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My calm horse has become aggressively dangerous.

Hi Franklin!

I acquired a very laid back horse over a year ago. I just ride him around the pasture and everything has been great up to now. I went to get on him for the first time in about 6 weeks (weather and work have prevented it up to now). I have gone several times for this amount of time and had no problems. I saddled him up and he was a little jittery. Nothing even major. I led him out to get on him and he was fine. I got on him and rode him maybe five minutes and he bolted and turned on me. He has never done that. There was absolutely nothing out to startle him, he just wanted to go back to the barn. I did not let him and he jumped and reared and turned to go to the barn. I rode him to the round pen and got off of him to run him a bit. This is when it got ugly. He did two turns around the round pen and turned and charged me. By slamming the whip in front of him I got him to back off, but then he turned and started to kick at me with his both his hind feet. He kept coming. I zigged, he zagged, but he kept coming. I tried using the whip to direct him away. He kept coming. He was literally running backwards and trying to kick me with both feet. A cat ran by the round pen and distracted him for a second. I stood still and so did he until I started to move then the whole thing started over again. He had his head turned back to look at me. I dodged to the other side and threw myself through the fence. I got out a split second before his hooves hit the fence where my head would have been.

I am totally baffled. We have never had any problems with this horse. Anyone could ride him at anytime. I have even round penned him before. We have had no issues up to this point. I have let small children on this horse! I really don't know what to do at this point. Please give me any ideas you may have on this. He is an 8 year old gelding purchased from an individual who used him as a recreational horse also. He has never been abused or mistreated. Looking forward to your answer.

Thank you, Kandy

Hi Kandy,

It is quite disturbing and scary when a horse we thought we knew and could trust suddenly becomes dangerous and aggressive. I get similar questions through my website’s free help center often. There are a number of possibilities going on here. Initially, my thought is that the horse, when you got back to the barn and pushed it around in the round pen as a punishment, was pushed into frustration so much that, as a very frustrated human might do, he lashed out at the source of the frustration, you. Equine feelings of frustration stem from and lead to outright fear. When a horse is fearful enough it will strike out. As I wasn’t there to actually experience or see what happened, I can only guess at a few reasons for his behavior.

You say after several minutes of riding that particular day, he turned and bolted back to the barn. You say there was no reason for this, that nothing startled him. This may not be the case as horses see much more than we do and even things very far away. They can spook at many things we would not see. This is a possibility for any horse, anywhere. So, I would not rule out that he got afraid enough to want to run back. Next thing is your energy when the incident happened. It sounds like you very quickly got angry as you felt he was doing this for no reason other than being stubborn or just plain bad. When we bring that energy to a horse, often they return it right to our faces and come at us in the same way we are behaving with them. This is how some wars begin. Additionally, he now had you on the run in the round pen and will remember he can intimidate you. Not good at all. When you started to punish his behavior in the round pen, that was the last straw for the horse. Your response to the incident is the reason he is now so aggressive, doesn’t trust you and has become dangerous towards you. If we punish a child for being afraid, his fear can easily turn to anger towards us. Kids kill parents sometimes. Horses kill their owners sometimes.

Some other possibilities here are: after 6 weeks of not being ridden, it would be a good possibility that something bad might happen as the horse is now in the habit of not doing anything. An easy warm up would have been prudent. When he was “jittery” when being saddle, this was his way of communication of a problem and you missed it completely. Also, the diet of the horse may be actually inappropriate. Too much high protein feed (either green grass, alfalfa or grain) and /or a recent change in diet, even a change in the weather can be significant. With abnormal behavior there are always many things to look at. Sounds like you were riding alone. If yes, when he did get afraid, there was no other horse around to look to for comfort. I always suggest it is good and safer to ride with a companion. Additionally, while hanging out in the pasture he may have hurt his back somehow and was not comfortable with you riding him and it just hurt too much after a short time. Or, his teeth may have been hurting him. Lots of things could be involved here.

When you round penned your horse it should not just be for exercise and never to punish or out of anger. In fact, exercise is the least of reasons to use a round pen with your horse and never to punish. The round pen is a tool to develop a bond with a horse that is strong and with highly develop trust at the core of the relationship. It needs to be a safe place for the horse to be with you. You don’t mention that at all. So, when the incident happened, rather than showing compassion and trying to find out the reasons, you punished the horse. This was the wrong response to what happened. Your horse had a history of good behavior. There was a real reason for the change and it was significant. You completely ignored this possibility and, as it seems from your description, immediately judged the animal as being bad. Judging horses as ‘bad’ is unfair. We really need to be looking at ourselves in where we may have contributed to the behavior. You were there and you were not a victim of the horse during any of it. You actually somehow have responsibility for all that occurred. Your horse is truly the innocent party here. But this might be difficult for you to accept as it seems you wish to blame the horse. I suggest more and very close scrutiny and thought about the incident.

Another thing to look at is quality time with your horse other than you riding it. Which, unless you are a superior rider, is a fairly one-sided proposition for your horse. Quality time on the ground is where your relationship is strengthened. If all we do is ride our horses, we have no relationship with them other than that we are the superior beings because we ride them. Therefore, they should be obedient (be a good boy every time you want to ride him no matter what). This is a huge mistake. You now have direct evidence of this. Lets say you feel you had a wonderful, trusting relationship with your horse. This does not guarantee he may not spook and bolt as he did. But it does guarantee your response would not be to punish the horse. Wisdom of the horse, your high level relationship with it and excellent knowledge of the animal’s psychology, probably would have given you the motivation and tools to respond differently.

To get back on track with your horse will take time, patience, skill and compassion. Mutual trust needs to be developed again. This will need to happen through very quiet and thoughtful experience with the horse, that is mutually successful. I urge you to have the development of trust be your only agenda for several months, even to the point that all you do is quiet, simple ground handling and not in the round pen for a while. Do not apply pressure! Make requests that are simple, clear and calm. Be quiet, precise and only ask for small, simple things. Reward each and every little effort with the removal of the pressure of asking for anything (i.e. stand peacefully for a few moments). An example of this is one-step-at-a-time and immediate reward of total peace for 30 seconds or so. You want to see the horse lick and chew and then sigh. This shows you that you are on the right track. Once you feel the horse is really coming to relax and trust you again, you can slowly begin to ask for a bit more. Its rather like being in a partnership with someone who lies to you or cheats on you. It might take some time for you to trust that person again. It is the same with your horse.

I know it may sound like I am bashing you and being very critical of you when you are seeking help. I do not mean to be hurtful or be rude to you. I am trying to help, truly. I am asking you to step up to the plate more, gain wisdom of horses, be more compassionate, don’t assume anything, do not judge, don’t anticipate, stay present and in the moment. Please go very slowly now. Let peace with your horse be your only goal, as THROUGH PEACE TRUST CAN COME. Consider giving up all anger and blame. Consider releasing control. Consider bringing your absolute best to your horse at all times. Consider putting his need for peace and trust be before your own desire to ride. You can look at this situation is a huge opportunity for your own personal growth and advancement of your horsemanship. If you do, your horse will truly love you. He may bolt again, but you will know how to deal with it and he will not attack you. Good Luck and please keep me posted.

Sincerest regards and Happy Holidays, Franklin

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