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Sudden Behavior Changes
WRITTEN BY: Cheryl Sutor   [March 26, 2001]


Training Question:

We just sold our horses because we are moving a long distance and can not take them with. Our gelding seems to have taken the move very hard. The new owner called and said he is being VERY aggressive. This IS NOT how he was raised! He has never exhibited this type of behavior before! We have had him since he was a weanling. We have trained him and he is broke to ride but needs finishing. Could his behavior be because of the move or is there something else going on? Thank you for your time.

~ Kyra


Trainer's Response:

If the gelding was not injured, and if he does not have any underlying health problems that may be causing his aggressiveness, then the cause is most likely from the new owners not knowing how the horse has been trained or how the horse needs to be handled.

What I would suggest for your situation is to visit the new owners of the gelding. Stand back and watch how they handle him, how they react to him when he acts aggressive, and observe the surroundings and equipment that is used on him. If you find that any of this conflicts with what you have taught him, and how you have handled him...ask them to remove that element for a while to see if that is causing the bad behavior. The answer could be as simple as a piece of equipment that is being used on the horse that he doesn't like, is causing him pain, or that he simply is not used to.

For example...let's say you have never become physical with the horse when he misbehaves and instead you simply took his mind off of misbehaving by asking him to perform a series of cues until his attention is on you, respectfully. If you notice that the new owners react to the same bad behavior with shouting, yanking on the lead, or hitting the horse. The horse may be confused. Just explain to the new owners how you would handle the situation, and have them try it. If it works...then great. If it doesn't, continue looking for reasons that may be causing his behavior.

I have been in a similar situation before...several years ago, I bought a yearling Paint colt of whom I began to train. I had taught him to have wonderful ground manners. He was always polite and respectful with me, and I had taught him to always respect my personal space. However, I learned a very big lesson with this little guy...just because he works well for me, doesn't mean he will work well for others (unless he is trained to work with those people). I was literally the only person who had done anything with him as far as handling (besides the farrier and vet -- but I was always there holding the leadrope when they handled him).

The barn help and workers always complained about my horse being "wild". They had told me that they entered his stall to put his halter on for a farrier appointment that I was unable to make. This took them over 10 minutes alone just to get the halter on him (before this happened, I had taught this horse to turn and face me when I opened the stall door, and to drop his nose into the halter himself...he was a pro at haltering...so what they were telling me about my horse was very hard to believe).

After getting the halter on him, they opened the stall door to lead him out for the farrier. He ran them over, gave the worker rope burn, and took off down the aisle heading for the pasture. This was also very hard to believe, since I had taught this horse to stand patiently (ground tie) with the stall door WIDE open, until I had given him the cue to come out of his stall...which he would then proceed to walk calmly out of his stall and stand still at liberty in the aisle next to me. I had worked so hard at training him to behave in this way that I could even walk out of the barn and come back several minutes later and he would still be standing in the middle of the aisle patiently waiting for me. I swear that I thought the barn workers were liars!

I just couldn't believe what they were saying (and for several weeks, I just ignored what they were telling me). But, they continued to tell me that my horse was "loco". Having enough of this "bad talk" about my horse, I decided to watch the workers handling my horse from outside through the barn window to see exactly what was going on.

What was happening was this: the worker would open the gate at the back of the barn (which led directly into the pasture), he'd then walk down the aisle to open the stall doors...just letting the horses run out of their stalls...down the aisle and into the pasture. This was a very exciting time for the horses...it was "play time"! The instant the stall door opened, out ran my horse...trotting down the aisle after the others, out the back of the barn and into the pasture where they all continued to run, buck and play for the next 5-10 minutes until they settled down to eat.

This is what the workers had been doing with my horse every morning when they let him out for over 6 months. He was always brought in and out of the pasture without the use of a halter. He was allowed to take off running down the aisle to get to the pasture. My horse had learned that this was acceptable. And more importantly, he associated this behavior with the workers. This was why he never tried this behavior with me...because he associated standing and waiting patiently with my presence.

Since horses can tell the difference between two people, he behaved very differently for each of us. By doing the same routine every morning, the worker had taught my horse that it was okay to run out of his stall when he was there. So, on the day the farrier came and I couldn't be there, the worker went into my horse's stall, put a halter on him....then opened the door...out flew my horse, down the aisle...giving the worker rope burn. My horse was only doing exactly what the worker had trained him to do (whether he intended to train him to do this or not).

Later in the day when the horses were back in their stalls, I handed a halter to the worker and asked him to go in my horse's stall and halter him while I watched from outside the stall. The worker went into the stall holding the halter up in the air. My horse practically flattened out against the opposite wall. I later found that this behavior was also "trained" to him by the workers since the only handling they had ever done with him was to "herd" him from the pasture to the barn by swinging their arms in the air. He was simply yielding to this man's arms waving in the air. I then told the worker to put his arms down. I "kissed/clucked" to my horse (I had taught him that this means to turn and face me)...and he immediately turned and faced the stall door where I was standing, sniffed the worker and put his nose right into the halter. It is simply amazing what can be done when you work together with the person who is having problems with the horse.

You know for a fact that your horse was not aggressive when you had him...this may well be only because the horse has been taught to respect YOU. He might not have been taught to respect the new owner, or other people. If this is the case, work with the new owner and teach him/her how to get the horse's respect the same way you did. Horses are very good at telling people apart...and knowing what behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable with each person. Work with the new owner to show him/her how your horse has been trained.

He might be "testing" his new owner to find where his boundaries lie. He may look at his new owner simply as a new member of the "herd", and he wants to figure out the new pecking order. The horse must then challenge his fellow herd mates to find out where he stands in the pecking order. If this is the case, be sure that the new owner knows how to teach the horse that he/she is higher in the pecking order than the horse. If the new owner doesn't establish this pecking order -- that he/she is more dominant than the horse-- the horse will continue to be aggressive. By working with his new owner, you can help ensure that both the new owner and the horse will have a pleasant time together in the years to come.

There are additional articles in our Equine Behavior and Ground Manners pages that may help you with training aggressive horses.


Happy Horsin'
Cheryl Sutor


Response from Kyra:

Thank you SOOOO much for answering my question reguarding my gelding today. You were RIGHT on!!! We went to see him and he was FINE with me. He tried his "antics" and realized I wouldn't give in. So he behaved. I told the new owners that they need to gain his respect. I feel much better knowing it was something relatively simple. I think he will do Great in his new home as soon as he knows what the rules are. THANK YOU AGAIN!!!! Your Website will be passed on every chance I get!!!!

~ Kyra



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This article was published on: March 26, 2001. Last updated on: March 26, 2001.