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Aggressive Behaviour

16 August 2011 No Comment

Aggressive Behaviour
Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

From: Michelle Jordan

I am an adult rider who started riding a little over 2 years ago. I Recently purchased my first horse in August. He’s a 10 year old quarter horse gelding who is an absolute joy to ride and really giving and caring when you are in the saddle. We ride in the hunter ring and he is willing and eager to please and takes care of me over every course. However, he has terribly bad manners on the ground and in his stall. I am at my wits end trying to win his trust. When I, or anyone for that matter, brush him or even touch him sometimes he pins his ear all the way back and tries to bite or put his shoulder in to you to pin you to a wall. He has kicked out on several occasions but not often. I correspond with the person that I bought him from and to her knowledge he has never been abused and she said that he behaved like that with her as well.

He seems not to trust anyone on when they are on the ground around him. But he does allow you to handle him once you establish that he has no choice but to be brushed or saddled or even stroked. When I greet him in his stall her comes to me for his carrot with his ears forward but as soon as I try to pet him he spins, pins his ears and turns his back to me.

I cannot understand how he can be so wonderful when I am riding and so awful on the ground. Some days are better than others. I have tried everything to help with this problem, playing games with him, massage etc. I do no twant to resort to anything harsh but that seems to be the only thing he responds to.

I have been asking myself all of the questions…is he unhappy in the barn he where he is boarded, should I move his stall away from his next door neighbor that nasty mare, should I change his feed, is this physical or psychological?

Do I just have a crabby horse that is a bully? He has been checked out by a vet and we cannot find anything physically wrong with him.

I have trained dogs before with bad behavior and I have always been successful in “breaking through” to them and creating a mutually trusting relationship in which the animal respects me.

I love this horse and want to help him to learn that I am not the enemy. What can I do?


Michelle Jordan

Hi Michelle, Interesting question. I’m looking at it from a few different angles and here’s what I come up with in the way of suggestions.

You said that you have had your gelding checked out by a vet, but I think that I would take it a step further and enlist the observation and advice of an equine chiropractor. While I am of the belief that some horses are “just plain ticklish” and don’t really enjoy being groomed because of this, sometimes there can be problems with a horse that have their origin in a horse being in physical pain because they are out of alignment. Unless your vet has also studied chiropractic, they could be missing something in that respect. So, this would be my starting point to rule out any physical problems.

If everything checks out O.K. in that area, then I would start to look at your horse’s environment that he lives in the most hours per day. If your horse is stabled next to a “nasty mare” as you wrote, his environment is somewhat negative. It’s kind of like if we live in an environment of negativity or work in that environment, it feels like you have a dark cloud hanging over your head and it makes everything less joyful and more depressing. When you show up to interact, he may initially be happy, but after the treat is handed to him, he regresses back into negativity because that’s where he lives many hours a day and he can’t just snap out of it just because you arrive at the barn. If he could be stabled in a bright, cheerful environment without a negative acting horse by him all the time, his disposition might become sunnier.

Here’s another thought regarding similar behavior that I have encountered with horses that have come into training with me: some horses that are exceptionally well-trained under saddle have not had the benefit of a close relationship with a human at the ground level. Things have always been expected of them under saddle, as if they are just a vehicle for the human to achieve in whatever area they choose. Humans have never had a use for them at the ground level, so the horse either doesn’t want to be bothered by humans at that level, they see the ground interaction as a mere formality before they are ridden and worked, or they simply don’t understand a human wanting to be partners with them at the ground level. No one has taken the time to be their friend and not expect anything from them. I live in an area where if you don’t have an indoor arena, not much under saddle training will be taking place for a period of 2-4 months. That being the case, my students are highly encouraged to come out and just “be” with their horses. Sit in their corral or paddock with them, talk to them, sit and read a book, basically just “hang out” together. This is how I “gentle” the BLM Mustangs that I adopt. I spend time just hanging out, not asking them to do anything and developing our relationship into a “herd of two”.

I also utilize modified clicker training with all of the horses that I train, but most especially with horses that have “issues”. From having trained dogs, you are probably familiar with clicker training. What you could do with your gelding is begin rewarding for the positives that he does at the ground level. I don’t use a clicker, I use the word “good” to mark the positive behavior, followed by a food reward or a scratching reward at their favorite spot. Your horse will probably respond better to the food rewards because he doesn’t like the touching right now. Begin by saying “good” for ears up and then give him his treat. If he then turns and walks away, then just be patient, call him again and as soon as he responds with approach and ears up, say ‘good” and treat. He wouldn’t be rewarded for approach with ears back or retreating, only for the positives. After a while, he will try to do the positives that earn him the word “good” and reward. It’s not bribery if the horse offers the positive behavior and is then rewarded for the positive behavior.

If, as I suspect, your horse sees ground handling (grooming most especially) as a prelude to being ridden and “working”, quality time spent at the ground level not expecting anything of him other then just “being” with him will go a long way toward him really believing that you do want to be friends and partners with him at the ground level and you are not just “using” him as a vehicle for your pleasure. He’s good under saddle because he knows his “job” well and performs, but he needs to believe that you really can be trusted as a friend who really does value him as more then just a riding “machine”. This approach will take a lot of patience on your part and also require that you be very consistent and not give up on him if he doesn’t respond in days or weeks, but given time (months), I believe that your gelding will start to see you as “friend” and will learn to trust you as a partner too. You sound like just the kind of person that your gelding needs in his life; someone that wants to have a “meshing of your spirits”.

Good Luck!
Laura Phelps-Bell

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