Breaking Bad

As much fun as it would be to talk about Walter White and his adventures – wrong blog. Instead it’s time to talk about the adventures of bad behaviors in our horses. Many will immediately think about the horse that bucks, rears, kicks or bites. But there are many more subtle behaviors that are just as unwanted and usually easily fixed.

Unwanted behaviors typically get a foothold in horses for the same reason they do in people – they’ve been rewarded. The child who throws a temper tantrum in public knowing full well the parent will eventually give in and give them what they want. The horse that paws in the ties until the owner walks over to give them the attention they desire, maybe even a cookie, a pat, or a ‘good boy/girl’.

Once a behavior is established it becomes harder to break. The longer a behavior exists the harder it becomes to break. The easiest, least time consuming method of training is to not let a behavior start in the first place, followed by nipping it in the bud the moment there’s a hint. This means we have to be attentive AND prepared to counter at a moment’s notice. Those who have limited experience are more likely to miss the first opportunity or make the wrong decision in the moment. Don’t be disheartened. Horses are very forgiving, generous and teachable, more so than most people.

If you’ve missed a chance to correct and can’t think fast enough on your feet, stop. Evaluate what just happened. Come up with a Plan A (and a Plan B). Sometimes the best approach will be to ignore the behavior, sometimes it’ll be to repeat the set of circumstances right away to get an opportunity to make a correction, occasionally avoidance can be an excellent tactic (for a period of time until other prerequisite training can be executed), and sometimes it will be to go on your merry way but armed with a readied plan should the behavior repeat. Again, experience teaches us which is the best approach for the issue. Draw from life experience, not just horse experience. And feel free to employ a good amount of common sense.

Making a break for it: I’ve heard seasoned competitors turned TV commentators and analysts mention during Grand Prix events the difficulty of a jump because of its placement facing the outgate. I sigh and roll my eyes every time. How can one have gotten a horse to that level of performance and not know how to train it so that it doesn’t try to leave (or think about leaving) the arena simply because of the placement of a jump? And yet, it’s a constant worry for many such that course designers do it on purpose.

I’ll concede that some horses have every right to attempt to leave, and I won’t blame them for that. Let’s assume that we aren’t dealing with that kind of a case. So, when and where does this behavior start? It starts the very first time you take your horse through a gate/door and away from ‘home’ (their stall/the barn/the paddock). Very quickly a pattern is established for the horse. Therefore the first step is to make leaving and arriving pleasant experiences for the horse. If every time the horse is pulled from its stall it’s a bad experience, or every time the horse enters a ring it’s a bad experience, it won’t take long for the horse to associate each side of the gate/door as good or bad.

Early on (with horses that don’t have an established bad behavior) I like to ‘tempt’ the horse by leaving the gate wide open. I go about my business as though it doesn’t exist and is a solid wall. While I won’t specifically work at the gate, I won’t avoid it either. At the first sign of the horse thinking about ‘leaving’ (ear flick toward the gate, drifting, dropping onto the gate side shoulder, getting sticky off the leg on the gate side, sucking back and getting behind the aids), I’ll make a correction that involves more work for the horse; a transition, a change of direction, a circle, a loop. Then I’ll be on my merry way. On the next lap by, I’ll pretend nothing unusual happened last time, but I’ll be prepared to up the ante if the horse’s attention wanders again toward the gate. Most times it doesn’t, but for those who are extremely determined it can be beneficial to make the request BEFORE the horse thinks about making an attempt.

Over the course of the horse’s training I’ll make the gate more tempting. I’ll change direction and trot right at it, later cantering at it, always checking in with the horse to see what he/she is thinking. Sometimes I’ll change direction again, or do a circle long before getting to the gate. Sometimes I’ll ride very forward toward the gate only to transition and change direction, or halt, or, or, or. Mixing it up keeps the horse’s attention on the rider, rather than on the gate. Soon the gate ceases to exist.

If you’re planning on jumping, don’t start by jumping at the gate. Start by doing groundpole and cavelletti work towards it on the line and then under saddle, particularly if you’re having to retrain the horse.

It’s nice if an arena/ring/field has more than one gate by which to enter and leave. Don’t always ride out, sometimes dismount and handwalk the horse out. I’ve even backed a horse out of a ring mounted and on the ground. And lots of times I’ve continued to work the horse outside of the ring, so that there’s not a specific association like: I leave the ring and I’m done. It can even be helpful to leave the ring and then turn right around, reenter, and work a bit longer.

That was just one example. Take a moment to think about what unwanted behavior you’d like to change in your horse, and then honestly evaluate how much of a role you’ve played in creating or encouraging it. It’s common for people to make excuses for behaviors in their horses: ‘My horse doesn’t like to do this or that because…’, ‘My horse won’t do this or that because…’. Once you’ve accepted your responsibility, make a plan of sequential baby steps to fix it.

Breaking bad behaviors starts with you.


48 thoughts on “Breaking Bad

  1. Hey folks,
    I’m working with a horse that had the unfortunate fate of some bad training….we’ve only been together for about a month….

    I’d be interested to hear how people would OR have fixed the following:
    1) Threatening to kick: If the horse wanted to really kick me (intent), she could have. The fact is, she hasn’t but she threatens too. This behaviour is more frequent at the beginning of a grooming session although it has happened now and then at the end of a riding session (while grooming). If she does kick, it’s more of a mini kick straight out the back (half ass-ed you could say but unacceptable none-the-less). My reaction is to pinch her in the gut with my thumb and forefinger with enough force to get her attention. A savvy horseman once told me that it mimics what the mare might do when she disciplines her foal (nip). Am I rewarding the behaviour by doing this since I am paying attention to her even though the attention is negative. I would think the short answer is yes since the behaviour hasn’t stopped (it hasn’t gotten worse either though).
    2) Pawing (for treats I assume): I ignore this behaviour…. I don’t feed my horse treats in the aisle or by hand…. It hasn’t really stopped the behaviour… yet anyway.

    I don’t ignore the faux kick as I feel this is a huge safety issue and needs to be addressed… pawing is just annoying…. am I off base here?

