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Category: Horse Leadership

Posts referring to training the horse the know you are the leader. Horses need to know in every encounter who the leader is. It’s a life and death instinct for them. If you don’t quickly establish yourself as the leader, your horse will become the leader for that encounter. It’s a new question for every encounter but over time your horse can learn that you are always the leader. Or so we’re told.

Who’s the Boss?

Who’s the Boss?

I was working on updating some posts with better quality photos when I came across this unpublished post from nearly 12 years ago. I don’t know why I didn’t publish it but here it is. Look at how little The Kid was. Wow!

Pushy horse

A few days ago a storm started blowing into our area, bringing lots of lightning. Mikki read some horror stories of horses being struck by lightning and ever since then we’ve made it a habit to bring the horses in whenever possible during lightning storms. Usually, when they hear thunder they head towards the barn, expecting to be let in but on this day they were nowhere to be found. Rather than standing around waiting, I grabbed a single carrot (this is important later) and headed into the pasture to round up our tardy horses. I found them as far back in the pasture as you can get (of course) and since they weren’t following because I’m good looking, I opted for the old carrot on the stick routine, only my arm was the stick. This worked well…too well. Valentine and Moonshine both love carrots. They love them so much they want to eat the wiggly carrot-looking things that are holding the carrots. Hey, if it smells like a carrot it must be a carrot, right? Knowing I had a long way to walk back to the barn, I cleverly broke the single carrot into pieces and gave them each a small piece. Okay, now let’s all move to the barn now. Moonshine, being the more gentle one, followed with interest. Valentine, however, being the 6-year-old gelding and alpha-male extraordinaire decided he wanted more carrot NOW, passed me and cut me off to show how serious he was. I went around him, he followed and nudged me with his head. HEY! It was clear to me at this point that I hadn’t adequately established myself as the herd leader upon my arrival into the pasture, therefore Valentine assumed this position and was trying to boss me around.

So the lesson here for me is to learn more about making sure it’s known I’m the herd leader. Not the big scary human, not the yelling crazy guy who sometimes gives out carrots, but also not the manure-shoveling underling who’s holding back those tasty wiggly carrot fingers.

Mule Pedicure

Mule Pedicure

Thursday was horse shoeing time. Our horses are familiar with this routine and mostly stand patiently while our farrier trims their hooves and fits them with shiny new shoes. When you have a good farrier, the horses don’t seem to mind much.

We jokingly suggested that Jazzy the mule should have hers trimmed, too, and laughed it off because as sweet as she is, she’s not one for being manhandled. Surprisingly, our farrier agreed to do it, predicting she wouldn’t be much trouble. Turns out he was right. He established leadership and haltered her and proceeded to trim her little hooves without her offering much objection at all. It’s probably a good thing I’m not a betting man, because I would have lost money on that one. Her feet look great!

Mule hoof trimming

Introducing a new horse to an established herd

Introducing a new horse to an established herd

Okay, so Jazzy is a mule and not a horse but the process and experience was the same when we introduced Cash and Romeo. Well, almost the same. Jazzy only weighs about 500 pounds, half the weight of most of our horses. We knew she was more vulnerable to the bullying that comes with herd introduction. Her body couldn’t take as many kicks and she wouldn’t be able to outrun any of our horses. And she didn’t yet know the pasture.

Jazzy the mule looking at her new horse family
Jazzy looks to the barn as Moonshine is turned out.

This is the approach we took:

  1. Barn Intro – First we put her in the barn. The horses knew immediately that another equine had just arrived and were waiting by the barn to see what was going on. Jazzy lived with horses so this wasn’t new for her. Through the barn gate everyone met (wish I snapped a picture of this). We kept Jazzy in the barn for a few days so the horses got used to her being there. Normally we would have put a new equine in a round pen in the pasture so everyone could sniff and run around in circles in the early days but we’re using the round pen sections as a temporary fence.
  2. Pasture Intro – Time to switch. We wanted Jazzy to explore her new home beyond the barn. She’d need to know the boundaries, where the natural food supply was and where she could go to get away. We also have a run-in barn for inclement weather. So the horses went into the main barn and the mule went into the pasture. We were surprised that she didn’t leave the barn area. Over the next few weeks we discovered she’s a follower and has no interest in being alone. To this day I don’t think she’s seen all of the pasture.
  3. First Horse (Valentine) – After a few days of keeping them apart, it was time to let them mingle. We started by letting out the lowest ranking horse, which is Valentine. He’s docile, not caring much about his position in the herd. He’s never started a fight. Valentine immediately went to Jazzy to smell her. Although at first she was nervous, it wasn’t long before they were eating near each other.
  4. Second Horse (Romeo) – A few hours later, it was Romeo’s turn. We thought he was our next least aggressive horse but this turned out to not be true. Romeo, an Appaloosa, is our smallest horse. It wasn’t many years ago when he was the new guy and the other horses ran him hard around the pasture. I felt sorry for him at the time but he ended up second in command. I guess he wanted to make sure Jazzy knew this because he immediately bullied her. Horses are smart. He toned it down when we were around but the minute we were out of sight he let her have it. It took Jazzy a little time to figure out she should not run into corners. Eventually Romeo settled down to eat from the hay ring but he wasn’t letting Jazzy near it.
  5. Third Horse (Cash) – A few hours went by and it was time to turn out Cash. I worry about him around other horses. He’s insecure in his position in the herd (second from the bottom) and I was afraid of what that would mean for Jazzy. Cash surprised me and mostly ignored Jazzy.
  6. Last Horse (Moonshine) – When I saw Cash wasn’t going to be trouble, I turned out Moonshine as well. I left her for last because she’s the herd boss and demands the utmost in obedience from her subjects. But she too gave Jazzy little more than a sniff and headed for the hay.
Lessons learned

It seems clear now that Romeo is the herd enforcer. He’s the right hand man for the queen, handling her dirty work. Over the next few days, the horses all ran Jazzy around the pasture briefly and it started with her running from Romeo. With horses, when one runs, they all want to run. But Jazzy’s submissive nature allowed her to integrate quicker. Within three days of sharing a pasture together, Jazzy was grazing near her new herd. They won’t allow her to eat with them when all four are at the hay ring but if one or two are there, she’s allowed to join in. She did have to endure some kicking and biting. In fact, during those first few days, she ended up with several bite marks on her back, one of which needed wound dressing. But things are good now.

Lastly, having two round bale hay feeders (or hay rings) makes a big difference when you have more than two equines or if some of them don’t get a long. We added the second one as an experiment last year. We’re able to keep round bales in two locations, far enough apart that no one horse can dominate both food sources. This has worked out very well at our place and the cost was minimal.

Bombproof horses in New Orleans

Bombproof horses in New Orleans

We hear a lot of people talk about “bombproof” horses, especially when advertising one for sale.  While on vacation recently in New Orleans I captured this short video of what I think of when I hear that term. I’m afraid my horses would react differently to all of these distractions! Kudos to the trainers of the New Orleans police horses!

More on Moonshine

More on Moonshine

Bandaged LegWe had the vet out to look at Moonshine yesterday. She had good news for us – she says it looks like just a sprain, and there’s no evidence of serious damage to either her leg or her insides. Both hind legs are swollen, especially the left. We sprayed it down with a cold hose for a while, then Kristina slathered it with Magna-Paste, wrapped it and gave her a shot of Banamine, an anti-inflammatory. (Since she was poking her already, she did her spring vaccinations too. If ya’ll haven’t done that yet, it’s time.) She left more Magna-Paste and dressings with the trainer, with instructions to cold-hose it again in the morning and re-wrap it if it was still swollen. Unfortunately, our planned ride tomorrow will not include Moonshine, because she will need a few days to recover.

Now that the medical side is under control, we have to address the bigger question: is Moonshine safe to ride? Three experienced horse people – Shari, the trainer and our vet – think she may be too dangerous based on this incident. We want to heed their advice, because obviously they’re about a zillion times more knowledgeable than we are. But part of us (is it the emotional part, or the logical part?) thinks that since she has never done anything remotely like this, there must be a logical explanation. We had suggested that perhaps she was stung by something. Bill suggested yesterday that it might have been fire ants. They are very common here, and both her actions and her symptoms both fit that theory – when Bill was stung on the leg by fire ants last summer, his leg swelled up like crazy. Both her back legs are swollen, and she certainly didn’t hit that car with her hind end. But the vet says the swelling is due to muscle strain, not the impact, and the trainer says that even if she had been stung by something, she shouldn’t have gone nuts like she did. He says he’s been riding a horse when it was stung by wasps and it didn’t go crazy. (That horse is tougher than I am – I most certainly did go crazy when I was stung by wasps!)

