Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Why does my mare kick at the panels at feeding time?

I have a mare who is very loving, but she kicks at the gelding next to her when it is feeding time. The two of them are turned out together, and the gelding is the herd leader. When they are in the pasture, everything is great. When it comes time to feed and they are in their runs, she kicks at him through the panels. She has hurt the bottom of her hoof from doing this, and I am worried that she is going to hurt more than just her hoof. She also swings her head from side to side if you do not feed her quickly. Her behaviors start when I go to get the hay.

It sounds like your mare is food aggressive. The two clues are that she kicks at the other horse at feeding time and that she gets upset when you don't bring food quickly enough. Many food aggressive horses become so after being starved and neglected at some point in their life. If you haven't owned her all of her life, she may have been neglected by a former owner. When a horse is neglected, she begins to worry about having enough to eat. She then carefully guards any food she finds from other horses by biting them, kicking them, pinning her ears, etc. Neglected horses also worry about when their next meal is coming, so they fret when it is time for feeding. I think they're always worried that THIS time the food won't come!

Some horses become food aggressive when they're kept on an irregular schedule. They don't know when their next meal will arrive, so they start to worry about it. They may paw, swing their head, whinny or become aggressive with other horses because they're so worried about their meal. Then when you are getting their food ready, they get so excited that they don't know what to do. That excess energy and excitement may show itself when the horse bites and kicks at other horses, kicks the walls or fence, paws, spins in circles, etc.

Some horses become less food aggressive over time as they realize their meals will always come. If you haven't had your mare long, I suggest waiting to see if she settles in more over time. To help her get past her food aggression, keep her on a regular schedule. And never skip a meal! You also might try putting an empty stall/feeding pen between her and your gelding at feeding time. That may help reassure her that he's not going to steal her food, and she may stop kicking. Leave her alone while she eats, too, so that she doesn't worry that you will take her food away.

If you've had her a long time and she's still acting this way, she may always be food aggressive. While most horses get better over time, a few of them don't. They can't let go of the past and always worry about their food. For those horses, I suggest giving them space and leaving them alone while they eat. Don't go into her stall/pen, clean her stall, groom her, etc. and keep other horses away from her while she eats.

Food aggression can be frustrating because you know you aren't the one starving her or withholding meals. But you can't reason with her to reassure her that she'll always be fed. The best you can do is keep her on a fairly tight feeding schedule so she knows when to anticipate feeding time.

Good luck with your girl!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Why is my horse rearing when I ride him for the first time in several months?

I have an 18 year old, 17.1 hh, Thoroughbred gelding who I have owned for ten years. He has always been reactive and spooky. He injured his leg and then developed complications from the original injury. Although he was treated by our veterinarian, we never received a definitive diagnosis. Because of his injury, I could not ride him for over two months. Then I had more time out of the saddle due to icy and cold weather. Finally we had a day where the temperature was above freezing, so I decided to take him out on a trail ride with his paddock mate.

He did great going out but once we turned back towards the barn, he began rearing maybe a foot or so off the ground, stepping sideways, backing towards the road, stomping his feet on the pavement, prancing, and spinning around. I was really worried I would get thrown! I ended up dismounting each time a car came by because I worried he would dump me on the road or lung into the car. As soon as the car passed, I would mount again and he would resume the bad behavior.

He's always been high-strung and difficult to ride, but I've never felt this unsafe. Could his behavior just be due to the fact that he hadn't been ridden in so long?

The short answer is yes - having so much time off could make your horse misbehave when you start riding him again. I also have a high strung horse, and he, like many other high strung horses, does best on a consistent riding schedule. It keeps him more focused on his job. If he gets time off, the first few rides can be a little difficult. He'll spook at nothing and generally ignore me. It takes a few rides to get him back in the working frame of mind.

