The spirit, strength, and might of horses are what attract so many; these traits are admirable and awesome to behold. Sometimes, however, these same traits make the horses we love not so likeable – and not so safe when being handled on the ground. Why do these traits come out, and how should they be handled when they do?
Why do our horses get horsey with us?
By nature, horses are prey animals. This means they’re usually looking out for their own safety, looking for predators, and ready to flee without notice; however, within their own herd (to which we – by proxy – belong) horses are less shy. Horse herds have a social order and most horses occasionally will test to see if they have possibly moved up the ranks.
Do not make the mistake of taking these times of boundary testing personally. Horses will try and test you and these boundaries to see if they can rise in the proverbial pecking order. Sometimes horses innocently forget that the human is supposed to be the top of the list. When any of these situations occur, they usually show up as a lack of respect – either passive, or active.
Horses show lack of respect through various actions.
Some signs of lack of respect are as follows:
- Walking ahead while being lead.
- Crowding with the shoulder, head, or neck.
- Turning the rump to the owner in the stall or pen.
- Nipping, biting, striking, kicking, or threatening any of these actions.
- Pinning the ears back towards the human.
- Pulling on the rope – either backwards or forwards.
- Tossing their head.
- Stepping on your feet.
- Rubbing their head against you or pushing with their head or body.
Some of these actions are relatively harmless. Others can be quite dangerous and should be remedied immediately. In all cases, these actions are symptoms of an attitude that can go from bad to worse if the horse is not shown immediately that while we respect them, we also demand respect. In addition to making a point to learn *why* these actions are occurring, horse handlers can demand respect through body language and consistency to shape their horse’s behavior into something safe and enjoyable.
Demanding respect kindly leads to longer, better relationships with the horse.
Demanding respect no longer means bullying, beating, or overwhelming the horse. Let’s face it – these beautiful creatures vastly outweigh us; believing that we can muscle them around is wrong and dangerous!
A horse that is muscled-around does not respect their owner; they fear them. When the fear is outweighed by another fear, the horse will leave the owner high and dry for their own safety. Instead, horse owners should strive to build a partnership and leadership role for the horse so that when things get tough they look to the handler for the decision making.
Horses are looking for leaders – be that leader!
By their very nature, horses are looking for leaders; they function best in a society where there is a clear leader who gives consistent and clear signals and an expectation of respect. In the herd, this role is filled by the alpha-mare or another alpha-horse who gives signals by arching and lowering her neck, pinning her ears, gritting her teeth, even taking snaps and occasional kicks at the most disrespectful of her herd.
In the stable, horses need to see us as the alpha horse. Note: at no point was it said that alpha-mares constantly kick, bite, and harass their herd members. They do not behave that way, nor should we. Instead, as alpha horses, handlers should use a consistent body language that never waivers to show kind but serious leadership.
You can and should be the alpha-mare in your relationship with your horse.
You can show your position as the alpha-horse through body language which is easily understood and readily interpreted by the horse. In a pasture, if there is a pan of feed, all the horses will gravitate towards it; however, if you watch carefully, you will notice that usually at least one horse will get closest to that pan and eat. All other horses stand by, warily waiting their turn.
The one horse, the alpha horse, tells the others that they have to wait by pinning her ears, making rushes at the other horses, tensing her body as if to kick, and giving “the stink eye” to the other horses.
Being the alpha-mare consists of easy body motions.
Some ways you can show your horse that you are the alpha-mare of the relationship, deserving respect, are as follows:
- Bending over at the waist and tensing the upper body.
- Placing an arm up in front of your body and walking towards the horse.
- Throwing the arms out while bending forwards, displaying a great deal of body energy towards the horse.
- Swishing the end of a long lead rope (preferably with a popper) towards the horse – either in front or behind as a tail would move.
- Standing straight up, looking directly at the area of the horse that we want to move, without any relaxation in our bodies.
- Walking with a great deal of energy toward the horse, or even lunging towards them.
- Showing the horse clearly in which direction we wish them to move – either with body language, or a combination of body language and using our leading-arm to point/direct them in the right direction.
These actions not only show intent but also serve to help move the horse as needed if this energy is directed to a certain portion of the body (discussed below).
