Just to be clear, calming signals are not something humans do to calm horses. It’s the language horses use to calm us. Because we are an unpredictable war-like species.
This week I’m answering a question: A rider, who was really enjoying her calming signals work, emailed a question about what to do about an aggressive horse. The rider said that a fancy show mare had come to her barn temporarily and boarders had been told that the mare was fine with horses but not humans; they were warned to not “get in her face.”
Our rider was leading her horse in around suppertime and that mare was guarding the alley to the gate. The mare tried to get between them, the rider reached out for her horse, and after a couple of warnings from the mare, and the she grabbed the rider’s wrist in her teeth and pinned her ears. She could have done much worse.
Our rider, demonstrating un-common sense, dropped the rope, retreated, and took her horse out another gate. The right answer because she was in close quarters and it wasn’t her horse. She said that several other boarders offered to help bring her mare next time, and show her how to handle this type of situation. (She wasn’t comfortable with their advice… smart decision.)
She added that a few days later, while being led into the barn, the mare attacked a barn-worker who escaped by locking herself in a stall, until the mare eventually sauntered into her own stall. (Vindicated, the rider would still like to know how to handle this kind of horse, in this type of situation.)
Disclaimer: I would be foolish to give advice when I can’t literally see the horse; I never substitute someone else’s eyes for mine because I usually see the situation differently. And I think that’s what people want from me. That said, I’m thrilled that no one got hurt… and here goes…
Foremost, is the mare sound? Her health must be the first question. Being a show horse is a stressful life and she’s moved to a new barn. Does she have ulcers? Change is harder on them than we understand. If she is acting like a stallion, could she have reproductive issues? Are her hormones out of control? Ovarian cysts are common and under-diagnosed. It could be her teeth or a million other things. My first stop would be with the vet, and in the meantime, rather than warning the boarders, the barn owner shouldn’t turn the mare out with other horses, for everyone’s safety.
I’d bet my truck this mare’s in pain, but let’s pretend the vet clears her and said her issues aren’t physically based. Now what?
Of course, you’ll get advice from Railbirds and testosterone-junkies of both sexes, but do not take it. Too many times, a self-appointed horse expert thinks all the horse needs is to be shown who’s boss. And about the time two or three “experts” have had a shot at her and failed, she is worse than when she started. Sounds like this mare may have had a dose of that already.
Aggressive trainers and riders count on getting to a place where their dominating aids and loud emotions intimidate a horse into playing dead. The other term for that is shut-down. The horse looks like teacher’s pet but with flat black eyes. Stoic horses pull inside themselves for a long as they can.
But not all horses are stoic. Some are more expressive, with a bold self-confidence and a fearless heart. The kind of horse who will not be bowed. She proudly looks you in the eye, refuses to submit, and holds her ground. Partnering with a horse who requires a human to be their equal is an amazing opportunity, but most humans take the low road and start a brutal physical battle. Just one reason that horses could think that we’re an unpredictable war-like species.
I don’t know this mare; I do know that horses reflect our emotions sometimes, and I know that a horse trained with fear is not dependable. I also know that some horses were never meant to belong to amateur owners –through no one’s fault.
Our rider said the mare gave her a couple of hints but she didn’t take them. My guess is that it wasn’t the first time. But that’s all history. What about now?
This is where I remind you that positive training isn’t just a lily-livered game for geriatric geldings on sunny afternoons. It isn’t just for decrepit rescue horses or mild-mannered kind souls. Reactive horses who get in trouble need it more than all the “good” horses combined.
Now, hope the owner hires a competent trainer; someone who understands behavior, human and horse, and sees the big picture. Then, grab a beer. The mare didn’t get this way in a day. We know this isn’t normal behavior. And we know that she gave calming signals that were not understood. We know that even if she’s an alpha mare, she deserved better.
If she came here, I’d take her back to the beginning. Listening to her calming signals, I might ask quietly for just one step. If she looks away, a calming signal, I’ll take a breath. Then I’ll ask quieter. If I can tell she considers doing it, I’ll exhale and step back. In the process of successive approximation, I’ll gradually ask for more, but I’ll be slow because she’s lost trust. I’ll look past her anger and talk to her anxiety.
Don’t misunderstand. I don’t baby talk and coo. I will use strong body language, I will control my emotions. I won’t attack her space, just as I will be very clear about my own. I will not let my guard down for a moment, but I’ll have a cool exterior. It will require perception, impeccable timing, and precise response. I won’t be perfect; it’ll be a work in progress because she will require my very best work and I’ll thank her for that. I’ll train her “respect” by showing her consistency and focus. I’ll let her know that I heard her loud and clear. Then I’ll encourage her to quietly continue the conversation.
I will always believe that it’s humans, (a war-like species,) who do not understand what respect means. When I see humans teach “respect” by demonstrating brutality, to animals or other humans, respect is the last word that comes to my mind. It might be the only thing that this mare and I agree on in the beginning.
What should the rider have done in this situation? Get you and your horse out safely. Good. Don’t encourage people to try to dominate her; it hasn’t worked in the past and she doesn’t belong to you. Good again, you did the right thing. Then hope that her owner doesn’t hire a bully with a grudge. Because this is a smart mare with a long memory, and she doesn’t suffer fools.
This is our mantra. Repeat after me: I’m only human. I’ll try to do better.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro