses
Because of this, domestic horses often display much higher rates of aggressive behaviors (Lucy Rees). But here is what is interesting about aggression: studies that have tried to better understand dominance and the social behavior of horses have been inconclusive on whether the number of aggressive acts, like biting or kicking another horse, is really linked to that horse having a higher social ranking. Instead, a horse’s social rank seems to be more strongly related to other factors, such as the weight of the horse (Doren and Kuhlmann), and in the wild the social rank of the mother affects the rank of the foal (Rutberg and Greenberg).
I chose to use the term “social ranking” above, because while anyone who has observed horses notices that there are a few horses who get to the hay pile first or who aren’t bothered when eating their grain, there is a lot of discussion whether the terms that are more commonly used like “pecking order” or dominance hierarchy” are really adequate to describe the social interactions of horses.
Horses are Highly Social
One fact that is undisputed is that horses are highly social animals. Their mental and physical welfare depends heavily on a stable and cohesive group. In fact, if we think logically about wild horses, the survival of an individual is actually more dependent on the cohesiveness of the group than on winning the competition for access to resources. Horses are a grazing species, so in general their food source is not scarce. Observers of feral horses at water sources report that while horses with higher social ranking may go to the water first, they wait by the water source after drinking so that each horse has adequate time to drink (Feist and McCullough) – so, at least for a wild horse, being in a dominant position wouldn’t seem to have too many advantages.
The conclusion we could draw here is that friendship and reducing aggression would be more important to a horse in a natural state then would asserting dominance or leadership.
Who is Really the Leader?
Now speaking of leadership, is there evidence that groups of horses have a defined leader who makes decisions for the group?
There is a commonly held belief that in groups of wild horses there is an older mare who is the leader, and who makes decisions about where to graze and when to travel for water. However, when I looked over numerous studies of wild horse behavior and looked at the work of different horse ethologists (an ethologist is someone who studies an animal in their natural environment), it was rare to find someone who had actually identified a lead horse. Instead, it appeared as though different horses would assume a leadership role in different situations.
Now just to stay clear on definitions, there are two ways that leadership can be defined. Social leadership would be controlling aggression or disputes between members of the group and protecting members of the group from threats and predators. A spatial leader governs movement, and decides the direction and time the group will move.
In wild horse groups, sometimes this role was taken on by the stallion, and other times by one of the mares. Joel Berger, author of Wild Horses of the Great Basin, is quoted as insisting that “at no time was complete leadership shown for any individual stallion or mare within a band.” Therefore, the role of leader seems to be taken on by various members of the group, instead of one individual assuming this role.
So if concepts like dominance and leadership really aren’t that important to horses, why do we give them so much attention and why are so many training methods based on this theory?
First, we humans prefer easy explanations to complex structures. Describing a pecking order is easier than exploring the various environments, personalities, and possible learned behaviors of a group of horses.
Also, a possible fault with our observations is that when we expect to see something we will often find it. So when we hear about the theory of dominance over and over, we are more likely to see behaviors and assume them to be related to pecking order and dominance.
Also, most of us have only ever observed domesticated horses, whose behavior is very dependent on their environment. As the author of The Myth of Dominance states “how much would an alien from another planet learn about human social organization by studying only, say, the harem of a Turkish Sultan?”
Training with the idea that it is necessary to assert our dominance is unnecessary and potentially dangerous. If we are trying to show dominance we may end up using harsher methods that provoke more extreme avoidance behavior from our horses, like rearing, striking out, or kicking out.
Striving to embody the qualities of a good leader is a positive way to live, but I think it is necessary to take the training situation in context and not assume that a horse’s wrong response or misbehavior is due to our lack of leadership. When we see a horse responding well to a rider or handler who seems confident and self-assured, it’s not that the horse sees this person as a good leader, but rather the confident person is probably more clear and consistent with their cues and pressures. When there is less confusion the horse will be more likely to respond correctly.
I believe that horses are generally friendly, co-operative animals – that’s why we successful in domesticating them, and have been successful in living, working with, and riding them ever since.
One Final Thought
** I wanted to add one more section to this article after a few conversations that I had with friends and colleagues that read it. (By the way, I always welcome constructive criticism – it not only keeps me challenging my own thinking, but also helps me in considering how what I present is perceived.)
