Wednesday, December 21, 2011

To Smack or Not to Smack, That is The Question

Becky brought up a good question in the comments the other day.

She wrote: I really expected Tally to get more of a spank for her beady little shark eyes and deliberate attempt to hurt a rider. Would it have been useless, since she was so quick to anger? Is working them really hard really enough of a discipline? When to pick a fight head-on and when to let it go is something that's really confusing me nowadays.

This is a valid point. I am not a believer in making my horse my best friend, at least not on the same plane as I would a human.

With another person, my friendships develop over time. They are made up of give and take, acceptance of each others foibles and flaws and a healthy balance of power. We need to be of enough interest to each other to want to develop and keep the friendship going. I have the choice of keeping or walking away from any human friendship I make.

Life may dictate a human friendship, but I create my friendships with horses. There is a balance of power in my relationship with horses and it definitely leans to my side. I have recently snagged a phrase from ...Kel?, "benign dictatorship," it sums up my approach to horse training nicely.

Horses don't walk in the barn door wanting to become friends and for the most part, neither of us have the choice of walking away. They come in looking for food and then they begin looking for their place in the herd. If I am going to be part of their daily life, then I will become part of the herd. So the battle of muscle and wits begins.

Horses work off of a hierarchy. There's the boss horse, the bottom horse and all the stuff in between. There are enemies, friends, best friends and so on in the herd, but they all behave according to the laws of the pecking order. New relationships begin with the establishment of power, then friendship happens, not the other way around.

I want to be at the top of the pecking order. Period. So there can be various levels of war waged, or simple clarifications, depending on the horse.

If you watch horses in a herd establish themselves there are some basic maneuvers.

The attack with teeth and striking front feet (Charge!).

The kick with the hind feet (Get AWAY)

Running away (Uncle!)

Then there's the passive aggressive portion of herd life.

Getting into each others space (made you move, ha!)

Cutting in line (Hay in the feeders, water in the tub)

Who gets the best grass (wait, I want that)

Who gets to chase who (your friend's not here, your ass is mine)

Dealing with each of these pieces in a way the horse clearly understands puts me quickly on the top of the heap. By understanding the motivation behind each behavior I can keep discipline quick, simple and fair.

I'll go through each one and my response to the situation.

If a horse comes at me (Charge!) I will step in and try to make them think they are going to die. This is the most blatant form of aggression a horse displays and I want to squash it hard and fast.

John Lyons has always maintained you can whomp on them as hard as you want for three seconds, then you need to quit. This is about the time it takes for a horse to make its point to another horse.

I have to be honest here, I'm not coordinated enough to get the job done and keep an eye on my watch. So I go by body language. If a horse is coming at me with teeth or front feet I yell, raise my arms and charge. I will nail said horse with a crop (preferred "teeth") my lead rope, my feet, whatever I need to get my message through. I don't stop until the horse backs off (Uncle!). Then I completely quit. If I'm angry I walk it off, I make sure I've gotten rid of any grudge before I start in again.

There is training that follows this, but I'm sticking to discipline for this post.

Next comes kicking. From a full barreled two legged power thrust to a cow kick when I try to pick up a hind leg or hit a tickly spot, the idea is the same (Get AWAY). my response is, "Not only no, but HELL NO!"

It's vital for my horses to know I can go anywhere I want and touch any part of them I need to. My horse can let me know they are uncomfortable with where I am by stepping away from me, then I'll decide to either respect the request or continue on. My horse cannot kick at me, ever. If it's a double barrel kick then I will respond in kind, with a longe whip becoming my hind legs. I'll whack that kicking sucker until he moves away from me, then I'll immediately stop. Again, I don't continue with training until I'm sure I'm back to the benign portion of my dictatorship.

If I'm dealing with a cow kick I'll slap the offending leg, just once, again with the crop. Then we start over. I've never had this approach fail me.

Now we get to the tricky part (Uncle!). I reward a horse that moves away from me by releasing pressure. In Tally's case she was definitely running away, but she was using it as a form of aggression. She had to have learned the behavior somewhere and it had to have been taught to her by a rider.

Have you ever watched an old cowboy movie where a horse is jumped by a mountain lion? The horse jumps and bucks and screams and if that doesn't work, he runs. Running is a last resort in the horse wars. If the horse happens to knock the mountain lion off his back by running under a tree, he sure isn't going to waste time bucking and jumping the next time. He'll head straight to the tree. The idea is still the same though, running is the last chance a horse sees for an escape.

Tally wasn't screaming Uncle, but she sure wanted to get away. I couldn't let her muddle the situation by worrying about her temper. She needed to find out it was a lot less work to let the rider stay on her back and that no harm would come to her if she did. She didn't understand that people weren't mountain lions. Hitting her would have only strengthened her position.

