When Your Horse Bullies You

If you don't learn how to address your horse's resistances when they first appear, you'll just enable his bullying tactics.

We enable bullying tactics when we don’t address our horse’s resistances when they first appear. | ? Barb Young (barbyoungphotography.com)

Schoolyard bullies get their power from the negative emotions they cause. The more you react to a bully’s taunts, the more likely he or she is to persist. 

Horses can be bullies, too. When they are, it’s usually because their behavior has been enabled and reinforced by humans. And, as it turns out, what dials a human bully up to maximum strength is essentially the same as what encourages a four-legged bully.

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Good Horse, Bad Habits by Heather Smith Thomas

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I learned this the hard way when I ran into my first equine bully, 28 years ago. He was an 11-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, and he didn’t seem like a bully when I first met him. I didn’t ask much about his background–I was too busy being enthralled by his good looks and quiet demeanor. The latter was important, as I’m not a bold rider.

I tried him out in his owners’ arena, then took him on a short trail ride around the farm. Pleased, I arranged for a vet check, negotiated his price, and brought him home.

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At first, Strider was all I’d hoped for. He walked, trotted, and cantered in the arena like a champ. Eventually, I took him out on a short trail ride around our hilly neighborhood. 

He was fine…except for a few places where he stopped on his own and hinted through body language that he didn’t want to continue. When this happened, I’d hesitate, unsure of myself, then urge him forward with my legs, and he’d eventually move on again.

I thought nothing of it. Strider, though, had noted my hesitation and uncertainty. The next time we went out, he stopped again at one of his prior spots, only this time when I urged him on, he planted his feet defiantly and tossed his head. “Don’t push me!” was the clear message.

What I should have done is ignore his surliness and boot him forward, nipping that behavior before it blossomed any further. But, unsure of myself, I hesitated again before meekly asking him to continue.

Strider was probably gloating. If I can keep this up, I can get out of these trail rides altogether. I have no doubt he had experience intimidating his prior owners–not the savvy horse people I bought him from, but the ones before that, whom I knew nothing about.

The next time we ventured out, Strider stopped at one of his spots and tossed his head again. When I tried to insist that he go on, he upped the ante by bouncing his front end a few inches off the ground. He was saying, “Seriously, if you push me, I just might rear.”

[RELATED: How to avoid teaching your horse to rear.]

I cursed under my breath. I knew I shouldn’t let him get away with this treachery. But I lacked the confidence to do anything about it and Strider knew that as well as I did. 

So, gnashing my teeth and muttering some more, I turned him for home. At which point he walked out cheerfully… because he had just trained me.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Strider continued to be the quintessential bully. The more his behavior bothered and affected me, the worse it got.

Oddly, he continued to be a perfect gentleman in the arena. Who knows what past experiences caused him to hate venturing out…all I knew was that he had my number, and I didn’t have the knowledge or courage to get it back.

He began giving me “his business” sooner and sooner on the trail. Before long he wouldn’t go as far as the first bend in the road before threatening to rear. Then he wouldn’t step off our driveway onto the neighborhood road.

Then came the day–and I’ll never forget the humiliation of it–when I did nothing more than turn him in the direction of the driveway, while still in the arena, and he tossed his head and refused to go.

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Game over. He had won. It was stay in the arena or get off his back.

Now, if all this had happened today, it would be much different. Though I’m still not a bold rider, I’m more experienced and confident enough to simply ride through much of the cranky behavior that cowed me back then. Discovering it didn’t “work,” Strider would likely have given it up.

More important, I have the resources to deal with the really naughty stuff. At any intimation of balking, I would simply dismount, bring out the long line I’d have handy for exactly this purpose, and work him vigorously in a circle from the safety of the ground. 

That way, I’d teach him straightaway that walking obediently forward was much preferable to trotting briskly round and round, while changing direction, back and forth, and working up a (whew!) sweat.

[RELATED: Use targeted longeing to improve your horse.]

But I didn’t know all that back then. So I did the only thing I could do. I sold him at a loss to a trainer who could deal with him.

I asked Frank Barnett, a trainer in Williston, Florida, who specializes in problem horses, his thoughts on dealing with a bully.

Horses can be like children in that a child or horse learns to evade because he’s allowed to evade,” he says. “Whatever method you use to deal with it is of no consequence as long as it’s fair and logical to the horse, such that when the smoke clears, he has found peace and everyone is safe.”

Frank adds that the first time your horse rears, his feet don’t leave the ground.

“There’s just a little hesitation, a la Strider. This is when the ‘go button’ is just a bit loose, and the horse is testing the program. It may not show up again for a while. Then the next time the horse may just drop contact with the bit and refuse to step forward. Finally, the go button is disconnected completely, and that’s when you hear, And for no reason and with no warning, my horse reared straight up.'”

I “solved” my problem before Strider went up with me, but I wish I could have kept it from becoming a problem in the first place. Come to think of it, I’ll always owe Strider a debt of thanks—for that wonderfully clear lesson in how bullying works.

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