Miss Manners for Equines

Manners aren’t something that an animal or a person is born knowing – they are something you are taught by others and by experiences. If your horse is hard to catch, throws his head when you try to halter or bridle him, blows up when you cinch up, walks all over you and refuses to stand quietly for the farrier, guess whose fault that is? That would be yours. They say that children are 50% nature and 50% nurture – in other words half of their personality and way that they act and react is due to their genetic and specific nature, and the other half is the way they were brought up and what they have learned is acceptable behavior (or at least behavior that they can get away with, whether it is deemed acceptable or not). The same seems to be true with horses. Some horses are gentle by nature and seem to have a good understanding of space requirements, will hold their feet handily for a farrier or to be cleaned, and basically do all that they can to make their owner’s life an easier one. Other horses range from arrogant to flat out ill-tempered, and make their owner’s life a living nightmare!

Just as a human can learn new manners and ways of behaving, horses have the ability to relearn behavior.

Keep his distance. Ever had a horse step on your foot or strike your heel walking too closely? If you haven’t yet, you probably will, as it can happen to the most careful of horse persons. It’s important to teach your horse how to keep a respectful distance when leading, especially when you are passing through trailers and gates. The primary error to make with this skill is cuddling your horse. For many people, horses are big, fragrant, and frankly pretty cute… but don’t cuddle your horse! Give him a hug on his neck while standing at his side if you like. If you just can’t help snuggling his head, only do it off halter. Your horse has to learn that you are the boss, and the boss keeps some space around themselves. It’s not going to break their heart; it will remind them that you are the leader and must be respected.

There are several methods to use while teaching a respectful distance. You may keep an arm’s length of lead rope between the horse’s chin and your hand, and when the horse steps into your space, stop and turn (quartering) to the horse. If he doesn’t stop and step back out of your space, wave your rope-holding hand back and forth so that a wave travels up to the horse’s chin. Horses find this uncomfortable and should step back. Maintain this spacing by repeatedly stopping, facing them, and waving the lead rope as necessary. Your horse should learn to respond quickly by backing off when you stop, without your needing to face him, or give him the wave. Depending on how spoiled you’ve allowed your horse to become, this may take some time.

Another method is to keep your hand on knot of lead rope so that you can push yourself out of the way if he leaps forward for some reason. This is a good leading method to use with an unfamiliar horse, or with your known horse in a busy situation when he may become startled and try to jump or spin without warning. Of course, if the horse is prone to bite, be sure to keep your arm situated (bent away) so that your wrist isn’t in chomping range.

Another skill for your horse to master is to willingly accept his bit, including lowering his head for the halter and bridle. His behavior in this situation will be quite a reflection on how he has been treated in the past. Your own manners with him, as far as being gentle around his ears, pushing them forward with other hand while settling the bridle, and being careful not to clink his teeth with the bit, will have a great deal to do with how he behaves. Have the veterinarian check your horse’s teeth every 6-12 months to make sure he hasn’t developed hooks or sharp edges which might make carrying a bit particularly painful. Likewise carefully check his ears for mites or waxy buildup which could encourage his resistant behavior with halter and bridle straps.

Remedial training for this

You and your horse should display considerate manners for your farrier. During the course of many discussions about the poor manners of other horse owners with our own farrier, the following items were discussed. The owner should be on site if at all possible, to catch and hold the horse (if the horse hasn’t been trained to stand tied) for the horseshoer to do their job. Horses are good with remembering humans, and even a normally “easy to catch” horse may kick up their heels and avoid being caught by someone who catches them to make them stand about having their feet rasped and banged upon.

Ideally, the owner will also apply fly spray to the horse before the farrier’s session, clean out their feet (especially if the day is particularly muddy), and provide a shady place to work if at all possible.

Remember that it is not the farrier’s job to teach your horse manners. Owners put him or her in a position of having to retaliate with nubby end of rasp if your horse steps on, leans on, bites, stomps, or kicks at them. You should teach your horse to stand for several minutes on 3 legs, all the way around. No leaning! You do this by first using a looped lead rope around his foot to lift it safely, keeping yourself out of range of an inadvertent (or intentional!) kick as well as saving your back. Get the horse accustomed to the hammering sound and feel on his foot by lightly tapping it (followed by firmer taps as he becomes used to it) with a small hammer.

