As we identified in the last post, some horse behaviors that we might think of as being cute might carry different connotations when deciphered from a herd animal's perspective. This time, we will analyze examples of specific behaviors and what you might be able to do about them.
What NOT to do:
Don't get mad.
Don't get even.
Don't lose your cool.
Although these are just suggestions, remember that there is rarely a need to get mad and become physically aggressive to get a result. Stay calm, be purposeful and most especially, be consistent.
****Please always remember: when working with, on or around horses, always make decisions that ensure your safety as well as the horse's safety. If in doubt, back off and reevaluate before things escalate.****
Horse Speak Definition: In general, pawing is a sign of impatience or anxiety. The horse wants to move.
What To Do: If the horse is being held by a handler (for example, in a show environment), then by all means, allow the horse to go for a walk. Better yet, use the energy to teach or perfect something while the horse is walking. Try getting the horse to step away from you as he is walking. Can he cross his legs (front only, back only, both front and back) while he is walking?
Walking off might not be suitable in all situations. If the horse is in cross-ties in the barn, you can still easily stop the pawing by picking one foot and asking it to step forward/back/ forward/back until the horse is ready to stop moving. Then give the horse the opportunity to stop. If he isn't ready to stop, go to it again!
Horse Speak Definition: Head nodding is also another sign of excess energy or tension.
What To Do: Change the topic and do some of the same things suggested for pawing. Always aim to get the horse to step away from you rather than step into you so that you demonstrate your leadership to him.
Pushing you out of the way
Horse Speak Definition: This one can become very dangerous since every time the horse gets you to move away from him, he will become more and more convinced of his leadership over you. As you may notice in any turn-out field, the dominant horse usually gets his way and tells all the other horses what to do and where to go. Becoming the secondary citizen in your herd of two may not suit you well since you are also one-sixth the size of the horse and can be very easily hurt!
What To Do: Once again, be sure to assert your leadership. Decide on a personal space "bubble" around you that the horse should not enter. Then, before the horse steps into that space, push him out - first, with your body language (step into his space) and if he does not respond to that social cue, then follow through by pushing him away with the lead rope or bridle reins. He must never get closer to you, even while walking beside you, than what you've decided is a safe personal space around you.
Dragging you along on the lead
Horse Speak Definition: Something else (other than you) requires much more urgent attention of the horse. He is knowingly or unknowingly disregarding your communications and going where he needs to go.
What To Do: This behavior is the opposite of the one above. Should your horse drag you, do your best to stop and assume one position. Then swing his head around in a way that makes him turn to face you. Maybe you can back him up a few steps after he stops and looks at you. Maybe you ask him to step sideways away from you for a set number of footfalls.
Try walking ahead after you feel he is softly compliant. If he goes to drag you off again, go back to moving his feet where you want them to go. In all cases, do not allow him to continue taking you for a walk! Treat this behavior seriously as there is great danger of you getting hurt.
Nibbling on your hat or hair
Horse Speak Definition: Isn't it so cute when your horse reaches forward with a lovingly stretched out neck and gently nibbles on your hair or hat? NO!
Again, in the herd, the dominant horse is the one that does the nibbling. Please be assured that what you think of as being cute is a completely different message to the horse: that he is boss and you should do what he says.
What To Do: This one is easy to prevent - just don't tempt him with your hat, hair, or anything else for that matter! Stay out of his nibbling zone and consistently establish your personal space bubble.
Begging for treats
Horse Speak Definition: As humans, we get a pleasure rush when we do something nice for someone else. We especially enjoy sharing meals and treats together - sharing food is simply in our nature.
Unfortunately, herd dynamics don't follow human social norms. The only time one horse gives another horse food (or gets out of the way) is when the second horse is dominant over the first.
Every time you give a treat to your horse, you are communicating to him that he is the leader in your herd of two. This might not be a problem for some time, but should your normally gentle and sweet horse start becoming demanding and pushy, you can blame it on the repeated communication you've been giving him.
What To Do: One option is to refrain from ever giving your horse treats by hand. Some people always stick to this rule. If you must hand feed treats, be sure to avoid giving the treat at the first sign of aggressive behavior from your horse. Establish clear parameters and be consistent. If in doubt, go back to option 1!
Stomping feet or turning your way when you touch an area
Horse Speak Definition: The horse is uncomfortable for some reason and is making it clear that you should get out of his space.
What To Do: First, find out if there is truly a physical discomfort. Perhaps you will need a veterinarian to check the horse and see if there is a problem with that area.
If it is likely that the horse is being aggressive, then look to either change the behavior (redirect the energy and get the horse to move specific feet, as in pawing and head nodding above) or simply push the horse out of your personal space. Make it clear that you can move his feet and assume the leader position in the "herd" dynamic.
In all the above examples, the key thing to remember is that the horse is simply communicating to you in the way he knows how. It is your duty to understand "horse speak" and negotiate through all the herd dynamic social rules. The better you understand the "horse" definitions behind your actions, the quicker you will be in knowing how to prevent unwanted behavior, and knowing what to do about it.
Finally! The Ultimate Rider-Centered Program!
Ready for something completely different? If you liked what you read here, you might be interested in the new Horse Listening Practice Sessions.
This is NOT a program where you watch other people's riding lessons. Start working with your horse from Day 1.
Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published! Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email
Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding
Available as an eBook or paperback.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:
It’s All About Listening: Where it all began for this blog.
The 99% “Lucky Rule”: The 99% Lucky rule is very simple – when you’re around horses, and particularly in dangerous situations, you are lucky 99% of the time. That is a good rule – unless it happens to be the 1% of the time that you might be ‘un’-lucky! Then, it’s no fun at all.
Speaking “Horse” (a.k.a. “Pushing the Envelope”): Horses send messages out as much as humans do. Once you know how to listen to your horse, a whole world of communication can open up for you.
How To Be An Active Horseback Rider (a.k.a. Riding With Intention): What do you do when your ride isn’t going as planned? How do you respond when your horse scoots out from under you, spooks at the horse-killing object, or flat out ignores you?