Dealing With Kicking and Rude Behavior
By Dan Sumerel
A horse with this ears-back, hostile attitude is likely to demonstrate any rude or dangerous behavior imaginable, and that should NOT surprise you. His body language tells you exactly how he feels.
There are few horse owners that have NOT faced the situation of a horse displaying some form of rude behavior. These acts may include such common things as the horse turning away when the handler approaches to halter the horse, bumping into the handler, jerking away as the handler takes the halter off, or pulling against the lead line. They can also include some far more serious, even dangerous behaviors such as kicking, biting and striking. You don't need me to tell you that behaviors such as these cannot be tolerated. It is very common at the conclusion of a lecture at a horse show, when I ask for questions, that the questions relate directly to 'How to Stop' behaviors like this. The person asking the question is usually frustrated from the repetition of some unwanted behavior and is seeking 'the magic technique' to stop it. Occasionally there is some simple technique that can be shared with the questioner, to help them with a situation. But there is a far more fundamental problem here that is seldom addressed. So for the purpose of this article I'm going to be dealing with rude behaviors from two perspectives. First, assume the problem exists in a horse YOU OWN or work with continually. Second, assume the horse is new to you, and you need to do something with the horse, but this is a one time, or short-term relationship. The two situations offer very different 'rules of engagement'. Let me explain.
A great philosopher once said, "Reality is not so important as one's perception of reality." That is even truer in horses than people. Why? I'll give you an example; a plastic bag has never eaten a horse! Yet if the horse's PERCEPTION of the plastic bag is that it may be a threat, then the ensuing panic on the part of the horse will be as serious for you to deal with as if there had been a REAL threat. The horse's perception of reality determines his response, not the reality. And you have to deal with his response, regardless of the validity of it. But wait, there's more. To HIM, his response was valid, because 50 million years taught him to run first and check it out later, when facing any unknown. He wasn't sure about the bag, so the CORRECT response was to flee. From your perspective (knowing the bag to be nothing) is to punish the horse for what was by your standards, INAPPROPRIATE behavior. Do you begin to understand how the difference in perception is creating a conflict here? It is my opinion that we need to understand the horse's perspective and take that into account as we interact with the horse. By first, last and always trying to relate to his perspective, we generate actions on our part that make sense to him. And that will make all training more effective and safer. Missing this important point not only allows rude behavior to continue, but it will create it as well.
To start with, lets talk about the way the horse thinks and what it is that generates ALL the behaviors he displays - his attitude. Horses, like people, develop opinions about everything and everyone the meet. They develop attitudes. As example, I have often been hired to work with a horse only to be warned, "She hates men, so better be careful." That common assessment is close but not totally correct. She hates the way the men she has been around have treated her. So it is logical that the next guy who walks up to this horse may get a not-so-nice reception. One of the more magical attributes of most horses is their forgiving nature. Without exception, all the horses I have worked with under the 'hate men' warning have become responsive and pleasant to handle, usually in a very short time. Why? Because rather than trying to change their behavior with control or discipline (which often starts a war you can't win), I went after changing their attitude first. And I did that in a fashion that put them as much at ease as I could, while still maintaining some control of the situation. In other words, I started working with them by turning them loose. Not loose in a hundred acres, but in a sixty foot round pen. A horse feels safe when he can move. The first thing most of us do to control the horse is to try to confine his movement, which makes him feel trapped, get nervous and often even panic, causing us to lose the very control of the horse we went after in the first place. What people often do creates the exact opposite result of what they seek!
This horse is showing the opposite attitude of the first horse. Relaxed, attentive and even willing to follow with no contact or signal! This horse will NOT demonstrate any rude or dangerous behavior because her attitude is so different. Changing the attitude is fundamental to changing behavior!
The solution to solving rude behavior on a horse YOU OWN, or will be around a lot, is initiated with the horse loose in a round pen. No equipment. No force. No food. Just you and a horse, establishing the ground rules for the relationship. The way I handle a horse in a round pen is quite different than the norm, and it cannot be explained in a short article. But suffice it to say it is very simple, easy to learn, safe and, most importantly, great for the horse. What we need to understand here is the purpose of the round pen work, and that is to change the horse's attitude about you. At liberty in the round pen you can gain the respect of any horse and accomplish three important things: 1) get the horse to pay attention to you, 2) get the horse to develop a submissive attitude towards you, and 3) calm down. Most people are committed to getting number 2 but overlook the critical value of 1 and 3! Think of it this way - a calm horse that is paying attention to you is not likely to be a problem. That's only 1 and 3, not 2. Add 2, so that the horse is paying attention, calm and submissive to you, by choice, and the rude behavior will vanish! Almost. Achieving all three goals is done by gaining the horse's respect, which happens when you control his movement while he's free using the specifics of the round pen techniques, NOT by fatiguing the horse! By gaining his respect, he will treat you as his herd leader and the relationship between you and the horse will take on a different dimension.
