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Misbehaved? Or Misunderstood?

Horses are such lovable, beautiful creatures. It’s easy to get all romantic about them and misinterpret their behaviors (“Oh, he loves me, see? He sticks his nose in my face to kiss me!”)

or anthropomorphize them (“She’s pinning her ears at you because she is jealous! Isn’t she cute?). And this kind of attitude makes it easy to transform what could have been a perfectly good horse into a holy terror.

Most of the time, fortunately, horse-owners end up balancing out romance and knowledge and end up with a decently behaved, mostly-safe horse. In a few, extreme cases, however, even well-meaning horse-owners can create dangerous horses. Of course, not all equine bad behavior is caused by us humans, but the kind that is, must be fixed. And the kind that isn’t, can also be diagnosed and repaired, with the right tools.

Creating bad behavior in a horse can be quite easy. For example, one of the first “limits” you must set on a horse is to limit how close he can stand to you when you are stopped, or how close he should walk next to you when you lead him. Sounds easy, and pretty basic, right? Well, it’s quite unfortunate that most horse-owners gloss over these two critical teaching moments which, when left unattended, can make a horse unsafe.

When horses move into you, it may be for very good reason, but that doesn’t make it ok. Sometimes that move is to look for comfort or safety close to you, as a way to ask for a treat or a scratch, or it may be to establish dominance over you. Left unchecked, a horse moving into your space can hurt you…badly.

If that horse is spooked by something, he may well run you over when he goes to flee. That same horse that you find cute when he offers you his nose to kiss may get pushy when hungry, and feel he has the right to bite you when you have not offered a treat. Either way, a horse’s lack of respect for your space (and your body within it) never ends well.

It is best to teach your horse to respect your space, to look to you for leadership and permission to enter your space, and to be confident in his own skin. Most of this can be accomplished with good groundwork exercises (not to be confused with lunging).

But, even a good, well-trained horse can suddenly exhibit “bad” behavior like spooking, bucking, rearing, or bolting.

And, many of us, myself included, make the mistake of punishing bad behavior in our horses without taking the time to understand the source of this behavior. When physical/dietary reasons are thrown out, many horse-people like to pretend that their horses’ negative emotions and reactions should be suppressed (“I will tie her head down so she doesn’t rear.”), punished (“She wants to run off with me? I’ll run her into the ground!), or ignored (“Oh, he always bucks when I ask for the canter! He’s really sweet otherwise.”). Any of these tactics can lead to dangerous situations that can bring injury and even death. A horse that has long been expressing its emotional problems by physically acting out in ways that are “bad” (biting, kicking, rearing, bucking, bolting, etc.) without any solutions offered to him will become a menace to himself, other horses, and humans.

There are times when we must react in the moment and take charge before matters unravel into danger for one or more of the people or horses involved. For example, if you are on a trail ride and your horse takes off at the sight of a mountain biker, you can’t take the time to analyze the “why” of the spook, or the “how” to fix it. First you must simply regain control of your horse and get him to stop before he runs someone else over or gets you hit by a tree!

This is why, most of the time, when something bad happens, we react in the moment, take care of the situation, and think nothing more of it once we’ve regained control of the situation other than to shake our heads and say, “You silly horse!” We have done nothing to get to the root of the problem and solve it, which means this behavior could rear its ugly head at any moment in the future. That does not bode well for the safety and security of our long-term relationship with our horse and our horse with us.

Taking the time to do groundwork and establishing a relationship with your horse goes a long way to improving a horse’s behavior and safety rating. A horse that respects your space, looks to you for guidance, and knows how to carry its body is a self-confident, anxiety-free horse.

When you add simple ridden exercises, as well, looking for spots where the horse is not performing well and fixing those before moving on to more advanced moves, you are like an equestrian MRI machine and surgeon all in one, diagnosing and fixing the problems as you go. A horse trained in this manner will rarely get you into trouble.

So, the next time your horse exhibits worrying behavior, don’t snap into correction/punishment mode. Remember that there is a message buried within that behavior which begs to be discovered. Seek it out! Get a vet check, revise his nutrition, and use your groundwork and ridden tools to dig deep and uncover the source of the behavior; realize that “bad” behavior often comes from pain, worry/anxiety, fear, or sadness.

Plus, you should look at the bright side: your horse exploding into a tantrum is valuable information, not just an ugly outburst. Be a detective and look beyond your horse’s outward behavior to find its internal source. Hold up a flashlight, start digging, and, with groundwork and simple ridden exercises, help bring that horse back to its center and to a place of faith in himself, in you, and in a benevolent Universe.

And, who knows? In healing your horse, you might find he has gone and done you the favor right back.

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