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Horses Who Attack

Dear Merv

I became interested in animal behavior when I first came to live in Australia in 1992, having been a normal horse person all my life. I have attended every event held in my home town of Brisbane by Parelli, Monty Roberts and a number of Australian trainers, such as Steve Brady, Guy Maclean, etc. I won three rescued thoroughbreds.

I fell in love with a delinquent horse about four years ago and bought him when he was nearly seven years of age. He is now nearly 12 years. He started out as mad as a hatter - his original owner could not get near him but had to drive him into a yard, where I was able to catch him. I gave him to a young australian breaker to restart the natural way but then we discovered he had a bucking problem.

I have continued to work with him and he has had some soundness problems but the vet said that should not cause him to buck which he can do as one attempts to mount. I became pretty canny at climbing aboard and had started to ride him successfully, when he bucked off a friend who wanted to try him and broke her hip. He has not been ridden since then and I was advised by the vet not to lunge him but to walk him. He would join up with me and two weekends ago I went to the paddock, and brought him back to the yard with only a neck strap.

However, late one night when I went out to let him out of the yard after having fed the horses I was collecting the feed buckets, which I have done many times before. The delinquent horse came over (I thought out of curiosity), put his head in the bucket and when he found there was no food, which he had eaten, as I bent down to pick up the bucket he attacked me and bit me on the chest. I could not believe it as I often work around him without a headcollar and trim his feet etc.

Have you had any previous experiences like this and if so what would you do. I regret that I am not able to travel to the US to attend one of your clinics. Last year I was in hospital having major surgery and flying is not good for me. I would. however, appreciate your advice. I have seriously considered if he should go to the meat factory but he is very beautiful and I would never forgive myself if there was something I had missed.

Kind regards,

I think you have two separate issues here. You have a bucking, or physical problem and you have an aggression, or mental problem. It is possible that they are two totally separate problems, but it is also possible them are complimenting problems, his discomfort may make him unsocialable.

Let's address them both as separate unrelated problems.

Horses are herd animals that have a very rigid social order. We refer to this social order as "herd dynamics" or "pecking order." Boiled down, the pecking order can be summed up rather simply, do whatever you want as long as you can get away with it. In essence, if you can get away with everything, you are the boss and all the horses below you are your own personal subjects.

Horse geek speak refers to this individual as the "alpha."

Below the alpha are the alpha bits (cute hey, I just made that up). There are are some fancy Greek, Latin or Gibberish terms for each ranking below alpha, but to make it simple let us just say the alpha is the lead or boss horse and all the others are omegas. Each of them have other herd members they can totally boss around right on down to the lowest horse on the totem pole who bosses no one but is bossed by everyone.

Every herd follows this dynamic.

We as humans with our magnanimous sense of fair play find this dynamic to be appalling. Horses, however, accept it intuitively. So much so that they very quickly find their place in the herd. And they are constantly testing to see if the next spot up is available. If there is a vacancy, one of the herd will quickly fill it.

Now then, as we explore this just a little further, how does a true herd leader act?

A true herd leader uses the subtlest of signals. A mere flick of an ear, a cocking of an eye, a very slight lean, an almost unseen lean are all that she (invariably the herd leader is a mare) needs to tell all the other herd members how to treat her. True leaders, horse or otherwise, don't need to use a lot of energy to direct the others. In fact, true leaders are sometimes hard to identify if you don't know what to look for.

Now we come to your "delinquent."

His actions are the exact opposite of a true leader. He is very obvious and loud, insecure. Since he is not sure of his position in the herd and since no one is really giving him any dependable feedback on his actions he steps up his efforts.

I have often referred to this a being like a school yard bully. Since he is unsure, he strikes first, kind of a do unto others before they do unto you attitude.

Horses, being herd animals, require a leader. If the herd leader position is available one of them will quickly step into the spot.