Your horse should stand quietly for saddling. This is another area that will reflect the care you have taken in the past. Your responsibility to the horse is to first take your time. If you slam the saddle on his back and cinch him up quickly, you could find yourself fighting a sour attitude for quite some time when you begin riding, wasting the effectiveness and pleasure of your ride. So take your time while saddling and keep his pleasant demeanor.

Don’t slam the saddle on his back. Watch that the stirrups do not thump him, as they can weigh up to a few pounds apiece and can even cause bruising on your horse’s sensitive back and sides. Remember that he can feel a fly landing on his back; he will definitely not enjoy having a 30-40 pound saddle flung up there. Make sure that your cinch doesn’t loop up under saddle as you are laying it on his back. Granted, saddles are hard to place properly when fully outfitted with cinches and heavy stirrups – do some upper body workouts if you have to. Simple hand weights are great for developing shoulders, biceps and triceps.

The Good Rider’s Rules for Saddling
• Don’t over-cinch him. Cinch up in stages and maintain a bit of spacing so that your horse’s massive lungs can still perform effectively. Keep in mind how uncomfortable it is when we humans wear too tight of jeans, and imagine that discomfort around your chest with 10-20% of your own weight balanced on the band of tightness – this should keep your consideration alive for your horse!
• Your own balance is what keeps your saddle from slipping, not an over-tightened cinch. Spend some time riding bareback to learn how to keep yourself in the middle of your horse. If necessary, take riding lessons to learn that skill. A really good rider rides the horse, not the saddle.
• Back cinches should be lightly touching your horse’s belly with no pressure. Keeping space between the back cinch and the horse’s belly merely negates the effectiveness of the back cinch in keeping the saddle from flipping up in hard maneuvers.
• Always check your keeper strap between primary and back cinches. A back cinch can quickly become a bucking strap and make the gentlest gelding lose control if the keeper strap breaks or comes undone and the cinch slides back into the horse’s groin area.
• Place, don’t throw, the saddle atop your horse.

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5 responses to “Miss Manners for Equines

  1. I thoroughly loved your blog on “manners” and would like to inquire about current condition of my 2 yr old filly, Belle. A little background: Belle was born here at The Smilin’ T so I met her at birth. She has learned to lead, fly spray, trailer load, stands for the farrier/vet and works in the round pen. My only complaint is she pins her ears at dinner. I have a herd but all have individual feeding so no need to use agression. When walking with the others I can give slack on the “ugly looks” (though maybe that’s my mistake) as they are doing it to one another. But it doesn’t end when she enters her stall to eat. Any suggestions on how to introduce a better attitude at the dinner table?

    • Hey Tina! Thanks for asking…

      While you’re right in some respects, mares do tend to be more aggressive in a herd situation (you being considered part of her herd), you are also right in thinking that her manners aren’t acceptable! Left to her own devices as she gets older and more set in her ways, she could develop a serious issue with this, as her disrespect issue is directed at YOU. I had a gorgeous black Colonel Freckles-bred mare that I got when she was 9 years old, and the main problem she came with (really the only problem) was that she could and often did become absolutely vicious at suppertime. Any other time, she was a sweetheart. Obviously, this behavior had to stop!

      I would do some ‘respect’ work with Belle. One of my posts in this section has to do with developing respect, could you try using some of the exercises listed? Basically you’re telling her, “Look, Belle. I’m the herd boss, not you. Respect is two-way, and I’ll give it to you, but you have to give it to me as well.” (sort of like with kids!) How is she in the roundpen? Does she require a lunge whip to move out, or can you move her with a short swinging rope, or even just your hand? She should be paying enough attention to you that when you square up your shoulders and lift your chin, her Attention goes on-line! A little “yes ma’am!” would go well here! If she is basically ignoring you unless you really get after her, just practice – get lighter and lighter in your requests. When I want a horse to show respect and move away, I’ll show some US Marine Corps-style body language – stiff and strong and directed at them like a laser beam. When the horse moves away from me, drops their head, licks their lips and lowers their eyes, they are responding to that appropriately, and the INSTANT they start showing that, I’ll drop my shoulders down and relax, look away from them to lower the pressure. That tells them that I approve of their behavior. The next time I want them to move, they should remember that and do it just a little quicker.