Here is what I want to add to this discussion: I want to make it clear that I do believe it is very important to teach horses what is desirable behavior and what is unacceptable behavior. We have to do this for our safety handling and riding them, as well as for the well-being of the horse. In the long run, a “spoiled” horse who does not understand how to behave around people will have a lower quality of life. However, I feel that training is exactly this, teaching the horse what we want and what we don’t want through the use of pressure, release, rewards, and sometimes a well-executed punishment. The purpose of this article was to draw attention to the dangers of what I believe is the incorrect theory of using dominance and leadership as a basis in training.
Thank you again for your comments! Callie
Berger, Joel. Wild Horses of the Great Basin: Social Competition and Population Size. University of Chicago Press, March 1986.
Doren, Janine Van., Kuhlmann, Dr. Mark. Factors Affecting Dominance and Aggressive Interactions Among Castrated Male Domestic Horses.
Feist, J. D. and McCullough, D. R. (1976), Behavior Patterns and Communication in Feral Horses. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 41: 337–371.
Real Ethology with Lucy Rees. Epona.tv.
Rutberg, A.T., & S.A. Greenberg. 1990. Dominance, aggression frequencies, and modes of aggressive competition in feral pony mares. Animal Behavior. 40:322-321.
The Myth of Dominance. http://homepage.ntlworld.com/zareeba/dominance.pdf
Sometimes you can solve your problems without being the boss, but there will always be situations where you just can’t do anything without being the boss.
My horse is a good example of this. She is fine when walking and trotting, but she just doesn’t want to canter with a rider. When luning, she is fine even with a rider, but in a big arena… I’ve been trying to get her going by going after other cantering horses, positive and negative reinforcement, but for the last 6 months, there was no progress at all.
So I started amping up the pressure and I had to go quite far to get her going (I never used a crop on her and I probably never will, so going quite far doesn’t mean beating her), but it’s all good now. I had to get her going 3 times in a row and now she is more or less safe for canter. I still have to ask her up to 5 times before she finally starts moving, but we will get there.
Hi Ast, I was having problems with my Arab in a similar way. He would happily walk or trot – but canter, no way. It turned out that he had slipped on some ice and jammed up his back. Excellent chiropractor found it. His breastbone was about 4″ to the left of centre. In order to canter he had to be able to lift his back – but that was painful due to the jam. Once adjusted he was great going forward. He is still a little weaker on one side so finds it difficult to canter for long on that rein. Perhaps your mare is having some kind of problem like this.
very interesting post , I have worked with my dog using reward based training techniques and positive reinforcement, and found that the old dominance theory is not the only solution to a problem in fact can cause more problems and I am very interested in the same theories where horses are concerned .
I think your right it’s calm clear approach that is sometimes more beneficial for horses dogs and so on firm but fair.
Thank you for covering this subject
Callie~ what a great post and I would totally agree with your thoughts and conclusion. I have always been interested in this topic and have read several books on the theories (also as they apply to other animals as well). I have always felt in the past, that I was not successful as a rider because I wasn’t “the boss”, and for me, it is really difficult to be tough and aggressive with horses (and animals in general as it is not my nature). Now that I have been riding for 1.5 years again after a long break, I think that I am making progressive as I am becoming stronger physically, gaining some confidence and am more clear in what I am asking the horse to do. I think it is the clarity party and the self-assurance of the rider, that makes for a better relationship. This probably transfers over to our everyday lives as well.
Thank you for another interesting and insightful post. My favorite thing to read on a Friday.
Great Post Callie! Found it very interesting and helpful on how I view my handling and training of my horse.
Great post! Thank you for sharing this info. I’m a fairly new horse owner and I am so uncomfortable with some traditional training methods (dominance based). I think that by being your horses partner that you’ll have a lot more success. Although smacking a horse will get his attention right away, it isn’t the way to form a trusting partnership.
Thanks again for the post!
Hi Callie. Very informative article. My experience with dogs is that they are looking for a calm assertive leader. One who will give them clear consistent signals and does not act in an unpredictable manner. Me being new to the equine world( having a blast!) I have used the same principals. A horse may not require the same relationship from me as my dogs, but they do respond positively to a calm confident presence, one who will not get overly exited to a spook or tenses up on their back. Being assertive with a horse to me means not giving in to an unwanted behavior, like calmly circling back to a jump that was just refused with just a little more impulsion and then patting him on the neck “good boy” after a good jump. That kind of assertiveness builds trust. Love your instruction Callie!