    3) Rearing: She has not reared on me although she has on the person that rescued her. I saw it with my own eyes, it was unprovoked in my opinion. The rider and I were standing talking (she was mounted). The mare was sending signals that she wasn’t happy about standing there which we chose to ignore since we felt she needed to wait and move on our terms (she was stomping the ground with her front foot and tossing her head here and there). Before we knew it, straight up she went. The rider, who was thankfully a good horsewoman, did not come unseated nor did she punish harshly, in fact, quite the opposite… she just made the mare walk on… (put to work in other words). She hasn’t reared since but I’m not so sure this is cured…. any thoughts?


    • Cumulatively, I’d say the mare is suffering from some sort of ailment/s that have manifested as acting out. If it was just one of these, I’d think differently.

      Discomfort during grooming can be a sign of ulcers, or some sort of systemic body issue like muscle soreness you’d feel when you were sick.

      Pawing can be very difficult to curb because it’s instinctually based; horses paw through snow to get to grass as an example. The extinction training method is often the only way to fix it in a horse who’s really focused on doing it, but in this case I think there’s a physical trigger and once that was addressed the pawing would greatly decrease.

      The rearing that started as pawing sounds, in this case, related to the other two issues.

      I question the health of the horse, particularly since you’ve referenced her as a rescue. Rescued from what circumstances? Do you have a recent picture of the horse? Has the horse had a full veterinary work up (by a vet that specializes in this type of thing – not some superficial PPE by a general practitioner)?

      Attempting to correct behavior that has manifested because of physical discomfort is a lose/lose situation for horse and human.

      • This sounds like a fear aggressive mare to me, though you might be on track to a physical ailment issue as well. As far as kicking goes, IMO if I am anywhere within a 20′ hoola hoop to a horse and heels fly, I become alpha mare in a micro-second. There is never a time that a heel can be used in the presence of a human, not even in the case of a rescue. I’ve had one with me for 5 years now and she was a kicker, rearer and just a downright crabby, evil, beast. She had no respect for people, nor did she trust use either. First things first, I established dominance in her world and the kicking was swiftly cured. It is just too damned dangerous to be picked at and it was fixed in black and white fashion, there was to be no confusion left to her. Once she knew that I was more alpha than she was, her eyes which were previously averted, became fixed on me. Respect. We then worked together to learn to communicate in other, less aggressive ways. When the communication highway was open, she began to show interest in me which lead to trust. She is now safe for a small child to handle or ride on most days and is a pleasure to be around. She was aggressive but in her defense, it was fear based. Merc may disagree but I don’t think any horse ever has the right to kick at a human (that it knows) regardless of reason; fear, pain, aggression and I will go at them like a tornado and put a stop to it right then and there.

          • I reread the post, and yes, the horse has kicked mildly back but not at the person. I’m not convinced there’s intent on the horse’s part and without intent to harm, it’s a different situation, imo. I’m not advocating acceptance, I’m suggesting the horse isn’t feeling well, is giving all sorts of signals that it’s not feeling well and is being ignored. At some point the horse will escalate (and is escalating) the behavior in an attempt to convey and communicate its situation. It’s not the horse’s fault the people don’t understand. Reprimand/punishment doesn’t solve the underlying issue/s and would be viewed by the horse as entirely unfair treatment, in turn jeopardizing any advancement of the relationship, which as I understand is in its very early stages – the horse with the new owner for just a month’s time.

            I could be entirely wrong, and then my advice would be different.

        • Totally agree – even if the horse feels threatened or in pain, that is just not a decision a horse can be allowed to make. The consequences can be catastrophic – deadly. Even cocking a foot in my direction is reason for the loudest, most horrendous response I can muster at the instant. I once laid a shovel across the ass-end of a 17 hand warmblood because I happened to be carrying it when he lifted a foot at me.

        • Hi Merc and others,

          Thanks for the feedback.

          In my defense, I’d like to say that I’m not ignoring the signals she is sending, I did ask for help here didn’t I? Don’t I get even a little credit for recognizing something is wrong and am making an effort to fix it? lol

          A little more history on the horse:
          The horse, who is a 5 year old Trek/TB was bred by a lovely lady whom I recently met. I got all kinds of great information about this horse which has been very helpful and answered a few questions. In a nut shell, she originally came from a loving home who broke her via a professional, she was w/t/c and even hacked with an 11 yr old girl. She stood for mounting, didn’t kick, didn’t rear and was in perfect health. In other words, the kind of home we all wish for our horses. I also believe the lady, she is genuine and truly cares for this horse (in fact, she asked if I would sell her back to them). the only thing that was apparent was that the horse was always really forward (but not in a bucking bronc way). Once you pressed the gas, you simply never had to press it again.

          Long story longer… she ended up at an eventing barn which turned out to be a very stressful place. Frankly, they rode the shit out of her which was witnessed by the lady that inadvertently rescued her (before she came to me). They rode the horse for at least 1.5hr, jumping jump after jump after jump (the horse was 4 at the time). Not only that, they also took her out over the event course jumping banks, and ditches and yes the water complex as well (yes, all in one day). I suppose the fact that the mare did it without hesitation says something about her although I can only imagine it was really ugly to watch.
          Moving on… they decided the horse wasn’t for them so the obvious solution was to sell her to a student of theirs. Based on the under saddle issues we’re dealing with now, we deduced that the student wasn’t equipped to handle a horse as sensitive and forward as this one (apparently they didn’t get good instruction either but I’m sure they paid a pretty penny for the lessons anyway!). Therefore, they slapped a martingale on her evidenced by the larger under-neck muscling and a harsh bite evidence by her reluctance to take the bit in any way, shape or form (the vet checked teeth, they are in good shape – she also had general dental maintenance done just before she was sold which the original owner told me about).
          In summary, she was a green broke horse who was over-faced by an aggressive rider whose issues became worse thanks to an uneducated rider. In a span of about 8 months, she broke down mentally and physically although she was never really unsound.

