Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Creating healthy boundaries - how to handle biting and playfulness with your horse.

                     We would like to share this great question and answer with you this week!

Hi Caroline - 
I love the blog.  Especially the last two installments with Dulce.  Perfect for reinforcing my round pen techniques.  I just started round pen training with Stormy and Sandman (he is our pony).  I wanted to watch the DVDs a few times before I gave it a try.  Things are going pretty well.  

Here is a question for you....  everyday before I put Stormy's halter on, I go in his stall and pet him on the face and neck and ask him to put his head down.  He licks and chews, which I know is good.  However, every now and then, while his head is low... the look in his eye will change suddenly and he will go after my shins with his teeth.  I always have my dressage whip with me and I shoo him away from my legs without hitting him or going after him aggressively. I just stand my ground and  get him out of my space.  Do I keep on keeping on?  Or is there something else I should try? 

My round pen question also has to do with teeth.... but a different energy behind them.  It seems that he really wants to play!  When I go in his paddock with him and call him over, he approaches with his ears up, I pet him on the face and neck.  He is constantly nipping and nibbling at me, like I am another horse and he is trying to play halter-tag.  I use my fingers to shoo him out of my space and tell him that teeth are not appropriate no matter what.  I am happy that it is not angry energy, but teeth=me getting hurt.  How do I cross this hurdle?  I don't know how to safely 'play' with him yet and I have a feeling that the 'friendly nibbling' is still a dominant behavior so I have to establish me as the leader before we try to 'play'.  What do you suggest?

Talk to you soon,

Hi Karen;

That's great, so glad it is helping you:)

Firstly, I never go into my (or any) horse's stall. Out of respect (it's always about space) I wait.  I will wait and if they don't greet me, I will ask them over to the door to partner up for the haltering. This is so important as it allows you to gauge, immediately, where your horse is emotionally/mentally - where your join up is or isn't. This becomes part of your (my) pre-flight system to safety too (as it's all about connection and partnership). The round penning approach was created to help you achieve this level of "initiation" where the horse has time to accept and trust you.

Secondly, everything we do is about positive reinforcement. We never address a challenge, issue, head on or directly. Rather we go about identifying the issue at hand and indirectly presenting solutions. Example; my horse won't come to me. Going after him or bribing him with grain/treats AND, a passive side of myself doesn't work (ex: "it's ok sweetie....I'm not going to hurt you"....as you walk timidly and softly....next thing you know, your run over). Before I know it, I've created a "cookie" monster and a horse that doesn't respect me as I am a push over. 
Solution: work on the ritual of the relationship, meaning create (like in our round penning) the environment, space that will support your endeavors to make you the "sweet" spot BALANCED with a little TLC. Through my rpenning dvd I talk about what horse's need - love and companionship and leadership. The first two come before the latter. And, the latter is just as important as you won't be able to go anywhere or achieve anything if you, as a leader, do not have clear and direct action/direction. Bottom line, work on asking him into you, like I do with Dulce, allowing him to find joy and comfort when he joins up with you - while calmly, clearly identifying your space.

In regards to being more playful, nipping...in a herd of horses, the lead or more dominant horse will not tolerate another nipping, unless he initiates it and engages in it. You need to be clear at identifying what is acceptable behavior and what isn't. Biting humans is not as we are much weaker and we need to maintain a status where we balance both partnership and leadership. This is how they relate naturally. In regards to understanding horse behavior, the more we understand what is innate, and natural to our equine friends - where we have the "right" to take charge and control, and where we belong in this relationship, the easier, safer and more enjoyable our friendship becomes and the more confident we are about reading and understanding the dynamic we share with them.

Again, it's all about sharing and taking space and when you have a dominant/alpha personality like Stormy's he is going to want to engage with you on his terms and this can be dangerous. This is where you can stay mentally and physically engaged with him but remind him where he belongs and all that means is that you are in charge of your space...use a carriage whip to help or lead line to reinforce your boundaries. Watching, listening to him and keeping the lines of communication open are key here as you are walking a fine line between bringing out both confident and un-confident behavior. Too much or too little can make or break it.

Have fun playing! And, please keep me posted!

- Caroline

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