Addressing negative behaviors early and clearly helps keep a bad attitude from becoming a bad mindset.
Everyone has those days when you wake up with a case of a bad attitude. Maybe you face a task you don’t want to complete, didn’t get a good night’s sleep, or something else. But with some proactive thinking, you can change your attitude to get through the day. Or maybe you don’t, and then your next day mimics the one before, until it becomes a cycle you have to break.
Your horse can face a similar situation and express it by pinning his ears when you go to catch him or turning around and biting at your boot once you’re in the saddle. It’s up to you to adjust his attitude to keep it from becoming habit. Here’s the course of action I recommend to prevent his grumpy day from becoming his everyday demeanor.
First, Address the Physical
When your horse starts demonstrating negative behaviors on the ground and/or in the saddle, a smart first move is to call your vet. Very often, these new bad behaviors can come from easily solved medical concerns, such as teeth that need floating or ulcers that need treating. By catching these problems early, you’ll prevent the behaviors from becoming habits, but more importantly, you’ll preserve your horse’s health. Arm yourself with the most detailed information possible so you can give your vet a full picture of what’s going on. Then you can work together on the best course of action to solve the issues.
Next, Check Your Riding
Nobody likes a nag or a nitpicker, your horse included. When you begin to notice your horse responding negatively to your cues, consider your approach.
Weak/feeble attempts at correction—picking—will probably only cause your horse to be more annoyed with you. If your horse does something wrong, address it, correct it, and move on. It’s a fine balance of being over- and under-aggressive, and being consistent in your response. Also, check if you constantly have your spurs in your horse. I see this happen way too often, and it gets on the horse’s nerves. Get those spurs out of his sides and use your legs. Proper spur use dictates that your leg is separate from the spur, so you start with leg pressure, then move to your feet, then the spur.
Most horses respond best to direct communication from a confident leader. This doesn’t mean you’re a tyrant; you can love your horse and still be the leader who provides clear cues.
Then, Fix the Problem
Once you’ve ruled out veterinary issues and your own riding mistakes, it’s time to fix the negative behavior. Here are a few I commonly see and ways to remedy the problem.
Tail Switching. I’ve ridden some horses that switch their tails out of habit—they’re not upset, they’re riding right, they don’t have any problems. They just have a habit of moving their tail. One thing you can do is tie the tail in a braid, then loosely attach the end of the braid to one of the D-rings on the rear of your saddle. The horse learns he doesn’t have to switch his tail all the time. I sometimes feel like tail bags can cause tail switching. The horse gets used to popping that bag, and it becomes a nervous tic. I suggest not using a tail bag, and instead using good tail care and maintenance to keep it healthy. If your horse has an extra-long tail, consider tying it up in a sock instead of a bag.
If that’s not the problem, it’s likely a reaction to nitpicking by you or annoyance caused by flies. Keep your horse well protected with fly spray, and be mindful of your riding.
Boot Biting. First of all, ask yourself, “Why is my horse’s head back here?” It shouldn’t be there. If you ride with your reins properly adjusted, your horse should go between the reins. There’s a reason your horse chooses to go with his head bent around, usually a rider error. Are your reins even? Are you using your legs to ride your horse from back to front? Do you ride more strongly with one leg than the other? Pay attention to your own tendencies.
If it’s just your horse being nasty, pull him around in the other direction and keep him out of your space. Also, please consider the veterinary pathway discussed earlier. Horses look at their bellies when they colic or are in pain from ulcers.
Ear Pinning. Laid-back ears can mean many things, but if it’s a sign of resistance or a bad attitude, address it immediately. I prefer to shake my horse off the bit and make him go forward instead of backing up. Backing can cause stiffness, whereas going forward and pulling your horse around keeps him moving and working. When your horse is working, his mind can’t focus on being annoyed. But along with this, be sure you’re not the one doing the annoying.
Bit Chomping. As irritating as it might be, some horses just chomp the bit. I have a really great horse that’s won $200,000, and he chomps on that bit nonstop unless he’s working. It’s just in his personality. Using a cavesson (noseband) can help, but be sure it’s adjusted properly to allow unrestricted breathing. A too-tight cavesson—or any poorly adjusted or improperly fitting piece of tack—can cause many of the problems we’re discussing here.
Keep Up the Work
Negative behaviors and habits take work to change. Be consistent in your correction, accurate with your timing, and mindful of your own riding. Once you instill this mindset to your riding, your horse will be less likely to develop bad habits in the first place, thanks to your efforts.