But about the rude behavior going away, I said 'almost' didn't I? Here's the 'almost' part. For a horse to respect you, you must demonstrate behavior that is strong, fair, and defined. That's a leader. But it is the responsibility of every horse to be sure that the leader he follows IS the best leader around. An old, slow leader is soon pushed aside for better leadership. So the almost comes in by the very fact that from time to time EVERY horse will test the leader (you) to reaffirm his confidence in you. It is his job to do so, and NOT an offense worthy of punishment! It is natural, normal and correct by the nature of the horse. So when one of my horses 'bumps' me or tries to 'not go the way I point him', (which are all little tests) I don't get mad, I simply correct the behavior with an animated movement or other technique, let the horse think about it for a second, and then move on. No crisis, rather a positive reinforcing of my position in our 'herd'. The horse understands that and accepts it without stress.
So if a horse you own displays rude behavior, that is his way of telling you he does not respect you! Forget the behavior and go after the respect. In all horse activities the fundamentals make or break the activity. And behavior is foremost in illustrating that concept. The 'why' of what he did is often more important than what he did. And it is the key to correcting it.
Now for the second situation: dealing with rude behavior in a horse you don't own or know. And here I offer a strong word of caution. Better safe than sorry! Old saying, valid meaning. The macho approach of starting a war with a horse to prove a point may be the worst possible choice for you and the horse! But there are two aspects to dealing with rude behaviors in unknown horses. First, here's another cliché: 'You never get a second chance to make a first impression.' When I walk up to a horse I've never seen before I don't know what he's going to do. That often creates fear and apprehension in people, which will impair your effectiveness in handling the horse. Think of it this way, HE doesn't know what I'M going to do either! Use that to your advantage. He will expect you to be like the other people he's been around. (And their behavior is what created or allowed his behavior so you KNOW you don't want to be like them!) Approach the horse in an 'emotionally neutral posture'. In other words, not macho aggressive, but not timid and fearful either. Fair and firm. Display the confidence a leader would display. If a rude or even dangerous behavior appears from the horse you will need to respond with discipline or negative reinforcement as the correct response. But here is another area where I differ with most trainers. I try not to HIT the horse. No contact, if possible. If I really need to strike a horse, I will. Make no mistake! But last year I only hit a horse on two occasions. Point being, if I can discipline without hitting, why hit? In fact I'll give you lots of reasons NOT to hit. Hitting causes pain and sometimes the response by a horse when hurt is to strike back, or at best withdraw in fear. Hitting doesn't help the situation. The horse may also be used to being hit, which will negate its value as discipline. More fundamentally, discipline is really NOT about inflicting pain, it is about CHANGING BEHAVIORS. And behavior is the result of attitudes, and attitudes are MENTAL, not physical. The round pen work is about mental interactions, not about pain or fatigue. That's why so many people misunderstand the round pen, because it is so often mis-used. The same is true of discipline - it is not about how much pain you can inflict it, is about how effectively you can change an attitude that is causing you problems! And I guarantee you - a rude horse is all attitude!
By carefully controlling how you initially approach a rude horse you can most often convince him you are really a leader and not to be messed with by your very demeanor and the defined, confident manner you present. Anticipate that the horse may test you with a less than friendly act, and if it occurs you must respond with an IMMEDIATE, DRAMATIC, DEFINED action displaying great animation such as moving towards the horse quickly while raising your hands. If holding a lead line, flip the line with as much animation as you can, up in front of his face. This will say to the horse, 'That was not acceptable behavior!' This use of animation without contact will make a more mental impression on the horse and be less likely to create a more dangerous response from the horse. There is one more key to the success of this type of discipline - don't drag it on and on, get it over with! In other words, do something dramatic to make your point and then stop doing it as quickly as you started, to avoid an over-reaction or panic from the horse. Then do the really hard thing that most people just can't do - WAIT. Give the horse a chance to digest what you just did BEFORE you go on to doing anything else.
One more word of caution: Anytime you are dealing with a problem horse, you are at risk of getting hurt. I can't tell you how many times I have seen someone going ballistic with a horse, and the disaster is obviously on its way, but the person can't see it coming. They are intent on getting after the horse and making their point come hell or high water. Be a bit more intelligent than that. At least more compassionate. In the military we had a saying, 'Is this the hill you want to die for?' If you're in a stall with a problem horse and he does anything aggressive, that may NOT be the time to go ballistic to 'show that horse'. Is that the hill you want to die for? Probably not. Survive the moment and live to deal with the issue later when the situation is better suited to your success
Lastly, always remember that behavior comes from a mental attitude. Don't start a physical struggle with a horse to solve a mental problem. Keep it mental. Prove to the horse that you are worthy of his respect. Whenever possible just get past the 'situation' (kicking, biting, etc) and as soon as possible go to the round pen and go after the CAUSE of the situation, which is the attitude.
Dan Sumerel is a lecturer, author and trainer, known across the US and Australia for his ability to help people solve problems with their horses. His lectures are usually packed at horse shows everywhere and his workshops have helped people change the behavior in horses of every breed and discipline around. He has worked with beginners to world champions, addressing both physical and behavioral conditions. Dan's new book, Finding The Magic, was already in its second printing after just 133 days on the market. You can reach Dan via his new website, www.sumereltraining.com, and at 804-237-2012, Sumerel Training System, 24 Mulberry Circle, Lynchburg, VA 24502.