5 Tips for Dealing With a Horse that Shows Aggression Towards Humans

Horses have been our faithful servants for thousands of years, and today, they are best friends to many of us. But the fact remains that even the quietest of horses has the potential for being dangerous: all horses are flight animals several times our size, and all horses have the capacity to injure people by accident. Some horses, however, are more dangerous than others. The most dangerous horses are those that show aggression to people. Human-aggressive horses are rare, but the problem is a serious one. It is also one that can be dealt with.

Causes of Aggression

Horses are generally inclined not to fight when startled. Unlike dogs, their first reflex is to run away from danger. So when frightened, most horses will run away, unless they believe they are trapped and have no other option. In that case, they will try to defend themselves with teeth and hooves. An example is the horse that rears and strikes out when being loaded into a horsebox. This type of horse is afraid of loading and typically first tries to run backwards or sideways to avoid it, but when trapped by pressure on the halter or perhaps someone behind it, it feels it has no choice but to strike out. Another example is the unhandled horse that kicks when cornered in a stable to be caught. Fear aggressive horses are the most dangerous horses in existence. These horses truly believe that unless they strike out, they will be killed. They view humans as predators and literally think they are fighting for their lives. These horses need to be handled with gentleness and utmost respect, preferably only by a professional. Never forget that a horse weighs almost ten times what you do – and they are capable of killing.

These horses usually come from a sketchy background. Unhandled horses typically won’t turn aggressive unless heavily pressured, but some of them can be aggressive out of fear. Abused horses are frequently aggressive as they’ve discovered that kicking or charging is the only way they can defend themselves.

A more common cause of aggression is a simple lack of boundaries. Many horses will offer to kick, strike, or bite simply because they know that’s how they can get their own way. They do not see humans as predators, but as either mild annoyances or submissive herdmates, and they assert their dominance by biting, kicking or pushing. These horses can also become very dangerous; they might not purposely want to harm you, but they don’t understand that you are not as big and strong as another horse would be, and that even a half-hearted kick can break bones

Some of these horses are even simply playful. Anyone who has watched colts playing in a field will know that horses play-fight roughly, and what the horse thinks is a fun sparring match can be a deadly experience for a human.

Dominance aggression is common in homebred horses whose owners permitted naughty behaviours when they were cute little foals. It is also common in young horses owned by novice riders who don’t know how to correct the behaviour. Colts and stallions are particularly prone to this form of aggression.

5 Tips for Dealing With Aggression

1. Get professional help.

This is the most important thing you can do for an aggressive horse. This problem is dangerous and difficult to resolve, and a novice trying to do it themselves is on a fast track to getting hurt. There are also plenty of resources available from experts such as Monty Roberts, Kelly Marks, and Pat Parelli to help you educate yourself, always a good idea. Bear in mind that no book or DVD is going to teach you what years of experience and training have taught a professional trainer. Your trainer will also educate you on how to handle your horse.

2. Help your horse to relax.

Fear aggressive horses can benefit from a calming supplement. While sedating horses for training is dangerous, inadvisable and often unethical – and against the law, unless you’re a veterinarian – there are some over-the-counter products that can just take the worst of the edge off. These can come in the form of paste, wafers or pellets. Most of these don’t affect a radical change, but they do help your horse to feel a little better

3. Set some boundaries.

Dominance aggressive horses need to learn that they’re safe with you as their leader. One of the easiest ways to do this while working on the ground is to use a pressure halter, which applies just a little more pressure than an ordinary halter, but releases quickly to reward the horse for good behaviour. The Dually halter is the most famous and highly effective; even a simple rope knot halter can be effective.

4. Spend time bonding with your horse.

A fear aggressive horse needs to know that you won’t ever hurt him. The only way you can really show him that is by giving him constant good experiences in your company. Get yourself into a good, calm mood, then spend time doing things that he enjoys. Grooming is an excellent bonding strategy; most horses enjoy the sensation of their skin being massaged and brushed, and the sheer amount of time spent doing this will build trust. Ensure you use a grooming kit stocked with brushes your horse likes – sensitive horses might not enjoy hard brushes.

5. Avoid feeding treats by hand.

While many horses enjoy treats without ever turning against their humans, feeding aggression is a very common issue. It’s a good tip in general to only feed your horse treats from the safety of the other side of a fence or stable door. If your horse shows aggression – such as biting or turning its haunches on you – when feeding, stop giving him treats by hand. You don’t have to completely skip out on giving him a tasty titbit, though. Place it in his feed manger instead, or even use a treat-filled toy to entertain him in his stable.

Conclusion

Aggression is a problem that can cause tremendous harm to people. It’s one of the few behavioural issues serious enough to sometimes warrant euthanising the horse in question. But before you get to that point, use the tips above: nine times out of ten, this problem can be entirely resolved.

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