Training pushy, playful horses to be respectful of boundaries can be a challenge. Here’s how to take on the task.
He was exquisite, a true specimen of majesty and beauty. I watched as the three-year-old black Friesian stallion quickly paced back and forth in the tiny stall he had to call home. With testosterone and energy coursing through his body, he barely knew what to do with himself. He was clearly uncomfortable cooped up in his small pen and I wondered how often he was able to spend time outside playing, exercising and just being a horse.
This amazing fellow was being trained for a judging event called Keuring. But with an inexperienced guardian and a young trainer, things weren’t going quite as planned. I was called in to assist because the barn staff was very concerned about the safety of both horse and humans, and I could see why. My visit was short, as I had flown in from out of state to consult. With just an hour to assess, advise and potentially “fix” this predicament, I knew I had my work cut out for me.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “bad” horse, but dangerous horses can quickly be created when they are misunderstood or mishandled. Mishandling can take on many different forms, including force and abuse, and lack of experience in identifying correct boundaries and behavior patterns.
Who is leading who?
As with most of my consultations, I asked for the guardian to handle the horse so I could observe their interactions. My client began to enter the stall, but quickly came back out as she wasn’t comfortable in her horse’s presence. Overexcited and unpredictable, he was simply too much for her to handle.
I then asked the trainer to lead the stallion to the arena so I would have a chance to observe the training. The stallion crowded the doorway. The trainer smacked the horse in the face to ask him to back up, placed the halter on and then led him comfortably to the arena, where she handed him over to the guardian.
He immediately engaged in a full battery of ornery and mischievous behavior. He was pulling my client in every direction, swinging his head, almost knocking her over, nibbling on her, trying to take a chunk out of her side. With all this happening, there was no chance for the guardian to lead him around the arena. Instead, she spent her time trying to avoid being stepped on, body slammed and bitten. Her attention was on staying safely out of her horse’s way, and not giving him clear direction as the leader of her herd of two. It was abundantly clear who was leading whom.
The change comes from you
I asked the stallion’s guardian why she was having trouble, and she told me she didn’t want to offend him by schooling him. But her concern over not offending him had overshadowed her own safety and ability to be a true leader.
Next, I began working with the stallion. Through reading his facial features, energy and body language, it was apparent after only a short time that this young horse wasn’t malicious. He had learned to be disrespectful. His eye remained soft, his top lip extended in a mischievous manner, and the rest of his body and energy were playful, not aggressive. But this playfulness could change in a heartbeat and was only a thought away! We discussed the use of the Dually, a pressure halter I endorse and utilize in my practice. We switched halters, which in itself was quite the task. It was like trying to halter a piranha!
From my confident approach, the stallion knew this experience would be very different and immediately took a step back. It only took a few minutes to teach him to stand at attention, create space, and remain attentive, polite and respectful. In fact, he was so good that I was taken aback by this instant transformation.
My expectations were clear: “You don’t hurt me and I don’t hurt you, and together, we can realize your full potential!” We made great progress as he proudly displayed his knowledge of “ground tying”. Next, we moved into leading around the full arena with length in the line, right down to the mirror that had previously scared him at both a walk and trot in-hand. In only a single one-hour session, he was an entirely different horse.
Creating a team
But a responsible trainer always remembers that no matter how good the horse is, if the client isn’t on the same page, she can easily undo all the work that was done. It is important to make sure that the horse owner or trainer can carry on your work and not confuse the horse with inconsistent or contradictory training and communication, and to teach the guardian the lessons she needs to carry this success into the future.
As I watched my client learn from observation, and then later with personal guidance, I was proud to see a team developing right before my eyes. All it took was just a few corrections for both parties to understand acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and for everyone to remain safe and enjoy each other’s company. We started the day with a victim hunted by her horse, and ended with a partnership and winning team!
7 safety tips
1) Create the right environment for you and your horse to be safe and comfortable. Begin leading in a round pen or arena for safety, making sure you have proper footing, boundaries and stimulus.
2) Wear the proper clothing, including paddock boots for foot protection, gloves to avoid rope burns, and a helmet if the horse has a tendency to strike and rear.
3) Have the right equipment with you (e.g., a dually halter – used correctly – and a 14’ lead rope).
4) Approach with authenticity, making sure your body, mind and communication are all in alignment.
5) Be completely present. Do not think about what has happened in the past or what could happen in the future.
6) Read your horse’s intention. Capture the whisper in his eye or nose position.
7) Act with integrity, mutual respect and understanding.
7 training tips
1) Never hit your horse, as this will encourage inappropriate behavior or confuse him. It can sometimes even be mistaken for petting and stroking, and can create head shyness. Simply correct his head carriage by moving his head away from you with your hand on the lead rope.
2) Your horse always follows his nose. Correct his nose carriage in the direction he needs to carry his head and body.
3) If you allow your horse to pull on the rope, he is leading you. This is mostly seen when handlers lead from the shoulder – instead, place the horse’s nose at your shoulder. Create a mutually acceptable placement where the lead rope is loose and you can walk together casually.
4) Horses learn from the release of pressure, not the pressure itself. Place your horse in the correct position by either backing him up to your shoulder or moving him forward to your shoulder, and then instantly release to create peace and quiet.
5) Who is moving whose feet? Be sure to walk like a leader and have a true purpose. If there is a leadership void, your horse will fill it.
6) Your horse’s primary survival trait is awareness! Be sure to know what is happening around you so you can respond and not react.
7) Backing your horse up is a great way to create space, boundaries and trust. When your horse is unruly ask him to move his feet…backwards!
Why you might have trouble leading your horse
• Environment – Insufficient space to roam, romp and play.
• Nutrition – Excessive sweet feed/protein.
• Lack of socialization – A need for mutual grooming and interaction as well as behavioral guidelines and schooling.
• Personal match – “Green and green makes black and blue”. Education is key.
• Ground manners – Require spook-busting and guidelines (DVD No. 6 of the Reach Out to Natural Horsemanship Series, TLC – Trust-Based Leadership and Compassionate Communication, is an ideal companion guide to leading).
• Green horses – Lack of exposure and handling.
• Testosterone – A horse is a horse is a horse, although leading stallions requires specific skills!