          When she finally came to the barn I was at (owned by the lady who “rescued” her), her body might as well have been made of concrete, her muscles were so tight there was no giggle at all, anywhere. The glands behind her ears (where the head attaches to the neck) were swollen and stuck out at least 1.5 inches! We initially thought strangles but thankfully it wasn’t. Two vets said it was from stress since she showed no other symptoms and blood work came back normal. She also had mud fever, the onset of rain rot and was about 50 lbs under weight. What is interesting though is that she is quite sweet in the barn and in cross-ties (besides the threatening to kick BS). She puts her head down to get ear scratches and will nestle her forehead into your chest to let you continue. On the ground, she is reasonably relaxed (although easily excitable) and seems to genuinely like the company of people. Just yesterday, a young man patted her muzzle which she was happy to let him do without issue. The pretend kicking is not just during grooming. I can stand well away and she will sometimes just lift the leg or lift the leg and “micro-kick” at air. i can see how this could be a gut discomfort but I also think it might be a manifestation of anxiety (knowing she’s going to be ridden and has bad memories of that). It seems to be more prevalent with the left hind. She does not do it while under saddle and it is virtually gone after a ride. Otherwise she leads well, stands to be groomed, bridles easily, etc.

          Under saddle is a different story… she is tense and has anxiety, like she thinks I’m going to beat her if she takes a step wrong (which I wouldn’t but I think her last home did). She is all about forward but not in a productive way. It’s like they chased her all the time while they were in the tack. She takes a good 20 minutes to somewhat calm down enough for us to work on halting and walk/trot transitions. It’s speed walking first…..

          The mounting block is a whole other issue. While in-hand, we can walk up to it, walk around it, stand by it… do all those things without issue. She doesn’t get tense around it and is quite happy to let me sit on it and just watch me. However, there is an instant transformation in her demeanor once I take a step onto the block. The head comes up, she tenses and she moves away. It’s more than just saucy attitude….
          Yet once I’m on, she has not attempted to unseat me and seems willing to work and eager to please (albeit anxious). As mentioned, she has not reared on me. I try to keep her mind busy by walking over poles, lots of halt/walk transitions, circles, figure eights, things like that and it seems to be working. I’m also working on long and low but that concept is completely foreign to her.
          Thankfully, progress is happening…. in about 6 weeks or so, halting off the seat is not so foreign and she has made tiny attempts at relaxing down and out. We also work a little more at the trot. The mounting block is still an issue though.

          I have had the chiropractor out a few times now and the diagnosis is good. No issues to report. The vet has looked her over and the only item he noted was that her heels are too low on her hind legs. The farrier came out last week and I passed this information along. We are working to rectify this (the farrier also mentioned she had great feet by the way).
          I had the saddle checked and it is okay. I am using a fatter D-ring snaffle. She is turned out daily in a group and lives out 24/7 during summer months.

          Merc: you had mentioned that there might be a gut issue causing discomfort. Could you elaborate on your thoughts please? Since she is in very light work, she is getting 1/2 scoop beet pulp and 1/4 scoop hit fat/high fibre (morn/evening) with free choice hay. She also gets a “glug” of flax oil in the morning.
          The vet thought that thiamine might help take the edge off, she has been on that supplement for at least 6-8 weeks. I have to say, I can’t really see a difference so I likely will not continue that.
          I’ll send you a picture of her via regular email. You are welcome to make a case study out of our situation.

          • For the mounting block issue: I’d groom her while standing on it, and I’d also test her on other types of ‘mounting blocks’, such as tree stumps, fence rails, pickup truck bumpers, trailer hitches etc… to confirm it’s the ‘act of mounting’ that sets her off rather than the mounting object.

    • DangSportPony, I used to work with a youngster who’s owner told me he reared. I was having a too long conversation with someone and he was standing quietly next to me for a long time. He reared up in his spot. The woman chewed me out for ignoring him and not punishing him. In THAT particular case my ignoring him worked and he never reared again for the whole next year I was with him. I saw it as an attention getting behavior so I gave him none.

  2. I’ve found it helpful to reframe “My horse doesn’t like to… (whatever — take her right lead canter, jump fences with evergreen fill, go over the walk-over bridge in trail, back out of two horse trailers)” as “My horse is telling me that we need to do more work on (whatever)”. That way, I don’t look at it as willful and it puts me in a better frame of mind to work on solving the issue — less punitive, more teaching. And, turns out if you specificially practice and work on (whatever), with a plan and some consistency, you get better at it.

    • You’ve hit upon a really important point; perspective. Change your perspective, even if just for a moment, and the world can look and be a whole lot different.

  3. Well this is timely. My horse is old, I’ve had him a long time. This past year he started upping the bad behavior, my response was not enough, then last summer I really got after him. He has not done it since, but every time he thinks I will repeat what made him quit he gives me a “holler but don’t hit” reaction. I just laugh and tell him to quit the drama, and we go on as the good buddies we are.

  4. I lease a horse from my riding instructor, and another rider also uses the horse for lessons. The other rider gives a lot of treats before and after her sessions: apples, carrots, candy, horse cookies. I only give treats occasionally, and usually put them in the horse’s feed bowl rather than letting him eat out of my hand. Now he has developed the habit of searching me for treats when I approach, wanting to see what’s in my hand, and I can tell he’s disappointed when it’s just a hoofpick or brush and not a treat for him. Last week for the first time ever, he took a bite at me. Fortunately he only caught my jacket, but I still smacked him on the neck and hollered to let him know it was unacceptable.
    This is a nice horse and we work well together, but I feel like this other rider is spoiling him.

    • I am a big proponent of food rewarding because it can be very powerful. And because it can be very powerful, it often leads to bad behaviors. Yes, I hand treat pretty much every horse I work with and not one of them bites. Indeed, I have taught biters to not bite by hand treating. It’s all about timing the reward.

      Horses can learn different sets of rules. Set 1 for human 1, Set 2 for human 2 etc… So, you can continue to reward this horse with food by your own set of rules, while the other person does it their way. You just have to establish those rules. Your rules will be that the horse is not to make a bid for the food, or your person. Help him out by not carrying the food on your person, or carrying it in the outside pockets away from his head. Teach him that he has to leave the treat to get the treat. Indeed, teach him to slightly turn away from the hand before he can receive the treat.

