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Teaching a Young Horse Boundaries

18 August 2011 No Comment

Teaching a Young Horse Boundaries
by Lynn McEnespy

A riders asks Lynn McEnespy how to teach a young horse “respect” on the ground and to not use her as his “play toy.”

Lynn

I have an 18-month-old gelding that I have had since he was 5 months old. He was raised in the pasture with a quiet, older gelding. He is really a fairly calm-natured little sweetie. I have recently moved him to a pasture by himself for training purposes to have his sole attention, with no distractions. So far it’s worked very well. He is very attentive to me and eager to do what I ask. We mostly work on ground manners with some light lungeing. Lately however, he has developed the irritating, and potentially dangerous habit of running past me and kicking up his heels as he does. I realize that he is being playful with me, but very possibly testing me as well. He has also, a couple of times, turned his rear to him when herding me hasn’t worked. (This happens as we are walking into the barn together.) A friend suggested carrying my crop and popping his butt when he does that but I have my doubts. What suggestions do you have?

Thank you, Shawn Brabham

Dear Rider:

Hi Shawn,

Since your youngster does not have anyone else to play with in terms of horsy friends, he’s choosing you as his playmate. He’s simply acting like a young horse and is seeking an outlet for his playtime and although the older gelding may not have played much with him, any kind of playing was in fact better than nothing at all. He’s now shifting his focus to you and it is time for you to teach him what is acceptable and what is not when interacting with humans because even though what he is doing is just play, a well-placed kick could really hurt, or kill, you. Although I’m sure your youngster wouldn’t mean for anything bad to happen to you because he does sound sweet, you’d be injured or dead just the same. As the self-appointed leader in this twosome, you have a responsibility to provide leadership in a consistent, clear, confident way and to teach mutual respect so that you may then have trust as well. Only then can we go on to having a “true” friendship with our horse.

I call what I do with all horses “positioning” because that’s exactly what horse’s do with each other. Anytime we interact with horses, we are “positioning” ourselves (the horse and us) in whatever spot we need to be in to work in harmony, partnership, and also safety for us. Often, when watching my Mustang mares interact, I’ve noticed we have the clear, consistent and confident leader, but every so often, another mare might attempt to “re-shuffle-the-deck” and change her positioning in the herd. The leader mare usually very clearly and quickly “explains” things to the other mare about their “positions”, maybe by body language and expression, or maybe with a kick or a bite, and then all is well again because the other mare again knows what her position is in their herd.

Horses do the same thing when interacting with us. Quite often, the mutual respect is in place, with the human in the position of leader and the horse very high up in the chain-of-command, but right below us. However, every so often once again, the horse may decide that they wish to re-position themselves in our twosome, or “herd-of-two”, and then it is up to us to clearly and quickly let them know that we are not interested in giving up our leader position. Most horses just kind of shrug and go “oh, ok, just thought I’d try” and then everyone resumes the harmonic relationship. However, if the human isn’t confident, clear and consistent on “explaining” to the horse that they aren’t interested in giving up the leader role when the horse makes a slight indication in that direction, the horse takes that as a signal that they may be able to “re-shuffle the deck” and will become persistent in their attempts. Being confident, consistent and very clear are the keys toward harmony and if the human isn’t willing to take the top-spot by exercising those qualities, the horse will take that spot instead. It’s usually not a big deal to horses whether they are first or second in their interactions with humans, but if the human is wishy-washy and the lines are wavery regarding their leadership, the horse will become insecure and disrespectful of someone that isn’t being confident and they will take over. There must be social order for the horse to feel secure.

