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
I have a two-year old QH filly. She is good natured most of the time. There have been times though that for no reason she will actually come at me with her ears laid back and she actually charges me. I have been able to block her and it seems that the time between incidents has increased. I just feel at this time that she can not be trusted behind me. I know if she felt like it she would charge me for what appears to be no reason. If you have any suggestions I would appreciate any help.
It sounds like overall your filly is a nice horse. However, she is probably a little confused regarding her “positioning” and yours is in your “herd-of-two”. You may not notice it, but she probably does give some subtle signs and signals before she acts aggressively and in reality, she does have a reason for acting the way she does; she’s working on her “positioning” in your twosome herd. Its the “rules” that horses instinctively live by; herd hierarchy and the “pecking order”. If for the most part she is good-natured and polite during your interaction but every so often she acts aggressive, what this tells me is that the “lines-of-leadership” are a little wavey between you two. She is not absolutely, positively sure that you are in fact the leader in your herd, so from time to time she tries to “reshuffle-the-deck” regarding the pecking order. She works off of whatever response that she gets from you in regard to her being aggressive. So far, you have been effective in “blocking her” (you don’t say what you mean by “blocking her”) and she is responding to this by having longer lengths of time between incidents. What concerns me is that she is still challenging you at all. I feel that horses learn best when the lines are not wavey in terms of what our positions in our twosome-herd are and also regarding what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in our relationship. The boundaries or parameters are not clear to your filly on this issue yet, otherwise she wouldn’t be exhibiting this behavior from time-to-time. It is your responsibility to make things clear through your direct and consistent response. Obviously, charging at you is not acceptable behavior and your filly needs to learn this once and for all. The fact that she does it at all tells me that she is not convinced that you are in fact the confident leader. She is interacting with you as she probably would with another horse her own age; as a playmate and as her equal. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with being very friendly with our horses. I am great friends with all of my horses, I play with them, interact at liberty with them (even to the point where I ride my Mustang mare Scarlett with no tack or equipment on her), mosey around their living areas fixing fences, give them their goodies, scratch their favorite spots, etc. However, all of my horses know that I am the leader and as such, they treat me with respect even as we interact in a friendly way. This means that they don’t bite me, charge at me, invade my space, kick me, etc. They acknowledge that the final word is mine and they “listen” to me and they know that certain behaviors are never OK with “the two-legs” (me).
As I said, I don’t know what you mean when you say you’ve been able to “block” your filly, but it may be time to “turn-up-the-heat” and be absolutely direct with her in regard to the issue of being aggressive and charging. Horses are perfectly direct with one another and its what horses understand; no wavey lines. It is NEVER acceptable for your filly to charge you. Not today, not tomorrow, not six months from now, never. If a behavior such as charging takes place and catches you by surprise (although, horses usually do give us warning if you know what to watch for) then all you can do at that moment is maybe wave your arms, yell at them, throw dirt at them, or whatever it takes at that moment to protect yourself from harm. Now that you know what she is capable of, I’d be prepared to settle this once and for all. I would start carrying a dressage whip (most are about 36-39″ long) in my back pocket or tucked into my jeans and just go about my business in her corral. The next time your filly charges at you, or even shows signs of being aggressive by invading your space with her ears back, turning her rump around toward you, etc, I’d use the whip as an extension of my arm and I’d tag her a good one and tell her “NO” in a deep, gruff voice and run her off from you. Make sure that you stay out of harms way if you tag her because she may retaliate by kicking before she runs away. If she were to demonstrate this behavior in a herd of horses, the leader horse, or a horse higher up in the pecking order, would give her a good kick in the face, so anything that you do is not going to hurt her. I don’t advocate beating up on horses, but if they show me that they are willing to mow me down and my lesser responses are not convincing them that I’m serious that their behavior is unacceptable, then all bets are off and I “turn-up-the-heat” and escalate my response up to a new level. As soon as I’ve given my response, I leave it alone and continue going about my business. If your filly wants to be accepted back into your twosome herd, then she needs to “ask” if its OK to come back by walking up politely with her ears forward. When she approaches you that way, pet her and scratch her in her favorite spots, tell her she’s a “good girl” and move on with your relationship. You can also rub her all over with the whip to show her that the whip is not any more “evil” then your hand would be if you had just slapped her with it. You were just doing what was necessary at that moment and you used the whip as an extension of your arm to keep yourself a little distance away so as to stay safe. She will now have a very direct response from you as a point to interact from. She’ll be thinking “wow, she sure did get pissy when I did that and OUCH, that stinging on my chest kind of hurt! Maybe I better not do that again. Darn, sometimes these “two-legs” (humans in horse-speak) have no sense of humor!”. She may try the behavior again before she is fully convinced that you are in fact serious about the unacceptability of charging, so be prepared to repeat your response with maybe a little harder tag. If she’s overall a good-natured gal (which it sounds like she is), she may just decide that your positions in your twosome herd are crystal clear now and she may never charge you again. Depends on the horse and how long the behavior has been going on.
Some of the horses that I get in for training have atrocious ground-level manners and that is my starting point with every horse: ground level interaction. If we develop a relationship of mutual respect and trust at the ground level first, then everything that comes after will always be much easier then if you don’t have a positive relationship on the ground. Humans get in too much of a hurry to ride and neglect the very basics of interaction with horses; that of ground level interaction, where the “true” bond begins. I believe that overall your filly sounds like a good girl, she’s just a little confused about your “positioning” in your twosome herd and she needs for you to take the leadership roll and be more direct. Remember too that after you do a negative (like tagging her with the whip) follow-through with a positive (like scratching her in her favorite spots and praising her) when you get a positive response from her. We are seeking to develop a bond and partnership with our horses, one of mutual trust and respect. You have a responsibility to uphold in this relationship, as does your filly. Currently, she is not acting like a partner that you can trust to turn your back on, and because respect and trust go hand-in-hand, she’s falling somewhat short in a few areas. By taking the positive steps toward becoming a direct, confident, clear and secure leader, you will give her clear, not wavey, boundaries and parameters of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and only then will you develop a “true” bond of mutual trust and respect.