  5. Mercedes, I can’t help but wonder if today’s post doesn’t partially come from my off topic comment a couple of entries ago? This is a huge thing for me lately, or was as I’m horseless now :o( My big thing with unwanted behaviors is FIRST asking, “What am I doing wrong that may have caused this?” (Of course, if its not a health issue.) I’m soooo frustrated to see “bad behaviors” caused by bad riding and aggressive people who correct the behavior with more aggression until the horse submits even though what ever it is that is bothering him is still happening. Because I’ve seen to much of this recently, I’m not as upset about being horseless at the moment. Building a good relationship with trust, respect and kindness from both parties does wonders to prevent the unwanted behaviors in the first place. Along with that, as you said, it helps to think ahead and listen to the little tiny cues your horse is giving you in the first place. Grrr!!!! I want to scream and make all horse people young, old, pro or am do more of this kind of thing! I’m sick of seeing sad horses trying desperately to communicate with their people who won’t listen. Sorry, touchy subject for me obviously.

      • I agree trust is essential. I am in a kind of limbo: “make the horse behave/be the alpha” versus build the trust and respect to make the horse feel safe. My 9 yo mare cow kicks during grooming; she may throw in some pawing and mini-rears for effect. She is sound as a bell (healthy); but has had very spotty handling and training. Several years ago, I would have smacked her for these behaviors. Now, I wonder if I should ignore the naughty stuff and spend more time on gentle sacking to give her the chance to be good before I take the boss mare stance.

        • Most things are a continuum, if the horse is about to hurt someone, ie, seriously kicking at a person with intent to make contact, then self defense is first, do something to stay safe as you can’t later train your way out of the problem if you’re dead or crippled. Of course, if you ever see the video of the guy getting kicked by the horse he stood at the back of as he hot branded the horse without experience or understanding, then I’m cheering for the horse, the guy needs to win his Darwin Award.

          The problem I see with your position on training is it is too far to the other end of the continuum, no training prolbem explanation involving dangerous behavior should reference ‘several years’ with no resolution. Whatever actions you’ve taken in the past of smacking her were clearly ineffective. Smacking can work, but it has to be judged as any action, if it doesn’t resolve the behavior almost immediately, it isn’t working, so stop doing it. But that doesn’t mean you go to ignoring the behavior.

          You are either the boss mare or you aren’t, and that isn’t the best way to look at this, as some stranger may not know about ‘boss mare’ are all. You need your horse to have manners, period. You don’t ignore the naughty stuff, you train for the right stuff, while preventing the naughty stuff.

          If your horse doesn’t feel safe with you, you will never be boss mare. Boss mares are trusted to keep the herd safe. They aren’t always the biggest or meanest horse, because it isn’t about physical force to any great extent. Most horse interactions don’t involve contact, period. You want to be the quiet in the center of a storm, the place where nothing bad happens to the horse, where the rules make sense and take stress away from the horse, when they do as you act, life is good. So yes, spend more time on positive training. There are tons of videos, and books, get a real life instructor if need be. Consistent rules, consistently applied without anger or fear, so a horse knows where to stand at ease, how to be patient and wait, how to keep its attention on you, and how and when you want it to move, etc. The leading exercises Mercedes mentioned to another person are a great place to start. Fixing one kind of hole in the training tends to fix others you didn’t even notice.

          • This is helpful, thanks. I just bought this mare this June; then I got sick. So I haven’t had much chance to do anything, let alone consistently, even though six months seems like a long time… But, she (the mare) is definitely looking for a leader, so that’s good. The “several years” is her time before I got her. She originally had some official “natural horsemanship” ground training–she’s great at facing you on a longe line, which I HATE. I’m pretty sure her behavior comes from the fact that she’s never really had to do or tolerate a darn thing she didn’t want to, and has never been asked to do much of anything. She can be snarky about being touched in certain places and under certain conditions, like when she is wet, and at other times is totally fine about it, so I think in part she just has not been handled enough and in a consistent way. (She is, on the other hand, sweet, sound, athletic enough for me, smallish, and seems to have some common sense.) I’ve tried two things. Smack on the side of her belly when she lifts to kick with a rising “Nooo”. Three or four tries, and she seems to get the idea. The other approach–keep my hands on her (carefully), moving slowly until she just puts her leg down and chills out. I tend not to get angry anymore, either with the smack or the touch approach. I lost my favorite instructor when I moved across country, and all the ones I’ve tried here…well, they are well-meaning, but tend to have agendas I don’t share. But I have some resources, so once I win that lottery, I’ll be all set!

  6. Mercedes, I’d love to hear your thoughts on trailer loading. My mare Flecha has had two instances of point blank refusing to load, rearing to get a release from the tension of the lead rope and eventually was guided in with a lunge line around the haunches. Her M.O. generally is to stop with both feet on the ramp, sniffing the trailer or just staring in. I feel I need to walk a fine line: My technique for loading is to tap her with the whip on her hind legs to encourage her forward, and quit when she takes a step. But I’m afraid of things escalating and getting in a fight with her, and I know she can sense my anxiety. Do you have any tips for success?

    • And as an addendum, I can usually tell when she’s thinking about leaving and I’ll start tapping again, but she’ll just keep backing off the trailer while I tap. I know whipping her hard would just make the situation worse, but I don’t know how to stop her from backing off or trying to turn around in a calm way that corrects the behavior.

      • Your horse doesn’t lead well, otherwise you’d simply be able to lead her on. 🙂 So, the place to start is in that area.

        Horses instinctually are weary of dark, enclosed areas with no obvious avenue of escape – I am too! That’s a powerful motivator not to get on a trailer. You have to have something more powerful to overcome it; like the knowledge that your herd leader can be trusted in their decisions for you, always. When you, yourself, are anxious or worried about the situation and possess real fears, your horse questions your abilities to lead it and keep it safe.

        So, go back to basics. Improve your leading with her and her cues from the ground, like ‘go forward’. Improve your communication of body language with her. Introduce other ‘tight’ situations and lead her through them. It could be two wheelbarrows or bales of hay spaced closely together. It could be walking between parked cars, some bushes, or jump standards with barely room to squeeze through and an obstacle to traverse between them. These kinds of situations are as much for your benefit as hers, where you can gain your confidence as well she can gain confidence in you. People often make the mistake of practicing trailing loading when they have some place to be, like NOW! You should be loading your horse and driving her around the block just because it’s Thursday and Vampire Diaries is a repeat.