So what do we do? Moonshine is a total sweetheart on the ground – affectionate, calm, obedient, gentle. Her only problem thus far was that she “crow-hopped” when being ridden, usually at a canter. We were making progress with that – the trainer said that she never did it if he longed her before riding, so we just planned to longe her before every ride, and Bill would learn how to react if she did do anything funny. But now we have a horse that may or may not be unpredictable (like any horse isn’t). Shari has long been of the opinion that we should sell her, but who would buy a 10-year-old horse without an impressive bloodline that few people can ride? We’d have to sell her at auction, most likely, and her future would not be bright. We couldn’t do that. So if we can’t ride her, we’ll have a very expensive pet for the next 20 or so years.

She will be coming home from the trainer the middle of next week. Shari has promised to ride her on our trail rides together, to get a feel for how unpredictable she might really be. I guess we’ll just evaluate her over the next few months and see how she does.

So please keep us and our sweet, nutty Moonshine in your prayers. We’ll all need them while we work through this, hopefully with no further injuries to either horse or riders.

We Have a Round Pen!

We Have a Round Pen!

Yesterday evening we went over to our favorite horse friends’ house and picked up a portable arena they weren’t using. We loaded it onto our trailer when we got there, enjoyed a nice dinner with their family, and headed home a little after 9:00 p.m. So do you think we parked the trailer somewhere and left it for tomorrow? Heck, no! We were out in our dark pasture with the truck lights on, plus our Jeep facing in from the other way, hauling that thing off the trailer and setting it up. If we didn’t have to get the Kid to bed for school, we probably would have tried it out with a horse. We’re so excited!

We have eleven 10′ panels plus a 5′ gate; that gives us a round arena (well, eventually it will be round; it was pretty dark out there when we were setting it up) – that’s about 37′ across. Just about perfect for working a horse with a longe line. Also, it’s not so big that my Tennessee Running Horse can take me for too much of a ride. 😉

And, just in time, we’re supposed to start getting cooler weather this week. I do have this big project I’m working on with a deadline looming…but I’ll find a way to squeeze some arena time in too.

Did I mention that we’re really excited? We are really excited!

Purina Horse Owners Workshop

Purina Horse Owners Workshop

Purina Horse Owners WorkshopLast week we attended a Purina Horse Owners Workshop presentation at one of our local feed stores here in east Tennessee. Purina seems to put these on annually and we attended a similar presentation last year at a different feed store. The objective for Purina is obvious: convince us to buy Purina brand horse feed. Even though we expected part of the event to be a sales presentation, we were interested in the opportunity to listen in on a question-and-answer session by cowboy and “horse whisperer” Sam Powell.

Sam has been the speaker for both presentations we’ve been to so far and I’m always impressed with his common-sense approach to horses. He advocates observing how horses deal with leadership in nature as an effective means of communicating to your horse that you are the herd leader. His most important point is that with horses, there is always a leader. Every time you meet, a leader is decided. If it’s just you and your horse, and you don’t take the leadership role, he will. There are many ways to subtly show him you’re in charge. For example, Sam suggests that you never just let your horses in and out of the barn – as we do (he says “they’re not cows”). He says to halter your horse each time and lead him in and out. When you’re letting him out, lead him out, remove the halter, then walk away. Your horse should not walk away until you do. When you let him in, lead him to the stall, stop at the door and allow him to walk in while still holding the lead rope. He will turn around to face you; then you can remove the halter and lead rope. (An added benefit to this method is that it makes it much easier to trailer a horse if he’s used to entering a space alone after you’ve stopped in the doorway.)

Sam offers lots of good advice every year. If you have the opportunity to hear him speak, we highly advise it. Check out his schedule at (2019 EDIT: that website is dead so I removed the link. Here is a nice Sam Powell biography, though.).

