How to Help a Horse with Aggressive Response Behavior

Aug 16, 2021

A Trilogy: Morning Star, Chip, and Palomino Pevine 

What causes horses to be aggressive? It can be complicated. The answer to aggressive behavior is best handled by understanding the individual horse and the cause that brought out the aggression. Ordinarily, if you don't push a horse, a horse is naturally passive and will stay to himself or choose to bond. 

In a natural herd, you will see aggression from a lack of space, food, and the initial adjustment period of horses coming into an established band. 

Once harmony is established, aggression does not exist among horses and humans. The stories I will share are meant to help you better understand how to help a horse let go of aggression. What is interesting is that it doesn't take much to fix aggressive behavior because the nature of horses is to be harmonious.  

Morning Star                                                       

When I look back at my experiences with aggressive domestic horses, one of the horses that comes to mind is a yearling stud colt named Morning Star.  Morning Star, of Andalusian blood, was a long yearling who was optimistic and light-hearted except when it came to people. Genetically he was hard-wired to be leery of humans. It was not safe being in his paddock. He was unpredictable. I wore a heavy jacket to protect myself from his biting habit. His elevated fear showed up as attacking behavior if he was in close proximity to you. He felt that humans could hurt him. I was cautious putting on his halter. When I would try to lead him,  he would freeze. When he did move,  it was to strike, rear, or crowd. Yet, I could pick up his feet to clean them easily with no resistance. He did not want to be touched on the front half of his body from the legs up.  He was fine about his lower legs. 

Even though he did not trust people,  he did enjoy hanging out with them, but he thought he needed to keep his distance. After observing his behavior, it made sense to me that his problem was exacerbated by a painful vaccination shot. It turned out that this had indeed happened to him. I figured this out by paying attention to what he would allow and what he would not allow. He liked hanging out with me as long as I did not try to touch him or ask him to move. There were times he would follow me around at liberty on his own when it was his idea to do so.  Bit by bit, at these times, he chose to Companion Walk with me at liberty in his paddock. Sometimes, I would try to direct him by walking in patterns to a given spot where a treat was waiting for him. After about three months, he came around to trust human leadership with the people he knew from his desire to Companion Walk with us. That led to touching him as we were walking. Standing and touching were more of a challenge,  but bit by bit he became entirely comfortable with humans.  

If Morning Star had been reprimanded and pushed at the times he had aggressive outbursts I feel he would not have come around to trusting people. When a horse has trust issues, forcing them into trust is never accepted by them. 

Rather than trying to train a horse while he is defensive and aggressive, the better way to approach rehabilitation is to socialize them through Sharing Territory and to set up personal boundaries that gain respect and to remove personal boundaries when they are softly connected. Understanding the use of flexible boundaries is very important. 

Chip                                                                              

Chip was another story. Chip was a mustang raised in the Badlands of South Dakota in a herd of wild mustangs. The herd, I prefer to call a tribe, he came from were tough and had a lot of aggressive behavior I was told.  He came to me as a colt; shaping his behavior was one of the more challenging tasks I had faced and turned out to be the easiest to fix. He was just a bit older than Morning Star. He was strong and thought he was stronger than any horse or human and looked forward to putting anyone in their place. He had no fear. I can’t even call him a bully because bully horses are fear-based and angry. I saw a video of him at three months old driving all the horses in his herd away from a feeder that was put out for wild horses when food was scarce. It was put out by a non-profit to help the Badland herds. Because the herd that he grew up in did not correct him at an early stage of life, he had plenty of practice believing that he needed to dominate through force. He became fixated on being aggressive. The people observing wild horse behavior in the Badland horses had remarked to me that they had never seen such an aggressive colt, and the power he had over other horses was amazing. 

He played out his aggression by driving you away and then if that did not work he would try to mule kick you out of the area. 