A more subtle version of Tally's behavior would be a horse that sucks back and pitches a fit when I approach them while tied. If they are really scared, I'll stand quietly until the horse does too. No soothing words, definitely no screaming and I don't back up. I just stand quiet. If the horse comes towards me I'm back to trying to kill it, as soon as it backs away I'm quiet. This usually makes sense to the horse and goes a long way to curing a horse that pulls.

If it's a horse that sucks back because it's a rotten, spoiled booger head, then I'll step in, scream and yell and wave my arms around, while he's pulling. As soon as he settles, even a hair, I quit. Make sure you have a very sturdy rope, halter and tie rail before you try this one, it gets wild. It also works.Again, if he comes toward me I'll thump on him until he gets away from me.

Then we get to the passive aggressive part. If a horse crowds me it's a modified version of "Charge!"
While you won't get hurt by having your space stepped into, the horse will file the small victory away and remember to be even pushier next time. Plus, I know they think it's funny and they laugh at us with all their friends.

I don't usually hit them for this, I raise my hands and snarl, stepping into their space until they back off. I will slap them on the chest with my reins or lead rope, or kick them in the hoof to move the feet if I have to, but normally it doesn't take much.

Shoving their butt into me is a watered down threat to kick. I drive them off.

Walking in front of me through a gate, racing past me when I'm leading them or asking for a stop on the ground, snatching food from my hands, all of these are versions of behaviors that can escalate into danger for me. How do you translate them?

I have mentioned using crops and longe whips as discipline. I also use my reins. I rarely use my heels or spurs and it's even less to get me hauling at their mouths.

A whip drives a horse forward and away. I use it for just those things. My reins do the same.

Spurs and heels are for cues, lift, right and left. I don't use them for forward.

The bit is for communication. If I'm jerking my bit I'm just screaming and yelling, I'm also adding pain. This doesn't help anybody.

I will set my spurs into a lazy, bored, or just ignoring me horse and drive them into my hands. I'll set my hands hard enough to make them feel like they're getting rammed like an accordion. Call it a pissed off half-halt if you will. I'll repeat it until said horse is alert, lively, soft and sorry.

My main form of discipline is more work. If my horses want to ever see their dinner then they'll comply. By building on this premise from day one, they're usually pretty quick to respond after I've pushed them into their tenth or eleventh circle at high speed.

So those are the basics of my benign dictatorship, hope it clears up a few things.


joycemocha said...

I'll do something similar--Mocha was being a butthead the other night, getting all fidgety and anticipatory and refusing to stand still for "whoa" when we were working around some beginners. Nothing new for her, nothing that should elicit that reaction except she was feeling energetic and had a strong case of "I Don't Wanna Whoa, I Wanna Run!"

I finally got after her with an immediate, fast backup every time she refused to stand still at whoa (this was a sequence of haunches and forehand turns, whoa in between, conscious pause between movements to keep them accurate and correct, she wanted to do them fast and sloppy. She knows better).

It only took two sessions of fast backup. Then there was no more fidgets, but calm, quiet standing upon "whoa."

We're gonna be revisiting this concept today. She only does it when she's in a pissy mood. And yeah, I worked her little behinder off meanwhile.

Kel said...

My greatest problem is determining what's confusion and what's "F-U lady!" on the horse's part, so I fear I'm giving up a lot of ground even though I fully understand I MUST be his leader.

My gelding has his days of being overly sensitive and overly thick skinned and I'm never sure which I'm going to get. It doesn't help that he's a limber noodle either. I've had days where he's swung himself into me (like tried to pin me to a wall) and the only way I could get him away was an open hand slap to the belly and a sharp poke with the plastic end of a hoof pick or the jab of my elbow in the ribcage, and even after all of that plus the "you're gonna die" growl on my part, he seems nonplussed. The very next day I only have to look at his side and he's yielding across the barn, but the third day we're back in the same mode as the first.

I know half (most?) of my problem is green on green -- my trainer who's been in the business for all of his life can make my gelding kowtow with just a look and turn him into a big puppy that wants to please; I'm stuck with the snotty teenager and wishing there was an equine equivalent to Ritalin.

How do I find my inner boss mare and approach this guy? It seems to make no difference if I approach him in a very clinical manner or in a "hug him, kiss him, and call him George," yet iron hand in glove kind of way. I love him to bits, but I'm starting to think they only way I can give him a useful life is if I find an intermediate between a total dead head and him to earn my stripes on.

Sorry for the mental dump; I'm just really striving for that benign dictatorship with him -- the other horses I've ridden I haven't had issue with. Jack on the other hand....oi vey!

mugwump said...

Kel - I very rarely change my discipline because a horse is scared. He'll still get nailed for crowding me, still get sent forward with a swat, it's just that I don't need as much when they're scared - and my release needs to be for less try.
I try to focus on the feet, not the face, when I'm working on a horse.
Get your feet outta my face!

Kel said...