Purina Horse Owners WorkshopOh, and an excellent barbecue dinner was provided at no charge to participants but you have to RSVP. This year supper included barbecued chicken and all the fixings, as well as a delicious desert. Tasty and filling (thanks Purina, Critter Country and other sponsors!). Product samples and literature were available and enough door prizes were given out that it seems almost everyone won something. Purina handed out special buy-two-get-one-free coupons and other discounts to entice us to buy their brand of feed. So when next year rolls around, if we get news of another Horse Owners Workshop, we’ll definitely be signing up again. It was time well spent.

We’ll write later about how we’ve been using Omolene 100, Purina’s sweet oat blend for “active pleasure horses”. For now, I’ll say we’ve been very pleased with it, even though it is a tad more expensive than the feed store mix. More about all that later.

Have you been to one of these presentations yet? What was your impression?

By the way, we have no connection with Purina or Critter Country and were not paid anything to say nice things about them.

For more information and to see if they have a Horse Owners Workshop near you, visit the Purina website.

Taking your horse for a walk

Taking your horse for a walk

Horse ready for a walk

Temperatures were in the upper 50’s today, warm enough to make me want to be outside, doing chores I’ve been putting off. One of the fun chores I’ve been putting off is saddling up my horse Moonshine to get her familiar with having a saddle on her back. She had been ridden by previous owners but not often. In fact, the first time I “rode” her, she reared up and dumped me off the back. I’ll have to write about that someday. I’ve ridden her since without incident, but hardly at all. It’s time to start enjoying this pony from a saddle. In the absence of a round pen, which we’re working on buying/building, we have a few options for working our horses. We could longe them (halter and lead them in around in a circle with the lead rope, using a whip to gently coax) and saddle them and walk them around to get them familiar with having a saddle on their backs again. We did some walking today. I have this new saddle and wanted to attach everything and adjust it for my horse. The first thing I noticed was just how stiff my new saddle is. I mean it’s like a pair of new cowboy boots that needs breaking in before it’s comfortable. Next, it occurred to me that riding horses is probably not something you decide to do when you have a half-hour to spare. It takes that long just to brush your horse and strap a saddle on. (We weren’t in a rush or anything – I just had this revelation that horseback riding isn’t something you could probably do on your work lunch break.)  Although it took us a while to strap this new saddle on, Moonshine was patient. This is the first time in a while she’s had access to all the yummy green grass in our yard so she was content just standing there eating. Once we had the saddle on and adjusted, of course I had to sit on her to make sure the stirrups were long enough. I admit, I’m still a little nervous getting on this bolt of lightning but this time I had my cowboy boots and long jeans on and figured our lawn was soft. I didn’t ride her but I mounted her 3 times without incident. Mikki and I then walked her down the street past some neighbor homes. She seemed to not want to go near the caged yappy dogs down the road but reluctantly agreed after some coaxing. We’ll have to keep up the walking to desensitize her to barking dogs.

As I mentioned in Vacationing with horses on my mind, I recently spent some time in Arizona and got to ride a horse while I was there. As I’m riding along at dusk, some pit bull comes running over to us and the first thing I think is “crap, what if this horse is afraid of dogs and takes off?” Fortunately for me, that didn’t happen. The horse I rode was pretty laid back and didn’t mind all the other dogs we encountered on that ride, including lots that would wait until we were near their fence and then run out towards us, barking viciously. That’s how I need Moonshine to be.

So for now, we’ll be walking our horse like a dog. In fact, Mona over at the Horse Approved blog wrote about that very subject earlier this month in her post Walk Your Horse Like a Dog. Not only does it get them familiar with your neighborhood and your tack, I have to agree with Mona that it’s good bonding time.

Love Bites, Horse Style

Love Bites, Horse Style

Someone recently commented on Bill’s post about our horses trying to eat our fingers, and it occurred to me that I really ought to address the issue of horse bites.

Yes, horses do bite; some more than others. Usually, it’s a natural part of horse behavior. Horses have various ways of communicating, and biting each other is a big part of that – from friendly “nips” to show love, to more insistent bites to get another horse to move, to actual biting in an aggressive way. Horses can hurt each other pretty badly this way (always be careful when introducing horses to each other – yet another future post topic), but usually the bites are light enough that they don’t do any serious damage.

