Friday, October 9, 2009

The Pushy Horse

Many people have trouble with horses that are "pushy". This can be a horse that is mouthy, nippy, walks into you or over you when you are leading, doesn't notice that you are there and steps on your feet, or exhibits dominant or crabby behavior - biting when you are grooming, saddling or blanketing. I think this is often what people mean when they say "my horse doesn't respect me". Jen has asked what I do about this. Now please understand, I am not a horse trainer and I only know what I know - what I've done with the horses I work with may not work for you or your horse. There are also a few horses who are truly aggressive or exhibit truly dangerous behaviors - that's a whole different ball game and isn't what I'm talking about - a horse that is seriously aggressive is often one that has been severely mishandled or abused and requires special treatment - I'm talking about the average, garden-variety, pushy horse.

I don't say that a horse is "disrespectful". I think that attributes to the horse a negative intent that is too human. Horses are pushy, in my experience, because they've been taught to be that way by their human handlers, often without the handlers intending this. This is regardless of whether a horse is naturally a dominant personality with other horses, or not. Horses are completely capable, in my opinion, of distinguishing people from horses and treating their human handlers in the ways that their handlers define, regardless of herd status. I think the most important thing to remember is that if you don't establish boundaries, or tell your horse what you want him to do, he'll make the decisions and they may not be ones you like. It's just a matter of knowing what you want and communicating that clearly to the horse.

There are a couple of different situations in which pushiness tends to come up: leading, feeding food or treats and crabbiness. Leading is a problem for many people - there are a lot of horses out there who walk all over their owners, but it's not the horse's problem, it's the owner's. Many people feed their horses treats, and the horses become pushy, or the owners worry that if they feed their horses treats that they will become pushy or nippy. Some horses get pushy when fed hay or grain. Some horses are crabby - particularly mares - but also some geldings - and will bite or make ugly faces when groomed, tacked or handled. This is often a combination of physical problems and training issues, and it's important to distinguish between the two things.

I think dealing with these issues is a matter of: being clear in your own mind about exactly what behavior you do want (notice I didn't say what behavior you don't want), communicating that as clearly as you can to the horse, being consistent and fair with the horse ("wait - yesterday I asked and you said that behavior was OK, but today it's not? what do you want?" the horse says), and rewarding the behavior you want. All of these issues are really about defining your personal space so the horse understands that you have boundaries and will abide by them. So here's what I do with my horses in a couple of circumstances - with a couple of stories thrown in:

Leading. I believe in being safe when I lead, and this requires that I establish boundaries for my personal space and make sure that the horse understands what they are. Consistency is really important here - if you don't want your horse to dive for grass when you're leading, don't let the horse do it, even once - otherwise they'll always be hoping there's one more time. When my horses are wearing their halters, they're working and grazing isn't part of the program. My definition of personal space is an arm's-length - the horse is supposed to stay outside that boundary at all times unless I move inside the boundary. Remember - if the horse "asks" if it's OK to bump into you by doing it, and you don't say anything, you've just given the horse a "yes" to the unwanted behavior. The more consistent you can be - this requires close attention, all the time, especially if you're trying to establish a new behavior pattern, and yes that's tiring - the better your horse will understand what you want and be able to comply. If you're inconsistent, and sometimes allow a behavior and sometimes not, that's not fair to the horse, and is a great way to teach the horse to ignore you. Be aware, all the time when you're interacting with a horse, in the stall, when leading and on cross-ties, or whatever you're doing with the horse - every interaction counts - of what the horse is asking and what your (maybe unintentional) answer is. Here are a couple of older posts that contain a lot about what I do when leading:

Treats and Feeding. In my mind, these two things are related - they're both about food and the uses of food. Most horses really care about food, and some horses care even more than others. When feeding hay or grain, if I'm going in the stall, I expect the horse to step back away from the food before I give it, every time. Since I'm consistent, the horses automatically step back as soon as I open the stall door - even the horses who are greedy. Same rules if the horse is in a paddock. If a horse acts up at feeding time - kicking, body-slamming or running teeth up and down the wall - I've learned that sometimes this isn't bad behavior but rather indicates pain from ulcers. Sometimes horses with bad ulcers can become dangerously aggressive when fed, due to the pain, but sometimes serious aggression can be due to other causes.