Without getting into all the nuances, for the sake of this discussion, let's assume that a herd consists of all the beings who are interacting. When you are among horses, you are treated in the only manner horses understand, as a member of the herd. If you and a horse are together, a herd exists. If you and a number of horses are together, you are part of that herd and you will be treated accordingly where all members have a place in the ranking.

Clearly your horse considers you to be a lower ranked horse. If your horse considered you to a herd leader it would not treat you in that manner. If you watch how the horses in a herd treat a herd leader you'll see they never bite her. They are extremely respectful of her space.

Unless they wish to challenge her for the leadership position. This rarely happens but if it does and the challenger manages to overcome the resistance of the leader in some way it then becomes the leader and the leader drops down below the challenger, becoming the second ranked horse.

In my opinion this horse needs to be challenged for the leadership position.

Most of the time, taking the leadership position is relatively straight forward. You merely give the horse a series of directions you know beyond a shadow of a doubt you can get the horse to obey until it says by its actions, "Whoa! Here is a being who is acting like a leader and I am responding. Therefore, this being must be a leader and I must be a follower."

The horse is not responding to the being presenting the actions, it is responding to the leadership actions. The being just happens to be the representation of those actions and the horse responds accordingly.

With a horse who obviously is willing to close in to threaten to attack or does attack one must be much more on their toes than when dealing with one who mildly threatens from afar. A horse who threatens from a distance is merely testing the effect of the threat. If one gives way to the threat the horse has been successful at a distance and over time will use the threat closer and closer. If the threat is defeated, causes no advantage to the horse, it USUALLY gives up the threat and will try another action. Herd dynamics demands a response. If it is unable to come with any threats it will comply.

The herd dynamics procedure I use to create the leader / follower status has come to be known as the "Bonder" and a copy is available free

With determined challengers like yours one must be equally determined and willing to do whatever it takes to get the horse to comply with your wishes. It is only when his herd position is challenged and overcome that he will begin to acknowledge your leadership.

Be very careful when using herd dynamics with this horse. Be sure that you are single minded and resolved to address his respect issues and wear appropriate safety equipment and use great caution in working with him. Do not let him any where near you until he is showing you the respect you want.

If two horses in a herd both want the same position they will meet head on and fight it out. The one who is the most determined and able to win will do so. They will not care whether they kill the other or not. They will slug and bite it out until one, or both, dies or quits.

To unseat a higher ranked horse, or one who is trying to be higher ranked one must fight it out with them. But, just in case you don't realize it, you'll come out a very sorry second if you go head to head with them.

In dealing with horses like this I leave no doubt that I'm in it for the long haul. I go in at him from the side screaming and hollering and slashing as fast and as hard as I can with the longe whip. "WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE MONKEYING WITH???!!! I'LL KILL YOU IF YOU MESS WITH ME!!!" I do not care where I hit him because the lead mare wouldn't care where she kicked him and this behavior CANNOT be tolerated from a horse.

Surprise is the key!

It is important that you always keep going at the horse from the side. It is difficult, BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE, for a horse to defend sideways AND attack. They *usually* go at it face to face. If you use enough vigor and enthusiasm he will move away to face you if he decides to continue and you just go to the side and scream and light him up. When his challenges are defeated it will begin to dawn on him that he isn't able to take the leadership position because nothing works.

You always want to leave him with the option of calling it off. If you decide to take on a horse like this don't be the one to call it off.

Now then, regarding his physical issues...

Nothing against vets, but they tend to diagnose what they deal with every day and very few people take their horse to the vet and say, "He seems to have a stiff neck." Your horse may very well have some soundness issues regardless of what your vet says. I have uncovered so many vet overlooked problems that I take nothing for granted.

His attitude and actions say he is uncomfortable. If he were not, he wouldn't act the way he does.

If you have access to an equine chiropractor, equine massage therapist and saddle evaluator you may want to have the horse examined. Problems in any one of these areas can cause all the difficulties you report. Check if you are unable to find anyone around you.

Click here to check out my very reasonably priced video & eBook inventory covering many of the subjects featured on my site's pages in greater depth.

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