Whether a behavior is acceptable or not is largely subjective. What you may allow I will not however there are some universal behaviors that are not ok and some ways to decide what is and is not. It is important that no matter what you decide you stay consistent so that you do not confuse the horse. We will also discuss ways to prevent and deal with these behaviors.
Let’s start with some universal bad behaviors. We will work our way from head to tail.
At the head:
One of the most important of these behaviors will be biting. I will define biting as any laying of the teeth on you. I am using this definition because how close you allow it to get to this is one of the subjective behaviors that we will discuss later. Although it isn’t exactly biting I am also going to include the baring of teeth here. This is a precursor to biting and should be dealt with immediately and swiftly.
Also at the head is pinning of ears. Ear pinning is aggressive like biting and bared teeth and should not be allowed to progress to a physically harmful behavior like biting, rearing, kicking, etc. If your horse suddenly begins pinning his ears double check that it is not a response to pain somewhere. As soon as pain is ruled out you can treat it solely as a behavioral issue. Remember to notice the difference between turning the ears back in a manner that means they are paying attention to something behind them and actual pinning.
Issues at the head should be dealt with without striking the head. Striking the horse’s head will only succeed in causing the horse to be head-shy and lead to more issues. There are a few very effective ways of handling these issues and you can choose one or all of them, whatever you are comfortable with and works for you and your horse. The first and my favorite is to fling your hands and make loud, angry noise. Do this just enough to startle their head off of you and only within 3 seconds and for 3 seconds. If you miss this window you miss your opportunity. The 3 seconds really applies to all of the methods for correction we will be discussing. Another method for dealing with these problems can be a quick slap on the neck, never the head and only once. Do not allow your anger to take over. You can include a loud, sharp “no” sound just don’t use the word “no” because it sounds too much like “whoa” and be sure to be consistent with the noise you choose. Another method, if appropriate, would be to send the horse off and make them work. Horses are inherently lazy animals and would rather save their energy for a time when they want to use it. Movement is a very powerful tool that we will use to correct many different behaviors and that is used in the herd quite often as well.
As we move back on the horse let’s address snaking the neck as an absolute no. Snaking is also aggressive in the horse’s language and should be dealt with as soon as any sign is made that the horse will do it. Remember to try to catch the thought before the action happens, you will be much more effective in dealing with the behaviors by doing this. Snaking will look like it sounds. They will drop their head, point the nose and wobble their neck and head back and forth like a snake slithering along the ground. This is an action they use to drive off offending members of the herd or even threatening perceived predators (dogs, humans, other animals, etc.). The most effective method I have found for snaking is work. Move those feet and make sure you change the direction their feet are moving as well as the speed. Your loud “no” noise will also come in handy if they know what it means. This is easiest done in the round pen or other small enclosed area and usually only crops up when doing this type of work in the first place.
Rearing is a huge problem and I highly recommend that if this is an issue you are having or begin having you should find a professional to work with you and your horse to not only correct the behavior but also find the cause of the behavior and assist you in correcting that as well. Rearing can be extremely dangerous to you or any other person or animal nearby. I will stress that this is really an issue to be handled with a trainer but I will offer some suggestions to go along with it. I do not use a chain to fix this problem because it never really gets fixed. This is one of those things that knowing the reason is very helpful in fixing it because it is usually something the handler is doing that is causing the horse to react in such a way. Rope halters are a fantastic tool that I use every day on every horse and is very effective in helping with this issue. Start teaching the horse to drop his head at the stand still when you apply light downward pressure on the lead. Be sure to release the pressure as soon as you get a downward movement from the horse so that he knows what you want from him. Also begin asking him to lead at or behind your shoulder using a lot of stop, back and walk on every time he gets ahead of your shoulder. Don’t be afraid to use a quick and firm pop on the rope if he doesn’t stop when you do. This won’t hurt but it will reinforce the cue of your feet stopping. Then ask for him to lead with is head below the level of your shoulder/his withers, whichever is lower. This is a calming position for the horse and affords you greater control over their front end. It will also help keep their front end from getting light enough to rear.
Another issue around here is not standing still when required. This can be when just standing around with your horse or at the hitching rail. It can also be when mounting, saddling or blanketing. When we want the horses feet to move they should move but otherwise their feet should remain still. Again, this is an issue of safety but also of respect and trust. If our horses respect and trust us they will remain still and calm even if there is something spooky going on. Taking care of this issue is going to make many aspects of your interaction and the interaction of others (such as the hoof care professional and vet) easier and safer. By far the best remedy I have found is that the moment they even lift a foot out of turn, disengage their hips or otherwise move their feet then ask them to stop and stand again. If they don’t stop when you ask them to go back to work and then give them another opportunity. Within a few repetitions you will find your horse standing still longer and longer each time. You can also do this at liberty in the pen. You can ask them to move their feet and then to whoa and stand, you don’t need to be connected to them to make your point.
The only huge problem I have with the back end of a horse is kicking. We all know how dangerous this can be and how disrespectful and aggressive it is. This is one of those behaviors that I won’t even allow them to raise a hind foot out of turn. Any such action is swiftly dealt with by the “no” sound and movement. The best movement is disengaging the hips when close or when lunging/round penning they have to work harder and do more turns. The changing of direction is very important because it shows the horse that you are in control of his feet and therefore you are in control of him. Control of a horse’s feet corresponds with control of his mind. You can’t physically overpower a horse so you must do it mentally.
Making a list:
Those other behaviors that come in between all of those discussed above are the subjective ones. These are things like lipping things, playing with the rope, etc. In order to be consistent with which of these you will allow and which you will not I suggest you sit down at the table or your desk and put some thought into a Do and Don’t list. Keep this list easily accessible so you can add to it or change it as needed. Read it over a few times a day until you have it memorized. These behaviors are going to be handled in the same ways as those above but since the behavior is subjective I can not be specific. You will need to use your best judgment and trial and error to figure out which method works best and any changes you can make in those methods to make it work better for you and your horse.
A few things I would like you to keep in mind are to be consistent, be firm, try to be proactive rather than reactive, implement the correction within 3 seconds and for no more than 3 seconds and to remember that nothing happens over night. The problem didn’t start overnight and the fix won’t happen over night. Be patient and if you are getting frustrated or angry please either step back until you are calmer or end the session and come back another day. Frustration and anger only lead to more frustration and anger for you and the horse.
Good luck and stay safe.
Contributed By: Julie Ridley