I don't think he's scared, its a combination of "bright, shiney object syndrome" and me becoming forgettable. For instance, he'll be tied to the wall and facing it and I'll be grooming away on his left side. Activity happens on the offside (another person walks by, horse comes in the area, etc etc). He'll turn his head to look, and despite me a) noticing his attention going else where and b) giving him a soft thump in the ribs and saying "nevermind" or tugging on his halter, he'll try to swing around to face it, in turn smooshing me to the wall. While he's shifting, I'm giving him a good pop in the ribs to say "hello! I'm here!". He'll bow himself outwards in the middle so he can still face whatever's going on but not give any ground to me. I literally have to punch/push him away.

I've had other horses who have gotten distracted by the barn goings on, but as soon as they feel my thump on their sides they're "oops, sorry!" and stop moving.

The really dangerous bit is that distraction translates into the saddle. It's very hard to get his attention back if he's distracted, despite my best efforts to get him moving pronto/circling the opposite way, etc.

When he's good he's very very good, but when he's bad, he's horrid.

mugwump said...

he needs to be more concerned about what you might do to him than what he's looking at...I wouldn't be warning him, he would get smacked with a crop until he moved AWAY from me, not just gave his attention.

Bif said...


It sounds like you may need to communicate a little "louder" when he is distracted. Or ask him something tough enough he has to focus on you.

Really, his own mama horse would not hesitate to show him where he should be, up to whatever level to get her point across.

And you know, horses don't hate the leader that tells them they are out of line. Not advocating abuse, but a horse is happier having clear and understandable boundaries more than they are by having a person "love" them.

Becky said...

Holy crap, this post is awesome.

THIS is the down to earth advice I've been seeking for years. THANK YOU.

I especially like knowing it's okay to walk away when you've settled back down. I've wanted to do that before, but I wonder if the horse misinterprets it. I dont' like continuing trainign while I'm all ramped up, because I can feel us feeding off of each other.

I'm totally bookmarking this post. Seriously, it's that awesome. And the sucking back advice is just wonderful!

Becky said...

Hey Kel,

Something you said clicked with me:

"... he'll try to swing around to face it, in turn smooshing me to the wall."

It's not "in turn smooshing me".

t's "in order to smoosh me."

He's not accidentally squishing you as he looks at the thing. He's deliberately squishing you AND looking at the thing. And probably snickering "tee hee hee" as he does it, too.

Maybe realizing that he's doing it DELIBERATELY, just to yank your chain, will help you access the inner boss mare. I used to have a horse that would bump into me as he would swing his head to go to scratch a fly on his side.. He made it seem like the most accidentally thing in the world. "Just going to get a fly.. whoops! Did I get you? Oh, my bad."

I was facing the wrong way one time and got a clear view of his side when he did it... THERE WAS NO FLY ON HIS SIDE.

How often do you walk into him? I kind of created my problem with my gelding because I would walk around him when I was grooming. If his butt was in my way I would walk around it to get to the other side. I didn't realize it, but he was interpreting that as a "I'm making you go around me, so I win." kind of thing. Maybe during your grooming or haltering or something, you're doing some other stuff that is slowly "adding up" to alpha points in his corner?

redhorse said...

I had a really neat demo of this yesterday when I turned the horses out. The lead mare and my gelding were walking out together, the mare ahead by a neck and shoulder. My gelding was about to trot or gallop past her (maybe with a body slam thrown in) and she turned her head and looked at him, he stopped in his tracks and waited for her to walk away from him.

I started laughing out loud. So, that's why it works so well for me when I'm leading him and he starts crowding me. I only have to turn my head and look and he backs off.

Kel said...

Mugs: I've kneed him, I've poked him in the side with various grooming implements, I've even put a pointed boot toe into his side in combination with my best forceful "knock it off or I kill you" voice complete with choice obscenities. I don't know how to become something to be more worried about as far as he's concerned...are you saying that if he even twitches an ear at something going on near him, I need to immediately get on his case with something more than a poke and a stern word?

Bif: Yep, mama would clean his clock. :) I'm attempting to do the same (and agree that he needs it, and no I don't see it as abuse, 'cause one good burst that solves the problem is a lot less abusive than perpetual swats that do nothing), I just don't seem to be Mama Mare enough for this horse -- my thumps and voice have worked perfectly well for other horses. I'm ending up more like Annoying Younger Sister to my gelding.

Becky: He swings regardless of me being next to him. ie, if I have to leave him to go get grooming supplies, talk to someone else in the barn, etc, etc, he will swing either way around to watch the activity or follow my movements.

You're probably very well right that he's just being a jerk and trying to see what he can get away with.

