What Causes Hos­tile Be­hav­ior?

A mare turned sud­denly ag­gres­sive to­ward hu­mans may need sys­tem­atic re­train­ing.

Horse & Rider - - Whole Horse Q&a -

QA dom­i­nant mare I’ve owned for four years re­cently charged and tried to bite the neck of a per­son re­triev­ing another horse from their shared field. She’s now in a small pen near the gate to the field, but still she wants to bite peo­ple bring­ing other horses in. I’ve worked with her in the smaller pen; she did well un­til the other mares moved away, then be­came ag­gres­sive to­ward me. She’s good un­der sad­dle, so what’s now mak­ing her dan­ger­ous? Var­i­ous med­i­cal con­di­tions, in­clud­ing ovar­ian tu­mors, can cause a mare to be­come ag­gres­sive.

If there’s no phys­i­cal cause, your mare may’ve made an as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween the ap­pear­ance of peo­ple com­ing to the pas­ture and some­thing un­pleas­ant or fear­ful hap­pen­ing to her. Horses aren’t nat­u­rally ag­gres­sive to­ward hu­mans; this is a learned be­hav­ior trig­gered by neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences, in­clud­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ate han­dling/train­ing. While your mare may be good un­der sad­dle, be­hav­ior on the ground and un­der sad­dle don’t au­to­mat­i­cally cor­re­late with each other.

It ap­pears your mare feels vul­ner­a­ble and scared when horses con­verge around the pas­ture gate—that is, when some­body comes to get them. She’s learned that if she shows ag­gres­sion, the per­son re­treats and she won’t be placed into what she per­ceives as a threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tion.

First, move her away from where the horses are brought in from the pas­ture so she doesn’t ex­hibit the be­hav­ior. Then be­gin sys­tem­atic ground­work us­ing pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment tech­niques to help build a more trust­ing and pos­i­tive as­so­ci­a­tion with prox­im­ity to hu­mans. Be­gin by train­ing her to touch her nose to a tar­get stick us­ing clicker train­ing (see box). This is easy to teach and an ex­cel­lent way to boost a horse’s en­thu­si­asm for work­ing with you.

While round-pen­ning and nat­u­ral­horse­man­ship tech­niques can give you an obe­di­ent horse, they’re less ef­fec­tive in pro­duc­ing an an­i­mal that’s ea­ger to work with you—and en­joys it. Pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment along with with your rou­tine train­ing can vastly im­prove your horse’s en­gage­ment with you.

When she can be near you with­out ear-pin­ning and be­gins to show en­thu­si­asm (as by nick­er­ing when you show up), then start short train­ing ses­sions near the pas­ture en­trance (but not in the pas­ture). Work first on sim­ple be­hav­iors she knows well. Then grad­u­ally move into the pas­ture, re­in­forc­ing her for calm be­hav­ior if other horses ap­proach.

Gates cause a lot of con­flict in horses be­cause they “force” them into closer prox­im­ity than they might choose on their own. This is stress­ful for both dom­i­nant and sub­or­di­nate horses. When I col­lect my own horse from pas­ture, I’m care­ful to clear a path for him to avoid un­nec­es­sary con­flict and ag­gres­sion be­tween horses as we ap­proach the gate.

Ul­ti­mately, it may be best for your mare to be kept in a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion. Even if you re­pair your re­la­tion­ship with her, if she con­tin­ues to feel threat­ened by the prox­im­ity of other horses when some­one goes into the pas­ture, this ag­gres­sive be­hav­ior may per­sist or resur­face.


Re­view “Sud­den At­tack” for causes of, treat­ments for horse- on- horse ag­gres­sive­ness.

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