On the other hand, when we want to show the horse that we are relaxed and have no problems with their behavior, we let the pressure off with the following body motions:
- Standing with our backs turned towards the horse, relaxed.
- Standing with one leg relaxed and bent, as they would do a back leg when resting.
- Letting out all breath in a sigh and slumping the shoulders.
- Taking our eyes off of the horse and instead onto something in the distance.
- Letting our arms rest by our sides or behind our bodies.
- Walking away.
These actions not only show the horse that the pressure is off, but can help stop motion that was caused by pressure-creating movements.
Know when to put the pressure on – and when to remove it.
Knowing when to put on the pressure (and where), and when to release it is key in teaching your horse to be respectful and enjoy it. In the herd, an alpha horse will put the pressure on to move the horse’s feet (and thus the body) from one spot to another – generally away from them. As humans, we direct our energy towards certain points on the body to do the same.
Important points of pressure for the horse create movement.
To move the body forward or the hindquarters away from us, we direct whatever energy (eyes, movement, or rope) to the hindquarters. Think of there being a spot directly in the center of the side of the horse’s haunches as a target for your energy.
To move the horse away from us laterally, to the side, or forwards, direct energy towards the very center of the horse.
To move the forequarters away from you and possibly move the horse forward, direct energy towards the shoulder.
To move the horse backwards or away from you without moving forwards, or turn the horse around, direct your energy (but never the rope) towards the center of the jaw.
Releasing pressure at the right moment makes all the difference.
When the horse makes even the slightest motion to comply with your request, switch immediately to “release” mode: relax your body, turn away, or whatever motion is appropriate. Be sure to do this immediately as time is important.
Dangerous actions; know how to recognize the unforgivable actions.
Dangerous actions include:
- Striking with the front legs
- Pawing with the front legs
- Threatening to kick
- Bucking “at” you.
Apply the “Three Second Rule” to correct unforgivable actions.
When a horse performs any of the dangerous and unforgivable actions, immediately and consistently use John Lyon’s “Three Second Rule”: during the 3-seconds following the dangerous action, you use your energy and rope to “kill” the horse (or make him think you are going to do so).
Using the Three Second Rule does not give us license to physically damage the horse, but it does mean that you can and should your popper on your rope to hit the horse (as a horse would kick him back if he dared to make a dangerous move towards them), and definitely to make the horse MOVE and move a lot.
Important: never, EVER use a rope at or around the horse’s face. Not only will you create a head-shy horse, but you risk blinding them. This is the human’s unforgivable action – so never do it, please.
Use movement to avoid dangerous actions.
Remember: a horse whose feet are moving is less likely to be able to do any of the dangerous actions. A horse has to stop to rear, has to stop to kick you, has to stop to nip, and gets further from you when moving making them less likely to hit you with a bucking kick towards you.
If you have a horse acting dangerously and you can see a dangerous action is about to occur, make the horse move in a way that will not allow them to act dangerously. If the horse is going to rear, make them move forward by putting pressure on their hindquarters. If the horse is going to bite, make them back away from you or do anything to redirect their attention and energy.
It is always BEST to redirect the action before it occurs rather than correcting it once it has, if possible.
Horses are lazy by nature; use that laziness to end their bad habits.
Horses are lazy by nature; if a horse finds they have to move when they do things that are dangerous, and move every single time, they’ll be a lot less inclined to bother.
Use every ounce of your angry-alpha-horse motion towards a horse when they dare to act dangerously towards you. If you were truly a horse, this is exactly how you would handle the situation. This is the type of “language” that horses understand immediately without having to have it translated for them!
Using your Alpha-Language for less serious situations is very effective.
Because horses understand the alpha-horse language by instinct, you can use it to your advantage for less-serious issues such as pushing, crowding, pulling, etc.
Understand the personal space bubble for horses and humans.
Humans have a bubble of personal space that we would prefer not be invaded by our 1000+ plus equine friends. A good rule of thumb is the length of your own arm equals your reasonable personal space. This distance around you is your personal space and should be respected by your horse. The horse should walk beside your shoulder or a little behind at all times at approximately an arm’s length from you.
