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Aggressive behavior with dressage horse

Hello Franklin,

I am writing to ask about possible causes for a certain behavior under saddle. I ride an 18 y/o Level 2 Dressage Appaloosa. He is a school horse, and we have been together for a couple of years. He loves to work, although he requires a strong presence. Although we typically have a couple of 'discussions' during warm-up, he quickly engages and seems very happy. However, he is a well-known bully with some instructors (kicking and biting on the ground) and with other horses, but I have a great instructor that keeps me confident and relaxed but also tells me we don't have time for his 'issues' and to ride him through it. This has worked well and other riders in my class aren't afraid to come close anymore. He still tries to go after himself in the mirror, but I ride him through that now, too. However, last week he threw two riders and bolted, racing around the ring and going after other horses. When I rode him later he tried with me, but I didn't allow it and moved him into a canter before he could engage his hind quarters elsewhere.

Finally, my question: What causes this aggressive behavior with instructors on the ground and with other horses under all conditions (he doesn't even have a turn-out buddy anymore because he beats them up!)?

He is SOOO happy when he's working, and so affectionate after hard work? What is he communicating and how can I get him to stop?

Thanks! Hillary

Hi Hillary

Your horse is definately a bully as you pointed out. In a herd, the bully is oftentimes handled by a lead mare through being able to outsmart the bully with a swift kick to the butt or gut. This is a consequence, not a punishment for the behavior. The only consequence you can provide is work. All movement is work for a horse. So, whatever work you can put the horse to doing immediately when he does this behavior, would be good. Hind quarter yields, asked for firmly and with plenty of rotations in both directions, I think are an excellent consequence when the animal is being ridden. It is different on the ground and needs to be handled immediately upon the hrose begin aggressive (without punishing the horse).

Many dressage and English trained horses (western too) are really not thoroughly trained for ground manners, nor totally 'sacked out.' Because of this, if they are bullies at all, they can be aggressive as they have never been completely conditioned to respect a handler's space. This is very common all over the world. Someone who is very good at training on the ground could train the behavior out of the horse. A round pen would be helpful. If the training on the ground is done, it will help the situation when the horse is under saddle as well. Horses get habitual easily (don't we all actually). So, if this horse has gotten away with the behavior for a while it is definately ingrained in him and habitual. Habits are hard to change for us all. The instructors have probably made the problem worse by going to diciplin and punishment rather than consequences. My experience is that instructors may be good at teaching riding, but not so good at training horses much for basic attitude, respect and ground handling. They are paid to teach riding and that is their interest and focus and where they want to put their time.

Inquire about the horse's diet. Is he getting too many carbohydrates or too much 'hot' feed? If yes, this is part of the problem (decent grass hay only). He is really getting enough exercise and turnout? Is his routene boring to him now (not enough variation to keep his interest)? If you consider his behavior stallion like, then check hormone levels. As he is 18 years old, and if this has been the way he has always been, there is not much you can do without a fair amount of time put into retraining him. Get very good at providing consequences. Practice the turns on the forehand a lot, before you really need to provide them as a consequence. It needs to be like breathing for you and the horse. On the ground, someone who really is good and understands consequences as opposed to punishment, is what is needed. Good Luck and please keep me posted.

Sincerely, Franklin

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