        Before I moved, I ordered one of those big dumpsters. Do you know the first thing I did with it, before I put garbage in it? I loaded my horse in it. It was as much a curiosity thing for me as it was a training opportunity. I expected him to walk in without issue and he did, despite the loud, hollow reverb he’d never experienced before. Indeed, he practically dragged me in, as curious about the whole thing as I was (and likely knowing that a BIG reward at the end was a very real possibility – which it was). Think about what I just wrote, the different place/perspective of the situation.

        Your issue is not one of trailer loading. When you understand that, your horse will follow you anywhere.

          • Thanks Mercedes! Last night I worked on walking her and backing her through water and taking one step at a time over a raised pole, teaching her that the step forward gets the treat. She started focusing on where to put her feet, tentatively lifting them then looking at me, shifting her weight to see if I wanted her to back up, etc. So I saw that if I get her focused on me and doing what I ask, she loses fear (and I do too). I’ll set up some obstacles and get more creative.

        • Agree that the horse doesn’t lead well enough. Another aspect I would particularly practice with the horse is that any gate or passage should be practiced two ways, the horse learns to follow you through quietly and the horse accepts being ‘driven’, ie, sent through alone to the other side while you stay on the side you began on. It has to learn to stand on command and wait, without turning towards you, and it needs to learn to turn back if you do ask it, too. Then practice backing correctly, on a loose lead line (it won’t be loose at first with many horses, you’ll have to start with some pressure and maybe use the end of the line or a whip to swing to indicate the horse should move back) one step at a time because that is how a horse will quietly back off a trailer. None of this starts at or around a trailer.

          • Excellent point!

            A tip for backing up: start by pressing a finger/butt end of a whip on the ‘leading’ front leg/point of shoulder as this is the leg that weight will naturally shift off first before taking the step back. So many times people shove/pressure the wrong part of the horse and the horse simply can not comply.

            Once that first front leg moves, then press the other front leg/point of shoulder as that’ll be the next and so on, back and forth. Quickly you can progress to simply pointing with a finger at the leg you want the horse to move.

          • excellent point Mercedes. Part of the being observant is to learn the order in which horses move their feet in different gaits, including the back up, which is done on a diagonal as the trot is. Learn to recognize when the weight is on a particular foot, and being able to shift the weight off and on to feet, pointing, the angle of a touch on the lead line, moving your body weight, etc. Always make sure the foot you want to move can move next for the gait you’re in, and take the weight off that foot and onto the other(s) that needs to bear the weight when the horse moves the foot you want. Horse stays in balance and will be able and more willing to move as you ask. This applies on the ground and in the saddle. The right cue in the wrong phase of the gait will not get a response as the horse can’t move the foot you want moved.

            My older horses will pick up a foot for the farrier without being touched, I ask them to unload a foot and then say up, the horse hands the farrier the foot. They are prepared to stand quietly because they have already weighted the other feet so they don’t need the foot handed to the farrier. Rascal is still working on it but getting better.

          • Yup, definitely practice backing as well as leading! And how to move just one foot at a time in any direction on request (great for scramblers so they can learn how to rebalance themselves) so you can easily straighten them out as needed.
            I’ve retrained a few poor loaders, and in one very memorable case it wasn’t anything to do with leading forward – it was the mega-meltdown-panic-stations ‘abort-Abort-ABORT!!!’ when he started thinking about backing off again. Although I’d already sorted out his leading issues (originally he would panic whenever he was unsure of what was wanted, which was sadly most of the time) and his backing was just fine on flat ground, it turned out that backing in a restricted space with a roof close over his head and on a noisy ramp was waaaaay more than his pea brain could cope with so he’d freak, throw his head up (and smack his poll and panic even more, of course), then exit at a billion miles an hour and plow down anything in his way.
            At a guess, he’d had a few bad experiences and decided that backing off a float was painful and terrifying and to be avoided at all costs, therefore it was best to simply not get on in the first place. And of course, he’d had some ‘training’ with the last person to have him, which would have recently cemented his fears and how to avoid them – I just hope he didn’t do anyone any permanent damage. [At least they did tell me when he was given to me that he could never EVER be floated and even trucking was tricky, so I knew to expect something and didn’t find out the hard way.]
            So back to Stage One, with poles on the ground and backing over a sheet of ply, raising the poles and bringing them in gradually so they were at barrel height and close enough to brush if he didn’t stay straight, etc. Plus keeping his head low on backing. The first few goes of this we also had super-mega-reverse, but he quickly got the idea and stopped freaking out. Then on to carefully stepping on and off the float ramp on command – one step on, one step off, two steps on, two steps off, etc, back and forth, back and forth like a yo-yo. And in two 1/2hr training sessions he was loading like a pro, and more importantly, off loading quietly and calmly with his head low.
            New Zealand

        • It sounds a lot like working with a toddler: introduce a new thing when the pressure is off, always off. Because otherwise their tiny brains get full and freakouts happen.

          • it is the same thing with any living creature, not unique by species. Particular issues can be more likely to happen with a predator species than a herd species, but training around the issues is always the same.

  7. Be early. It is one of the hardest things to learn to do and to keep doing every second you are around a horse. Their attention to detail, attention to their surroundings and their instinct to preserve themselves at whatever cost, make them different to us. We grow inattentive to our surroundings by ‘thinking too hard’ all the time. A horse doesn’t. We ignore behaviors, be it a spouse, wilful two year old, the dog or the horse, until the being on the other side of our inattention has a full blown tantrum to get our attention. Horses don’t. Horses are very sensitive to emotions, especially fear and anger from humans, most humans carry high levels of stress that make them irritable without even addressing it. Most horses with a behavior problem got it from something humans did and the humans then blame the horses.

