I'm Scared of My Horse, Please Help
This article is for people with a horse that "turned into a brat" since they've owned it. It concerns itself with ground manners and the like – it does not deal with riding issues (such as spooky or jiggy horses). It does not specifically address horses that "have always" been bratty. Rather, if your horse has taken a turn for the worse (manners-wise) since you began dealing with it, this is for you.
Would you like to walk out to the barn, have your horse turn to you with a smile and just hang out, friends for life? Well, that's possible, but first...
First the hard medicine: If your horse has developed poor ground manners (pushy, rude, especially dangerous vices such as kicking or biting) since you've been in charge... then you'll only fix it by realizing that you need to make a change yourself.
Every contact we have with our horses teaches them something – and your behavior has "trained" him to walk all over you. When the horse came to live with you he saw you as a blank slate. Would you be in charge – or would he? He knows somebody's gotta be. Millions of years of "survival of the fittest" programmed him to believe that there's gotta be a boss. If you're not ready for the post, he'll assume it. But now, six months or years after moving in, the horse looks at you and sees a giant sucker, with the Tootsie Pop wrapper and everything.
But, you say, I don't want to frighten my horse by being too tough. I prize our relationship and want him to learn to trust me. I want to bond and be friends and run through the fields bareback with my hair flowing...
Your horse wants to eat, sleep and poop. "Bonding" has never been high on his list.
You can have a terrific relationship, but it takes respect – and respect must be earned. Begin by realizing that you're the one paying the bills. Your horse is certainly "not the boss of you." You keep your horse, giving him the very best of care, but in return he works for you and has a job to do. He'd be more than happy to sit on the couch in front of the TV, barking out orders for you to bring him pop and sandwiches – but it can't work like that. You have to go to work everyday; your horse has to go to work everyday. Typically horses work an hour or so daily while we slog through traffic before putting in our eight – so our equine friends, even those in full training, have a pretty good deal.
Your horse's job is to turn and face you when you enter the stall, to remain still as you bridle or mount, to carry you down the trail and pick up a trot or lope when asked, to pick up the correct lead – and so on.
But you’ve heard all this before, haven't you? Your horse is still a pill. Okay, I'll bottom line it: If you read article after article and still your horse remains incorrigible, find a pro. There's plenty of professional horse trainers out there. Trust me, we'd love to have your business. But, you say, I can't afford a trainer. Can you afford the hospital bill for a broken shoulder? And how much is your little finger worth? Keep a bratty horse long enough and you'll lose all ten of those digits. Horses don't wake up one day and realize they've been too hard on you, it's time for a truce. They get worse.
You'll know it's time for a professional if you have certain questions. For instance, if you're thinking "How much tough love from me is too much?" you're signaling that you're a bit timid and perhaps inexperienced. Horses can read "inexperience" a mile away. Get a pro. If your question goes something like "Nobody can get in the pen with him, what do I do?" then a simple article won't suffice. Call a pro. Or, maybe you're new to horses entirely and bought a green youngster, figuring "you two could learn together" - ? Holy guacamole, call a pro.
For the rest of you, I'll list some specific examples and fixes – but that's all they'll be, examples. For this to work, you'll need to institute a zero tolerance policy toward disrespect in all areas of your horse partnering and, sorry for the tired saying, "think out of the box." Begin by proactively looking for small transgressions: If you're reading this, they'll be there by definition. And again, if you can't even get in the pen with your horse, CALL A PRO.
The single biggest thing you can take from this article is simply this: Start recognizing those moments when you cede control to your horse; be attentive and pay attention to those little slights that signal a loss of control: An unwillingness to lead at the speed you choose, a head swinging wildly to neigh to a buddy, ears pinning, rushing you at feeding time, bolting off as you remove the halter. Be proactive. Be on the lookout for a horse that disses you and nip his bud.
Some examples and what to do: Okay, remember that horse training is simply a matter of applying light (one might say "annoying") pressure and holding it until the horse gives us what we want. More often than not, you succeed by being more resolute, by being more stubborn than the horse. And, don't over-think this – just be thinking.
Let's see what we can stir up: Strap a halter on your horse and take a walk around the barn area. When you put the halter on, do you have to wrestle his head toward you or does the large muscle in his neck stay soft? Is he "just tolerating" you or is he standing politely? Be conscious of these things. Allowing these moments to compound is how we build monsters that chase us from the pen. If the little voice in you says "Hey,. I'm getting the cold shoulder" then do something about it. And, again, don't over-think this. It's just common sense. The change comes not so much from "how" you fix his thinking but "when" you fix it (right away). Do what it takes to get the horse to wake up and pay you the attention you're due (as the man or woman paying all the bills, for goodness sake). In these cases, it might be a matter of putting pressure on the lead till the horse relaxes his pull (away from you) then releasing and petting. Maybe it's a matter of clapping your hands and getting the horse to look at you with two eyes. Maybe the answer is to simply get the horse to practice backing up or disengaging his hips (by directing his head towards his hip).
I could give you specific fixes for a horse that's hard to halter, head shy, doesn't keep up with you as you walk, etc. – but those are each topics in their own right, and not what I want you to be learning here. What I want you to be learning is "Oh, that's when and why my horse is turning into a rude son of a gun." That simple realization will have profound effects on the relationship you share with your horse. Creating "behavior boundaries" for your horse is how you gain respect, it's the key to making horse keeping fun.
Let's try feeding ol' Dobber. Pour the grain out and be conscious of whether or not you cease to exist to the horse the moment he spots the food. Does he bull past as if you just disappeared? Maybe he pushes you rudely with his head? Do what my mother would do if I tried that at the dinner table as a kid: Get nuts. Let the horse know the very moment you suspect you've been treated rudely that those sorts of manners will not be tolerated. Scream, clap your hands, jump up and down, throw the bucket at him. He can wait to eat till he pays you homage, thank you very much. Let him know he'll not survive the next transgression – and be quick about it. Remember, you only have three seconds to make the correction – else the horse won't make the connection between mistake and your cursing. He'll just think you're odd. Also, anytime you make a correction, be sure to bring yourself back to neutral immediately.
Try walking around the paddock. Does he crane his neck to whinny to a nearby buddy, ignoring your request to keep walking ahead smoothly? Does he try to park out and eat grass? Does he keep throwing that nearest shoulder at you, threatening to run you over? Those are the little things that begin to add up. When your horse plants himself, make his nose touch his butt with a good swift movement on that lead line. Maybe snap his rear with the end of the lead. Scream if you have to, but get him moving. Taking his nose to his rear will move that shoulder safely away; it'll wake him up; it'll put you back in charge. (Put a bridle with a snaffle bit in his mouth for these exercises if you find the horse overpowering you when outfitted in just the halter.) Next, clap, dance or scream obscenities until you get the horse to look at you with two eyes. When you are ready, walk on, prepared to deliver unto the horse the wrath of seven maniacal tigers, should he pull that again. Let him know that you're the biggest bull in the barn, a big bull that's totally relaxed and cheery as long as everyone follows the rules.
A common question is "Won't my horse start fearing me?" "Won't I jeopardize any existing good will that might exist if I get on his case?" Answer: Not if you're cut and dried about your fixes. Horses aren't stupid and they're fine with benevolent dictators. Be fair and consistent with your actions and they'll hand you the respect you're looking for. Let them know in no uncertain way that a bad attitude will not be tolerated – and then you chill out. Or, overlook these things, allow them to fester, and find yourself on the losing end.
This article is part
of the "Ask
a Horse Trainer" series. To read more, or to find a clinic
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