A Better Way to Deal with Bad Behavior

Recently, on the Yahoo Classical Dressage group talk has turned to how to deal with ‘bad’ behavior such as biting and kicking. Absolutely all agree that this is not something that we ‘wee humans’ can really tolerate since our bodies are pretty fragile when compared to horses. They can do Real Damage to us! There is no agreement, however, as to what is the right way to deal with such behavior.

Several people weighed in with their techniques for biting or kicking back those horses who offered such behavior. I shake my head reading these suggestions. Not because I am against corporal punishment (even though I am) but because in my view the better solution is to avoid a situation in which I get bit or kicked in the first place. Not too many people are even suggesting that maybe the horse is biting for a reason and maaaaybe someone might be missing the forest for the trees in their enthusiasm for ‘showing the horse who’s boss’.

Then, one of the list members, Audrey Summers, wrote of her experience working with some of the ‘rankest’ horses one might ever have occasion to meet on the track. I was enthralled with her story from start to finish! She was in the worst possible position and demonstrated that paying attention to the “things that happen before the thing that happens happens” and rewarding the right thing, yes, actually works to keep you safe.

There are no ‘quick fix’ solutions to real difficult problems. It always involves
paying attention as a life style. Since, I’ve said, probably more times than I can count, that we need to pay attention to the little things, long before they are big things, you can’t imagine how happy I was to read Audrey’s account. I asked her if I might publish her story here and she graciously agreed. Enjoy!

I am a five foot tall woman, and my appearance is anything but intimidating. On the track I had issues with people and horses. In trying to articulate how I was able to work with horses who are all basically big and stalled 24 hours a day except for an hour of exercise. I had a big learning curve, and I certainly got bit and kicked and pushed around (especially at first, when I thought my sympathy and admiration for these horses would keep them from hurting me). I took it so personally, getting bit, kicked, or even just ignored, and I did cry some embarrassed tears, but I had to get past that whole “Black Stallion” thing that so many kids grow up on. But there was no way I was going to be able to go into a stall and take over the space as a big man with a big voice potentially could.

I think for me it is about where you place yourself, body language and timing. And I did develop a certain tone and voice to mean business -but there is only so far I can go with that. Some of this sounds cliched -but there is also respect and being constantly listening to what horses are telling you. One of the first horses I had was one who hated to be bridled, and would practically flip over about it. What was I supposed to do at five feet tall and nervous with a Marlboro Man type exercise rider breathing down my neck to get the horse ready? I used carrots and baby talk, and practiced when things were quiet and took extreme care about how I touched his poll. It worked, and soon he dropped his head and opened his mouth -the formerly flightly flip over backward guy. And it really impressed people that this small girl could get this horse to have his bridle path clipped without a twitch. Obviously, this would not have worked with an aggressive horse, who at that point in my experience would have eaten me alive, but I was tuned in enough to see what this horse needed. I know many folks who would find many things wrong about doing it that way, or don’t want to hand feed horses, or whatever. But it worked, and I have used it again (sometimes having to put on the bridle by opening the headstall, etc) on racehorses that have driven impatient others to almost maddness and abusive by refusing to open their mouths or let it be pulled ver their head. Being only five feet tall means I have to be patient and find other means. I have been harrassed and scoffed at about being sentimental and such (what other think I’m being, anyway)-but a horse can’t train and win races if you can’t get the bridle on…

The last truly dangerous horse I worked with was a successful racehorse who was so rank he could not be galloped and was trained by jogging on a hotwalker and racing frequently. He was highly sensitive, and a cunning and ferocious biter. (He was a brilliant chesnut, with a very refined head -I thought I had met Flame from the Black Stallion series…) The trainer I worked for had more years of experience than I ever will, but he had the mindset that he could handle this horse straight on. That worked for a while until the horse grabbed him by the arm in the stall (when on the tie chain in the back) and shook him and would not let go until we ran in the stall and got the horse off of him. It was a horrible bite to the biceps, and this horse waited days for the perfect moment to make his move.

How did I manage this horse at my size? Timing, timing, timing. And always being aware of where I was spatially. Haltering him in the stall was a very careful dance. I had to wait for the right moment to move in after the teeth gnashing and rearing. I always worked with him with a chain over the nose, even when he was tied to the wall. That way I could brush him (with a very soft brush or rag -he was one of those Chihuahua coated horses that was painfully ticklish) and take my eyes off enough to groom. This was not so I could shank him, but so I could “listen” to him by feeling his energy and where his head was through the leadshank in my hand -and give a little tweak back if necessary. I would drape it over my forearm when I had to poultice his front legs and be vulnerable down there putting on bandages. I could “feel” where he was through the line.

