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Franklin Levinson's

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Training question

Mr. Levinson, I've been on your "Way of the Horse, the World of Equestrian Adventures and Horsemanship" website and I have really enjoyed your advice. I have a question that I thought you could possibly answer. I've been looking on websites to determine what it means when a horse pins it's ears back. Is this nerves, aggression, anger, etc.? Here's why ... we are relatively beginner horse owners and have two horses, a hackney/Tennessee Walker mix and our new 5 year old thoroughbred gelding, Cobalt. We purchased Cobalt from a woman (I'll call her Val) who is associated with the barn we board at (a former boarder, who now has her own horse property). When we got to Val's barn, we found she had Cobalt and two horses all in a small paddock knee deep in muck and he was looking pretty miserable.

The quick history is that Cobalt was purchased by a horse trader off the racetrack and broke to be a pleasure horse. Val bought Cobalt for her 14-year old daughter Nicole, who is very timid and a reluctant rider. Why Val bought her daughter a thoroughbred of all the breeds there are is anyone's guess, but not the issue here. Val told us that Nicole and Cobalt did not have a very good relationship. Val admitted that among many things, she caught Nicole teasing Cobalt by kicking his stall and startling him, pulling his mane and would hit him in the head if he shook his head at her or wouldn't listen to her. Soon, and not surprisingly, Cobalt started pinning his ears back every time Nicole came near. Soon, he was not letting her get close to him at all so Nicole decided she didn't want him anymore. Val indicated Cobalt never showed any aggression toward her and was always docile. Nonetheless, Val did not want a horse that was being constantly ignor! ed, nor did she intend to ride him, thus she started looking for a buyer.

We decided to purchase him for our 14-year old daughter who is a complete horse lover. She's a all-around animal lover, but horses rule her life. She is an excellent rider who has been in many horse and speed shows. She works at our boarding barn just to be around the horses and is taking additional lessons from a professional dressage trainer so she can learn how to train. This dressage trainer is the trainer who broke Cobalt to be a pleasure horse and she told us that he was a very gentle-natured, heart of gold horse. We picked up Cobalt this past Saturday and right off the trailer, he started pinning his ears back at our daughter. She immediately stood to his side and started soothing him, rubbing his neck and shoulders and kept talking to him. Over the last three days, he still pins is ears way down and our daughter continues to just sooth and calm walk him trying to earn his trust. She plans to focus on just ground work for the next month t! o calm him down around her and get him used to her.

My question to you is whether this is a trait, a bad manner or a trust issue. Will longer-term ground work solve this issue? Should my daughter and us do anything to overcome this trait? Any suggestions are very welcome. Also, are there any thoroughbred websites you might recommend to us for care, feeding and training?

Thank you and kindest regards,
A dedicated horse mom, Cindy

Hi Cindy,

You are a dedicated horse mom. Thank you.

Horses pin their ears for a lot of reasons. One reason they may do this is because of the quality of leadership that is present with them. Horses develop trust and a sense of safety from the individuals around them who can appropriately show up as the great parent/leader. To develop respect and trust from a horse, humans need to do more than make nice with petting and comforting. They need to show up from the first moment as the 'leader of the dance'. This means nothing more than doing something active with the horse consciously and precisely. Something simple like leading the horse around with confidence, consciousness and appropriate requests to come, stop, turn, back up, etc. These simple requests made appropriately and consciously and then the horse gets a Good Boy when it complies, set the human up as the great leader/parent. There has to be more than making nice (petting and comforting). There has to be some skillfully asked for and executed action for the horse to begin to respect and show trust towards the human. He probably pins his ears at your daughter because she has not shown herself to be able to be the leader of the dance (not confident or unsure how to move or any insecurities) and therefore, the horse is showing he can lead the dance himself by his display. You horse is not bad or wrong. He is looking for that great leader/parent who is confident, assured, skillful and is able to lead the dance. Good luck and let me know how it all goes.

Happy Holidays, Franklin

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