Great post. So many people have an adversarial relation with their horses. “Disrespect” is a word that is way overused. Like many other animals, horses will respond to affection. And respect without affection is really fear.
That was one of the best articles I’ve read in a very long time. It coincides nicely with the following post:
I was going to ask you, recently, what your thoughts were about a particular horse trainer who is super popular. However, after watching some of his stuff on youtube, I was very disappointed in his technique. He is not gentle, kind, or natural. He acts more like a predator than a companion. I’m so thankful for your article, and the one I posted above. Grateful is a shallow term for how I feel right now.
Thank you for sharing that link Michelle – that was a very well written article. I really appreciated how the author described the correct use of the tool and how it is the misuse of tools that creates the cruelty.
True too when you think about the uncomplicated relationship of a young girl and her horse. There is no force, violence, just great understanding. The respect comes from choosing a question to confidently ask your horse, that you know is possible, and not giving release until answered correctly. Then expressing gratitude with affection.
Thanks, Callie, for another very helpful post. I have sometimes been told to be more aggressive and demanding, but this doesn’t really work for me. Lately, I have chosen to respond to this by upping my energy level and trying to isolate and clarify cues, i.e. the traditional aids. My paint mare is capable of being stubborn in the face of an overly aggressive rider – not me, but she has been ridden a couple times by someone else – and she is much happier with clear aids and a reasonable level of energy.
Callie, You have raised an excellent discussion, as always.
I especially liked your following points:
1. Captive horses are leading very artificial lives so comparisons with wild horses are tricky.
2. Every person has their own idea of what ‘dominance’ means, so it is hard to talk about it meaningfully.
3. Horses are co-operative beings.
4. What horses need from us, beyond a lifestyle that suits their digestive system and freedom of movement, is careful, thoughtful, teaching of the meaning of our signals. They are easily ‘over faced’ and when a learner is anxious focused learning goes out the window. So building confidence is everything – one small step at a time so the horse can own each step of the teaching/learning process.
Equine Clicker Training (reward reinforcement) has a role to play in this. Whenever two individuals are doing something together, one of them takes the lead – usually the one with a plan.
Whenever someone asks us to do something, there is signal pressure. The only way we can get rid of the pressure is to do as requested or to say, ‘No’. This sort of pressure is what probably keeps the harmony in a natural horse herd, just as it does in an office. If the boss asks us to do something unreasonable, we can refuse and quit our job. Horses are not so lucky.
Most positive reinforcement training involves signal pressure. When the horse complies, we release the pressure plus offer a reward. It is basically teaching the horse a second language that allows him to be more pro-active.
His first language is ‘signal pressure’ and release of that pressure when he complies. We can use that language without being abusive. We can make educating a horse much more fun and meaningful by teaching clicker training as our second language.
Very well said, Hertha. I think this article is worth keeping in the files for reading during times when I’m feeling the pressure to dominate; and I do. When I get a “no” from my horse, instead of asking another way, I up the pressure, sometimes too hard. That’s unfair. He might be saying “no” because he doesn’t understand what I’m asking. For example, I’ve been working with my horse to yield his shoulder while lunging. He has always crowded my space with his ears pinned. No big, he’s never kicked out, just a grumpy face. But the space invaders was too much. I researched for years on how to yield that shoulder, and more often than not he says no unless I start hitting him hard with the rope. Not my idea of control really. Yesterday, we were walking from the round pen to the paddock and he starts crowding me. When I went to use the rope to his shoulder, I miss judged where he was and got his neck instead. He instantly moved off. I thought, “Was that all there was too it; to move where I was putting the pressure on him?” Sheesh… Horses really need for us to be in tune. They aren’t stupid, and they are not uncooperative because they want to be. They just need us to be patient, kind, and know what the heck we are doing…
I agree, well put Hertha – thank you for your comment and your discussion of how clicker training ties in here! I also like how you described signal pressure. I don’t believe I had thought of it quite that way before, but I think your description of “signal pressure” was very accurate.
It wasn’t until recently that the whole idea of this ‘signal pressure’ came to me. Some ‘dedicated’ clicker trainers don’t seem to realise (or want to realise) that unless they are free-shaping, they are using ‘release reinforcement’ all the time, along with their ‘reward reinforcement’ and I’d been doing a lot of thinking about it :-).