You may have made things more difficult for yourself by taking your horse on a trail ride for his first ride back to work. He had plenty of pent-up energy and the trail ride gave him the perfect thing to use it on: spooking at things and misbehaving. It was also a fairly chilly day (in the 30s) and horses often feel fresh and more reactive on those crisp days. Unfortunately he had the deck stacked against him!

In the future, if you have to give him (or any other horse) time off, I suggest bringing them back to work more slowly. Start with riding in an arena or smaller, enclosed field and then progress to riding on trails again. Give the horse a few rides to get back into a working mindset before expecting too much out of him.

Time off might not be the only culprit, though. Pain is a pretty powerful motivator, and it could certainly make a horse behave badly. You implied that your horse behaved when you got off of him because of oncoming traffic but went back to misbehaving once you got back on him. I would start by checking his tack, especially his saddle, to make sure it still fits. Because your horse had time off, the musculature in back could change and a saddle that once fit may not fit well anymore. It could be sitting too close to his spine, causing pressure when you are in the saddle, or it could be pinching or rubbing somewhere. If that's the case, he may have behaved in the beginning because the saddle wasn't too uncomfortable at first but the longer you rode, the more uncomfortable it got until he started acting out in an attempt to tell you he hurt.

If you check your saddle and it still fits well, then I would next have your veterinary do another lameness exam on your horse. It may be that he appears sounds without a rider, but the extra weight on a rider, the hard pavement under his hooves and the work he had to do when ridden could be causing him pain. A comprehensive lameness exam with your veterinarian watching your horse move both in hand and under saddle can help rule out lingering affects of the undiagnosed lameness.

I would also have your veterinarian check your horse's teeth. As horses get older, their teeth may need to be checked and floated more than once a year. If he has sharp points, they could be cutting into his gums and the pressure of a bit in his mouth may be uncomfortable.

If you can rule out all of these possible causes of pain, then your horse just may need some more regular and consistent riding to slowly bring him back into shape before embarking on another trail ride. If that's the case, spend some time in the arena and bring him along, and before long you should be hitting the trails again!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Why Does My Horse Groom Me?

I was wondering if it’s normal for my horse to groom me. I’ve searched high and low on the internet and can’t find anything about horses grooming their owners. I haven’t even heard of other horse people experiencing this with their horses. What does it mean? Should I let him do this to me? He doesn’t hurt me and he isn’t pushy about it but rather quite gentle and sincere (if that makes any sense). Typically he does this as a response to my scratching/rubbing his neck, back or withers. This is my first horse; I adopted him from a rescue 18 months ago. He was very sick and lame when I adopted him so the first 8 months I couldn’t do anything but hang out with him in his stall and in pasture. Does he think I’m another horse?

If you watch other horses together in pasture, they perform "mutual grooming". They'll stand next to each other facing opposite directions. One will start grooming, or gently nibbling, at the other horse's withers. Then the groomed horse will begin nibbling or grooming at the first horse's withers. They'll generally groom along the withers and neck, and sometimes onto the back. They are gentle and it is a herd behavior that promotes closer ties in the herd. And it feels good to them.

So sometimes while a human is grooming her horse, especially if the human is using a curry comb or scratching with her fingers, her horse will turn around and try to groom her back. I don't allow my horses to groom me - I'm not a horse and don't want to be treated like a horse. Once you allow your horse to treat you like a horse, you open yourself to being on the receiving end of dominance behaviors like biting and kicking as well as comfort behaviors like grooming.

I keep my horses tied when they're being groomed, and if one does reach around to groom me, I gently push their head away from me. I don't hit them, slap them, or make a big deal of it. I either use my open hand on their cheek to push their head away, or I tug on their halter or lead rope to push their head away. After a few times, most horses understand that you don't want to be groomed and they leave you alone.

Your horse will still enjoy the scratching and grooming, though, and that is a great way to help him relax with you, trust you and bond with you. So enjoy your grooming time - without being mutually groomed!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What do I do with a horse who isn't good with children?