It’s a different story, however, when a horse bites a human. Our skin isn’t nearly as tough as horsehide, and I can tell you from personal experience that horse bites hurt. Now, horses bite humans for pretty much the same reasons that they bite each other. We are, after all, part of their herd, and they need to communicate with us too. They will nip you in a friendly way to say “hi.” They will nip you if you’re standing somewhere they don’t want you to stand to politely ask you to move. They will nip in anger or to show you they’re the boss. As you can guess, this natural behavior is another way that they can unwittingly hurt us simply because they are so much bigger and more powerful. So naturally, you need to discourage that behavior.

As we have been reminded in comments to our post referenced above, horses will also bite you if you habitually feed them treats by hand. We do indeed feed apples, carrots and other treats to our horses by hand, but this is strongly discouraged by most people. There are a couple of reasons for this: one, their aim isn’t all that good and they will accidentally suck in fingers or even a whole hand with their treat. Two, once the threat is gone, they may not realize it because your hand still smells like the treat or they just expect it to be there. Three, even if your hand didn’t recently hold a treat, if you usually offer one when you greet them and didn’t bring one this time, they may just take a bite anyway. So the best advice is to feed all treats out of a bucket. That’s an easy way to prevent injury and bad habits.

So, if your horse already has the bad habit of nipping you, what do you do? Valentine was quite the nipper when we got him. I don’t think he ever meant it in a mean way; all his bites were gentle, “friendly” bites – that unfortunately left me with not-so-friendly bruises. Old-timers we talked to advocate smacking the horse when he bites you, but I personally cannot hit my horses. I yelled “No!” in a loud, firm voice and spread my arms out wide – the idea is to make yourself seem bigger. Valentine startled each time and backed up. I think that was just the reaction he needed to have. It showed that he recognized me as the boss and that he shouldn’t do whatever he just did. It worked – he hasn’t nipped me in months.

The key though, as with any bad behavior, is to not let it go on. Nip it in the bud, so to speak.

Watch Your Head!

Watch Your Head!

Funny face

After being stepped on a couple of times, it appears that I’m paying too much attention to the horses’ feet and not enough to their heads. The other day, we were doing our usual carefully choreographed routine to get both horses out of the nice, comfy barn out to the wide-open pasture. Now, the horses like being in the pasture (as long as it’s not raining, that is), but for some reason, they don’t like to go out there. It probably has something to do with the gooey, murky swamp of mud they have to cross to get there. So we have various tricks to maneuver them out there.

I have to say here that the RIGHT way to accomplish this is to halter each horse, lead them out to the pasture, stop them with a firm command, remove the halter, then walk away. The horse should not lead you out there, and should not walk away before you do. We have done it this way many, many times. However, unless we want to walk across the gooey, mucky mud-swamp, we have to take the horses out through the back of the barn, across our lawn and out through a different, drier gate. So every day, we have a choice: bring the keys, get each halter out of the tack room, halter each horse, negotiate a stall door and barn gate, drag said horse across the broad expanse of luscious, green grass, negotiate another, smaller gate, and release them in the pasture; or, just open a stall door and a barn gate and coax each horse out. We usually choose the lazier of the options. But do as we say, not as we do.

Anyway, this particular day Bill walked out to the pasture (through the “dry” gate) to lure the horses out there, while I managed the stall doors, one by one. We got the mare out (we still haven’t agreed on a barn name for her) without too much trouble, but Valentine had other ideas. Their stalls are on the west side of the barn, and his is closest to the gate. The hay is on the east side of the barn, diagonally from his stall. That’s where he wanted to be, and I was between the two. Now, he could have forced the issue – being twice my height and, we’ll say, 10 times my weight. But, lucky for me, he does respect me. However, in his search for a way past me rather than over or through me, he turned his head rather abruptly and completely clocked me upside the head. I gotta tell you, that HURT. I don’t remember any stars, but I swear I felt something shift up in there. I got a very noticeable lump on my left temple and any pressure in a 6-square-inch area up there was extremely painful for a couple of days. In fact, it’s been 6 days since it happened, and it still hurts to touch. (I know, I know, don’t touch it, then.)

So watch out for the top AND bottom of the horse. At the same time.