I also try my best to make sure he's moving out of my space, not the other way around. He doesn't crowd me when I lead him with one caveat -- I have to use a stud chain under his chin. It just has to be there like a pacifier. There is float in both the chain and the lead, I can walk him along with two fingers, and his poll is down and relaxed. If a regular old lead is clipped on, his head shoots up, and he's psycho trying to tear off in front of me. (I have no idea what kind of experiences he had for his first 5 years of life before he came into mine)

My first contact with him whenever I work with him is to back him up, make him yield his haunches, and turn on the forehand both ways. I play games with varying speed that we walk, stop, turn, and if he's not with me, he's snapped up and the pressure increases till he is with me. I make him move over and backup when he's tied, and if he moves from where I put him, I move him right back. I kiss to him and I make sure he faces me before I go into his stall, and if he doesn't, he gets the end of the lead rope on his flank.

If I give him a job, for the most part he's on the spot with it. If he's left to think on his own, or put his attention on something else, then he's a nightmare to deal with.

To all, I'm sorry for the thread hijack. =/

nagonmom said...

I loved this post. The clarity simplifies what can seem complex in the experiencing. To clarify a point, when you said you used your reins to drive a horse forward, did you mean slapping the horse with the ends of your long Western reins? If I have misunderstood, please tell me how to use the reins to drive a horse forward. (Other than release of pressure on the bit.)

scsarah said...

Kel, I had the same type of issue(s) with my Arab. Arabs being the space cadets of the horse world....but that is what I find challenging and appealing.

Anyway, the "bright, shiney object syndrome" and me becoming forgettable (I so know what that feels like!) thing is a problem I had. The hard part of fixing the issue(s) was fixing me.

My gelding is sensitive and manhandling him just does NOT work (makes him more excitable). So little by little I became soft or to forgiving. Then one day I had it with him tripping over things he sees in the arena everyday. I gripped those reins and moved him with conviction and not just in circles. I put him into a forward trot (as mugs said like an accordian!), down the arena wall. Half way down I rolled him back and sent him off down the arena wall in that ground covering forward trot; rolled him back again and down the wall we went. Stopped him backed him down the wall, rolled him back again and moved him into that forward trot.

We did this several (100?) times. Once I felt him softening and I saw his ears twitching back to me 'listening', I added lateral work, serpentines, a few cross rails, then my circles where we worked on rate within the gaits.

At least he doesn't trip as often now, and if he does, he will get worked hard. And instead of taking 15 minutes to get his attention again, it takes three minutes.

I guess what I am trying to say is your boy needs to move his feet and you need to direct those feet with conviction....and again, with my gelding the circles don't cut it until I have his mind (feet).

Another thing that works with my gelding is if he wants to look to the outside when we are doing circles I find that flexing his nose to the outside for a few strides, then flexing his nose to the inside of the circle for a few strides. Alternating every few strides gets his attention. He finds it is a lot easier traveling with his nose where it is suppose to be then to have it flexed to the outside around a circle looking at all the activity!

I just wanted to let you know you are not alone! Don't give up, or give in. You can do it!

mugwump said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mugwump said...

Kel - Get a crop. It's his feet I watch, not his ear.

The second those feet start moving towards you then you smack him and continue to until his feet are back where they belong and his ears are on you.Rinse repeat.

Just stick it in your back pocket and keep it handy. You can move on to your warning voice, then a smack, but not until he's very aware of you at all times.

If you want to lose the chain you can maneuver him with the crop.
Eventually you replace the crop with your finger...with occasional reminders as needed.

nagonmom - I meant my western reins. A crop works here too. I like the longer dressage whips, I can maneuver them without changing my hand position.

Remember, some horses only need a tap, some need a pretty serious point made, gauge your horse, you know him best.

Golden the Pony Girl said...

" New relationships begin with the establishment of power, then friendship happens, not the other way around."
I really like this quote. I think the nicest thing you can do for your horse is set up firm boundaries right off the bat. That way you don't have to worry about power struggles and can get right down to the making friends part. We all got in to horses in the first place to make friends with them didn't we?

Kel said...

scsarah: Thanks! I'm glad I'm not alone. And yes, he has to do tight figure eights and spiral trots and turns against the wall if he gets silly on me. It works, as long as whatever has him distracted doesn't spook him at the same time -- I've been dumped twice 'cause he's suddenly sideways lightening fast. The problem with learning to ride on geriatric old slugs or a been-there-done-that stallion is that you can feel the startle bubbling up from their hooves (if they do at all) so your brain/body can shift into gear before anything happens and get them out of that mode. It doesn't translate well when you try to ride out a spook on an agile 6yr old and try to make yourself scarier than whatever spooked them at the same time.

Yeah I know, I'm probably massively over-horsed, or at least over alpha'd. :(

Mugs: I do have a crop. I shall stuff it in my back pocket the next time I work with him. Any particular spot I should smack him one with it? Offending hip, closest rear leg, shoulder, or anywhere I can get within sufficient time? One good smack or until he does want I want (get the heck away from me)?

And thank you all! I truly appreciate the tips. I really want things to click with this horse and I know 99.9% of getting that click is on my shoulders.

scsarah said...

Kel, Oh, I understand the teleport....Arabs do it well! Oh they do it all to well.....*sighs*....but sometimes it is fun to ride through and it awes me how we got from point A to point B in a nano second.

