Teeth and hooves: working with the aggressive horse

One of the hardest things for people to grapple with is the fact that their horse is not always nice. I talk about good behavior and model that for the horse, but sometimes the horse does not exhibit good behavior in spite of all the modeling. Sometimes we get a dose of teeth and hooves.

meanhorse

Teeth and hooves are a horse’s weapons. When they are in the wild, what they can do to protect themselves is bite and kick, and buck, but probably bite and kick comes first.

IMG_2917Many of the horses that come through Liberty Foundations are horses who have been in some way mistreated, or do not take to basic natural horsemanship methods, which are totally accepted in the world of horse training. These horses generally have a strong flight mechanism. Every once in awhile one comes through who is aggressive and whose desire to fight back is very strong. It doesn’t mean she is mean or nasty; the behavior is borne out of fear.

Although the same principles of kindness and trust building apply with an aggressive horse, we as horse people must treat the horse carefully in order to not get hurt. Our senses must become heightened to every nuance of that horse, and be able to tell when he has had enough, when he is ready to turn his teeth to you, when he is ready to kick out.SHR_Sandra_Yeager1

I really believe that unless a horse has been mishandled by humans they will not become this way. I’ve also heard of some wild horses on the range who are this way without ever meeting humans. We should also take into consideration physical problems that may not be immediately evident, and don’t show up on standardized tests.

What this horse needs to encounter in humans is absolute kindness, firmness, and no equivocation. Flexibility has to be carefully handled. Often what’s unfortunate is that the horse has taken on human characteristics of I win, you lose, in interactions, which put the human at a disadvantage because we are not as physically strong as the horse and the horse knows it. Also, in the end, that kind of approach has no place in relationship building.

PatchesteethA big horse can use his size to intimidate humans. He can behave as though he is being attacked by a mountain lion and come at you with bared teeth or striking hooves.

With most horses I stand my ground in order to show that I’m not moving for him. The ground I stand on is mine. As one trainer recently said, “he who moves the feet wins.” With a horse like this, I choose my ground very carefully, and then I want to quit working before I see the flames coming out of his ears. I want to make a point to never get to that tipping point where he might shift into the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality and come after me. I must be strong to work with this horse. I cannot have any physical or mental weaknesses or space-out moments. Any doubt has to be banished from my thoughts.

This really requires fine tuning of personal dimensions and being aware of every dimension in the horse too.

Here are some tips I have found helpful:

  • Stay outside the corral or arena until you are certain the horse is not going to be dangerous. This could take an hour or six months, maybe more.
  • Get the horse thoroughly checked out physically by a vet. If that doesn’t reveal anything, have a bodyworker work with the horse on a regular basis to help dispel trauma and calm reactive reflexes.
  • Use the same Liberty Foundations, but always keep in mind to not drill the horse and tailor what you introduce to what the horse can manage.
  • Remain very present, with all your senses alive.
  • Keep enough space between you and the horse to remain safe.
  • If a horse tends to become angry if you make eye contact, approach him while eating, or move him from behind, or asking him to come to you, don’t do those things until you feel that forceful energy in him completely dissipate.
  • Be aware of the horse with a short fuse. Always cease an activity before the horse reacts negatively if you can, or what we perceive as negatively.SHR_Amy_Yeager
  • In many horse training methods that employ a round pen, the horse is taught to face the person once he has been run around the perimeter of the pen. This can be especially dangerous with a horse that charges. The horse can come in and charge the person in the center. Make sure the horse’s energy is quiet and non-pushy before asking him to come to you.
  • In liberty we are not driving the horse when we get behind, but he often interprets it like the round pen experience at first. When we ask the horse to move off, we want the horse’s return to us to be voluntary and soft with connection, not challenging.
  • Find what pleases the horse or engages her curiosity and stop the activity before she gets bored.

With this we are working toward building longer and longer windows of connection with the horse, so that the unwanted behaviors will fall away. That is the simplistic view and with an aggressive horse, it can be more involved because we have to get very creative and stay in the moment and keep all our senses alive.

Some horses get triggered by making eye contact with a human. Some are very proprietary around food. In these cases try to work without eye contact and without food until this type of behavior goes away.

The aggressive horse is not for everyone. In some horses, behavior can shift in the blink of an eye, often faster than we can predict. In hindsight, I can usually tell where the shift was happening and I should have stopped working sooner. The more attuned the trainer is to the horse, the better chance there is that she can see the signs of upcoming behavior and stop or shift gears before it escalates.

Each personality is clearly different, so different rules may apply for some. Stay safe and clear of teeth and hooves!

Copyright (c) Susan Smith

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