    How many of us start training horses to do the simple things we want, ie, actually take time with a young horse or a new to us horse to actually work at standing still quietly next to us, to stand tied, to ground tie, to work on grooming as training, not something we do as quick as we can to get to the training, how many people work with a horse’s feet, not just to pick them up, but for the horse to understand they won’t be trapped, left off balance, leg pulled until it hurts, that they can give a leg with a rope around it, etc. so that touches on their leg are no longer a reason to be fearful or defensive, that they won’t pull back against wire, briars, fencing or hands that capture a leg, how many people play with the horse’s tail to the point where the horse is not at all defensive to it being picked up and turned up over the back or swung side to side (gently, of course, not playing Tarzan swinging on a vine) with the horse releasing the tail to you?

    And then, early, thought, eyes, ears, nose, feet, that is how a horse runs off or deviates from your plan every time. The great horseman are before the thought, ie, Tom Dorrance, know what’s going to happen before it happens and set it up so the horse just does what you wanted. When you see a master, it looks like magic. Most humans can at least catch the ears if they practice, most beginners and people who don’t try too hard always miss everything until the feet are off and running, kicking, rearing, etc. The better you are at being early, the more training you have put in so that the horse and you understand what you want, the less it takes to correct a problem or stop it before it happens.

    Retraining a horse with a bad start is hard. Generally they have no respect for human’s opinions, commands, etc. They have large gaps in their socialization and knowledge bases. They need to unlearn bad habits and learn new good habits. Extinguishing a bad behavior can literally take thousands upon thousans of repetitions of the good replacement behavior. Every
    ‘hole’ shows up eventually and usually in bad ways. Most people should leave it to experts with experience. There is no shame in asking for help if you’ve never done it before or encounter a problem you aren’t making progress wth. But you need to involve yourself in the process because ultimately you have to have good habits and the knowledge to handle your newly retrained horse correctly or the horse will go right back to bad habits. You also need to become an acute observer, such as Mercedes pointing out that the reaction of the kicking horse sounds more like a pain issue than an agressive act from a spoiled horse. It requires a different adjustment than a horse that doesn’t respect humans and kicks to intimidate people into staying away just as it would kick at a lower ranking horse in a herd.

    • I have a hard time rationalizing when a horse would be given a free pass to kick or even threaten to kick a human. Should a horse be allowed to kick the veterinarian administering life-saving treatment? Or annual vaccinations? When being blanketed? Shod? A horse doesn’t have the best mechanism for determining which human treatment is tolerable and which should not be. I establish myself in this role and my hard and fast rule is never life a leg toward, near or around humans. For any reason. There are other ways a horse can express itse discomfort by unweighting a leg, moving away, raising its head, pinning ears and none of these will kill anyone and will alert the owner that there’s a problem. Yet on the flip side, I can think of a situation when a horse absolutely should take a person’s head off when that animal is placed in extreme duress by said owner with purposeful injury to said animal. And instead it likely endures intolerable pain and suffers in silence…. how we expect to make this distinction known to these animals is beyond me.

      • Your first and last are contradictory. You said you’d have a hard time rationalizing when a horse gets a free pass to kick and yet at the end of your post you give a perfectly good example.

        I agree with jrga: the distinction can be made by the horse because the human has made the distinction. It’s no different then all my horses knowing it’s work time the moment I put a piece of tack on them. Or that despite being hand fed/hand treated they aren’t allowed to make a bid for the food, or nip at me for it, or bite me for it etc… While the level of intelligence can vary from equine individual to equine individual, they aren’t stupid.

        IMO, a horse has ever right to express itself as a living, breathing creature. We decide whether the expression is acceptable or not. I give a lot of leeway for individuals who have been abused, neglected, are in acute or chronic pain, misunderstood, or otherwise compromised. That doesn’t mean there aren’t rules, but it does mean intent plays a role. Just as my intent is read by the horse, I read his/hers.

        • My point is that horses have various lines in the sand and each one will/would kick at different stimulants. My rule is never, for any reason, though my correction for a fearful, defensive kick would be less offensive (voice only) than an aggressive kick meant to maim. They understand this perfectly well in a herd and hierarchy is typically decided immediately upon introduction into a new herd. My alpha mare is generally a fair leader, she warns before she strikes, but there are times I feel her actions are excessive. I have also never seen a horse test her again after day one which is what I’ve found in horses I’ve had to correct. Rarely do they try it again and I’ve never had a relationship suffer for it after we’ve both soaked over the ‘discussion’. I’ve actually found that it’s usually quite the opposite. Horses seek a leader, they find security in it. Most are secure having decisions made for them…fair leader directing, of course.

          I’ve seen up close and personal what a kick can do to a person and watching someone almost die sealed my thoughts on the subject. I also wouldn’t tolerate being struck or bitten by a child either yet I see parents allowing rotten behavior all the time. No boundaries, no leadership. I agree we should err on the side of caution and not go over the top with discipline, of course.

          And then I read stories of abuse to horses so horrendous that it breaks my heart, horses endure purposeful torture and instead of fighting, they submit to it. It’s totally unfair when the horses are no longer involved in the decision making process and no matter what they do or don’t do, there is no answer that will satisfy the owner/handler. I will be perfectly satisfied when I never see a heel again and appropriate behavior is always rewarded.

  8. If you believe you can make the distinction, then the horse knows too. Again, the horse as described in the poster’s words, kicked out, but not at the person. If a person had been in a different position, behind the horse instead of at the side as is correct, a person might have been hit, and yet, the horse still wouldn’t have been kicking ‘at’ the person. Holy hell unleashed on that horse probably would not result in a lesson learned except that humans can’t be trusted.

    And if the first time someone chose to discover that their horse has a tendency to kick is when they’ve brought the vet out, or let a small child paly around it’s feet then the problem is with the human again. Who bought this horse and brought it to the farm without first asking the horse if he could be handled and moved around from all directions and poked in some pretty private places without kicking? Do you really go to look at a horse, whether to come to your barn for training or for you to buy and not ask (and I don’t mean what could be a clueless owner, just ask the horse). If you accept horses you haven’t met for training, don’t you ask these questions immediately? And if the horse says no, I can’t be trusted not to kick and you have no reason to believe it was a kick at you, then train it not to kick by making sure it understands that is totally unacceptable behavior. You need to be a tornado, I would maybe choose that and maybe not.

