Archives MAIN PAGE

Franklin Levinson's

Horse Help Center

Professional support for you and your horse!

school horse mare's mystery behavior

Hi Franklin,

I have a school/lesson horse that has just recently developed an odd ground behavior that I have seen in when two horses first meet, with stallions, or mares with a foal.

Last week I was using her for a lesson and she was great. Student (about 11ish) was walking her back to the barn and the mare took a few weird steps, kind of like when a big horse fly either gets on their nose or their fore leg and they do that kind of 'spanish walk' type step. I didn't think much about it, other than bugs.

After we untacked and groomed (where the mare was behaving normally) we had a plan to do a little ground work 'pattern' with her before going back to the stall. Student was leading her and got slightly out in front/ahead of her (mares nose at the girls shoulder) and the mare suddenly got 'goofey' - she did that 'pawing step' thing again (very exagerated) and started nickering and then bowed her self up like a stallion would, or like horses meeting for the first time, and it was directed at the student/child. Her ears never went back and I didn't notice her facial expressions showing aggression (ears back, muzzle wrinkled, mouth threat). And this was not a case that the mare believed she was going to be turned loose and got excited (she never acts like that anyhow).

It was fairly disturbing because this mare, while not a total saint, has never behaved like this towards people. She may try to eat grass with an inattentive handler, or try to rub her head on you, but has never been aggressive, overly 'hyper' or high strung.

At the time of this first incident, I took possession of the leadrop/mare and did some ground work with her swiftly and she was ok (halts, lower her head/neck, turn on the forehand, walk, stop, backs etc). I motioned the child to come back to me as I saw the mare regain her composure and as soon as the girl stepped in front of me into the 'leading' postion, the mare started getting 'excited' again. I finally worked he mare in hand enough to get her to lower her head/neck, keep it in her own personal space and at least get the child to walk close to me before I ended the session... however towards the end the mare was really kind of charged up and pushing into the halter and very alert.

I racked my brain on it all week... and a few days later I rode the mare and after the ride she mildly showed the behavior with me - bowing her neck and mildly nickering/blowing.

I am very alert when I handle horses, ground manners/ground work are very important to me.

I can't pin point any changes... we had a new mare move into the farm a few weeks prior. The two mares get turned out and they are friends... and I kind of thought maybe the new quick friendship was key, but they don't hollar and scream for each other and like I said I rotate my horses on a regular basis. The owners changed her from a normal grade horse feed to Purina Senior about 2 months ago, but I can't see a connection (she is getting aprox 2 pounds fed twice a day). She isn't on hay right now because we have good grass (which she has been on since last spring). I have not noticed her heat cycle has changed. She hasn't changed in her working behaviors under saddle (has not gotten more 'hyper' or difficult to deal with, she is really a fairly uncomplicated ride).

This mare has been on my property for 4 years. Her owners have had her most of her life time with the exception of about 7 years when she was at a broodmare farm (yes she produced) so I do have some history on her. The mare is about 24 years old.

She has been a good school horse for the last year, I put a year of riding on her before I started using her as a school horse so I know her pretty well. She teaches maybe 4-6 one hour lessons per week. She gets turned out 10 - 14 hours a day on anywhere from a 1 acre lot with one other horse to a roughly 4 acre paddock with 3 other horses. She is fine with horses of all ages, mares and geldings. She seems to be in the middle of the pecking order regardless of what pasture mates she has on any given day.

I got someone else up at the barn to lead her to see if they could get her to repeat the behavior and she did - but we have noticed we get the behavior right after riding, I have not witnessed it before riding. A few days later we had a male lead her around (someone thought maybe she was reacting to women), and she started showing signs of it with him too (again it was after a work out).

So now I can't make any connection what so ever. With the little girl the reaction was very strong and the other wise 'earth bound' horse was coming off the ground. With us adults she nickered and just bowed up her neck a little bit.

She is an other wise GOOD school horse and is no problem to have on the property. I am not sure what to do with her, as teaching ground work is a big part of my lesson program, and of course the safety of my students is my greatest concern. I hate to give the mare a reputation of 'problem horse' because up til now she has never behaved 'badly'. And of course I do not want the reputation of an instructor that uses school horses with 'issues'.

I posted this on a few horse boards (including chronical of the horse) and got no real reply except maybe with the change of weather the mare was just full of herself, or maybe the girl had the smell of other horses on her (which I handle many horses on a regular basis and go to other farms as well).

Someone suggested to put Vics on her nostrils to rule out the behavior being scent based. ???

Any insight? ~

Hello Kiersten,

Very interesting question you have sent me. Thank you. Discovering the roots of a new behavior in a horse can be challenging and sometimes daunting. This seems to be the case with this mare. I hope I can offer some things here to consider.

As with humans, hormone levels and output change with our age. I believe this is the case with horses as well. Please consider having her hormone levels checked. Additionally, I might suggest during the blood work on the mare it is good to rule out some other chemical situation going on within her body. As this behavior seems now to be fairly consistent no matter who is with (leading) the horse, you will need to be extra cautious with the mare when she is with any novice horse person.

As you are a professional horseperson and obviously quite knowledgable, I am certain you know whether or not this is related to a heat cycle. It sounds like it possibly could be. Again, hormonal levels may be involved. I doubt putting Vicks on her nostrils will help. But that is an old remedy for sent based behavior and perhaps, worth a try. It may make the horse irritable. So, be careful with it.

As far as the horse's reaction being stronger with the child, this would be normal. If a horse is with an individual who appears vulnerable in any way (timid, weaker, smaller, less than totally aware and confident) that horse may be somewhat more aggressive and even become dangerous with that individual, simply because it can.

When she displays this behavior and you put her to (ask for) movment, if she 'pushes back' towards you or resists your direction to move, things are getting worse and some immediate decisions really do need to be made. Even before it gets to that point, you could consider taking her out of the lesson program and going back to some basic schooling on the horse for a change of pace and activity for the mare. Begin to take her out on some trails, or play at liberty, or ground drive her all over the place. Make some big changes in her routene. Consider a bit more work (action) as well. Really stop doing what the norm is for the mare. Perhaps this will get her attention on "what's next?" I might suggest less carbs and sugars in her diet also. Consider replacing some of the processed feeds with good grass hay to see if that does make a difference.

I would appreciate it if you would keep me informed about this mystery behavior. Yours is a most interesting question and the majority of the questions I get are very standard and the same ones I have answered in the past. Good Luck and thank you again.

Sincerly, Franklin

Look for: