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Aggression In Horses

Posted by vwkoch, in horse handling thoughts 29 May 2012 · 1,502 views

When horses lay their ears back at people, people usually punish them, because we don’t want our horses to be aggressive.  Sometimes, though, punishment just makes things worse.  Before punishing a horse for aggressive behavior, it is always best to understand why the horse is being aggressive.

In my experience, many horses lay their ears back at people due to fear.  They may also lay their ears back at other horses for the same reason.  This reaction is called “defensive aggression.”  The horse is afraid of being hurt by people or other horses, so he tries to avoid that possibility by using aggressive behavior to try to scare off the people or horses.  However, such behavior usually disappears very quickly if the person or other horse approaches instead of retreating.  The aggressive horse was merely threatening.  He never intended to fight, and if approached, he will retreat if possible.  If he can’t retreat, though, he should be approached with caution, because sometimes, VERY fearful horses will strike out in panic, which can be very dangerous indeed.

Punishing these scared horses only makes the aggression worse, because it just makes them more frightened.  If it succeeds in making them stop their threats, they might suddenly strike out without warning in a scary situation, because they have learned not to threaten, but they are still afraid.  It is important to learn to identify such horses, because the best treatment for their aggression is to remove their fear, not to make it worse by punishing them.

However, you never want to reward aggression, either.  These horses often threaten people from their stalls, and the best approach is to ignore them until they stop threatening, THEN offer some sort of reward.  The reward could be a food treat or simply leaving the area so that the horse’s fear is reduced.  Treats are useful, though, because in addition to reducing the horse’s fear, you also want to make him see people as being positive parts of the environment.  When a defensive aggressive horse begins approaching people looking for treats, rather than threatening them to chase them away, then you know that you’ve made real progress.

Animals learn aggressive behavior because it is rewarded.  Fearful horses are rewarded when they use defensive aggression because they get people or other horses to leave them alone.  Other horses are rewarded by getting something else they want.  For example, a horse may learn to threaten to bite because it makes people leave him alone so he doesn’t have to work.  Many trainers call such aggression “dominance aggression”, but the horse isn’t really trying to be dominant to the person.  Dominance is expressed when two animals both want one resource.  A horse threatening to bite to get out of working is just trying to get his way.  He’s not fighting somebody for a resource.  Usually, he’s not even serious about biting.  He’s just THREATENING to bite because he’s learned that such threats get him out of working (although, if the threat doesn’t work, some horses will take the next step and try actually biting).

Punishment may work to make such a horse stop biting, but it may also make things worse.  Depending on the horse’s personality, he may respond by getting even more aggressive, to try to avoid the punishment as well as the work.  A better approach is simply to ignore the threats and remove the horse’s reward for using them.  In other words, don’t let him get out of working because he is threatening to bite.  You can also teach the horse to perform an alternate behavior in order to get a reward.  For example, if he threatens to bite when you tighten the girth, you could teach him to touch his nose to the lead rope knot when you say “knot.”  Then, before you tighten the girth, you tell him “knot”, tighten the girth only a teeny bit, and reward him with a treat if he keeps his nose on the knot while you do the tightening.  Eventually, you may find that he will touch the knot on his own when you start tightening the girth, instead of trying to bite.  Once he stops trying to bite, you will not have to reward him EVERY time you tighten the girth, but you may want to do so anyway, and you should at least reward him often enough that he will continue to see having the girth tightened as being a good thing, rather than a bad thing.

Many trainers tell people not to feed treats “because it teaches a horse to bite”, and they are totally wrong in that interpretation.  Some horses will get pushy if you feed them treats, because they really want those treats.  If you give a horse a treat when he’s being pushy, you’ve rewarded him for being pushy, so you’ve taught him to be pushy, and he may eventually start biting.  However, it wasn’t feeding treats that taught him to bite.  It was feeding treats when he was being pushy that taught him to bite.  If you feed him treats only when he’s NOT being pushy, he will learn to behave properly.  As with any type of aggression, if you ignore the pushiness and remove the horse’s reward for being pushy, he will stop such misbehavior.  If you reward him only when he waits nicely for the reward, then he will learn to wait nicely.  Feeding treats doesn’t teach a horse to bite.  Poor handling teaches a horse to bite.

Another type of aggression is “play aggression.”  Sometimes, young horses will nip at people because that’s how horses play.  Punishment can make that type of aggression worse, too.  If you slap the nose of a horse that’s nipping at you in play, it may think that the slap is your way of joining in the game, and it will keep on nipping at you because it’s enjoying the play.  When the two of you are miscommunicating this way, bad things can happen.  Again, the best response is to ignore the behavior and get the horse to do something good that you can reward him for, so that he learns that other behaviors are better than biting.

Finally, horses may become aggressive if they are in pain.  Punishing such horses simply amounts to abuse.  If a horse that is usually well-behaved suddenly becomes aggressive, it’s probably a good idea to have him examined by a vet.

The problem with punishment is that it can be difficult to do properly, and when done improperly, it can make things worse.  For example, timing is critical.  If something else happens between the bad behavior and the punishment, the horse will think it’s the something else that he’s being punished for, and if something else happens EVERY time he gets punished, he will get confused.  As one trainer says, he “will just think you're pickin' on him. If he thinks that, you'll teach him to be mean.”  Depending on his personality, you may make him fearful instead of mean.  If a horse nips at you and a chair falls over and then you hit him, he’ll think you hit him because the chair fell over, and it wasn’t HIS fault, so you’re being totally unreasonable.  If punishment isn’t almost simultaneous with the bad behavior, it may be misunderstood, and such critical timing is often difficult to achieve.

Another problem is that intensity is also critical.  If the initial punishment is too weak, and you try gradually increasing it to try to find the level that works, you are just slowly getting the horse used to being punished, until it takes way too much punishment to be effective.  On the other hand, if the initial punishment is too strong, you may teach the horse to be afraid of you, which will destroy your ability to develop a good relationship.  Depending on the horse’s personality, he may get aggressive, try to fight back, and thus become dangerous.  Even worse, you may seriously hurt him.  Horses are pretty sturdy animals, especially when compared to people, but a hard hit with a hard object in the wrong place could still break a bone or cause some other serious damage.  If you use punishment, you should be aware of the possible problems it may cause, so you can try to avoid such problems.

The best way to deal with bad behavior is to take three important steps before even considering using punishment:

1. Determine what is causing the bad behavior.  For example, is fear or pain causing a horse to be aggressive?  If so, you need to try to eliminate the fear or pain.
2. Determine what is rewarding the bad behavior, and remove that reward.  For example, don’t reward a lazy horse by letting him get out of work when he acts aggressively.  Ignore the bad behavior and make him work in spite of it.
3. Determine how you can reward an appropriate behavior instead of the bad behavior, so that the horse is rewarded for being good.  Try to choose a behavior that can’t be performed at the same time as the bad behavior.  For example, teach a pushy horse to ask nicely to get a treat, instead of being pushy.

If you use these three steps correctly, you may never need to use punishment --- at least no more punishment than an occasional “No!”  Because punishment can cause fear and resentment, it should be avoided if possible.  You and your horse will both be happier if you can achieve that goal!

January 2015

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