Same deal on treats. I don't have a strict rule against feeding treats, because sometimes they're useful in training situations, whether you're using clicker or not. Whenever I feed treats, I have rules about how the horse is supposed to act, and I consistently enforce them. Before I feed the treat, I ask the horse to back up a step or two, and then I move to the horse and feed the treat. The horse doesn't come to me, or mug me. I move into the horse's space, the horse doesn't get to choose to move into mine. If your horse is mouthy, it's because he's "asked" and sometimes been told that's OK.

Crabbiness. I think it's important to distinguish between different causes here - some horses are crabby because they hurt and some because they want to express an opinion. Horses can be crabby for grooming, tacking or handling because they hurt - this can be due to ulcers, chiropractic issues relating to muscles or joints, saddle fit issues - the saddle hurts once they're ridden and they're anticipating that, or bit/dental issues that make the bridle uncomfortable or painful. If a horse hurts, it will tell you so, and it's important to listen. Once these things are ruled out, then a horse may be crabby if it's a mare due to heat cycles - some mares experience back pain during their cycles. If this is extreme, it may be necessary to explore some alternatives, like supplements, that may help - I use Mare Magic for my mare Dawn and so far we've had good results. I don't tolerate crabby behavior, although I try to rule out physical issues first. If it isn't a physical issue, it may just be a habit - then there's the old "pointed finger just happening to run into the side of the muzzle" trick - if you can make them think they did it to themselves that may be just the trick to stop nipping. Some horses respond better to reassurance and praise - you need to know the horse and use the appropriate technique.

Jen - hope that gives you some idea of what works for me!


  1. Thanks Kate! Over the past year I became so dissatisfied with the way I had always been taught to interact with & train horses, and finally decided to do what I thought best. My "system" that I've adopted (with much trial & error) is very similar to the way you approach working with your horses, so I was very excited to find your blog! I have seen such a difference in my horse once I started working with him differently. I really appreciate your tips about the pushy horse. Barrett (the Paint) has such personality & character I would hate to see that go away. Now the trick will be to get my husband to interact with him consistently! These are great tips and we will put it into practice. :-)

  2. Good advice. I think most of the problems start, just as you said, by the handler allowing them to. How many times have I seen the handler at a ride letting the horse graze on the lead, then the horse starts to mozey around, which is natural, and the handler is dragged with it. Or, you're on a ride, and the rider with you allows their horse to graze while riding--then, pretty soon, they're yanking their arms off the whole ride to graze--or, something I witnessed this summer--the horse acted like it was going to graze (which she'd allowed the whole darn ride) but instead it lied down!!!! (with her still in the saddle, but having to bail). Hmmmmm....anyway, good advice!

  3. I agree with everything you said. Good job! I especially think we have to look for alternative reasons for a horses behavior (like pain). Some horsemen might think you are looking for an excuse but I think it is simply humane to try to read behavior and find the source of the problem rather than brow beat them in to not expressing it. That is not to say that I let my horse push me around or get in my space because of it but I do try to understand why that horse is being that way rather than ignore it and just treat the reaction. I know a lady who deals in horses and she specifically buys buckers because she gets them SO cheap and 9 times out of 10 they have a saddle fit or back issue. It does take some riding to fix the behavior even after you have fixed the source of the pain because they learn to be pissy because of the pain but forget why they are pissy once you take the pain away. She told me a lot of people that she buys horses off of have tried to treat the back or saddle issue but expected the bucking to go away the same day they took the pain away and it just doesnt work that way.

    Great post!

  4. Well, I still think there's an element of disrespect there, but I think you're right in that it's because the horse has been taught NOT to respect its handler.

    It's one thing that I've always been annoyed with at the barn I'm about to leave -- the barn owner allows the alpha to be pushy and demanding anytime he feeds. I personally think it reinforces his alpha behavior toward the other horses to permit him to get pushy at feeding time. When I've given the horses grain, I always make him step back out of the tack room doorway and follow me to where I put the grain down. And I don't put it down until he's standing quietly, waiting, rather than pushing to get at it.

    Panama has always known that I don't tolerate pushiness. When we first rescued him, he was a yearling and still a pretty mouthy baby, and he very quickly learned that doesn't fly with me. My approach was a smart tap with my finger on his nose every time he tried it. He learned pretty quickly not to bother!

    In fact, the only time I've ever had problems with him mouthing was when the barn owner was letting people feed him through the fence. Heaven only knows how they were doing it, but however it was, it was causing him to be extremely pushy about food. It stopped once the fence-side feedings stopped.

  5. wow Kate, another in depth post!