    I helped a friend pick some replacement horses at a rescue auction. You need to expect some bad starts, really bad starts, with some of these horses. My friend asked me along because she knew I would risk life and limb to give these horses a chance. And I walked into the stalls and approached clearly fearful horses and I asked all those questions. And while handling a potential horse for my friend who has experience and patience and quite frankly, me, but that was clearly not a candidate for a beginner, I flat out pissed of the state ag lady because she was going to recomment the those as a first horse and I said no way, it would hurt a beginner, not through malice, but the horse was scared and defensive and it would run over you, kick you, head slam you, whatever it had to do. Now, as I checked her out, she didn’t do any of those things to me, because I listened when she first threatened, I can’t take this. That’s all I needed to know she would kick, she never had to actually get the leg off the ground. Another mare I checked out, I told her she’d need the chiropractor and retraining to carry herself correctly but that she was placid and accepting of being handled and would not be a problem. Still not a beginner’s horse in the sense she needed training beginners tend not to know exists or understand, but a great prospect. Totally different than the other mare personality and fear wise.

    She bought both (for less than five hundred dollars, times are bad for horses). The scared horse never had holy hell unleashed on her. We worked her feet with a soft cotton rope until it was safe to pick her feet up (starting the next morning after she got to their farm, as the first evening was free time to explore her paddock and pasture and unwind from the sale yard and trip home). You can walk up to her in pasture now and pick any foot up. She likes and trusts her people and she doesn’t threaten them in any way. That is the optimal outcome with the least stress for the horse.

    So no, I don’t ask the vet to risk his life. I do work on training issues from the beginning. I am not always immediately successful in curing a problem, but things get better generally to the point where the horse isn’t dangerous. People overwhelm horses because they don’t listen, don’t observe and fail to act because the horse ‘should’ let the human do what they want. Horses have people problems, people don’t have horse problems.

  9. There tend to be 2 extremes – horses that are terribly and rightfully fearful (auction / rescue types that have been mishandled) and then there are the spoiled brats that are not properly disciplined for dangerous vices, such as kicking, biting. Horses end up in terrible situations and I feel that very fearful or aggressive horses should only be handled by people with the skills to read the horse’s actions and act upon them appropriately. All the love in the world means nothing to a horse that doesn’t understand what the human wants from him because the human takes too much emotion to the communication table. Horses are incredibly responsive to sight, sound and movement. One only has to observe a herd and notice the subtle way the alphas control their subordinates. They will typically ask for a response in a subtle manner but if the horse doesn’t respond swiftly enough, they will not call on emotion to guide them, they will go at the offender with teeth bared and hooves flying. Patience and slow, methodical cues work very effectively on fearful horses and there is little need to raise a voice or whip. I have fairly good timing, better than average, and that works in my favor. Though I don’t lose sleep over having to quickly and effectively respond to a challenge and I always retain alpha status. I like to save the emotions for when the horse trusts and respects me. Then we can play silly woman, human games and communicate on a fun level, learn tricks and work together outside the box.

    I love that there are people willing to give the outlaws a chance, to educate them and give them a chance at a better life. I don’t, however, feel that this is a role that every horse person can achieve. I’ve seen too many wrecks from owners with all their NH ‘skills’ turn their horses into dominant, people hating nightmares. IMO these are the most dangerous horses going, so much worse than the fearful, psychotic acting horse at the auction house.

    • and a spoiled brat may have become that way because they were fearful to begin with and received the wrong kind of responses from humans as to how to stop expressing their fear through aggression. They get more aggressive as they learn humans don’t make sense and are not to be trusted. There are horses strong enough and indifferent enough to pain to just push their way through it. Most people can’t escalate the pain enough to change these horses, and those that do, I don’t want to know, I don’t want them around my horses, and they don’t create dependable horses as that horse is always waiting for the bomb to go off.

      So pretty much, everything comes back to methods to resist bad behavior without escalating the situation, being effective, and training the hrose to do the right things, which leaves precious little time or interest on th epart of the horse to be doing bad things. I have had the most trouble with my current horse, because he isn’t afraid, doesn’t mind pain, and likes to do what he likes to do, and could care less about people in his way. Yet he doesn’t kick, doesn’t bite, he just moves as if you are not there, and yet rarely moves into you if he can help it. He has to be constantly told where to be and which foot he can move and when he has to stand still.

      Danny the Windshield Smasher, who kicked and reared, struck out, was much easier to train, he was used to being boss, was mistreated, was born to rule the world, but really also likes people, and cares that they entertain him, so he learned not to do bad things, but the things people liked quickly. I also learned that chains, whips and brute force don’t work all that well when dealing with a just barely two year old that had already been used for breeding, was 15.2 hands and 1000 pounds already, and was close to 12 feet tall on his hind legs. All the violence in the world hadn’t worked on him, as I bought him at auction after he had already bucked people off, reared and gone over, smashed a trailer and the roof and windshield of the truck it was attached to, been beaten with two by fours, eventually winched on to an open truck with a tow truck winch to come to the sale. I tried a couple of the beat ’em again harder techniques and figured out I needed to be smarter. Got a good cowboy to give me some hints, and things changed radically and quickly in his behavior. Danny is the horse that you can hand the lead line to a beginner, he’s over 16 hands tall and 1300 pounds, and they prefer to lead him to my 13.3 mare. He’s herd boss and he knows how to make others feel safe , because he’s confident in himself and he respects people now. That is what you want in every horse. Rarely, if ever, can that be beaten into a horse.

      • Are you sure your current horse isn’t a Swedish Warmblood mare, rather than a gelding? A long time ago I rode a horse just like that. We called her “The Tank”.

        • sounds about the same, both an immovable object and irrestistible force rolled into one. Needs to be very busy and challenged, don’t give him time to get bored or he will decide he’s free to do what he wants to entertain himself if you aren’t keeping him entertained.

