Your Horse is Spoiled

Do you...

If you do any of these things, you're guilty of contributing to the delinquency of your horse or mule.

In other words, you're spoiling him. Yes, that's right, I said you're spoiling him. It's hard to hear, I know. I'm guilty of it at times, too. We all are. Admitting you have a problem is the first step. Right? So now that we've got it out in the open, what's the next step?

It's time to make him responsible for his own actions. As your horse or mule, he has certain obligations to you, just as you are obligated to feed, water, shelter and not mistreat him, his job is to not mistreat you.

This means he must respect your space and not:

crowd you,
push you around with his space or his body,
bite you,
kick you,
pull you,
threaten you,
ignore you,
step on you,
run away from you,
run over you,
bully you,
try to take food from you,
frisk you for treats,
chew on you or your belongings,
or lose his mind and run off to Crazy Town when you are riding him.

It is your job not to allow him to do these things. How do you allow them? Here are a few examples of ways you might be encouraging the bad behavior without realizing it.

  1. Your horse swings his body towards you and you jump out of the way.

    Yes, I know, you don't want to get stepped on. None of us do and that's why we often unwittingly teach our horses that they are the one in control. Horses naturally push each other around; it's how they decide who's the boss in any given situation. Did you catch that? That's how they decide who is boss. The horse that moves (gives in) first is the loser. Now, if it's a matter of getting squashed, by all means, get out of the way, but then make him move. It's even better if you can make a habit of having him move away from you, or of standing your ground and making him move after he presses into you. Young horses should be taught that it's okay for you to touch them all over and lean against their hips and backsides so they won't get upset when you bump into them in a stall or other closed in area.
  2. Your mule comes up and starts pushing on you with his nose and you start fussing with him.

    You're standing there talking with your buddies and ol' Rawhide starts working you over all friendly-like with his nose. You keep talking but slap at him half-heartedly. Rawhide ducks the slaps but comes right back. Next he starts lipping at your shirt, pulling and pushing at you and finally painfully nipping your arm. You shriek and slap at him again but before long he comes right back, his efforts now even more intense but still playful. Surely, you see where this is going. By slapping at his face, you've responded like another horse that is playing. You've just made "Make the human dance" into a great game that many equines just love to play. I swear I've seen horses and mules make bets on who can get their owner to act the silliest. Teaching your horse to respect your personal space will put an end to his manipulative antics.

    An immediate method would be instead of slapping at him, calmly take his face in your hands and start rubbing it all over. Do this vigorously, but not aggressively. The goal is to "love him half to death" until he gets fed up with it and decides he'd rather just keep his nose to himself. If you give him this treatment everytime he starts irritating you, pretty soon he'll start minding where he puts that nose and will keep it out of range.
  3. You're feeding and he comes up and starts kicking the feeder.
    As you get closer he shakes his head and threatens you, kicking the wall and getting louder and more obnoxious until you hurry up and throw the food in.

    To me, nothing is more irritating than feeding and having a horse throw a fit to get me to hurry up. I understand they get excited about feeding time, but that's no excuse to be a rude, demanding pain in the rear about it.

    One way to get them to behave at feeding time is to make a habit of not putting the food in until they back away from the feeder and stand quietly. The first day or two may take a little time, but once they understand that NO food will be delivered until they back off and behave, it's amazing how sweet and polite they can become. You may have to use a flag-stick or whip to chase them back away from the food the first time. As soon as they back off and look at you, take the pressure off to let them know they only have to stay there. When they come towards the feeder, send them back again until they get it. You can use a word like "OK" to let them know it's alright to come eat, or you can just pour the feed in and walk away. It's up to you to decide what level of obedience suits you. I use this with dogs that are bullies about eating, as well for ones who rush out open doors. I teach the command "Wait" and don't let them go until they are released with another verbal command. The level of response you want is purely up to you and what makes you comfortable and happy.
  4. You're riding along and see a ditch drain that you think will frighten your mount,
    so you start preparing for the worst by tensing up, pulling back on the reins and watching the drain.

    Well, unfortunately, by focusing on it and "preparing" you've just put her on High Alert. You might as well be blowing a bullhorn and sounding sirens because your body language is screaming "DANGER! DANGER AHEAD!" And believe me, she is hearing it loud and clear. A better way to handle these situations would be to remain calm, take a few deep, slow breaths and blow them out forcibly as you relax your body and make sure your weight is balanced. Keep your horse or mule moving forward but be ready to ask her to move sideways if she starts looking at the object and spooking. Some people allow their mount to look at scary objects on the trail until they calm down, but keeping them moving with their hips disengaged is generally a lot safer. I've seen horses and mules that refuse to move until they've stared at something for what seems like half a day. They become obsessive about staring at every little thing that catches their (or their rider's) attention. I don't know about you, but I find that really annoying. Plus, while they are standing there staring at the imagined Boogeyman, their rider usually has them pulled up into a collected body position perfectly positioned to rear, buck, run off, or all of the above. If you've ever had a horse go from standing stock-still staring off into the distance to instantly flipping over backwards onto you (I have) then you know that's not something you ever want to happen again.

    A safer method of dealing with the spooky animal is to teach hindquarter disengagement. Now, most everyone has heard the term, but you may not really understand what it means. It's easier to show you than explain, but I'll give it a try. Picture yourself standing there on the ground and your animal walking towards you. All four of his feet are landing on two lines or tracks. The right rear foot follows the right front, and the left rear foot follows the left front. Picture a train track. It's the same principle. He is walking straight forwards.

    Now, what would happen if something pushed her hip to the side as she continued to walk straight forward? One of her back feet would cross over the other. She'd continue to move forwards, but instead of moving straight she'd now be moving more or less into a circle as her back bends and her hips go sideways. Her back foot continues to step over the other one, which takes all her power away. Basically, you've just changed her gears from Drive into Neutral. How easy do you think it would be for her to rear now? Buck? Run anywhere? All she can do is go around and around. Sure, she can still try to throw a fit, but it won't last long and she won't have any power behind it. Plus, if you needed to bail off, she's already in position and slowed down enough for you to do so.

    Many years ago, I used to ask a horse to back up or sidepass when they began misbehaving. Well, that only worked to a point because a lot of horses can still do that even while panicking. Some can back clear across the county, and pretty quickly, too. By having them disengage those hips, they have to think about it or they'll trip up. It takes their mind off the horror of the evil ditch drain and gets it focused on their feet. Now, if you've never disengaged your animal's hips before, it's not going to go very smoothly if you try it for the first time under duress. That's why it's a good idea to teach it as a basic riding maneuver. Practice it until she does it softly and with a flowing, smooth motion. Then, when you get into a sticky situation and ask for it, it'll be a simple matter of habit, and not only will she disengage more smoothly, it'll be a comforting move that will remind her that you are in charge and everything is okay. No bucking. No rearing. No running off. No obsessive behaviors. Simply disengage her hips, keep her moving until she decides that it's just easier to focus on the trail, and move on past the scary object.

It's really kind of disturbing to think of all the little things we accidentally do to encourage bad behaviors. Make thinking of ways to better communicate with your horse or mule a habit. Take a look at what you're doing, and why. Only then can you develop better habits and build a good relationship with your equine partner.

It's all about the relationship.

It's up to you to make it a good one.

-- Marcie