Monday, October 28, 2013

Boundaries and Bad Behavior

I posted something similar to this (I think) about Tessa, so forgive me if I'm rehashing old stuff.  I would really like to know your opinions on this.

Where is the line between a horse showing you his opinion and expressing bad behavior?

Here's what brought this up.  I went out to visit Licorice yesterday.  It was super dark and gloomy in the morning, with a cold wind blowing leaves off the trees and a light drizzle.  The barn was empty.  I was already feeling reluctant about being there, as a giant pile of laundry was beckoning me to come home and be productive.  So I decided to just take Licorice out and groom him.

I put him in the crossties and ran my hand down his neck.  He was so soft and fuzzy and smelled like warm horse that I wanted to hug him.  So I did.  He was not a fan.  He pinned his ears and nipped at the air.  Or maybe at me but he didn't get me.  I couldn't see exactly clearly.  I backed off.  Then I moved to his shoulder and simply touched his shoulder with my body.  He pinned his ears.  I stepped back and put just my hand on his shoulder.  No reaction.

I tried it on the other shoulder.  Putting my hand on him as fine, but if I put my body up against him he pinned his ears.  If I kept my body close while putting my hand near his girth, he pinned his ears.

I didn't push the issue, but instead brushed him (with no pinning of ears during the process no matter where I brushed him) and then let him wander around the arena for a few minutes.

I want to get Licorice and I off to a good start and I'm wondering your opinions about what to do in this situation.  Here's my first thoughts:

1.  He's pinning his ears because he doesn't like being crowded that way.  Do I respect that?  Or do I tell him "Sorry buddy, it's not your choice if I crowd you."?

2.  Do I discipline for expressing his opinion or only if he actually tries to nip?   I'm trying to allow him to be himself, but I also want him to be a safe horse.  He was a beginner lesson horse at his previous barn and did not display this at all.  Though I don't think I crowded his shoulder there either.

3.  Is this unhappiness due to something else?  I don't think I can answer that without giving it more time.  If it escalates then it could be because his turnout is different at this barn and he doesn't get as much trail riding (his other barn had AWESOME trails and he went out  a few times a week, my barn has one sort of trail and we haven't even found it yet, so we've just gone down the driveway and we've only done that twice because I haven't found the courage to trail ride alone yet.)

I will be double checking the usual stuff like saddle fit, looking for signs of pain etc, but my instinct is that it's not those things since it was specific to me putting my body against his shoulder (not even leaning, just being there) and he wasn't sensitive to my hand.


  1. I'm glad you are checking into ideas of pain, etc. Like you said, what you are describing sounds like boundary issues. He just has different boundaries than you are used to. My old horse didn't like to be kissed on the nose. With time he learned to tolerate it. My current horse loves it, he's very snuggly. It could just be his personality. He also hasn't had a very long time to get to know and trust you yet. GIven all the other ways you have described his temperament, I think it's likely you just need to give it time to establish your relationship together. It might look different than what you are used to but it will evolve with time.

  2. For me, it depends on the relationship I have with the horse. Tucker can get away (anything short of) murder at this point because I know him well and he knows me well and he lets _me_ get away with (anything short of) murder, too. I hold a harder line with an unfamiliar horse; it's much easier (and much more fair, IMO) to relax boundaries than to tighten 'em up.

    That said, I would much rather have information about how the horse is feeling than have the horse toe the line right up until he explodes.

    So my rough guideline is, I accept what doesn't put me in danger and I address what does (or what doesn't yet but is escalating in that direction).

    I like a snuggly horse as much as the next guy. But my priority (and of course everyone gets to have their own priority!) is the working relationship, and my critters are allowed to have opinions and preferences. I would definitely take note if a previously snuggly horse suddenly didn't want contact, but if a horse just didn't enjoy being hugged, that would be perfectly fine with me.

  3. Mugwump Chronicles is currently in the middle of an excellent series on exactly that. Summary from her 2nd post: "I want to own that stallion who stands in a crowd without lifting a nostril.. but I don't want to put my horses through what it took to get (the majority)of them there. I have ridden some good horses that had very little personality.. or at least didn't show it.
    I want my horses to be rock solid citizens.. but I enjoy it when they are individuals as well.
    So, right now, I own some brats with manners. Still a mugwump..."

    Part 2

    Part 3

    There's a part one too, but it's not nearly as applicable as the other two parts.
    Part 1

  4. Ulcers can cause that sort of behavior, and so can things like Lyme - Pie actually bit someone pretty badly when he had Lyme, which was completely out of character for him. Or it could be static electricity.

    I tolerate "air biting" - Dawn's my only one who does this - but she understands very clearly that her lips and teeth are never to make contact with my body, never, ever. I'm a big fan of "oh, sorry, did your soft muzzle just run into my sharp finger?" as a corrective - they think they've done it to themselves.

    I'd be inclined to do some leading work with him to establish clear expectations about personal space, including moving out of your space if you move into his. And I wouldn't move away if he's crabby until the ears come forward - that way he gets a release for bad behavior instead of a release (you stepping away) for pinning ears, etc.

  5. I meant a release for good behavior - ears forward . . .

  6. I don't allow any kind of biting behavior. My horse can pin his ears and make snarky faces, swish his tail, etc to show his displeasure with something, but he is never allowed to "threaten" to bite me. I don't think it takes much to go from biting the air to biting me. He's still allowed to express his opinion, and it's my job to interpret that from his subtler actions, but he's not allowed to get aggressive about it.
    I need to be able to touch him anywhere on his body and for him to not make an issue of it. If it's something I know he doesn't like, I only do it when I have to. It sounds like he might be starting to test you though, see what he can get away with in his new environment.

  7. Some horses are just snarky - a lot of track horses are like this. I know my mare Penny likes her personal space, hates hugs and kisses but I give them anyways. I usually just make sure to stay out of bite range. I wouldn't stress over it.

  8. New reader here.
    This post really made me think. I am constantly struggling with the concept of over training and thereby losing Pippis personality in that process. I have chosen to call my goal "voluntary obediance."
    I think he is saying "I don't feel comfortable with you invading my space." Perhaps he was kicked by a horse on that side, a kick he didn't see coming and he now is a bit defensive. Whatever it is, I would respect it but push the boundary slowly over time. Perhaps have him enter your space instead, and rewarding it?
    That being said, looking into a physical reason is always a good idea. Great blog

  9. Mona! It's been too long--Congratulations on the new horse! I haven't read ALL of your newer posts yet, so forgive me while I comment uneducated-like.

    I don't allow any measure of snarkiness from my horses above a lip pursing. I think once you start down that road of allowing that kind of behavior, you get into muddy territory quite quickly. And it's confusing for them. So I draw that line in the sand pretty early. I'm the boss, and ear pinning will not be tolerated, period.

    That said...I have a good instinct for what the root cause of the ear pinning behavior is (pain vs annoyance). I'd say 99% of the time a horse with a good, conscientious owner (such as yourself) displaying threat behavior is in the "annoyance" category. He pinned, you backed off. He learned he can control YOU with his behavior, instead of the other way around.

    Also always good to keep in mind that horses learn from that release of pressure. I may touch my horses in ways that they consider unpleasant or unnatural (yes, I'm touching your belly/legs/mouth/anywhere, I need to be able to do that to check for injury, etc) but I always "reward" them by politely backing off when I'm finished and leaving them alone.

    If I get a threat behavior, I stomp it right there. In my opinion there isn't a situation where ear pinning at a human is justified, assuming you're sensitive enough to pick up on other clues of true discomfort (which you are! Trust your instincts! )

    Again...congrats!! You look so damned happy in your cover photo--I'm happy FOR you :)