I am looking for some advice and was wondering if you would be so kind to help me. I have a 6 year old, skewbald mare who is so lovely, and the only problem I have is she's not so good on the ground with children that are below her eye level. She puts her ears back and threatens to bite and sometimes she slightly turns her back end as well. What would you suggest as my son absolutely loves her to bits and the riding side is going great but he would like to be able to groom her etc.

You've given me a tough question today! I would like for you to help your mare work through her problem, but at the same time I think keeping your son (and other children) safe is the most important thing.

There are some horses who really simply don't like children. In some cases, they've been teased or mishandled by children and never trust them again. Some horses don't like how loud young children can be and how fast and unpredictably they can move. So if you let your son around your mare, make sure he's quiet and moves slowly. Don't allow him to run around, yell, move jerkily, etc.

Normally when a horse doesn't like something, I work to desensitize them to the thing they don't like by exposing them to it and pairing it with something they do like (I may fly-spray a nervous horse and when she stands quietly I then give her a treat). However I think that kids' safety is very important. If your child is around your mare, I would have him wear a helmet and boots, even if he isn't riding. And I wouldn't leave them together unsupervised even for a few minutes.

Considering having your veterinarian check her vision. If she has limited vision, she may not be able to see your son and is startled when he suddenly pets her or talks to her. If poor vision is her trouble, you may be able to help improve her attitude by teaching her to lower her head where she can see your son approaching.

I hate to admit that there's a problem I'm not sure how to fix, but I'm not willing to put your son at risk of getting injured in an effort to desensitize your mare. It may be that you need to get your son a more child-friendly horse of his own.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why is my horse changing leads at the canter?

I have a nine year old, Saddlebred, gelding that is very talented. I have had him for four years, but did not start riding him myself until the last six months as he was too much horse for me until now. He has lots of motion, a very "look at me" attitude, and never puts an ear back. My problem is two-fold. I have a trainer that tends to give up on horses quickly if he is unable to correct a problem. In fact, he is pressing me to sell him which I truly do not want to do because I love this horse. My horse's problem is that he changes leads several times each way in the canter at home. He has been evaluated by a chiropractor and nothing was found wrong: I was just sold some very expensive "herbs" to help his mind. When he is at a show he typically doesn't change leads in the canter. I am trying to find someone who can help this horse or recommend someone that may be able to help him. He is the most beautiful and sweet horse, and a ride on him will make you grin for days afterwards. I would greatly appreciate any advice or referrals from you if you know someone who may have experience in this area.

Your horse sounds like a lovely boy. I really love Saddlebreds, especially those with that showy attitude and a lot of action. I personally would move to another trainer if yours is impatient and unwilling to work to correct problems in a horse, especially a horse his client obviously loves. I don't have a lot of tolerance for trainers who aren't willing or able to fix problems.

I would also have an equine veterinarian examine your horse. Equine chiropractors can play an important role in treating horses, but not all equine chiropractics have the same education and training. Some are very good, but some aren't. I would want an equine veterinarian to do a lameness examine, examine the horse's back and look at his hoof care.

If the veterinarian doesn't find anything, then I would want a trainer to look at you and your riding. Some horses are very sensitive to their riders and subtle shifts in their rider's weight and/or position can cause them to change leads. I have a horse of mine that won't walk a straight line for a novice - he's so responsible to seat aids and leg aids that a novice rider who is insecure gives him so many conflicting cues that he zig-zags all over the place. Have the trainer check your seat and your legs as you ride. You may find you've been inadvertently telling your horse to swap leads. You also might have the trainer ride your horse to see if he swaps leads for the trainer, too.

If both your horse and your riding check out, then I would work on building up his strength. Horses normally swap leads because either they have a physical problem (most common cause), their riders are asking them to or because they're out of shape and unable to canter long periods. Start slowly with trot work and very brief canter sessions and build up the length of riding/training sessions over time.