          • The worst for me is the complete disconnect these types have for humans. It’s like they look (run, buck, kick) right through the human with no regard for their existence whatsoever. I’ve had the fearful aggressive and the spoiled aggressive. The fearful are the easiest to change and find comfort in a leader they can understand. Most horses want to have a connection and I still find it so odd when I start work with one that is checked out. They are so lost and unsure. Right now, hands down, the most dangerous horse in my barn is a mini (but golly gee, ain’t he cute?!) He went at the vet with a vengeance this year during a float – both hooves hammering towards his head. All fight, no flight. One of my most trustworthy horses was my stallion (breeding time aside) and I trusted him with anyone, on the ground or on his back. He had a good foundation and healthy respect and admiration for people.

            I commend you for taking on the auction horse, the danger is high and the reward usually a long way off. Of course, it never had to be so ugly if anyone had given him a foundation to build on. Definitely a people fail, not a horse fail. Though they end up on slaughter trucks labeled outlaws and really, it wasn’t their fault at all. Danny was a lucky boy that you found him and committed to help him. Ironic, isn’t it, that the worst can become the best?

    • Emotions are always with us, and horses are super sensitive to human emotions, it is a survival trait. Humans can’t make decisions if they have damage to the ’emotion’ center of the brain, we are that dependent on our emotions.

      It is not about silly woman, human games or no emotion. There is a lot of positive emotion that isn’t saccharine. I don’t doubt your effectiveness, but I do question whether you think you need to portray yourself as tough and emotionless and that need blinds you to things you do that are more positive and effective than you give them credit for. I would venture that the quiet, patient approach works more often for you, but you feel you have to emphasize the ‘make them do it’, ‘don’t let them get away with that crap’, ‘put the fear of God into them’ agressiveness to be accepted as competent. Psychoanalysis on the internet is dangerous business but this is a common thread in our conversations so this time I decided to be blunt about it.

      The very best riders/trainers I have seen never talk tough about horses, are prepared to do what it takes but have a million and one tools that aren’t about having to use violence, get in a fight, show the horse who is boss. The Dorrance brothers both speak of firmness, but also of letting the horse come into his own pressure and the human is never to escalate. They admit firmness may at time take all the physical power you have, but it is oppositional, directive as to movement, and it is a well thought out strategy so the behavior we want is shaped up and chosen by the horse. Ray Hunt always same to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult, but not hard, being hard doesn’t work. He also said time and again, you can’t go through something bad and come out good on the other side. Harshness, getting tough by aggressing on the horse as opposed to firm opposition, they aren’t the best methods. I just hope for you that you can find a way to express what I believe you really do in more positive ways, and not feel a need to be tough to meet false standards based on others’ expectations.

      • Wow, that was an unsolicited attack! Where on earth did I say I ‘put the fear of God’ in horses?! If you want to take 6 months to make a horse safe to trust not to kick, do so. It’s your horse, your time, your safety. I can fix kicking in about 10 seconds and that’s usually the end of it. No hard feelings, no blood, no foul. I hope you never have to see a loved one laying on the ground, bleeding from the head, uncounscious and choking on her own blood and praying she lives long enough for the ambulance to arrive. Kicking is black and white WRONG. It is learned immediately in a herd and immediately from a human. Psychoanalyze me all you want. It will never happen around me again.

        • Not an attack, but you can read it that way if you want to. I was offering a perspective that I thought you talk one way, but tend actually to act in a different way that is highly productive. Could be my mistake based on the clip I saw of you riding and other techniques you talk about. I am also, after years of internet horse training talk always sensitive to how bold statements of physical discipline tend to get misconstrued and misapplied in the hands of beginners. Stuff that comes out, look what I can do, but don’t try this at home as the risks of it backfiring are generally greater than the beneficial affects. Black and white statements don’t really fit the nuances of horse training, or even staying safe around horses.

          And no, since none of my horses actually kicks at people even though I have never been a tornado (as opposed to putting the fear of God into something) I haven’t had to see someone lying on the ground that I love. But I have seen a farrier batted back and forth between the four feet of a horse after injuring the horse through carelessness. He had a crushed skull and needed an ambulance. And that horse was hurt and terrified, but in a black and white world, just wrong. And yet that mare wasn’t wrong, she had a hot poker stuck in her sensitive laminae by an idiot. It does give one respect for the power of a horse to kill. I never deny that at any moment any horse could kill a human. I am sorry that you had a horse that did kick like that at a loved one. It explains your adamance about kicking.

          • I have been kicked four times in my 30 years training horses. Two of those times were quite serious, no broken bones but significant blood pooling and weeks of pain, months to heal. In neither of those two cases was the horse aiming at me. There was no intent to harm me. And it wasn’t my fault in either case – as in I’m put myself in an overly dangerous position. Both were just unfortunate to have occurred.

            The other two times I totally deserved to be kicked, I messed up. Interestingly enough, the kicks were less severe and partially glancing blows. So while there was intent to kick me, there was not intent to kill me, not by a long shot.

            Reiterating that I don’t feel that kicking is an acceptable behavior by a horse around humans because of the potential danger. BUT – intention and circumstances should always matter to dictate the appropriate response.

  10. On the subject of ‘bad’….are there any hunter / jumper riders who would want to comment on the appropriate discipline for a horse that refuses a jump? It seems that the favored correction is the give the horse 2-4 hard whacks with a crop on the rump or ribcage. I don’t understand the reasoning for this. I would think that a horse that is adequately trained, conditioned and in good health would not refuse a jump and that it would be even more adverse about the jump in many cases on the return. I would prefer the tap of a crop BEFORE the jump in the case of a scary, intimidating jump to keep the horse focused forward. If it refused again, I’d go home and replicate the jump and school the horse to build up its confidence.

  11. I think that – like so many things – depends on the circumstances. If the horse is over-faced, poorly ridden, young and confused etc, then the crop is unnecessary and counter-productive. If the horse is experienced and presented with a reasonable distance at a height that is also reasonable, and still plants or runs out at the takeoff, then a good spanking may be just what he needs. Some horses, usually but not necessarily spoiled, just decide they don’t want to work today and need to develop a work ethic. The important thing here is to know the difference and be instant with the response – a couple of good whacks is sufficient. More is abusive – and the rider must never lose his/her temper.

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