Your boy sounds like mine, young, and curious and then spooks over what they are curious about...over reacting to stimuli. But I now feel 99 percent his spooks are not really spooks, but more like 'wanna be spooks'. I think what he is telling me is he has energy and wants those feet in motion, so I now oblige....*grins*

mugwump said...

One more thing - my mare is a nut job spook, so I am totally sympathetic.
She is getting better as she gets older, trail riding has done more to improve her head than anything I've tried.
I have never confused spooking and bad behavior (finally, it took me a few horses to sort it out).
She can do a huge leap on the ground, but she doesn't pass my shoulder or touch me.
She can't help being a spook, but she can be aware of where I am.She is a well mannered nut...and it has gone a long way towards helping her calm down.

Mrs. E said...

In the hierarchy Mugs is talking about, the boss horse has to do very little once respect has been established. A good boss horse doesn't nag, but she doesn't mess around either. I always loved watching my late lead mare manage her herd. She was a kind, but strong leader.

Ask, tell, make her wish she'd done it the first time. Get in, get done, get out. If your horse doesn't think you're the most important thing in town, your horse is most likely in charge. It doesn't mean fearful, it means aware and accepting you as the leader/boss mare.

luvredponies said...

I have 6 horses - 5 are 3 or younger, and I have a 21 year old mare. I absolutely know who rules the roost, the old girl, and everyone else knows it too. When they are out playing, there is a lot of give and take and they trade off who spars with who, because they aren't as worried about a pecking order. My filly will be 2 in the spring, so it will be interesting to see how long she "plays" with the boys, and when she starts asserting her status in the herd. She will be the next leader and the boys seem to know it, but she still likes to play - for now.

Last winter one of the boys bit my shoulder while reaching to bite one of the other horses. I hit him so hard with the manure fork I broke a tine off ot it. I could see in his face that he didn't mean to bite me and he gave me a LOT of room for the next week. I was cleaning the barn at the time and had to walk away after I hit him cause I was really mad and could have easily hit him over and over and over... He has never done anything like that again, but now I insist that they take the wrestling outside. I was wearing a heavy jacket, sweatshirt and long sleeve t-shirt, and the bruise went from my shoulder to the bottom of my rib cage, and down my arm to my elbow. I was lucky it wasn't summer...

Kel said...

Knock on wood, he has yet to spook into me on the ground. He thankfully goes away from me (now watch it change) and even once threw himself into a wall with being a spaz (I still don't understand what brought that about).

He's had his grain ration modified a couple of different times 'cause he gets wired for sound. Now that its winter, being cooped up does nothing for his mental state either. I attempted to get him turned out for all but the worst weather days and that was promptly dropped when he broke the paddock gate to get back inside by body slamming himself into it. He torments the crap out of any horse he's turned out with (went Mike Tyson on a mare last year and nipped off the tip of her ear), so he has to be separated -- he's fine if he can see/hear other horses, but out alone and its like the world's ending.

I have a nagging feeling in the back of my head that he was probably taken away from his dam early and never turned out as a yearling with others and/or older horses to learn manners and how to act and be a horse.

And holy moly, luvredponies!! Very scary!

Bonita Vear said...

Mugs, this is seriously an epic post. You've put into words exactly what I'm about as soon as I get near a horse. "Benign Dictatorship" is the best line ever!! Thanks for your words of wisdom.

I love the sucking back tip; I have a four and a half year old who will occasionally do that (tho since we changed yards he doesn't) and will use it next time he pulls back!

bonita of A Riding Habit

Viva Brava said...

Golden the Pony Girl said...

" New relationships begin with the establishment of power, then friendship happens, not the other way around."
I really like this quote. I think the nicest thing you can do for your horse is set up firm boundaries right off the bat. That way you don't have to worry about power struggles and can get right down to the making friends part. We all got in to horses in the first place to make friends with them didn't we?

A horse isn't your "friend" unless they respect you. They certainly don't trust you if they can't respect you and your decisions.
And without respect and trust.. there is no real friendship and there is no real relationship.

That was one of the most important lessons that my mother's old, mentally unhinged, Arab gelding taught me when I was a kid.

And respect is not earned via "domination." That is fear.
Unfortunately far too many people involved in the equine industry seem to think that the words are interchangeable.

MichelleL said...

Oh how I wish I had you as my mentor Mugs, when I was a kid. Took me a whole lot of years and too many trial and error situations to truly appreciate your insightful post on this topic.

Well done.

Analise said...


The tripping thing you mentioned is interesting. I remember being really concerned a while back because my horse was tripping a lot. Except he was sound. And showing no real signs of being neurologic. Just. Tripping.

Until I got my current instructor and she started working a lot with me on getting him really moving out and interested in what we were doing. Apparently when he's bored, he starts tripping because he doesn't bother to really pay attention to where he's putting his feet. When he's focused, the tripping disappears. It was a really clear lesson for me to get.

scsarah said...


