No Respect, No Relationship
The youngest horse we have right now is four years old and she was born on our place. She was taught from day one that people are a good thing. They bring you food and water and treats and they give great scratches. But she was also taught that people outrank her ...all people, all the time. Horses are herd animals and there is always a hierarchy, a pecking order, in the herd. Since the average horse outweighs the average person by at least 800 pounds, it's very important that you maintain your leadership status in the herd. You want to teach that lesson to your horse early in life. Not having a horse's utmost respect leaves you in a pretty dangerous position. But once you have established yourself as leader, you have to work to maintain that status.
We raised horses for a few years and always prided ourselves on their good manners. We handled the babies daily from the time they were born until the day they were sold and left our care. We hauled two yearlings to the local vet for vaccinations one time a few years ago, only to find out that they were short-staffed and were dealing with a couple of emergencies that day. We were there long past our appointment time and the staff kept apologizing for the delay, but there was no room to unload the two fillies. The vet happened to walk through the lobby and saw us waiting. She told her tech to get the syringes ready, she would vaccinate the fillies in the trailer so we could be on our way. The tech said, "On the trailer? Is that safe?" The vet smiled at the tech and said, "Those are Mayo horses ...it's fine." I think Yeoldfurt and I both gained a hat size that day. It was a fine compliment.
Well, here we are several years down the road and we only have one 'baby' left at home. She is four years old and, until now, has pretty much been a model citizen. But Tuesday night when I went to turn the horses out of their stalls, she decided to challenge me. This filly has never laid her ears back, never offered to kick or bite, always been soft and easy to handle. I went into her stall like I always do, petted on her for a minute and then told her, "Let's go." I raised my hand up to her shoulder, not touching her ...just pushing on the air, so to speak, toward her. Movement is pressure to a horse. Steady, rhythmic movement is stronger pressure and a horse will naturally move away from pressure. I have done that with this filly all her life and she's always just turned nice and easy and walked on out. But that night, she pulled her head up, pinned her ears back and spun away from me. Sensing aggression from her, I escalated my pressure and smacked her on the butt. A horse should NEVER turn their butt to you. You can walk behind them, but it needs to be your idea. She was mad because I wanted her to move before she was ready. Pinning her ears and turning her butt to me was an act of defiance. She didn't like me getting mad back at her and smacking her on the butt either. She kept moving but did this little humpy jump thing on her way out the gate. If you've watched horses for very long, you recognize that maneuver as a threat to kick. So she had escalated from defiance to aggression. Well, we ain't havin' NONE of that!! I have a pretty simple policy with our horses of YOU be nice, WE be nice. It doesn't take them very long to figure out they like us much better when we're nice!
I was holding a rubber curry brush in my right hand as she was leaving the stall. When she did her little humpy jump thing and threatened to kick me, I got all Tasmanian Devil on her and went after her. She got busy moving away from me then but I threw that rubber curry brush at her and tagged her on the butt. I think my aim improves when I'm ticked off. I told Yeoldfurt about it and he was as surprised as I was because this filly has never been a problem.
Wednesday night when it was time to let the horses out, Yeoldfurt went in the stall with the filly. She was finished eating and just licking her bucket. Yeoldfurt put his arm across her neck and scratched on her for minute, then asked her to move. Darned if she didn't do the same thing to him! Oh, he was mad! He chased her out of the stall and all the way down the hill. Then he came back up the hill and got the lunge whip. Properly used, a whip is not an instrument of cruelty, it's merely an extension of your arm. It allows you to increase pressure on a horse to move, but from a safe distance. He got the lunge whip and stomped down the hill to where the horses were gathered. He cut the filly out of the herd and made her move. It didn't matter which direction she took, as long as she moved. You see, in a horse's mind, confrontation is settled by one thing ...make the other guy move. The one who moves away loses. By going to her and making her move away from him, Yeoldfurt was reinforcing just who was in charge here.
In the meantime, I got the second whip and waited halfway up the hill. There were really only three of the six horses that were running, but as they came my way, the goal was for me to cut just the filly out and turn her back. He makes her run up toward me, I make her change direction and go back down to him. It took me three tries to get just her to turn. It's a hard thing to do on foot, but it was important that I let the other horses go by and turn just her. Separating her from her herd is another dominance message to her.
This whole exercise lasted maybe ten minutes but by the time we were done, the filly was looking at us with new found respect and awe. I can just imagine her thinking, 'wow, they can really move on just two legs!' But ten minutes is a long time when your dander is up and it's 95 degrees outside. Yeoldfurt and I were more than happy to go back in the house and soak up some air conditioning.
Thursday night, we started working with her before she went into her stall. Yeoldfurt made her wait until all the other horses were stalled before he went to her gate. She was antsy and aggravated by then because she's used to being number three on the list, not number six. But Yeoldfurt stood in front of her stall and made her wait until her attitude softened. If she crowded him or tipped her ears ever so slightly backward, he drove her back a few steps and growled at her. Not until she walked up to him soft with her ears forward did he allow her to step into her stall. She walked in nice and quiet, just as she should. When it was time to let the horses out, he let all the others out first and then opened her gate just wide enough for him or her to pass through. He stood in the gate and waited until she was soft. If she pushed into his space or gave him any sign of attitude, he pushed her back a step and made her wait longer. Sort of like teaching your toddler to say 'please' before you give them what they're asking for. When he stepped aside and let her pass, she walked out nice and quiet.
Tonight when it was time to turn the horses out, Yeoldfurt had me work with her and he stood by to watch. Just because she has learned to respect Yeoldfurt doesn't mean she will respect me. I have to handle the horses by myself a lot of times, so it's important that they respect both of us. The mare ignored me when I first opened her gate as if she really wasn't ready to leave. Yeoldfurt told me to just wait on her. When she finally did walk up to the gate, she wasn't pushy or aggressive. I let her walk up to me and then rubbed her face for a few minutes before I let her out. When I did move aside, she waited until I was a couple of feet clear of the gate and then she just walked out. Had she pushed past me as soon as she thought there was room, or charged out of the stall, it would have indicated she was intimidated by me being in her way ...but that she didn't necessarily respect me. Walking out quiet like she did says that she has a better understanding now and has accepted the fact that both Yeoldfurt and I outrank her in the herd.
We will continue to reinforce this deliberately for the next week or two, but I think she's learned her lesson.