Yesterday we had a really interesting lesson. One of the horses I’ve been working with seemed to have taken a leap backwards in his training. Suddenly pushy all over again, to the point he was even swinging his butt at his owner and raised a leg once. Obviously that needed to be nipped in the bud, but something was really irking me. WHY was this horse who had come so far and who was usually so docile suddenly displaying aggressive behaviors?
On talking with his owner, I discovered she had apparently ridden his pasture mate recently - a mare who she hasn’t worked with in quite some time. This mare, in general, pushes the horse I had been working with around when it comes to food and other resources. I suspect that he felt the status quo had changed, and wanted to test whether boundaries had been re-established.
To be clear - horses do not have a “hierarchy” in the traditional sense of the word. That’s an outdated concept that science has shown time and time again to be inaccurate. HOWEVER, horses *are* creatures of habit. They like routine. They understand which fights are worth picking for an extra bite of food, and which aren’t.
All of a sudden, his routine had changed. The human was bossing around this mare that normally bossed him. Does this mean he has a chance at giving direction? Maybe he should give it a shot?
By the end of the lesson, he had discovered perhaps raising a leg was a mistake. We also uncovered some additional apprehension about his “off side”, and worked through it on the lunge line. I’ll be honest with you - it wasn’t pretty. He ran around like a chicken with his head cut off on the line for about 10 minutes. Not because I was pushing him, but instead because he wanted to try and get me off of his “off side”. He had succeeded in simply cutting in front of his owner and was quite content to do so. I didn’t let him do this or push me around, so he tried to run to put distance. Once he started to calm himself and come back down to earth, not only did he get a big break, but also lots of reward. He needed to conclude for himself that that was a fight he didn’t want to pick.
I probably could have beat the snot out of him to make that clear. Instead, I simply made it quite clear that I was not intimidated, and he would not dictate where I stood. Once he came to that conclusion on his own, he went back to positive, docile, and relaxed. His status quo was back to normal. He understood what was going to happen and he was okay with it.
Simple punishment for this breeds resentment. Taking away his right to say “hey I don’t like this” creates an untrusting horse. Allowing him to not only express his distaste (albeit in a manner not dangerous for humans) let him decide that he was content with how things are. Have you ever encountered a horse suddenly becoming aggressive? Was there a social cause? Comment below!
Little Note: You should of course always look for causes of pain first. I had ruled that out as best I could, which is why we started discussing other potential causes (because, quite frankly, it was just weird to me). This behavioral change had occurred immediately after the ride of the other mare, so it seemed the most closely related, and explanation that made the most sense.