Horses know that I’m not a horse and I know they’re not a human, but we still have our “positions” in our herd during interaction. Starting when they’re babies, (which is the position you are in now with your gelding), they learn the horsy social order from the other horses (as when your youngster was a baby with his mommy and then with the older gelding), including how it works with adults, their playmates, horses younger then they are, etc. They learn how to play, how to show respect, what happens when they don’t show respect, etc. Our job as the leader-human is to teach them the human social order. The acceptable and unacceptable behaviors when they are around humans. After all, horses find themselves living in two societies containing different acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. The most well adjusted horses I know are the ones who get along well with other horses (either in with them, or living beside them) because they were raised until a decent age with other horses (hopefully until at least two, but longer if possible), and horses that also know the rules when around humans. But just like when a horse is with other horses, they do seek to establish their “position” when with humans. That’s where I feel the genetics of the herd instinct comes into play with them. It doesn’t matter to them that you’re not a horse. What matters to them is their “position” when around you. If you are confident, clear, consistent and the horse respects you, you will take the top-spot. If you lack the above, the horse will seek to take the top-spot. Very cut-and-dried to them I believe.

Every single colt I’ve raised has never been a problem with nipping, pushiness or aggressiveness of any kind and I’ve not taught them to behave by continuously smacking them, yelling at them or anything. It just takes once or twice of being clear and consistent and they know what’s OK with me, and what is not. They are raised with other babies and adults and are taught things by them, and they also have an outlet to “be a horse” and play and engage in rough-play, so that when I take them out (or go in the corrals with them) and interact, they are more focused toward learning what I’m teaching about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. I can run and play with groups of my horses and they don’t buck and kick my direction because they’ve been taught that “mommy-leader” doesn’t like that and they will get in trouble (maybe BIG trouble!) if they do it. That trouble from me might come in the form of me using a driving whip as an extension of my arm and hand so that I may correct them by “tagging” them with a stinging touch if they kick at me as they go by, or if they disrespect me by presenting me with their backside. If I do “tag” them, they will probably behave in a fearful or anxious way for a few moments, but believe me, since I am in fact a great source of fun and reward for them (lot’s of scratchies in the youngsters favorite places!), they approach, stop at a distance and “ask” me with their body language if they may return to be with me. Since I’ve at that point already did what I needed to do by “tagging” them, I of course invite them back. However, sometimes you must be prepared to follow through with a reminder that kicking at the human-leader is never acceptable. Be aware, be consistent and clear and then welcome them back after you’ve imposed a negative and they will learn readily what is acceptable and what most certainly is not. It’s developing the awareness and timing to apply negatives, and most certainly to apply positives, that is important during interaction with your horse. You’re raising a child (although a large, potentially harmful child), so you must act in a way that is responsible AND fair to the child.

What a horse will learn from you being consistent, clear, direct and confident is that if they feel the need to run and buck and kick out at others, they know its acceptable to do so when playing with other horses, not with the breakable and fragile human who happens to be leader. I guess what I’m saying is that I respect the horses and what they are capable of because of their size, strength and instincts, and they respect me because I’m always consistent in my “positioning” within the herd that we form with our twosome, even though they of course know I’m not a horse.

I would offer one more suggestion: if you can, perhaps you could move him back in with the older, gentle gelding. Although you can form a good and respectful bond and interact effectively with your gelding even though he is kept by himself, horses are herd animals and when you are not out there interacting with him, the older gelding will provide horsy social interaction and companionship. Although the gelding is older, he may also provide just enough stimulation and receptiveness that it would take the more rough-play-edge off your young gelding. He can then be taught by you the difference between playing around humans, what is acceptable and what is not, and playing with other horses that won’t get hurt as easily by a kick or bite from him. The older gelding will also put him in his place if necessary and teach him about respect.

By providing your youngster with clear and consistent boundaries and social standards when interacting with humans, you will develop mutual respect, understanding and trust which then opens the door and invites a “true” friendship. The foundation is respect and the structure that is built upon it is made of understanding, trust, affection and friendship.

Good luck and have fun with your youngster!

Lynn McEnespy

To learn more about Lynn McEnespy click here.

To submit a question to Lynn, write to her at AskLynn@TodaysHorse.com.

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