Mine does the physical tripping as well when bored, and I take it as a sign of passive resistance when it happens and move him with greater determination.

In the case of this post, and I am dating myself to the 70's, I used the term 'tripping' as a mental if he had been eating the magic mushrooms out in the pasture......Be that as it may, it is also a resistance and needs to be worked on.

Ahhhhhh, the mentall challenges of working horses! Gotta love it!

Amy said...

Kel, a suggestion... my mare will clam up and refuse to move off if she feels like it... the butt end of a whip, jabbed not so kindly into their side, will get her attention REAL fast, she'll kind of "oof" and move over like she means it.

So the next time he has you pinned or is swinging into you, maybe try jabbing him... it doesn't take a lot of force and there's a lot less drama involved than pushing, shoving, yelling, etc.

Liberitarianqh said...

What a great post - logical, fair and spoken in horse language, which horses get. I expect the same behavior and totally agree that the 'why' doesn't matter as much as the 'what' the behavior is. I'm discussing this with a woman in dire straits with her horse. I meet him next week. I explained it with numbers, a 1-10 scale. I told her that the worst thing she can do when her horse misbehaves is to discipline the horse with the same energy that he gave. In other words, don't nag him! To me, a 1 is a docile quiet horse, a 5 may be a cow kick, 8 would be double barreled hoof sole display. I will typically raise the bar by about 2 and return fire accordingly. I never, ever, ever pick at a horse. Our discussions are brief, black and white. How do you handle people who are concerned with 'breaking a horse's spirit' or making them 'headshy'? Do you turn them away or attempt to educate? This has always frustrated me as I watch them barely surviving their spoiled monsters.

mugwump said...

Libertarianqh - I got to where I would say it once, then if I was ignored I'd never say it again.

I was fried and angry by then.

liberitarianqh said...

I mostly feel that if I could reach people on their level of comprehension, the light would go on. I still get insulted and angry when I can't make my case. I truly believe I straddle the middle of the horse road - not abusive or passive. Wish I could say more about current thoughts, going to pass just in case!

Val said...

Great post, Mugs!

I have had this discussion with horse people before. Some are dead set "never", others are in the "sometimes" category, and some use smacks as every training solution.

During the first six months that I owned my horse, he injured his hind legs which required regular cleaning. He protested by picking up his legs as I tried to clean them. I warned him with my voice, but when he escalated the behavior by picking up his foot and giving a little shake, a test-kick if you will, I whacked him so fast and hard that he stood stock still for the remainder of the cleaning. I felt a little bad about smacking him, but my husband was there and pointed out that my horse "got the point" and remembered it. He has not repeated the leg taunt.

Justaplainsam said...

Great Post Mugs comes at a good time!

Kel said...

Libertarianqh: maybe the approach is to have this person observe a herd; watching two or three horses turned out with one another (an energetic youngster with a older alpha, etc) and have that person understand the dynamic of the physical cues (snaking, ears pinned, teeth barred, driving the other out of the space, etc). Discuss the reactions of the giver and the receiver. Maybe you have to do this half a dozen times until that person understands the logic -- horses do not have civil discourse; they get their point across swift and sharp. Give the person an equine mentor to emulate (the alpha the observed) them you'll have comparisons to reference.

An idea anyway....

Kel said...

Additionally: if you happen to have a setup where a pony is boss in a herd of normal sized (or larger) horses, it might even illustrate it better -- nothing is quite as eye opening as watching a Shetland chase off a Belgian. ;)

SkyBar Farm said...

Great post. Same for the last Tally post. I have a little mare, 14.2, that reminds me of Tally to several degrees. I debated back and forth to sell her for several years. No horse had ever banged me up the way this little mare had. I knew she was too much for me, but she was out of my breeding program and I owed it to her to get her trained and make her a good citizen before I sold her. She was the first horse I ever sent out for training. I had developed a fear of her and I finally admitted that would not get either of us anywhere. Romey was and is just so reactive and her low center of gravity only made things worse. Luckily, I had someone very capable to ride her. She is 8 now and I am thankful I kept her. She has helped me overcome my stumbling blocks and seriously work on my timing. She is still a speed demon, but I have learned how to work her down effectively and help her use her body. She is the type of mare you pick and choose your fights and you best pick wisely. That little mare has taught me more about the mind of a horse than the last 20 horses. I can't thank her enough. Her new rider is my 15 year old daughter who is turning her into a hunter/jumper believe it or not. She might be short, but she doesn't know that. My daughter has watched this mare develop over the years and has learned from watching my mistakes with her and well she bounces better than I do. :)

Stasha said...

So what about ear pinning? We have a gelding who was a biter when we first got him. We've gotten over that nonsense, but he will pin his ears and threaten with his head when you groom him (or even pet him). I have been giving him a smack and moving on when the ears come up and the head moves away, but should I be making him move his feet instead? While smacking fixes him temporarily, it doesn't stop him from trying again in a few minutes.

