Unwanted Behaviors in Young Horses

Why do colts, and some fillies, act out? A young horse’s behavior can cause injuries to you, other people, and himself, and becomes more dangerous as he grows. Learn what’s behind these behaviors and what can be done about them while staying safe.

With great anticipation and hopes for the future, we welcome young horses into the world and into our lives. Getting that youngster from newborn foal to a reliable riding partner is a journey requiring time, effort, knowledge, patience, and in many cases, fortitude. A young horse will test you, and if you’ve never raised one before, you’ll need to be prepared.

As horses are all individuals, your experience with your youngster may vary from some others, but there are a few behaviors you are almost certain to encounter with any young horse, to varying degrees. Some of these can be simply aggravating with the potential for danger, while others are downright dangerous, especially as your horse grows larger and stronger. Here we’ll look at some unwanted behaviors that young horses exhibit and explain what’s behind those behaviors. We’ll also offer some methods of stopping or diverting those behaviors.  

The Roots of Unwanted Behaviors

If you haven’t worked with young horses before, it’s easy to assume that domesticated horses will be well behaved even as youngsters, and that dangerous behavior has been bred out of them. However, young horses are affected by their instincts whether they’re raised in a stable or running free on the plains. If left to nature, a well-bred performance horse foal will develop behaviors just as a wild mustang foal would.  

You may encounter unwanted behaviors with any young horse, whether a colt or a filly, but it is well documented that aggressive behaviors, such as biting and striking, are much more common with colts. In fact, you can expect colts to exhibit these behaviors, based on the hormones present in their systems from before birth. Colts’ brains are masculinized in utero, so even gelding a colt doesn’t solve every problem related to hormones. 

In nature, a young horse’s most intense time for play behavior is approximately the first two years of life, and then he gradually grows out of it. Photo by kathomenden/stock.adobe.com

When colts play, they’re practicing being stallions later in life. To be successful in the wild, a colt must pass on his genes, and he does that by being able to defeat another stallion The very nature of their play is aggressive and if acted out on humans, can be very dangerous. Though less common, fillies may also exhibit these behaviors, so be mindful in their presence, and watch for any behavior that you’ll want to stop before it becomes habitual. A bite from a filly can hurt as much as one from a colt, and a mare who has been allowed to develop aggressive habits will be dangerous. 

In nature, a young horse’s most intense time for play behavior is approximately the first two years of life, and then he gradually grows out of it. However, if he learns he can intimidate people while in that period of play, he may continue to act out by biting, striking, or barging (walking into and over people, whether it’s a handler or bystander). It’s critical to prevent a youngster, no matter how young, from acting out these behaviors on people because he’ll become only bigger, stronger, and more dangerous very quickly. 

[Learn More: Horse&Rider OnDemand- Colts]

Common Unwanted Behaviors

Biting: Most biting by young horses, whether directed at people or other horses, is likely to be male play. As colts practice fighting, they can quickly snake their heads in for a bite or even lunge with bared teeth. Bites from fillies are more likely to be grooming bites, but those can hurt and cause injury, too.

Biting is a gradual development, with youngsters play biting even before they’re weaned. It’ll become more pronounced at about six months old and can develop into a considerable problem by the time a horse is a yearling. If a young horse bites an older horse, the bitten horse will typically make it clear to the colt or filly that it’s unacceptable. Older horses are usually effective at putting youngsters in their place. If a colt bites a filly, most often the filly will leave his proximity if she can, or she may even try to kick at him. 

Nip it in the bud: Always stay vigilant in a young horse’s presence. Use clicker training (see sidebar on page 76) to train your horse to turn his head away from you. This positive reinforcement exercise will teach him that when you give a specific command, he is to turn his head away. This accomplishes two things—it physically separates you from his teeth and it redirects his focus by letting him practice following your directions. 

For a young horse that seems to be mostly exploring with his mouth, rather than aggressively biting, provide toys designed for horses. There are many on the market that are safe and effective at letting horses use their mouths to explore or reduce boredom. 

Striking: Even more sex-specific than biting, striking is also linked closely in young horses to male play and is practice for fighting as adult stallions. If a filly strikes, it’s often done in response to something painful or frightening rather than in play or aggression. However, if a colt threatens or hurts a filly, she’s more likely to turn and kick at him with a hind foot than to strike at him with a front foot. 

[Read More: Exercise is Key for Colts]

A young horse may strike at a person, particularly when on a lead line, but most often will strike at another horse, often another male. Horses striking at each other can cause injuries, so take great care when introducing horses to each other or introducing a new horse into a group. Introductions among horses should be done incrementally, across fences, or from adjacent paddocks. 

If a young horse bites an older horse, the bitten horse will typically make it clear to the colt or filly that it’s unacceptable. Older horses are usually effective at putting youngsters in their place. Photo by pfluegler photo/stock.adobe.com

Nip it in the bud: You must put an end to striking when your horse is very young to avoid the risk of a strike with more height and power as he matures. As you lead him, give firm guidance with your right hand on the lead line close to his halter, the tail of the lead line, and a riding crop in your left hand. Keep his feet busy by moving him at a businesslike pace.

Always look where you’re going so you convey authority and can give clear direction to him but keep your peripheral vision alert for his movements. In very young foals, minor friskiness may be acceptable, but if he shows any tendency to throw a front hoof at you, immediately wave the crop at him and warn him with your loudest, deepest voice to keep back from you. If you’re aware and prepared enough, you may even be able to pop him with the crop on the leg as he’s striking. Your goal is to immediately get after him with a loud, aggressive display of movement and voice to thoroughly startle him. This will help establish your authority so that he never considers challenging you with a front hoof again. 

Barging: Many young horses, both colts and fillies, will try this behavior in which they walk right into people to get to what they want or where they want to go, especially when feed is involved. Youngsters that aren’t corrected will continue using their weight and size over people into adulthood.
Barging happens among groups of horses in the wild and in the pasture. Horses form hierarchies among themselves, and a dominant horse will move subordinate horses out of his way by physically pushing them if needed. The need to physically pressure other horses evolves as the dominant horse’s status is cemented in the minds of the others-—they will soon move out of the dominant horse’s way simply upon his approach. 

Nip it in the bud: You must teach your young horse to respect your personal space. Even a foal may be able to knock you down, and he becomes more dangerous the bigger he grows. Clicker training can lay a foundation for ending this behavior.  

Your goal with this clicker training is to teach your horse to take a step back from you upon hearing a word you’ve chosen such as “back” or “away.” The only time he receives a reward will be when he takes a step back from you. Correctly applied clicker training will help usher a young horse through his youthful urges to dominate you with his size since physically pushing back against a horse can be ineffective, impossible, and dangerous.

Practice the clicker training during quiet, undisturbed training sessions, and eventually randomize the rewards for those occasions when you don’t have food handy. If your horse steps away from you on command and waits patiently while you have feed in hand, he should also respond to that command under almost any other circumstance.