  6. I know a lot of people enjoy hand grazing their horses. I trained Mosco that he could graze when I gave the command "Graze!" and dropped my hand with the lead toward the grass. Now I can stand with him in a grassy area and have his attention on me because he has clear boundaries about when he can graze. I've found this helpful :)

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  8. Excellent advice, as always. What I always like about your suggestions is that they are practical and easy to understand. These are the kinds of things everyone can do without magic formulas or magic wands.

    Thanks again. Have to remember the treat idea so my Boys don't become muggers.

  9. All good points to consider when dealing with certain horse behavior.

  10. Great points!

    Too many riders aren't consistent about treats (sometimes allowing the horse to mug or search pockets, sometimes not, etc.) and the horse mugs because he has been reinforced for it in the past.

    I find clicker training with treats improves most horses' treat taking manners as it establishes consistent rules about treats that the horse can understand.

    Mary H.

  11. Horses are such "pattern" animals, they really opt for options that give them reward so it is so important to not only be consistent, but also to know when to be "inconsistent" to keep their mind active. Good Post!

  12. Amen, amen, amen.
    I'd like to reiterate that what you get on the ground translates to what you'll get in the saddle. If you insist firmly, clearly, and kindly that your horse respect you on the ground, that mindset becomes normal for all interaction, including riding.

    When I get a horse whose owner is unclear on basic ground rules, I spend time working with the horse on the ground before I ever get in the saddle. The horse needs to know I have different rules. It wouldn't be fair to get on and expect instant mindset change.

    One horse seemed ok on the ground but was a complete bully under saddle. I spent 15 min every day teaching him to 'ground tie'. Once he was square and comfortable, he was not allowed to move one hoof without permission. Smart horse. He got it, but more importantly, it piqued his interest: he enjoyed figuring it out, and voila, he started looking to me for instructions under saddle. All without tension and the bad kind of confrontation. It was "Mother May I?"

    Great post! Such an important concept.
    (sorry about the anonymous: wordpress glitch, it won't let me sign in!)

  13. Great post, Kate! I haven't had as much time this semester as I need to really digest your posts. Your posts are always so well thought out and deserve as much by the reader! I have been rushed lately, but I gave this one a thorough read. We have had great success with our feeding routine lately. When Sovey came he was nasty at feeding time. He plastered his ears and showed his teeth and was "race-track" spoiled. Now, he quietly moves to the side so we can feed him. He is very smart and learn quickly from a consistent KIND approach. Now, we have to reinstate the difference between leading and hand grazing because we have unfortunately blurred those lines. It was all our (human) doing and the horses are confused now. Thanks for the tips!

  14. I enjoyed this post, as usual well written and with excellent insight. I am going to be a lone voice here though and say that I do think horses can and will exhibit a lack of respect. (Of course they also exhibit a lack of understanding thanks to a of consistent training as well but I am making a distinction between the two.)

    I spend hours upon hours observing the horses here. Respect, or maybe deferrment, is a very important part of their herd function. If a horse lower in the pecking order invaded the personal space of a more dominant horse without invitation, they had better heed the warning to back off immediately. If they don't justice is meted out immediately on the spot and it is rarely gentle. There is no escalating of requests or gentle asking before firm asking, it is a command that is to be responded to instantly. So yes, I think respect, or something similar to it, is very much a part of a horse's psyche.

  15. Melissa - I agree with you about the pecking order in horse herds. But I don't think horses think we're other horses, or relate to us that way - we are completely alien to them, as they are to us - I don't think of my horses in human terms at all. We need to find a common language, and although that will draw in part on the behaviors we use with our own species, it really requires a reaching across the gulf from both sides, essentially starting from scratch.

    I also think that too often the term "disrespect" means "I haven't trained my horse and now he's doing something I don't like" which puts the fault on the horse instead of on the person where it belongs.

  16. Kate that might be where we see things differently then. I agree that horses don't think we are other horses, but they still attempt to communicate and interact with us in the only language they know . . . horse language. When I think about a horse showing a lack of respect or not I don't attribute that to a human emotion but something I see horses exhibiting amongst themselves in their herds. I do agree that it is up to us to learn how to relate to them in a way they understand, which in my mind involves watching herds of horses as often as possible to learm how they communicate with each other. Then we can attempt to use that as a bridge to a common training ground between horse and human.

  17. Melissa - only the horses know for sure!

  18. That is the truth! I hope that when my time comes and I am hopefully lucky enough to join my animals on the other side that this bright light will shine on me and I will have all of these epiphanies about the many conversations the horses and I have had over the years. "So THAT is what you were trying to tell me!" No doubt I will have been wrong waaaaay more often than I was right in my interpretations!


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