California Riding Magazine • January, 2011

Ask Charles Wilhelm
Become the leader your
horse needs you to be.

Question: I have a pushy horse. I no longer feel comfortable around him. Can you give me some advice on how to get back in control?

Answer: This is a question that I hear often and something I see a lot. Probably 90 percent of the horses brought in for training are pushy and do not respect our space.

As owners, we usually spend more time riding than dealing with ground issues. There is nothing wrong with riding and having a good time. We buy a horse so that we can go out on the trail, rope, sort cattle or do any number of activities. However, believe it or not, more accidents happen on the ground than while riding.

If you ever watch horses out in pasture together you see very quickly that there is a definite pecking order. By the time they sort it out, hooves may be flying and teeth bared but a leader is established. What is interesting is that a couple of hours later these same horses will be grooming each other as if nothing has happened. They have determined who is going to be the leader and this is one of the biggest things that we overlook in our relationship with our horse. Our relationship from the human point of view is that if I bring my horse a carrot or a cookie he will love me more. That is not true. The only thing that will do is generate a whinny when you walk into the barn and it is not because of you but because of what you bring with you. Once the horse has had the treat, it will still be disrespectful, putting the ears back, blocking the gate, turning to present you with its hind quarters.

One of the most common complaints I hear is that my horse bit me for the first time. My answer to that is no, the horse didn't bite you for the first time he bit you a long time ago and the behavior just now manifested. What I mean by that is what I mentioned earlier. You approach the stall or pasture and the horse displays disrespectful behaviors. This is not a good sign because eventually it will lead to more violent behavior. This is not because the horse is mean, it is just normal horse behavior. Sometimes horses may be labeled as "rogue" and all that behavior shows is a lack of education from the human handler. Our safety is most important when working with any horse. Safety for the horse is secondary and in that way we take the leadership role.

Who's In Charge Here?

The difficult part is our learning to accept that our reality is different from that of the horse. Once we accept that, we must teach the horse to behave differently. You may need help with this task. Unfortunately, a lot of the barns are not keen on polite ground manners. I see this in the hunter/jumper and dressage world. There are a lot of good riders and the horses do well under saddle but they do not have good ground manners. They are not polite and do not respect the handler's space. They are always in the handler's front or back pocket. Here, we start horses with ground work, leading, stopping, backing, and standing as well as lunging and concentrated circles. Videos of these lessons are good and I sell videos that teach ground work and provide useful tools for teaching ground manners. However, you really need to partner up with someone you trust who can help you teach your horse in the correct way. Sometimes when we watch a video or read a book we don't correctly interpret what we are seeing or reading. You need to find someone and be willing to assert yourself and be the leader that your horse wants you to be.

You only have two options, either you or your horse is the leader. It can be like a bad relationship where one partner is abusive. We tolerate the behavior because we think the partner loves us. No partner who abuses you mentally or physically loves you, and your horse will not respect you if you don't assert yourself. We always need to remember that it is in the nature of the horse to be a leader or a follower. You need a relationship with your horse where you are the leader and the horse looks to you for leadership. Interestingly, once you get in control of a horse's feet, you will be in control of his mind. You will be surprised how attentive the horse will be to you. You will be surprised how much attention he will pay to you.

We just finished a clinic here on ground work and handling human fear. The horses in the clinic were totally disrespectful and the people were way too concerned about the well being of the horses. We had to let those horses know that there were new leaders in town. We didn't use a baseball bat or any chains but we did use a lead rope and a dressage stick. It took a lot of perseverence and patience to get these horses to respect their handler's space. These lessons will need to be repeated consistently until the horses have totally learned respect.
If your horse pushes into you, does not back up, does not move over when you ask him to move over at the hitching post or in the cross ties, and does not lunge correctly, he does not respect your space. You do not have a broke horse. You need to deal with him before he hurts you. I hope this helps.

God Bless,
Charles Wilhelm