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Horse manners

From: Sarabeth

Dear Jessica, please help me and my daughter. Shana is thirteen. I owned horses and rode for many years but haven't had horses since I went to college. Now we have a home at the edge of town and two acres of fenced land, so of course we also now have two horses! One of the horses is fourteen, one is six. Both are quiet and trained and nice to ride, and we ride several times a week. They get along well together. Rusty seems to be the horse in charge, at least he always gets the first grain bucket and the first treat and he can make Danny (they already had the names when we bought them) leave a pile of hay and go to another pile. The problem I'm seeing, first with Shana's horse (Rusty) and now with mine too, is that they are losing their nice manners. They have always been friendly and easy to catch, but now they are downright pushy. My horse knocked me down the other day, not out of meanness but just shoving past me to get to Shana and the treats. And that's part of the problem, I believe. Shana likes to feed the horses treats all the time, no matter what they are doing or how they are behaving. I am seeing them get more and more grabby, and I am worried that somebody, Shana or myself or my husband or a visitor, is going to get bit, or else kicked. Yesterday when Shana ran out of treats, both horses put their ears back and one turned his butt to her as if he was going to kick. I yelled at him and he was so surprised that he forgot what he was going to do, and they both went away, but I didn't like this at all. Shana says that she needs to have a lot more treats so that she won't run out, but I'm not going to buy a bag of candy every two days just so that the horses can push us around!

It's got to where I can't go out there and fool around with the gate latch or hang a halter on the post or anything like that without a horse coming up and shoving at me with his head. I don't want to hit them in the head, but I'm not sure what to do. Where did their nice manners go and how can we get them back? Shana wants the horses to be her friends, she says that she wants to be natural and not try to dominate them, so she gets furious if I yell at them or smack them, but she's never seen anyone get hurt by a horse, and I have, so I just have more respect for their size and teeth and hooves. It's getting harder and harder to dodge out of their way. I don't want to be afraid of our horses. I want the horses to be a bond between me and my daughter, but I don't want anyone to get hurt. If you say that manners are important and have to be enforced, which is what I hope you will say, I'm sure that Shana will listen to you. She is a big fan of yours.


Hi Sarabeth! Right, I'll say it: Manners are important and have to be enforced.

I'm sorry that things have gotten as far as they have. You're right, the situation is dangerous. Horses are large, and they DO have hard hooves and large teeth. They also have very heavy heads that can easily knock over a human who isn't braced for the impact of a strong shove. You need to re-establish your horses' manners, and you need to start right now. Shana MUST be involved here, because getting those manners back will require consistent behaviour and action on your part and on Shana's part and on the part of anyone else who handles the horses for any reason at all.

Manners ARE natural - that is, wild horses have them, because as good herd members, they are brought up to behave in certain ways. Treats are NOT natural. You'll never see a horse trying to make friends with another horse by giving it treats. If Shana wants to be "natural" with the horses, she will need to stop trying to buy their friendship with treats and start thinking in horse terms and asserting herself as a leader - or, at least, as someone who outranks both of the horses.

"Dominance" isn't a bad thing, you know. It's the fundamental concept in herd hierarchy - every horse in the herd has a position, and is kept in it by the horses that outrank it. Meanwhile, all the horses but one outrank at least one other horse, and are quick to point this out whenever the "lower" horse(s) get too close to their hay. You cannot have a herd of horses composed of "equals" - if you try to establish one, you will either make the horses crazy, or you will get them hurt, because the process of determining the "pecking order" can involve a lot of biting, kicking, and chasing. That's only at first, though. Once the pecking order is established, all of the horses will relax and feel secure with the arrangement. If there are two or four or fifty horses in a herd, no horse "needs" to be top horse or last horse, but every single horse DOES need to know its precise ranking. In the wild, a horse's safety and security depend on being part of a herd.

You haven't got a very large herd on your two acres, but you do have a social system that involves two horses and at least two humans. The horses have obviously figured out where they stand relative to one another, and you're right, Rusty is the dominant one. Unfortunately, from your description of their recent behaviour, it's obvious that although Rusty still outranks Danny, both horses have become convinced that they outrank you and Shana. The kind of pushing and shoving and grabbing and threatening behaviours (ears back, hindquarters presented, etc.) they are demonstrating makes that all too clear.

You have to change all that and put the horses back into their (relative) place. You shouldn't have to dodge to get out of their way, and they shouldn't threaten you or crowd you or shove you.

When you're with the horses, BE with the horses. Notice them, watch them, see them out of the corners of your eyes even when you're fastening the gate latch or pulling weeds around the base of the fencepost. Be aware of where they are and what they are doing at all times.

Dominating horses is a peaceful process once they've accepted your authority. You may have to remind a horse, once in a while, that you are STILL in charge, but the reminder can be a change in your posture or one word in a loud voice. It won't involve chasing the horses around the pasture whilst you scream and try to smack them with your hand or with a whip.

Be aware of the smallest changes in their demeanour, and ACT as soon as there's a change that might possibly represent a test to see who outranks whom. If a horse begins to invade your personal space, take a deep breath, make yourself as large as possible, and lean toward the horse or take a step toward the horse. Don't fold in on yourself or step away - if you do, you've effectively announced that the horse is the one in charge. If you ignore the space invasion until the horse actually pushes you, you've put yourself at risk for no reason, and you've made it necessary for yourself to make a BIG fuss (yell, smack, etc.) to put the horse back in its place. If, instead, you notice the very first, tentative step into YOUR space and promptly make yourself large and wave the horse back, it will probably sigh with resigned relief and then relax, secure and happy because it knows where it stands.

The more quickly you notice the horses' movements and actions, and the more quickly you act to make YOUR point, the less often you will need to act or react, and the less you will need to do. Imagine yourself in a shopping mall, watching two different mothers dealing with their children. One child grabs his mother's skirt, pulls at her, and insists at the top of his lungs that he wants to go THERE or do THAT, and the mother yells back at the child and finally smacks him to get her refusal across. The other child, knowing that his mother is watching him, merely points at the toy or the candy and raises an eyebrow, to which the mother responds with either a tiny nod and smile or a tiny shake of the head. EVERYONE will be aware of the interaction between the first mother and child; hardly anyone will notice the interaction between the second mother and child. Be consistent and clear with your horses, and you'll find your interactions becoming steadily less like the first and more like the second scenario.

The way to do this is to demonstrate, very clearly, that the policy in force is one of "zero tolerance". There will be NO moments when YOUR authority is less than absolute. This may seem harsh to Shana, but from the horses' point of view, it's actually comforting. Horses understand the concept of respectful behaviour; what they don't and can't understand is how they can be expected to display respectful behaviour toward an individual only SOME of the time. By feeding the horses treats and allowing them to push her around, Shana has taught the horses that they are the leaders and she is the follower. By allowing yourself to be pushed around too, you've taught them the same thing about you. Fortunately, you can change that situation, but only if you'll work with the horses on the basis that "zero tolerance" is IN, and treats, for the moment at least, are OUT.

Treats don't buy horse friendship. Treats don't create an interest in a person AS a person - they create an interest in a person as a source of treats, which isn't the same thing at all. The horse that mugs Shana for treats because it sees her as a walking treat-dispenser is quite likely to nip or kick her when treats aren't forthcoming. That behaviour may seem rude to you and Shana, and it IS quite dangerous, but it's very predictable behaviour and as the horses see it, it isn't even rude. By her actions, Shana has told the horses "I am here to give you sweet-tasting things to eat, oh great leaders, and the more you push me around and nudge my pockets, the more treats I will dispense" so many times that OF COURSE they aren't grateful for the treats. From their point of view, when Shana gives them treats, she's just doing her job - she's a human PEZ dispenser! When she doesn't give them treats, she's being obnoxious, NOT doing her job, and even challenging their leadership... so as far as the horses are concerned, biting or kicking is a sensible reaction to NOT being fed the sweets they're demanding. After all, they have every reason and every right to express their displeasure with someone they see as a rude, underperforming subordinate! The problem is that by expressing their displeasure with hooves, teeth, or even crowding and shoving, they are putting Shana, and now you, at risk.

For now, you and Shana need to focus on handling your horses in a way that will cause them to respect you - not FEAR you, but respect you. Tell Shana that the friendship she wants to have with the horses has to build over time - and it won't come from treats. A horse's friendship - like a human's friendship - comes from time spent together, trust, and respect.

If your horses don't respond to "Whoa" and "Stand", this would be an excellent time to teach those commands. If they used to respond, but seem to have forgotten what the words mean, this would be an excellent time to remind them. In fact, remind them of ALL of their manners, whenever you handle them: Move them to the right and to the left, backwards and forwards, ask them to stop, stand, and eventually to go somewhere else. This will remind them that they are subordinate to you, and it will give you the chance to praise them (but NOT give them treats!) when they do what you've asked.

The horses may test your authority for a week or two, because the events of the last few months have left them convinced that they, not you, are in charge, and the changes you're about to initiate in your own behaviour will, at first, only leave the horses wondering "Who's in charge TODAY?" Plan to assert yourself very clearly EVERY time you interact with the horses - Zero tolerance, no exceptions. It's not fair to the horses if you say "Well, I'm in charge NOW, this afternoon, even though I let you shove me around this morning, and I'll be in charge tonight as well, so just because I let you shove me around whilst I was feeding you this morning, don't read anything into it!" That does nothing but confuse horses and make them see your assertive behaviour as obnoxiousness. You must be absolutely consistent. If Shana is prepared to handle the horses just as you do, and to be consistent too, then both of you can handle them; if she isn't prepared to be sensible and consistent, she shouldn't be handling them at all. Don't let her argue this point, please. The issue here is not the state of a young teenager's ego, it's about her - and your - physical safety.

One more thought: it's possible that your horses may over-fed, and this would, of course, be contributing to the overall problem. Overfed horses can become aggressive. Your horses are spending all of their time outside, which is good, and they're sharing a two-acre paddock, which is good, but you ride them only three times a week. So most of the time, they are getting no organized, planned exercise. They'll keep themselves in reasonable shape walking around in their paddock, but you've mentioned that you are feeding them (in addition to the treats) both hay and grain. Why grain? They're not even in light work, and it's entirely likely that they would do very well on hay (and salt and water) alone. If you're in any doubt, talk to your vet about it - or call your Extension agent and ask for information about equine nutritional needs. Grain is a supplement that should be fed to horses that are either eating nutritionally inadequate hay, or that are working so hard that even good hay fed around the clock can't meet their energy needs. If your hay is good, I would suggest discontinuing the grain.

Don't berate yourself at this point - we all make mistakes, and this particular mistake hasn't caused any major injuries yet. Learn from it, correct it, and move on without becoming angry at yourself or Shana or the horses. A few weeks of assertive (not aggressive, mind!) behaviour on your part and Shana's, coupled with a cessation of treat-feeding and perhaps the elimination of excess calories in the form of grain, and you should be well on your way to getting your sweet horses back. Good luck!


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