Under-Saddle Equine Aggression

Equine aggression in a ridden horse should never be ignored. Learn the causes plus some fixes you can apply from the saddle.
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Equine aggression can be dangerous for horse and rider.

Does your horse ever seem aggressive when you’re riding him? Does he cop a surly attitude, or even act out, posing a danger to other horses and riders around him?

Here, we’ll examine why some horses act aggressively under saddle and what you as a rider can do to begin correcting it.

Roots of Aggression

Surly and aggressive behavior in horses has many potential origins, including the following.

Pain. Because pain and discomfort can cause a range of bad manners and dangerous behavior, it’s important always to rule it out first. It’s not hard to imagine how an aching back or throbbing feet could make you feel and act snappishly. More subtle ills can be to blame, as well. A full veterinary exam is well worth the price if it can explain and potentially solve your horse’s issues.

Nature. There’s a percentage of the horse population—just as there is with the human population—that tends to have aggressive personalities. Aggression can appear in stallions, mares, and geldings, and horses of any age.

That said, in general stallions tend to be more aggressive than mares or geldings. Nature designed them that way with an eye toward successful procreation. Without their testosterone, geldings lose that desire to dominate in order to breed.

Should You Move Him Away? Immediately moving your aggressive horse away from other horses and people can help keep them safe, but if you haven’t reprimanded him first, you may actually exacerbate the problem. Envision a child hitting or biting another child. If the parent simply distracts the child by taking him to a new location, the child never learns that his behavior was unacceptable. 

Second most likely to be aggressive are mares, as they’re also breeding animals and often rule the roost in a herd. Mares are in charge of putting adolescent horses in their places, and can therefore perfect a stance of warning or a well-timed nip.

Younger horses will test limits until they learn where they stand in the hierarchy, just as children do. They haven’t had years of human-induced good manners under their belts as older horses have. If young horses aren’t kept in line, they learn early in life that they don’t have to behave.

A young horse testing limits may display more aggression than would an older horse that might’ve had one owner (out of a series of owners) who let him get away with too much, but still has a good overall training foundation to fall back on.

Handling, training. Improper handling or training (or lack of it altogether) can result in aggressive tendencies. Not surprisingly, harsh and abusive training methods can cause a horse to become aggressive. Or, if your horse is normally agreeable but begins reacting negatively to your cues, he may be expressing his irritation and confusion.

Some renegades have had years of experience intimidating people. Although they’re a small percentage, it’s true that if there’s a lack of leadership from a handler, a horse may feel he needs to fill that void. Some horses won’t take advantage of this situation; instead, they’ll simply become dull and sloppy in their work—but never malevolent. A small percentage, however, will step into that leadership role knowing they’re intimidating those around them.

There’s always a hierarchy with people and animals, and if you don’t become the leader, your horse might.

Aggressive Behaviors

Here are a range of aggressive behaviors your horse might display, plus what you might see, hear, or feel from the saddle.

Ear pinning. This action will be easy to see when you’re astride. Your horse’s ears will flatten back tightly against his head in response to something he doesn’t like—possibly another horse nearby or a cue you’ve given that he’s resisting.

While ear pinning isn’t dangerous in and of itself, it’s an indication your horse is trying to intimidate you or another horse, and it can be a precursor of worse behaviors.

When do you need a pro? If you’ve tried to correct your horse’s behavior but it worsens, get help from a professional trainer or equine behaviorist before the antics become more ingrained and harder to fix. If your horse’s behavior scares you, or if your friends think he’s dangerous, don’t let your love for him keep you from getting help.
Bear in mind that you’re not doing your horse any favors by not disciplining him or not sending him for training, because if his aggressiveness worsens, so do the consequences. Someone may have to get truly tough with him to make him a respectful citizen again. Or, worse, he might end up becoming a real renegade—and the lives of such horses are never good. So make the hard choice that benefits him.

Baring teeth, biting. This is a potential next step after ear pinning. From the saddle, you may see his head snake around as he bares his teeth, or a quick striking motion if he actually attempts to bite. You may even hear his teeth snap together.

This is clearly dangerous behavior: If his teeth connect with flesh, he could do severe damage.

Kicking. This highly dangerous act can also follow pinned ears. Sometimes, though, it occurs without warning. From astride, you’ll feel your horse’s hindquarters swing toward whatever he’s aiming at, then elevate as he lifts one or both hind legs to threaten or actually kick.

If he kicks out and connects with a horse, human, or inanimate object, you’ll hear the impact—and the consequences can be severe.

Charging. This is one of the most shocking aggressive moves a horse can make; but, fortunately, it’s far less common than the other behaviors. A horse that charges at another horse or a human is displaying the ultimate act of aggression—he isn’t limiting himself to a quick nip or a cocked hind leg, but showing he’s ready to fully engage in a battle he intends to win.

It’s rare for this behavior to appear suddenly. A charging horse has usually given ample warning, sometimes over years, that this could happen.

From his back, you can’t miss his powerful and savage onslaught, and it may even unseat you.

What to Do

From the saddle, you can discourage aggressive behavior by scolding your horse with your voice, legs, and hands. Many horses respond to the word “no” delivered in a loud, deep voice. For an aggressive horse that’s unresponsive to a harsh audible, however, your correction must make physical contact.

Apply the correction on or near the part of your horse’s body that’s endangering others. If he snaps his teeth or bites, a tug on the reins can reroute and reprimand him. If he threatens to kick, a bump with your leg plus changing his body position might be enough.

If he actually kicks out, escalate the correction with a harder kick, a spank with the rein tails behind the saddle, and pulling him around in a circle.

Whichever reprimand you choose, make sure it’s assertive enough that your horse backs down and accepts you as leader.

When administering a correction, it’s important to remember your horse’s size versus yours, as that has direct bearing on the amount of force you’ll need to make him understand he’s being reprimanded. Your horse’s sensitivity is also a factor. A thin-skinned horse could overreact to a sharp kick that would barely register on a dull mount. Novice riders tend to be matched with duller horses (so the riders’ lack of timing and balance doesn’t upset their mounts). That can also mean, however, that if such riders must reprimand their horses, they might have to tug the reins more insistently or kick with a bit more energy. On the other hand, a rider on a more sensitive horse may need to apply surprisingly little effort.

The energy you put into a correction must also match the severity of your horse’s behavior. Is he being playful, grouchy, or truly aggressive? Be alert to his general disposition in order to quickly determine the difference. You don’t want to be too harsh with a mildly grumpy horse, but you do want to instantly get after one that’s being genuinely aggressive.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of timing. For a correction to work, it must be associated with the behavior in the horse’s mind. Ideally, a reprimand should come during—or at least instantly after—the aggressive act. Your horse needs to connect his aggression with a loud, harsh voice; the sting of a slap; or the jolt of a kick at his girth.

All this means you should never discipline a horse more than a scant few seconds after his aggressive act. If you do, he won’t make the connection, and that’s not only unfair to him but also flat-out ineffective. It can even be counter-productive, as he may interpret it as predatory behavior on your part.

Sandy Collier, Santa Maria, California, is a Quarter Horse world champion trainer, a member of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and the only woman to win the open division of the World Championship Snaffle Bit Futurity. Find information on her popular book, Reining Essentials, and her latest DVD, Secrets to Becoming a Great Horse Owner, at her website, sandycollier.com.