Horses also have a personal space which we would do well to respect. This means that you should not lead the horse by gripping directly beneath their chin, but give *them* space as well with the lead rope and your body. Horses can be claustrophobic. Crowding their space makes them more antsy and uncomfortable.
Two common issues and how to correct them:
If you lead a horse that likes to crowd you, use the tail of your rope in your left hand and swish it behind you to lightly pop the horse on its side. This will cause the horse to move away from you. Don’t worry about turning around to look at the horse; this stops forwards motion, and besides – as alpha horse you don’t have to. Just swish.
If you were a horse, you would swish your tail in annoyance and it would pop the horse too close to your rear. Since we’re born without tails, use the rope. If you have ever been swished by a horse tail, you know it has a light and startling sting without being painful or long-lasting or aggressive. Mimic that with your rope. The moment the horse is outside of your space, immediately resume what you were doing as if nothing happened. This releases the pressure and rewards them.
Pushing ahead of the leader:
If you have a horse that is to forward, this is the time to turn around and direct your energy towards the front of the horse to get them to back away from you and respect your space. Most times this simply means using your body language, wiggling the rope, or swishing your rope-tail towards their front. As soon as the horse is out of your space, release all tension and resume what you were doing by turning away from them and carrying on.
Let your horse make mistakes; correct them after, not before, they happen.
As humans, we learn (or at least we should learn) from our mistakes. If we are not allowed to make mistakes, we won’t learn or grow much. Horses are the same. Many people make the mistake of trying to overcorrect a horse by keeping an action from happening.
As an example, if a person has a horse that walks up on them and won’t stop, too often the person will grip the lead rope directly beneath the chin and keep tension on the halter and rope to prevent the action. As a result, the horse feels pressured and often will resort to tossing their head, yanking the halter trying to get slack on the lead rope, or other annoying actions. This usually leads to more gripping, and the cycle worsens.
If instead we allow the horse to do what they will usually do and then kindly, confidently, and swiftly correct the action the horse will have an opportunity to learn how to behave correctly in the first place. Just as with children, sometimes you have to let the horses make their mistakes so that they learn the consequences and how to avoid those actions.
Make the wrong thing hard, the right thing easy.
Another key to allowing a horse to learn how to behave correctly is by making the right actions easy and the wrong actions troublesome. For example, a horse that walks correctly on the lead rope without crowding will not feel the gripping hand under their chin, will not feel the sting of the swish of a rope-tail, and generally be left alone. A horse that does crowd should always find that they feel that swish and are often made to do more, such as walking away from the owner.
Given an option, horses will choose the proverbial path of least resistance. In other words, they will choose whatever option means the least work and least pressure for them. Walking nicely on a lead leads to no pressure and less work. Crowding leads to more pressure and more work. Biting leads to lots of pressure, possibly pain, and movement. Not biting leads to no pressure, no pain, no work – a simple and obvious choice to a horse!
Consistency is a key concept.
Horses long for consistency; as prey animals, they like things to be safe, consistent, and predictable. This means that once you set up a behavior rule, you must always reinforce that rule. Slacking on reinforcing rules means your horse will not respect you as a leader. In their minds, they will think “well the last time I nipped him just a little, I didn’t get punished – so this time I’m going to try it a little harder.” Be fair to your horses and keep things constant with them; they will flourish in this environment and have confidence in your leadership.
In between bad behaviors – be your horse’s friend.
Alpha-mares aren’t always bossy and cranky; most of the time they are sought after by the other horses because they offer safety. After all – horses know what to expect from an alpha mare. Most of the time, the alpha mare has the respect she needs to be able to relax. You should, too. Be sure to give your horses rubs on the forehead or shoulder to show them that you are a kind leader, their friend if still their leader. They will appreciate you all the more for it.
That being said, remember that when they cross the imaginary line from friend to pushing things a bit, to kindly remind them exactly where the line is drawn. They’ll love you for your consistency and look to you, instead of away from you, in times of perceived danger.
Shape your horse’s behavior – you can do this!
With just a little understanding of the nature of the horse, reinforcement of easily understood rules, and easy body motions, any horse can be a well-behaved, enjoyable, and happy partner. Rather than breaking their tremendous spirit, we can shape that energy and spirit into a safe and long-lasting relationship to be treasured.