I love to hang over the fence and watch brood mares with their foals in the spring. It’s fun to see the interaction among the youngsters as they play. I especially like the way mares teach their babies. It has always struck me how respect is taught so well and at such a young age. It doesn’t take long for a youngster to learn that running around is OK, but slamming into Mom isn’t. Nip your friends, sure, but try it with one of the grownups and punishment is fast and appropriate. The babies pick up pretty quick on “the look” from their elders which says: “Careful now, keep it up and you will wish you hadn’t.” This learning of respect is one of the reasons I don’t like to see youngsters separated from their moms much before 6 months. There is a lot to learn, and mares are by far the best teachers. Many orphaned babies have behavior problems all their lives.
There is a hierarchy that gets established anytime two or more horses are together. There is always the top dog and the one who defers to everyone else. One of the techniques of good trainers is putting a spoiled horse in with an established herd. Manners are learned fast and well in this situation. All of this is good because it keeps order in the herd.
Over the past several years I have been watching some new horse owners who weren’t brought up on farms. They have fallen in love with the idea of having a horse and are often able to open their wallets and buy their dream. I always hope that they will watch and learn from experienced horse people in addition to what they read or see on videos. I wish they would take some time to watch the mares and foals. That’s the best way to learn how things work in a bunch of horses, and how each animal finds its own place in the herd.
All too often I see some of these owners treat their horses as though the barnyard is a democracy. It’s not. Each horse you come in contact with sizes you up and is hard wired to try to figure out who is boss in this relationship. It is great to love your animals, but in my opinion if you don’t establish your leadership, you are creating a great deal of anxiety in your animal. Behavior issues are usually caused by owners who have no idea how the mind of a horse works. If a horse is confused about who’s who, they may feel the need to challenge you. They know there has to be a leader, and some owners may never have established themselves in that role.
You must, absolutely must, be the dominant being in your relationship with your horse. You respect their incredible ability and nature, and they have to respect your leadership. Do it correctly and not cruelly, just like their mommas do. Do it right and your animal will own that sense of security. This is also about your own safety. They outweigh us by 5 or 10 to one and are lightning fast. You must draw the line over what is acceptable, and what isn’t. As a simple example, you should be able to touch your horse anywhere, and it should be welcomed. It’s OK for you to touch them, not OK for them to come into your space uninvited. A gentle push on their shoulder or rump and they should step over for you. Haltering, bitting, saddling, and loading should be readily accepted.
If you are having behavior issues with your animal, it’s time to contact a trainer. The good ones, the really good ones, will have as their main goal educating you to be the leader in your relationship with your animal.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM