How to Socialize an Unsociable Horse

We all know people with "an attitude" and we try to avoid them. But what if your horse has an attitude? What if he kicks or nips you when you walk into his stall or try to saddle him up? Or what if he steps on your feet or knocks you down when you try to groom him? How do you handle a horse who doesn't want to be handled?

Understanding Your Horse's Behavior

The first step is to understand the reasons behind your horse's behavior. "Your horse isn't purposely trying to be ornery or difficult; he's just thinking like a horse," says Doug Sloan, a wrangler and horse trainer in Richmond, VA.

By nature, horses are herd creatures. They like being with other horses. "To a horse, being with the herd means security," says Katherine Houpt, VMD, Ph.D, and Director of the animal behavior clinic at Cornell University. This goes back thousands of years to when your horse's ancestors lived in the wild. A lone horse was much more likely to be attacked by a predator, so his chances of survival were greatly increased by staying with the group.

In the herd, horses relate to each other in a hierarchy rather than as peers or equals. According to Dean Scoggins, DVM, Equine Extension Veterinarian, at the University of Illinois, there's an alpha, or first place horse, that nobody else challenges, a low man on the totem pole, and all the other horses are somewhere in between. Rather than making them feel oppressed the hierarchy gives the low-ranking horses a sense of security because they have a specific position in the herd and know exactly what they may, and may not, do."

Finally, horses would rather run than fight. "Running is their primary defense," Sloan says. "If your horse senses danger, his first response is to run away." Even something as minor as a paper bag tossed about by the wind, is enough to spook some horses and make them want to flee the scene.

Once you understand where your horse's natural inclinations lie, your next step is to monitor your own actions so that you're not doing things to inadvertently bring out the "monster" in your horse. Here are some suggestions:

Take Charge of Your Horse

If you own one horse, he'll feel that he's part of a two-member herd consisting of you and him together. "It's important that your horse sees you as the alpha," Scoggins says. "If you're not in charge, then your horse is going to take over, because from the horse's standpoint, someone has to be the leader of the herd."

Be Consistent

In order to be the leader, you have to be consistent. "Horses understand their hierarchy well, but we humans tend to make it confusing because we allow them to be in charge of us at times and then at other times we expect to be in charge of them. That sends a mixed signal," Scoggins says. Your horse will be confused if one day you allow him to walk up and rub his head on you, a sign of dominance, and then the next day you reprimand him for the same behavior. "If you're inconsistent, your horse will periodically challenge you to see if you're still in charge," Scoggins says. To horses, consistent rules equal security because they know what to expect. Of course, it's important to be consistently right, rather than establish aggressive or presumptive patterns of behavior.

Watch Your Body Language

What you show your horse with your body language can make a far bigger impression on him than what you say with your words. "Horses pick up on far more of our body language than we think," says Robert Miller, DVM, veterinarian and author of Western Horse Behavior and Training. "Because they're prey animals, they must be more perceptive than a predator, or they die."

Your horse will "read" how you walk, your tone of voice, posture, gestures, and attitudes. He'll know whether you can be bossed around, whether you're a bully, a novice, or an experienced horseman. If you act nervous, your horse may think he can "buffalo" you, or he might think you must have a good reason for acting scared and he'll also become fearful himself.

How you walk up to your horse is especially critical. If you walk up with a fixed stare, hunched over, holding out your arms with your fingers spread like claws, you will appear as a predator. On the other hand, if you approach your horse standing erect, with your head held high, this may appear an assertive stance and alarm your horse, because it will seem that you're challenging him. "The ideal position is somewhere in-between," Miller says. "You stand up but somewhat slumped over, not looking in the horse's eyes but looking down."

While mounted, you need to be completely relaxed so that the movements of your body, especially your loins and lower spine, will permit you to stay in contact with the saddle. The instant you stiffen any muscles in your thighs, calves, shoulders, or arms, your horse will sense this and will react negatively.

Don't Sneak up on Your Horse

If your horse acts like a grouch when you walk up to him, it's probably because you've startled him. Because your horse's eyes are set on the sides of his head, he can see on either side of him but not directly ahead. As a result, horses have blind spots behind their tail, in front of their forehead, under their head and around their front legs. If you startle your horse, his natural instinct is to move quickly away before he stops to think.

"Always approach your horse from the front, at a slight angle from the center of its head, so he can see you clearly," suggests Ross Hugi, DVM, an equine veterinarian in Mundelein, Illinois. "Tell him 'hello' before you get to his stall so that he knows you're coming. Once you're close enough, hold your hand out to your horse so that he can smell you." When you groom your horse around his blind spots, Hugi says you should talk to him softly so that he knows where you are. Make your horse aware of your presence at all times.

Reward Good Behavior

When you see good behavior in your horse (e.g., he cooperates when being saddled), reward him with praise, a pat on the neck or perhaps an apple, or carrot. Rewards show your horse what behaviors you like to see in him and allow you to become something positive in his eyes. This may be just what it takes to turn a cantankerous horse around.