By accident, I found his one weakness that caused me to be able to turn his aggressive behavior around. When I went to refill his water bucket he would move away from the splashing water. This became the way I was able to stop him from charging me without drama and reprimand. I threw his food into his bin that was about twenty feet from the water bucket. When he was eating, I lowered a chair over the fence into his corral next to the water bucket and then went into the corral and ran to the chair to sit down and began splashing water. This way, he left me alone when I sat with him while he was eating. Once I got in charge of my personal space and Sharing Territory, any time he was near me and acted like he was going to get aggressive I held my ground by moving him away with a splash. In a shorter time than Morning Star, Chip no longer had a chip on his shoulder. He gave up his obsessive aggression. When he arrived in “training”, Chip had a chip on his shoulder for just about everything. He was also optimistic for he knew he was king of whatever he surveyed. He just liked being aggressive. I broke his obsessive behavior and replaced it with the bond I was able to develop with him. Our hanging out together became nurturing to him more than his need to be aggressive and dominate everything around him. He turned into a gracious lad and he even stopped picking on horses. I spent time with him with other horses helping him to connect rather than sending them away.  

There were multitudes of horses with aggressive behavior that came in training with me over the years. All were turned around over social interaction around personal space and Sharing Territory. I brought home to them what made them whole again through friendship sharing in connection and harmony.  I never approached a horse uninvited.   

Palomino Pevine 

Of all the aggressive horses I have helped, the one that stood out the most was a stallion I so admired by the name of Palomino Pevine, an American saddlebred undefeated high point champion parade horse. I made a connection with him at a horse show that I was showing at when I was thirteen years old. He was dangerous on the ground. He hated people. When he was walked after a class, he would try to grab at people, rear, jump, and try to run off. His handlers used a chain over his lip to control him. 

From falling in love with him and admiring his character and amazing spirit in his performances, I was able to find a way into his heart without doing anything at all. This knowledge inspired and empowered me to bring horses and humans to a harmonious partnership. 

I began Sharing Territory with Pevine at night after everyone had retired. Initially, many nights he would snap at me if I tried to look at him through the cracks in the boards of his stall. Eventually, he developed a need for my company that took the aggression out of him. I learned that by Sharing Territory, magically, the horse and I formed a bond. 

From what I learned from Pevine, I discovered that Sharing Territory led me to all the answers to erase the horse’s fear, anger, and aggression. From just hanging out with them I found answers that spontaneously surfaced to turn the horse around - like Chip from his response to the splash of water and Morning Star wanting to Companion Walk with me learning at his own pace to enjoy the company and companionship of humans.

When you are in the business that I am in, you will get the unusual and extreme cases, as exemplified in the Chip, Morning Star, and Palomino Pevine stories. However, most horses are not inherently aggressive. Most aggression is created by improper leadership or a lack of it. We can look scattered, and horses do not in any way trust scattered leadership. Some of the things that bring about aggression are how we interact with them by what we allow and what we do not allow or leading when we do not know how along with taking a horse for granted or being afraid of the horse. Also, not staying focused on how the horse is feeling in each given moment to adequately communicate with him, can cause aggression. And of course, the obvious, being aggressive toward a horse can cause the horse to be aggressive back. 

We are responsible for how a horse turns out because he is not free to live his life as if he were free in the wild. This puts all the responsibility on our shoulders. Horses need a sense of freedom and family bonds. They need leadership that builds a bond and a community of other horses. It is up to us to provide them with their basic needs in order to ask anything from them in return. If their needs are satisfied and we take the time to understand them by Sharing Territory and caring for them with unconditional love, our leadership can’t be anything but appropriate and we will bring them home to their harmonious nature. Pevine responded to the power of my love,  and I was nurtured by his presence alone. This is where it all starts. This is when a relationship becomes real. 

If you enjoyed this blog, take a look at our online courses on communicating with horses the way horses form bonds with one another that brings respect, order, leadership, trust, and harmony. You will learn how leadership is shared in a natural herd. It will empower your understanding of horses.  

May the horse be with you and stay on the lookout for new horse and human sightings. 

Warmly, Carolyn Resnick

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