In the same train of thought, how far is far enough when it comes to moving the feet? I use cross ties when grooming and tacking up. Is this something that would be easier dealt with if he were just tied with a single rope insted? Where is the line between discipline and this becoming a game where he learns that he doesn't have to stand still to be groomed?

Stasha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
liberitarianqh said...

Kel - I always use herd hierarchy as an explanation of my training thought process. I bought an aggressive 16H grulla mare at auction, felt sorry for her, and she proceeded to unkindly alpha my Paint mare on day one. My friend bought the grulla from me and training commenced. Her bad behavior was somewhat fear based - reared with pinned ears on the lunge and a complete bully 'in my space'. Regardless of her reasons, she was whacked a LOT - HARD - to establish control. She had been nagged by a previous handler and won most battles. It made my job that much harder. I also gave her a new pasture buddy, my 14.2 cow horse mare. We put them in the ring to watch...grulla mare ran up to little mare and fired one off with a big squeel, ears flat. Midget was beside herself and returned the favor with both hinds, backed and kicked again and again, literally running backwards at one point. We watched and laughed - midget was helping us train the beast! I kick myself for not having a video - it would be a great training tool for the meek 'but he's my baby' owners who are now terrified of their horses. The saddest thing is that these 'babies' end up useless or riding the truck to a sad fate because their owners idealized them into glass horse/humans.

Kel said...

Libertarianqh said: "The saddest thing is that these 'babies' end up useless or riding the truck to a sad fate because their owners idealized them into glass horse/humans."

That's my fear with my horse. I want to turn him into a upstanding citizen so that if something happened to me and he had to go to a new home, I could trust that he'd mind his manners.

Stasha: I work with another horse that does the same thing whenever you work around his girth area (no ulcers, girth galls, or anything else, just touchy). I'm not sure if I should let him voice his disapproval with his ears, but discipline him if he moves his head towards me at all -- is not correcting the ears giving him a win? He's gotten better the longer I've worked with him (maybe it's an intimidation thing he does and since I haven't been driven off yet...). I'd be interested in figuring out how to deal with this too.

Anonymous said...

Kel, if he's getting distracted/spooky enough to squish you or teleport, you're already too late. His attention needs to be on you, full stop, he needs to react to you, not the other way around, which means you need to be thinking/working a few moments ahead of the present time/exercise/situation. Much easier to keep what you already have that repeatedly create it from scratch.

- Buymeaclue

Carol N' Griffin said...

I've been following the comments on this topic for a few days. I've never posted a comment here before, but have been following Mug's blog for quite some time. I enjoy the stories and I like her approach...

I thought I'd weigh in a little on this subject and point out a variable that some people may not be considering... I see and hear this around me a lot in the horse world. Folks who feel they have to "educate" others on how they should be dealing with a horse "problem." First of all, let me make it clear that I'm not pointing a finger at any 1 person in general but rather a general attitude when it comes to horses. I'm referring to the whole idea of one rider looking at another rider and critique-ing them because they are not "aggressive enough." ...or not understanding why they worry about breaking a horse's spirit, or treating their horses as if made of glass... and so on.

I am an extremely passive person and I am hoping to shed a little light on this subject from the eyes of someone who feels that way (sometimes). I think one thing you all have to consider is not only the nature of the horse, but the nature of the "person."

I got picked on a bit in school when I was younger....sometimes to the point where I had to make physical contact or "fight" my way out of a situation. To this day, I am convinced without a doubt that this is the reason I hate any form of aggressive behavior. I RARELY hit my horse for any reason. There are, in fact, only two reasons I will really ever hit any horse physically. One is biting and the other is kicking...and only if I feel my safety is being threatened.

When I see someone else smack their horse, for what, in my eyes..seems a small misbehavior (or nothing at all) makes me cringe. Sometimes so much that I want to leave the area. My mind immediately reverts back to the days when I was treated in a similar manner by my peers.

What you have to understand is that this kind of reprimand is literally impossible for someone like me to carry out. I have difficulty wrapping my brain around the fact I would "need" to strike my horse in order to make a point. I have always been the type of person that looks for a less physical way. Because I had what I call these "forced" negative interactions when I was younger -- I cannot bring myself to project that same thing onto my horse (an animal I want to bond with). Some people call it anthropomorphism...I call it treating another living creature the way I would want someone to treat me. Respect is a two way street for me.

Carol N' Griffin said...


