We’ve all had days when we come home steaming angry convinced we’d sell our horses to the next person we see. A horse might be an angel for one person and rotten for another all in the same day. Sometimes our horses just seem to push our buttons and we’re sure it’s on purpose! I know I’ve had my patience tried to the maximum when everything I do with my horses just seems to keep going wrong.
It’s easy to think of horses like emotional and manipulative humans. A horse may refuse to let us catch him in a field and we think he’s doing it to make us angry. So we get angry and everything spirals downhill. It’s important to understand the nature of horses and stop “humanizing” the reasons they do things. Horses are who they are and it does not benefit anyone to get angry about it.
Why Horses Pick on Us
As mentioned above, we’ve all had days when we’re sure our horse is just trying to tick us off. Horses like this are often labeled “ill-mannered”. They won’t stand in the crossties. They lead us around. They dance the moment our foot is in the stirrup. They nip when our backs are turned. Instead of bad, I would call these horses smart, playful or dominant. Horses never try to be “bad”-they simply are who they are.
Horses are very curious and playful creatures. They often make “games” out of the things that bother us. And we are very good at encouraging this behavior without realizing it. First it is important to recognize a “game” and break the cycle. These games often become learned behavior and habitual because we engage in them without knowing it. Then we’ve taught them it’s acceptable. We can’t in all fairness blame the horse for this and punishment will only confuse the poor animal. Quit playing the game. Do something else. Change your tactic. Don’t continue to do something the same way when it isn’t getting the results you want. It doesn’t do to have a horse play a game when you’re trying to be serious. And if you get angry or frustrated, the horse won the game. If a horse wins the game, that makes him dominant over you in his eyes.
If you’re working with a horse that seems to play a lot of games, satisfy his play drive by creating acceptable “fun” things to do. Get a toy or ball. Learn Parrelli’s “The Seven Games”. Go for trail rides. Let him out more. Try a different riding style. Spice up the schooling. Do something fun with your horse. It’s amazing how much “bad behavior” slows or ceases when your horse is stimulated and not bored. That way he doesn’t have to create his own games because you have already provided safe and acceptable ones.
Horses also seem to push our buttons when they are exhibiting dominant behavior. Again, this isn’t your horse trying to be naughty. Horses have a hierarchy in the herd and naturally try to find their “place” by exhibiting dominant or submissive behavior. The problem is that humans are often not very good at acting like dominant horses. Even passive horses might engage in dominant behavior around us because we make it so easy for them. The alpha horse will often become “leader” by default. They just happen to be the horse in the herd with the best leadership skills. They aren’t ambition driven. Some horses are simply born natural leaders and others aren’t. They are very authentic creatures and can’t help just being themselves. In a pasture with other horses, you will see that a horse will “pick on” the horse directly below them in the hierarchy.
So instead of getting angry when a horse is rude, put them in their place. Act like the more dominant horse. Make them walk behind you, not in front. Make them stand still and square. Back them up. Learn about equine body language. Do some round pen work. Don’t allow them in your personal space uninvited. Not only is it annoying when horses act like the boss, but it can be dangerous when it continues unchecked. Don’t get mad and don’t get even. Get higher up on the hierarchy chain!
Why Horses are Afraid
Horses are prey animals. They have a very strong flight response (some more than others) and are often fearful of the silliest things. Some horses are very “spooky” by nature and others have been traumatized in the past. To them, these fears are a survival tactic. It can be very frustrating when your horse spooks at something like a paper bag blowing in the wind and you’re just trying to lead him to his stall. You must remember that he is only trying to survive the best way he knows how.
You wouldn’t force someone with an anxiety disorder to face their phobia (and expect serenity) without any prior preparation. Nor should you tell them they are silly or stupid. Anger and frustration always makes an anxious person feel a lot worse and only confirms their fears. Think of a horse as someone with an anxiety disorder. The best thing an anxious person can do is gradually and slowly face their fears. Each time this is done the person feels a little better and can get a little closer without panicking. The same is true with horses and is called confidence training. So don’t get upset when your horse spooks. Do your best not to get yourself spooked. Try to understand where it comes from and take it as a cue that your horse requires some “therapy” (confidence training).
Mean or Aggressive Horses
Very rarely are horses ever born mean. Cruelty and aggression just isn’t a part of their nature. More often a horse will learn that aggressiveness is a good way to avoid humans. Many physically and mentally abused horses will become dangerous. Basically, aggression in horses is most often man-made. You have likely heard the phrase “There are no bad horses-only bad riders”. I view horses with behavior issues like this as victims – not enemies.
If you happen to be working with a “mean” horse, make sure you are able to handle the situation. These horses can be very dangerous. It’s good to have a coach or trainer help you. And always remember the horse is probably just like an angry, abused child. Treat them with love, patience, understanding, respect, consistency and dignity. This doesn’t mean they should be allowed to be aggressive. Just understand their point of view while maintaining your own boundaries.
All of This Doesn’t Seem to Apply to My Horse
All right. So you’ve read this article and done other research. You’ve tried numerous things and still your horse is bothering you. Trying to find a solution to this situation is very difficult without knowing the circumstances. All I can say is horses have a reason for everything they do. It may not seem like a good reason to you, but it works for them. They are who they are and do what they’ve learned.
It is your job to discover the reason they are acting out. You cannot find an efficient solution without knowing the reason. What is your horse trying to tell you? Is he unhappy in the field? Bored in his stall? In pain? Has your horse always behaved like this? Has there been a change in his diet or exercise regime? Horses can’t learn to speak English so we must learn to understand “horse talk”. It is up to us to determine what’s wrong (or right!) with our horses.
Why Anger and Frustration Doesn’t Help
Hopefully this article has helped you understand why horses sometimes act the way they do. It is a very natural and human response to get angry and upset. But horses can’t be expected to adapt and be like us. We must learn to understand them and get on their playing field.
Punishing a horse or taking anger out on them doesn’t work for a number of reasons. And it will just make things worse. Horses are prey animals and don’t understand punishment. You don’t see horses punishing each other in a field. Punishment may temporarily stop a horse from what they were doing. But there are much better ways for them to learn proper behavior. Acting in anger can cause trust issues. Trust issues in someone with an anxiety problem can make things worse. People that are upset will often look like a predator to a horse. Anger just isn’t a letter in the equine alphabet.
And if you have ever tried to hide your anger you’ll know that never seems to work very well. Horses are extremely sensitive, highly intuitive, and capable of reading body language very well. You cannot lie to a horse.
Don’t take it personally! Instead of getting angry look deeper into the situation and try to understand why your horse is acting the way he is. Be a good leader. Leadership is a language that horses understand. And in the process, you’ll find that life in general will have a harder time making you mad.