Once he's in good shape, give him longer canter sessions. If he continues swapping leads, then treat him like a young horse who doesn't really know how to canter. Ask for very brief canter sessions, bringing him back to a walk or trot before he has a chance to swap leads. When you start getting quality short canters, gradually extend the length of time you ask him to canter. If he does swap leads, bring him back to a walk and ask him to pick up the correct lead again.

Good luck with your boy! I think you are fortunate to have such a lovely horse and hope you are able to continue working with him.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How do I cope with a horse who doesn't like riding with other horses?

I have an eighteen year old mare mare who has recently gone through ground manners training. She has learned how to give and such using a snaffle bit. She is calm when I take her on rides alone, but when other horses are with us she acts up by side-passing, throwing her head and not listening to me. She understands leg and rein cues. Any ideas?

You said the mare recently received ground training, but you didn't mention whether she was broke to ride or not before then so I'm going to have to guess a bit in order to answer your question.

Your mare may be acting up when ridden on the trail because of one of the following reasons:

  • She was recently broke to ride and has not been ridden around other horses.
  • She's a very timid mare and other horses make her nervous.
  • She's been kicked, injured or otherwise hurt by another horse and she's scared of having them close to her.
In any of these cases, the mare is nervous about other horses near her so she's acting out. You'll need to take a step back to fix this problem and take a little time, but the results will be worth it.

Go back to riding in an arena or small field. Pick a friend with a calm, quiet, and non-dominant horse to ride with you. Start off by having your horse stand in the center of the field or arena while your friend walks around the ring/field. Instruct your friend to give your mare plenty of space. If you your mare is nervous, dismount and stand next to her until she quiets and settles down. Pet her and reward her for quiet behavior and then mount up. Ask her to continue standing in the center of the ring for a minute or two. If she's quiet and calm, then go to the rail and ride with your friend on the opposite side of the arena. Over time, let your friend get closer to you. (Never allow your friend to get closer than a horse's length from your mare).

The first ride or two, keep your mare and your friend's horse at a walk. As long as your mare is quiet, reward her with petting. If she gets upset, ask your friend to stand still and put your mare to work trotting or cantering - ask her to leg yield, sidepass, circle, etc. until she's got her mind on you. When she does, let her go back to a walk. Make the right behavior (being quiet with another horse in the field/ring) easy by letting her walk. Make the wrong behavior (getting upset) harder by making her work harder when she's not listening.

If she handles the first ride at the walk well, then have her and the other horse take turns trotting on the second ride. Again, give her some space but let the other horse drift closer and closer to her. Over the next few rides, you can let her trot and canter more.

When she's doing well with one horse in the ring or field at a walk, trot and canter, add another horse and over time add several more horses. Once she's comfortable in the ring with several horses, you can venture back out on the trail.

When you start back to trail riding, go with just a couple of friends who have helped you out in the arena. Your first ride should be at a walk only, and your friends need to give your mare space so she won't feel crowded and get nervous. If your mare stops listening to you, do circles on the trail, leg yield back and forth or side-pass and make her work. When she's quiet, pet her and give her a loose and relaxed rein.

Over time, build back up to faster trail rides with more riders. Just remind riders to give your horse space to relax and make trail riding a good experience for her.

Good luck! Soon you should be enjoying trail rides - with a horse who enjoys them, too!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How do we cope with a horse who is constantly biting or trying to bite?

We have a horse that we've had on trial for about a month and have an option to lease him for six months. He's a 16 hh, 10 year old, Appy/TB cross. He has experience in hunter equitation and has evented for the past three years. My daughter loves to ride him, but he is so mouthy! He bites and reaches out constantly. Eben when you try to bring him in from his turnout, he won't move and if you give him a tug he will bite. He has already bitten me and my daughter and several people at the barn.

Biting is one of those behaviors that some people think is trivial, but it can be truly dangerous. Although you haven't said whether the horse is nipping (pinching the skin with his teeth) or really biting (breaking the skin, leaving sizable bruises, etc.), biting often starts as nipping and can then escalate.

