A young Saddlebred/Arab gelding arrived at my barn sweaty and visibly shaken after a three hour drive where he had been taken from the only herd he knew from the time of birth. The horse was naturally bewildered as he stepped out of the trailer, but his new owner gently led him into his stall and pasture where his barn mate was an older Thoroughbred mare. The young gelding was underweight and had the looks of a two year old though he’s five with long legs and a goose rump with a hunters bump all ready. The new owner was told he was an easy keeper (doesn’t eat a lot), and had extensive ground training, but it became quickly apparent that this gelding was starving while he ate as much as his TB neighbor, and seemed to have little to no respect for humans as he tried to attack the new owner. By attack I mean lunging at his new owner with aggressive behavior trying to bite her with ears back, but not pinned once she started working with him.
I agreed to assist the owner in her training so she could better train her new horse, but once I realized and experienced for myself his aggressive behavior I became very concerned that she had made a mistake in purchasing this otherwise pretty horse. The first time I flexed his head to bond he tried to bite me so I immediately responded with a flick on the nose and driving him backwards with a ssshhhhhhh sound and stern look. I waited for his submission which didn’t come readily. As I began to lunge him I declared my space with the gelding, controlling his feet and each time he lunged at me got him more work on the lead line. I coached the owner on controlling his feet to invoke is natural instinct to recognize her as his herd leader and encouraged that “he’ll have a breakthrough, just stay consistent” was my advice.
As I watched the horse and owner I noticed he had a sense of playful “gonna gitcha” kind of attitude puffing up trying to tag and play, ah ha that was it – he’s trying to play, he’s trying to play tag just like he would with another horse, but he doesn’t have any playmates since he’s new to the herd – the breakthrough was mine!!! I stopped the horse and owner and explained what he was trying to do. I pointed out that his ears aren’t pinned, his teeth are not baring, he’s just trying to play so I advised to set him free and play with him at liberty. I demonstrated how to play while maintaining a safe distance letting her horse say all he had to say so long as it wasn’t in her territory. Once her horse got all he had to say out and she listened and played, then he was ready to pay attention and respect her on the end of the lead rope.
Not all aggression is bad behavior, sometimes it is playful and we must recognize when a horse is telling us they want to play and we must allow them to.