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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.****

Pawing

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!

Head Nodding

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 doesn't know any better. He 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.

 

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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?

Take the Credit, Bad AND Good: In our quest for balance (not just on the kind on the back of the horse), it is essential for us to look at our achievements from both angles.

 

16 Comments

  1. Excellent post!! I had forgotten the trick of stepping into HIS space to push him out of mine. But, this doesn’t do much with my guy. He’s a retired police horse, highly trained not to budge no matter what. I’m finding that he’s stretching my creativity to the limit! 😉

  2. I agree will all that you wrote except for “sharing.” Currently we have several pairs of sharers. When I give out supplements, most of them pair up, contentedly eating nose to nose. These same pairs also groom each other and play with each other. I always had assumed this is typical. So I’m wondering if the breed of horse makes a difference? Mine are Colonial Spanish types. What are the breeds of horses you’ve observed to never share?

    Over the years, twice it happened that when one of my geldings became too old to live on usual rations, I had to feed him special supplements mixed with beet pulp. In both cases, the gelding got into the habit of inviting his best friend to share, causing best friend to pork up fast. So I ended up having to separate him out to feed, big hassle.

    The most fascinating example of sharing I ever saw was one day during a fierce windstorm. I was feeding hay pellets because anything else would blow away. Three donkeys were in the paddock, and every time they tried to eat, a horse would run them off. Finally the lead mare took over, standing guard over the donkeys while they ate, politely sharing the pellets with them. I took a photo of this.

    1. Sounds like you have a wonderful herd of very sweet horses! 🙂

      I don’t think I meant that horses never share. I also have horses that eat together and mutual groom and socialize very nicely. But in my experience, the horse that allows another to eat from his pile is inferior in the social hierarchy. Which is fine if you’re a horse.

      If you are a human, though, and your horse thinks he is dominant over you (because by giving him treats, you are allowing him into your “pile” of food), then your interactions might suffer. Having said that, some horses never step over horse-human boundaries even if fed by hand. I have a mare who I gave treats to all her life and she never took advantage of the situation. But I can’t say the same thing for all horses.

      Thanks so much for your comment and for reading.

  3. Great post; we all need reminding not to be too much of a soft touch, especially with that “special” horse you try not to spoil. I know treating is a fraught area and a fine line of judgement for every individual (human and equine). Just to say it did work for me with a very insecure horse whose unhappiness on arrival translated into aggression and, with time, learning how to accept a treat was one way in to a relationship … but I fully accept it’s not a universal panacea if your leadership is not clear!! Always appreciate your thought-provoking posts.

  4. a horse that i ride, to be specific a mare who is 6, is quite “moody” she has been off for a couple of months due to an injury and i go into her stall to groom her and give her some TLC but she her mean side has become quite intense. before, i could groom her with barely any problem but now she will barely let me put the brush to her neck ( pins her ears back, tries to bite me , and even kick to the side like a cow). so my question is what should i do about her behavior and what do you think could be the origin of her behavior? she was on stall rest for about 4 weeks , then on some occasion she would be put into a paddock for the day (if she wanted to move) and in at night, now i believe shes going to be out in the paddock 24/7 again, i thought maybe it was because she didn’t get to go outside as much.. Help please?

  5. Love the suggestions. My problem is that the pawing only happens when I put the saddle on. Obviously I can’t take the saddle off (reward) each time it happens and I get anxious about her (yes, mare) girthiness with my $5000 saddle not being secured. I am working on the girth issues but what do I do about the anxiousness of being saddled or groomed while she is tied?

  6. Have you tried just pushing her over so that she HAS to put weight on the pawing foot? No worry, no emotions, no concern – just push her shoulder while you’re tacking up and make her put her foot down. She’ll eventually know that every time she starts to paw, that she’ll have to move over. Hopefully this helps. Also, just a thought – maybe mention it to your vet in case there’s something else going on systemically.

    1. WOW, awesomely simple. I made headway today with the forward,back,sideways, move-the-feet-theory and had good results. But this one is even easier. Why is it so difficult to think in such simple terms. THANK YOU.

  7. Hey, I’m having trouble with my friends horse who’s staying at my place as she has no land. When you go to catch him, he will run away and instead of going around you when he’s running, he will go straight at you. He hurt me a few days ago when I was catching him but he only seems to do it when he’s in a larger area. Do you have any ideas on how to fix this?

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