Nipping often starts in young horses who are exploring the world with their mouth. It seems to be more common in colts, especially those who are not yet gelded, but fillies may also nip. Some people ignore the behavior, thinking it'll go away on its own. Others even think it is cute when a young horse nibbles their shirt, hair or skin and pet them, talk to them, or otherwise give them positive attention when they do it. This encourages the horse to continue nibbling and then the owner or handler is surprised when one day the horse bites them, breaking the skin. The horse is surprised when the human yells or scolds them. In his mind, he was just doing what he had been encouraged to do in the past.

In my barn, if a horse nibbles or nips, he is immediately reprimanded. If he's wearing a halter and leadrope, the reprimand is normally a loud NO followed by a jerk on the leadrope or making the horse back up. If the horse is loose, I give a loud no and walk away and ignore the horse. If the horse repeats the behavior, I will smack him or hit him in the chest, neck or shoulder in additional to giving a loud NO.

Some people think it is cruel to smack or hit a horse. I do not advocate hitting a horse with a whip or other "tool/implement", repeatedly hitting a horse, hitting a horse for no reason, punching a horse or hitting a horse in the head. However a firm smack or hit on the neck, shoulder, or chest is similar to the punishment horses give each other for inappropriate behavior. Watch a mare with her older foal or a group of horses in the pasture: if the foal bites his mother, his mother may bite him back, gently push him with her hoof or even kick. If a grown horse bites or nips at another, the punishment is often more stern: a hard bite or kick from the horse who was bitten. A single smack from a human is a pretty mild punishment compared to a strong bite or kick from another horse.

If a horse in my barn bites, he is immediately reprimanded with a loud no and either a smack/hit to the chest, neck or shoulder. I'll follow that up by backing him out of my space. Since bites can do a lot of damage, I make sure to make it very clear that biting is not an acceptable behavior.

If you discipline a horse this way, you need to keep a few things in mind:
- The punishment must be immediate. If the horse was loose and runs away, you cannot chase him down, catch him and then smack him. By the time you've done that, he doesn't understand what the smack is. Likewise, you can't walk off, grab a whip, and smack him with the whip because by the time you get back and smack him with a whip, too much time has passed and he's not making the connection between biting and getting smacked.
- If the horse is loose, smacking or hitting him may not be safe as he may whirl around and kick you. If he is loose, then make a loud noise, shoo him away and then walk away and ignore him.
- Learn the signs that your horse is about to bite (pinned ears, swishing tail, tightness in his mouth) and move away from him when he displays those signs. Don't give him a chance to bite.
- Rarely, disciplining a horse for biting makes him more aggressive. If your horse reacts this way, get professional help.

I've known some people who have carried a stiff bristle brush, a tack or a nail in their hands and when the horse goes to bite, the person thrusts the brush, nail or tack towards the horse so that the horse hits the sharp edge(s) with his muzzle. For some horses, after a few times of hitting the sharp edge when they go to bite, they decide that biting is painful and they stop.

Another thing to keep in mind: if you have a biter or nipper, do not hand-feed him/her treats. Some horses can eat hand-fed treats with no problems, but I've found that some horses become pushy, look for treats constantly, and bite your hands, clothing, arms, etc. while trying to find them.

You also mentioned that your horse is constantly reaching out towards you. Don't let him. Set a space around yourself that's your personal bubble. When your horse wants to intrude on that space, push him out with your hand or make him back up (if he's haltered). You need to be consistent - any time he invades your space even if only part of his body (like his muzzle) invades your space, make him get out. Don't give him that opportunity to get close to you and then bite.

When dealing with a horse who nips or bites, you must be consistent. Any time he nips or bites you (or even at you), you must discipline him. You can't ignore the biting sometimes because you are tired or it was cute or it was minor or he really didn't mean it. You must stay on top of this behavior if you want it to stop.

If your horse continues biting after you discipline him, then you'll need to seek professional help. And until you do, don't let your daughter handle the horse and consider putting a muzzle on him so he can't bite you (or anyone else).