If I had to be the aggressive rider/owner to get along, I would not want to have horses. Fortunately, I have been able to find others that have helped to teach me more "comfortable" ways in spending time with my horse while still maintaining a comfortable degree of respect and keeping myself safe. I will be honest though....I have to "work" on my assertiveness with my horse every. single. day. ...and it's good for me. I feel horses have taught me so much. I am also NOT an inexperienced rider. I have been riding and working with horses most of my life and my current horse I've had for 14years. I started him under saddle myself as a 9yr old off the track Standardbred (with minimal help). Now at 23, my boy is still a good partner for me. Are there things that a more agressive rider could get out of him that I can't? Probably... but I've also learned to focus on stuff that's really important to me, my relationship with him, and the things I enjoy doing with him.
I don't show (anymore) because I found there to be too much pressure to "teach" my horse to do things that I thought were un-necissary in our relationship. I am very content and very happy with my old man simply as my companion and pleasure horse. Is he as well trained as a show horse? Of course not....but he knows what he needs to know to be a good companion for me...and that is what matters.

I rarely EVER tell someone I think they are being too rough with a horse (although there are times I think it)...and I can't tell you how many times when I see someone with a heavier hand turn right around and say "so and so" has a "spoiled" horse because they don't make the horse "respect" them. That horse NEEDS a good smack."
I am sure there have been plenty of times that people thought this about my horse (while I am silently thinking that I wouldn't want that person anywhere near my horse because they are making ME cringe). It doesn't matter how many times you might explain "herd behavior." I have studied herd behavior also...and although I understand the whole herd hierchy thing, that doesn't make it any
easier for ME To be an agressor..

Carol N' Griffin said...

The bigggest point I want to make here, is that everyone's boundries are different. For example, I allow my horse to rub his head on me. He is NOT allowed to push me and he must stop if I gently push his head away. Believe it or not, he is very good with this and we both enjoy this contact. He has NOT done anything to hurt me in this manner in 14 years.

Now I know plenty of people who will not, under any circumstance, allow their horse to scratch or rub on them. I have also handled these people's horse at different times....and I don't allow THEIR horses to rub on me either because I want to respect the boundries they have set for their horse. I leave my "opinion" out of it. I view it as a different set of boundries. What bothers them, may not bother me....and vice versa.

Do I sometimes wish I could be more assertive than I am? Sometimes. ....but then there are also plenty of times that I am perfectly content with who I am and who my horse is....even if nothing I own will ever be a grand prix dressage horse or a champion reiner. The small victories I have with my guy and the little things I am able to teach him mean as much to me as winning a competition might mean to someone else.

When someone approaches me when I am working with my horse and attempts to offer me "advice" on getting after my horse....I have learned to be polite and tell them that I will keep their "advice" in mind, but I feel I am doing just fine. If they continue to pester me, I will do what I need to to get them to leave me alone..(and I'll admit I am sometimes not very nice about it). I look at it from the standpoint of...if people can't respect that I am happy with the boundries I have set for my horse...then they aren't going to respect me as an individual person either.

Once again, I hope no one thinks I am pointing any fingers -- it's just that I think that an understanding of why a person works with their horse in the manner that they do has as much to do with their own personality as anything else.... and that might not be something you can change... it's also what causes some people to seek out different lesson instructors and/or trainers. What may not seem abusive to you...may be excruciating for someone else to watch....even if YOU feel that it is the ONLY way to get a point across or get the job done.

I will end my long comment (sorry) :( by saying that I DO feel that there are folks out there that are not very smart in the choices they make of horses. For example, I will NEVER own a stallion. I have and will handle someone else's well-trained stallion (and make every attempt to maintain a good level of assertiveness while doing it), BUT I will not own a stud myself. I know, without a doubt, that I do not have the strong mind/assertiveness needed to deal with some of their behaviors. Attepting to work with a stud on a regular basis would not be a "comfortable" experience for me. I actually get along best with a sensitive horse that needs a light hand because it often takes very little pressure to teach them. Sadly, I have also seen these same, sensitive horses suffer at the hands of someone I felt was far too aggressive (something that pains me very much to see). Matching the horse's personality type with that of the person is a huge, HUGE factor in getting it right. I respect breeders and adoption places ten times over when they make every effort to place the right horse with the right owner personality !!!

Thanks for reading & I hope I was able to shed a little light on some of these things...

Anonymous said...

When your horse flips you the middle hoof, it doesn't matter why. You need to re-establish yourself as his leader. Two different cases: Beloved Appy was leaving OSU Veterinary Hospital & we just learned he had only 10% of his vision. He was a nervous wreck because of the strange surroundings, noises, smells, etc. That did not give him the right to act like a fool in the parking lot. He got a smack on the shoulder with the end of the lead rope (to self "OMG I just hit a blind horse!") Blind horse settled down and remembered his manners, his leader, and family (including the mare we brought for his comfort). Second case was my stubborn TWH who occassionaly decided to try and set limits for us: "I will not turn right...OK, I'll turn right, but not left....Ok, left and right but now I will not back up." One such session lasted three hours with spurs, crop, and plenty of work until nothing but "Yes, Mommy" came out of his mouth.

Just like kids, you learn the difference between stubborn and scared; passive/aggressive or mad; and temporary stupidity. Employ the appropriate leadership technique.

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