      Side note – one thing we all tend to think about, even in the roundpen, is our posture. Remember that with a horse, you aren’t looking like a supermodel when you exercise good posture, you are instead being stiff and aggressive! Don’t worry about what you look like in there to anyone except your horse. He or she can’t understand English, but they are sure tuned in to your body language…

      Anyway – obviously if a horse will not move away with the USMC Drill Sergeant routine, I’m going to turn up the heat with that and start SOUNDING like a Marine, too. A “growly bark” sort of voice, a quick couple of steps directed at them, a lunge whip or rope in my hand dancing toward their feet like a snake, snapping or popping, etc – it’s an escalation of my aggression until they figure out that they are expected to back off, jack!

      This translates to behavior everywhere else OUTSIDE the roundpen. I want a horse to pay attention to me, to make it easier for me to work with them (and therefore easier for them). We have to establish that boundary so they know where they stand with us. Being just their buddy (and I’m NOT saying you are, I know you are a good horsewoman from having been around you before, Tina!) is confusing to the horse and leads them to try to establish dominance. They MUST understand herd hierarchy, that’s how God made them, and if you aren’t the boss FOR SURE, then they figure that maybe the job title is open.

      So when it comes time to feeding her, try those same lessons. Don’t even consider giving her the food until she “stands down”. Require her to say “Thank you ma’am!” with her behavior, by the same indicators you were looking for in the roundpen – a soft eye, relaxed neck, lowered head. It might take 20 minutes the first time you go to feed her and she cops an attitude with her, but stand over her food and require her to give you space – 6′ or so – until she is polite about it. If she escalates her poor behavior and lunges at you (which could happen if she is very strong willed), be ready to bark “NO!” and pop her very quickly and fairly firmly across the nose… their noses are soft so you don’t need to hit hard! Don’t lose your temper, just show her what you expect. If you were another horse, she would do the same thing to you – a quick lunging bite. She’ll understand it.

      What do you think?

  2. PS I’ve been told there isn’t much you can do as this is how “mares” are. I realize it’s more difficult when dealing with 9 horses at feeding time but would sure like to have them come to the dinner table with a ears forward and a softer look. Thanks TJ.

  3. Hey TJ, thanks for your valuable experience/input.

    In the round pen I have to get after her more than I would like and she tries to come into my space. Once we get our groove on she comes around. I have always been conscious of making sure I’m relaxed. I really like your comments about stiff and agressive and directed like a laser beam.
    When feeding she is not vicious, but is pushy and pins those ears flat. I have stood over her food and will finally get an improvement but still not what I would like. Tonight, I used the posture, she ignored me so I escalated to the NO and still ignored me. I popped her nose with my glove and she jumped back and looked shocked. She softened up immediatly and stood ears forward asking if she could eat:–)) She runs with two other mares and they are both seasoned, dominant mares so she understands being corrected, just not from me. I never thought that if I’m wishy washy about being “boss mare” then she thinks the jobs up for grabs and you I both know that just can’t be. My other mares go stand and wait by their bowls for dinner and I think it’s safe to say, it won’t take long and Belle will too as she is very quick to learn.
    I think the key here is my posture. I’m going to try that tomorrow and see what I get. Your description is perfect and easy to understand, thanks and I’ll let ya know how we do.
    By the way, this is my first blog and it’s pretty kool. Stay warm gal.

    • Let me know how that works out for you, I’m interested to hear! Making sure you guys are both clear on “who’se the boss” will sure help out as you start riding her! Having her polite and attentive will do the same thing. Good luck!!!

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