Thanks Callie, I love reading your posts every friday finding it so helpful, I have a young horse and we are learning together hopefully will be a good partnership just taking slow and being positive. I have had all sorts of problems eith leading, standing still when grooming, putting bridle on he would try and put me off by lifting his head high we have come through all this with patience and time. If you have any tips with lunging would be great as I am having trouble getting him to understand he keeps turning into the middle to stop. Look forward to your next post
Hi Debbie, Glad you are enjoying the videos! One thing I do for lungeing is to walk with the horse and teach stop straight. Then I do it with a bit more distance and walk up to them quickly each time they stop before they have a chance to walk in. I find that horses that are new to lungeing pick this up very quickly and those that have a more established pattern of walking in take a bit longer to learn the new pattern.
Thank you so much for this article, confirming what I had observed in riders I admired who had good partnerships with their horses. I agree with other comments: that I need to get strengthened physically and mentally to give the right signals and be calm and confident.
I simply love you! I am a reader from Sweden and I am so glad that I found your site and videos.
I am 47 years old and after a 20 year “break” :O) I started riding again. I now have my own horse, love of my life, and there are so many things I learned 20 yeras ago that I am reconcidering today.
When I read about your opinions on handling, listen to and work together with your horse it just confirms my own way of seeing things today. This article is spot on what i recently have been thinking a lot of. You see, I have never seen myself as his leader or that I should be the domninat one in our relationship. Howewer I have worked hard to make him trust me in all situations by always beeing calm and consistent, and lots of praise and love when he is doing what I am asking for. From have beeing a quite tense and stressed boy he is now a very happy boy who loves to work with me. I have never doubt that this has been the right way to go with him. We are a team and I am his safety and he is my…every thing :O). I love and learn so much from your videos and posts. Thank you so much for doing this!! you have become my personal trainer :O)
Maria and Sigge
Hi Maria, Thanks so much for your comment, glad to have you here 🙂
Perfect. A very thorough piece. There are better more helpful ways of thinking as you have pointed out . It is liberating when one realises the being a leader or alpha is not necessary. Love it.
Great post, Thankyou! This clearly explained to me that good leadership skills are perhaps more about consistency with clear requests and responses. I definately feel disappointed when my horse goes right brained and panics but I can see that I respond to his behaviour with panic too so he’s getting no help from me to calm down and find comfort. This blog has been so helpful!
Great read, Callie! Very convincing.
I’m a new reader from…Poland! (any other readers form here? 😉 )
I’m also a beginner rider who has always wanted to learn horseriding and now at 37 (!) I finally got stubborn enough to start:)
I obviously do not have my own horse so I ride horses chosen by my instructor and I have a problem with riding one of them. It may very well be a problem of my way of thinking but oftentimes I get frustrated when my instructor keeps telling me to use more and more pressure with my legs when I ask the horse for a trot and whenever the horse doesn’t respond, the intsructor tells me to use the whip until the horse starts the trot. I know it’s a very basic, new-rider dilemma but is it supposed to be like this? Ask for the trot gently-no reaction – use more power of your legs-no reaction-use the whip-no reaction- use the whip even more? Isn’t there another option? I feel like I’m constantly punishing the horse and it usually ends in the horses’ head throwing and my growing frustration.
Or is it simply one of the stages a new rider must go through before learning how to ask for a trot/canter etc without so much pressure?
Your current challenge is very common to many new riders – what may be happening is that your balance is shifting without your awareness as you ask for trot – or you are tensing somewhere in your body – essentially telling the horse “go slow” with one part of your body while saying “speed up” with your legs.
I would put a consistent guidelines on how you use the pressure from your legs and whip. For example, to trot, I use 1- verbal cue trot, 2- squeeze of calves for 2 seconds, 3- kicking with legs or what I prefer, tap, tap, tap with the whip. When you are consistent with the sequence the horse will learn to go from the verbal cue or just a small squeeze. When you are learning and inevitably a bit inconsistent, they usually will not be as responsive. Also, don’t stop the pressure before you get the trot. For example, if you tap with the whip a few times then stop because it doesn’t seem to be working, you are actually reinforcing the horse’s response of staying in the same gait. The next time he will likely wait until the pressure is escalated more because last time it went away when he just stayed at the same gait. So do your best to be consistent but be patient with yourself as you are learning!
Callie, thank you for your reply. I kept your advice in mind while riding today. I couldn’ t try it out completely as I didn’t have a whip today but I tried to be much more consistent with the voice cue and the calves’ squeeze. I feel there was a slight, positive difference between today’s lesson and the previous ones.
You’re definitely right that I should be more patient with myself – it feels better when I don’t expect too much from one, single lesson.
Sitting trot was the biggest challenge for me today but I’ll get there;) My instructor says my fears are only in my head and he’s probably right. I see that my 6-year old daugther rides much more relaxed than me and she is often able to do things right away when asked and I need to “digest” them before I even try.
Very insightful. Callie, have you taken ethology courses? You have such a broad background to draw from and it’s refreshing to hear someone like you challenging what many people accept simply as ‘fact’. I’m reading ‘Revealing Your Hidden Horse’ by Mark Hansen right now and it echoes your blog on leadership, particularly when he talks about Natural Horsemanship. Once again, thank you for sharing your insight.
Glad you enjoyed the article! I have not taken ethology courses, but have followed the work of Lucy Rees, who is an author and well-known equine ethologist.
This was a good read and eye opener. What you wrote here along with the clarification makes a lot of sense. Will definitely keep this in mind when working with my horses.
Not only a great article, Callie, but it has encouraged so many thoughtful questions and responses. For my part, returning to riding after a very long break and adopting an opinionated OTTB mare who had had several years off with little training, I quickly realized I needed to learn new and better ways to communicate with her. Your methods and suggestions have been key to our continued progress with and enjoyment of each other.
My horse responds to calm talk and kindness. Today I needed to give him an anti-inflammatory; he raised his head and showed the whites of his eyes. I knew he was anxious so I put the meds behind my back and talked to him calmly telling him that I would never harm him, I stroked his neck and face, and he became calm and allowed me to inject the meds into his mouth. It really is about trust.
Thank you Callie for discussing this issue. You have pointed out the myth of being dominance for several times, and that made me rethink about the way I interact with my horse. After I became more conscientious about the process of horse learning, every single activity at the stable became our practice for communication. When I put on a halter, pick up her foot, put a saddle on her, tighten up a girth, I can tell her what I like and what I do not like about her behaviors. It is really rewarding to notice reduction of her unwanted behaviors. I believe a horse does not learn from fear.
What a wonderful discussion of the topic of dominance and leadership. I have owned several horses looking for the perfect fit for me. I also spent much time and money trying to achieve this goal. Being taught I must be a strong leader is a little bit off base.
It would appear the assertive approach is most effective as each horse has it’s own unique understanding of and willingness to carry out the rider’s wishes. But clear direction and repetition works wonders.
Thank you so much.
Callie, I thoroughly enjoyed your article and ‘tho I am a novice with horses, I cannot agree with you more. And your horses are living proof of your methods!
Hi Callie! Your post was very timely for me. I’ve been back in the horse world for 3 1/2 years after a LONG hiatus…let’s just say I’m no “spring chicken”, lol. Back in the old days, it was all about dominance, but as I’ve gotten reacquainted with having horses (I have two mares), I’ve discovered that respect and friendship with my ladies gets me much better results…thank you for your blog and its confirmation of my own experience:)
Thanks Susan, welcome back to the horse world! 🙂
I am thinking of getting back in the saddle, again!
What are your opinions on the subscription based Epona.tv, $50 per year?
Epona TV is a great resource, I have a monthly subscription and would highly recommend it!
I just found your blog while searching for information on this exact topic! I thoroughly agree with you and its great to see other people thinking the same thing. We’ve got to spread the word! 🙂
Hi, some interesting points there and something to think about. Still, I wonder how does that look in reality. We want our horses to do things for us every day. We want them to respond to our cues. Even with the softest touch and best connection, it is still the human that decides for the horse – to be lead, get on a float, carry a rider etc. Training a horse by definition is a form of control, and this is not semantics. How can it be done without first estalisting leadership? My horse will simply continue grazing and playing all day if given the choice.
Tamar, I think the emphasis is that the horse doesn’t require a leader in order to listen to us. Good training is just teaching cues and responses. We need our cues to be fair to the horse as to never compromise their welfare. You don’t have to be a leader to ask questions of those around you!
