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Extremely aggressive mare


I run a therapeutic horsemanship program at a residential treatment facility in Saco, Maine for children with behavioral and emotional problems. I have three mares. In the last two months, our 18 year old Standardbred/Morgan cross "Marissa" has become extremely aggressive toward my students. She has always been very aggressive toward our 21 year old quarter horse "Zoe" and is protective of our 15 year old grade "Macy" (who is the alpha mare) but Marissa had never in the thee years since she's been at the farm kicked out at people until recently.

Two times students were visiting horses in the field and were kicked. Once, a student approached Marissa and Marissa gave appropriate "please back away" signals that went unrespected. After three times, she turned and kicked out at the student, making contact but not knocking the student over though she did get a mild bruise. We no longer allow anyone to be in the pasture with the horses. However, other situations occurred which have troubled me even more. Unprovoked, Marissa entered our three sided shelter where we were cleaning. She had her head snaked and ears pinned flat back and looked very, very ugly. We simply backed away, but when a volunteer made an attempted to work around her, she turned tail and kicked him, making hard contact. Another time one of my youngest students (6) and I were talking about being with the horses in the pole barn shelter and how to safely observe their behavior, but not be too close or in their space. As we were talking, Marissa again turned quickly and went after my student (never me) with ears flat back and looking as if she wanted to bite him. She has also been difficult to catch in the pasture and will kick out if approached.

Of course at this point I don't trust her at all. She does not behave this way with me and I assume she still respects our relationship, although she does give me more "ears" than she ever used to. This behavior has seemed worse with the addition a year ago of Zoe (lowest on the pecking order). If this were my own farm I would certainly be concerned, but not as much as I am since I have students whom I must keep safe. Some friends have said "once they have kicked, you have to get rid of them" but I would love to know what you might suggest. Thank you very much for your time.


Hi Joyce,

If a horse is becomming 'sour' at a particular job they generally begin to show their unhappiness early on, but in sometimes subtle ways. A slight change in attitude, a bit more unwillingness (to be 'caught') or interest in the tasks at hand, a seeming grumpiness that is more than normal for the horse could all be communications from the horse that it is having more than just a 'bad day'. When these signals go unrecognized and, therefore, unacknowledged, we are disrespecting the horse and not showing up as the 'partners' or team players we want the horse to be. They are never, ever just supposed to be obediant. However, compliance is a good thing. It this were a human who had had enough of a present job and was unhappy we could suggest a break, a change in routene or even a new job, but it would be obvious that a change has to happen. If this horse was a fine 'therapy' for a good while and now is 'acting out' and there has been absolutely no upsetting changes in the horse's environment, I would say give the horse 6 months off or a job trailing cattle or in a 'dude string'. Change something.

A good change could be in the routene. How about a good 20-30 minutes of daily round pen 'play'? Notice I said "play" and not 'work'. Consciously dancing with a horse in a round pen is a great diversion for the horse and will frequently re-spark a horse's interest. Horses get bored and frustrated sometimes by being handled inappropriately too much. So, if some one or more, of the humans is not on track with how they are handling the horse, the horse will get frustrated and not want to 'dance'. You wouldn't either if you were always wanting to dance, but there were no decent partners around. Horses need leadership and great leadership at that. They deserve that from us. I think it is our responsibility to provide them with wonderful, appropriate leadership. If the mare is not getting that, she will fend for herself, which is what she is doing. If, perchance, a 'great leader', who has the time, could have a regular session with the mare that might bring her around as well. Kind of like a therapist for the horse, a counselor. When you said the mare was asked to "please back away" several times and than she kicked, this indicates to me the horse is quite soured on the way she is being handled. Sometimes horses that are pushy somewhat by nature (you said she bullies one horse and is protective of another) will 'act out' simply because they can without reprocussions. Consequences such as tight circles or hind end yields make it hard for a horse to do what we do not want. To have these techniques work they have to be practiced when there is no pressure to get things done quickly.

The issue of safety is huge. No matter what the horse will have to kept away from clients for a while. This will not just go away on its own. Horse's need appropriate interaction with humans and not just the same old, same old (if you get my drift). I don't agree that once they have kicked that they must be gotten rid of. This may be coming from folks who do not train horses and are needing consistent obediance from their animals. I want partnership and willing compliance. In order to receive that I have to be willing to honor my partner's feelings and notice when a change is needed and help create the change. I understand that time, money and space restraints may prevent a good horse from having enough time off to help modify its attitude. But, good handling and respectful communication, coupled with compatent leadership can go a long way to help a lot of situations such as you have described. Please let me know how it all goes and thank you for your question.

Sincerely, Franklin

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