I also adored this horse, I loved his power and honesty-and I respected that he had obviously been through a lot and still had his nobility intact -even if it made him dangerous. And did baby him in the ways I could -I gave treats by hand from outside the stall (just the right distance), lots of admiring (but not mushy) talk, was very careful not to tickle him while grooming, etc. Lots of ego boosting and reassuring stuff, which I think he needed to be a good racehorse. But I never doubted for a minute he would have really hurt me given the chance, and it was essential that I not romanticize his beauty too much. I never assumed, like my boss did, that we had a certain understanding between us, or that I had him figured out. Everyday I had to be at my best. The last day I worked in that barn I finished working on him and was in the aisle picking up my stuff when he just managed to nip me on the back of my ribs. It was a horrible nip that was a blood bruise, the only thing saving me was that I wasn’t closer. I remember looking at him and seeing the gleam in his eye -a very malicious “Gotcha!” So in no way had the rapport changed and we become friends or whatever. I hadn’t changed him or understood him in a certain way that unlocked him or made him better (which wasn’t my job). I just figured out how to be around him without getting killed.

Ideally, he would have been taken out of racing and allowed to be a regular horse and had his behavior addressed in a long term way. I doubt that he would ever be a safe horse, and wonder what happened to him. But I know in that environment, woe to the person who kicked him in the belly or tried to bite back, or really discipline him. I have seen horses get ruined, break through stalls walls and tear themselves apart when someone (usually men, but not always)has enough and isn’t going to put up with what a horse is doing or “getting away” with anymore. I learned a lot and got to take care of some pretty nice horses who drove other grooms crazy because I could work around their issues and they could get to the races. But I had to be very flexible, what where I was, and learn good timing, among all those other little hard to articulate things. How do explain that or recommend things to do -very hard, and one is often misunderstood or seen as cruel or brutish.

And finally (sorry for the long post, my toddler is not going to give me time to edit it down), I don’t work on the track anymore, and I would never tolerate that kind of behavior or continue being around a horse like that if I couldn’t improve him and remove the danger. I wouldn’t ask a horse to be in that state of mind or stay in sport or situation that necessitated him being that amped up or unhappy. Fortunately, I have not run into anything close to that kind of stuff in the recreational boarding barns I now inhabit, but I do see many horses getting away with obnoxious behavior and pushing their owners around, nipping, etc. And, as this thread demonstrates to me, it is harder than it seems to try to explain or show people what you may want to recommend, even the basic stuff. And even in the extreme if a horse needs a more physical response, I am not sure how to endorse it without being misunderstood.


  1. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing it, Sharon!

    I’ve had experience with about a dozen different barns and all sorts of different boarding arrangements. Many problems with biting, kicking, aggression, bad behavior in general can be “magically cured” by giving the horse adequate exercise and 24-hour turn out with other horses. Even 4-6 hours of turn out can make a big difference in personality and problem behavior.

    One reason I am against “punishment” is because in many cases, our so called “punishment” of our horses and dogs is not actually reducing the unwanted behavior. It might make the rider feel good to slap the horse for biting or back the horse 30ft for invading the person’s space, but do we actually see a reduction in the bad behavior?

    Besides, when the horse displays “bad” behavior, it’s usually for a reason. He’s trying to tell me something! Why should I punish the horse for telling me his saddle is too tight on his withers, his bit is pinching his mouth, his back is sore, etc….? Behaviors happen for a reason. And if behavior gets bad enough to be classified as “problem” behavior, maybe it’s time to start listening to the horse.


  2. Thank you for your comment, Mary! Since I agree with you 🙂 it is really hard for me to relate to those who don’t/won’t accept that the horse might have a point of view that should be considered!!

  3. I had read that person’s experience on the CD list as well. She gets it, too bad so many of these so called classically trained advocates on the list don’t.

  4. Kathy, exactly the response that I had reading some of the comments. Does this say something about what is ‘classical’ or do we really know how the Old Masters would have dealt with such things? Let’s read from Gueriniere, speaking of the horse’s nature, “However, when the nature is rebellious and one is not able to define the source of the obstinacy, one runs the risk of using methods that are more likely to produce new vices than to correct those one thinks one understands.” Hmmmmmmm….

  5. Great post! Very interesting reading……..

  6. Nice post, Sharon. Good observations, but so sad for the racehorses involved. How terribly that we treat animals in the name of many sports.

  7. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post