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
I am enjoying reading your responses and watching your videos, but I’m not finding the answer I am looking for with my mare. She is 24 years old, and I raised her from 3 months old, myself. I lunged her for the first two years of her life, introduced the saddle and bridle, and eventually rode her at 2 years. By 4 years, I entered her into a local horse show, in the green horse division, and came home with reserve champion for the day. Shortly after that, she started biting us. Not knowing what to do, I sent her to a trainer for a month. He never shared what he was doing with me, so at the end of the month, I brought her back home. Over the years, I have been bitten by her five times, the last bite messing up one of my fingers. I have not ridden her for the past several years, but have been working with her in the round pen, and just letting her be a horse with the herd. What I find with her, is that she does not like confinement. She is aggressive in her stall, except when being fed, does not like cross ties, but ground ties to perfection. I come near her with a saddle pad, and she pins her ears. She is nervous in the round pen at first, but with work,, settles down and eventually will come to me and follow me around the pen. She seems better with consistent work. She is the first horse in the barn to greet me in the morning, but I’m sure it is probably all about being fed. Nonetheless, after a day at pasture, she comes to me when called, and seems comfortable with me around in the paddock, with or without hay around. I am afraid that the trainer created my monster, and I’m not sure how to handle her. I want to ride her again, she is in great shape, but don’t want to skip any steps in getting to that point with trust. I can’t seem to win her trust. Maybe because I don’t completely trust her, after five bites? What are your thoughts?
Cindy, you find that she is exhibiting these behaviors with other horses as well? Have you ever had her evaluated by a veterinarian? Is it mouthiness or rather full-on open mouth biting? What is her body condition like? Does she get to eat enough? What is her management like? When does the biting occur, during tacking or grooming? I have all these questions for you because I think they might play a role in the behavior! This type of behavior can sometimes manifest when the horse is experience discomfort physically or even possi1bly mentally.
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
Thank you for your response, I will try and answer all of your questions correctly. Surprisingly, she not a dominant mare, but instead is pushed around by the other geldings. Her biting is not nipping, but full-on open mouth biting. I have not had her scoped for ulcers, as she would need to be fasted, and there are three others in the barn. Plus, wouldn’t fasting just add to the acidity of her stomach? Her body condition is fine, she is seen by a veterinarian every year for vaccines. She gets plenty to eat, and prefers hay over grain. She did, however, contract Lyme this summer, but that does not explain her prior behavior. She just finished up her second month of Doxycycline. She first bit my husband as he was walking past her stall door, working in the barn. Then she bit our daughter in the head, as she was trying to bring her in from the paddock one night. That is when I sent her to a trainer. I have no idea what he did with her, but I can only imagine it didn’t help. If she is in cross ties, and I try to saddle her, she tries to reach around and bite, and is very girthy. I have been working on ground work, tying, brushing, and just getting saddle pads on and off. I’m not sure what you mean by management? I try to keep her in a routine, so she knows what I expect from her, so I make changes very gradually.
Cindy, I would wonder if she is experiencing any hormonal issues as this type of aggression isn’t typical when a horse is comfortable!
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
Thank you for your suggestions. I will have a work-up done on her. I also just learned from a friend in New England that her mare’s similar aggression was due to chronic Lyme and insufficient vitamins and minerals. Veterinarians recommend certain grains to us, and although they meet the daily requirements of most horses, they are not tailored to meet the needs of different regions of the country, or horses with special needs. When I find the answer for my mare, I will let you know. It is not a training issue, because she is very, very smart in the round pen.
This is a tough, tough subject. One that I have to debate with myself everyday. Biting is an aggressive act but its also an aggressive communication. I remember once when I was so green and new to horses I was leading a horse in from pasture and it starting jigging and bucking. I thought it was trying to be dominant and pull me into the barn so I smacked him on the neck with a lead rope. The horse stopped the jigging and I finally noticed a huge huge horsefly on its rump. I was so ashamed. The poor horse gave up trying to tell me something was wrong, maybe even asking for help and instead resigned to taking a massive bite.
I’ve tried hard to listen to what a horse is saying and have missed the message so many times since then, but I feel the Masterton Method has helped me tremendously. If a horse is bucking and biting it means he’s screaming a message. I have found for myself that using the Masterton(sp?) method proves to a horse I’m listening so he doesn’t feel the need to “scream” what he is communicating, but if he does scream he understands that its fair for me to “scream back” I think the difference between aggression and assertiveness is not the “harshness” of the punishment but the willingness of the leader to at least hear the horse out before passing judgment.
Hi Jacqueline! Masterson Method is wonderful work for horses and their people 🙂
It is important to do exactly what you described in your comment – to listen to our horses!
-Julia, CRK Training Community Manager
Apologies in advance for the length of this post! I bought an April 2018 KWPN chestnut colt in January 2019, because I can’t afford to buy a made horse. This little guy, Peanut, has a bloodline that should ensure high performance potential plus “a good brain” and “a golden temperament”. The last two traits are the most important because I’m a first-time horse owner about to have my 50-is-the-new-30 birthday. My instructor is an experienced, competent professional. She and the breeder agreed this colt would be appropriate for an adult amateur — a potential FEI horse and a best friend kind of partnership.
My instructor and I agree that Peanut is a Confident Extrovert (using Gabi Neurohr’s terms and definitions). He’s bottom of the heap in a herd of geldings with a 17-year old alpha, an 11-year old, a coming 4-year old and another 2-year old. They’re turned out 24 x 7, coming in twice a day for feeding. He was gelded at 13 months. My general “feel” (without having a lot of experience of young horses) is that he’s smart, easily bored and has a “why should I?” personality. As if there has to be more at stake for doing something when asked than praise and a scratch on the withers.
He halters and leads nicely in and out of the barn. He stands reasonably well for the farrier, and behaves politely with the vet. He understands how to back up with several different cues when on a lead rope. However, he does not like to give space and will generally just raise his head out of the way if you wave your arms and make yourself big to ask for it. He’s particularly resistant to giving space if he’s in the pasture, and will walk right into your space even as you’re giving him all of the cues to get out of it. On Thursday I was walking the pasture looking for a shoe. He and the other 2 year old and the 4 year old came over to investigate and “play”. The other two gave space when I asked for it. Peanut did not. He kept his head high and kept walking purposefully at me.
I KNOW you’re not supposed to yield space, but I took a step to the side or he would have literally walked over me. I stayed at his head and asked him to back up by putting pressure on the chest/leg back up spot. He calmly reared, knocked me to the ground, and then stood on me with one foot and pawed at me with the other. I was able to get up and he came at me again even though I’d taken my jacket off at this point and was trying to use it the way I’d flick a whip or a lead rope to enforce space. He just wouldn’t yield. The pasture was full of mud and the footing was terrible. I was a little disconcerted, and felt the safest thing to do was roll out under the fence. Is it important to note there was no ear pinning, stink eye or lip curling during any of the above? After I got over the shock of getting thumped to the ground and stepped on, it didn’t seem as if he was overtly attacking, more that he was testing/challenging?
I texted my instructor and told her what had happened. She came out, came into the pasture with no equipment, did some backing up with him. He wasn’t a schmuck about it but he wasn’t exactly gracious. She had me come back in to see if he pinned his ears or reacted to me. He didn’t. I asked him to back up a couple of times and he did. My instructor did his first round pen session that evening to reinforce boundaries and she said it was mostly uneventful, the usual running around and bucking, one instance of rearing, and then mostly settled into maintaining pace and direction as asked. She’s continuing with his ground training, several sessions a week while we’re grounded with the COVID 19 restrictions.
Another staff person on the farm commented that Peanut has the kind of stubbornness that has to be “beaten out of him”. This goes along with the dominance and boss-enforcement mentality discussed in the blog. I know my trainer would never beat a horse, by the way. If I thought there was even a chance of it I’d pack up and go to another barn. I’ve seen her work with other horses, including her 4-year-old she bought as a weanling. She’s amazing. I’m grateful I have a professional onsite to work with him.
I’m curious to know your thoughts on how you’d handle the kind of situation that happened in the pasture. This horse definitely has his opinions about things. I want to be in partnership with him without intimidation while staying safe. I’m pretty sure he wants to know what’s in it for him.
Hi Amy, I’m sorry to hear that you had that experience! For safety reasons, you do want them to understand how to move away from you. Have you practiced any of that in the area as groundwork? Starting with some simple groundwork exercises to get him to understand how you are asking him to move away would help for situations like this in the future.
-Julia, CRK Training Office Manager