I learnt the hard way that you can never be too careful when on the ground around horses. One day when I was at the yard on my own, I crouched down next to Chief, my very cute 2 year old Shetland, scratching his chest. Suddenly, something spooked him, and before I knew it he had cantered right over the top of me, leaving me in a dazed heap. I was incredibly lucky that it wasn’t any worse, especially since I had a hoof shaped bruise right on my head! However, this was a hoof shaped reminder that horses and ponies, however laid back or small and cute, are unpredictable, strong animals and issues such as barging and pushing on the ground can become very dangerous.
So, if we want to stay safe on the ground with our horses, we must first understand why they might do things like pushing, shoving and nudging us. To find out I got in touch with Grahame Frank, also known as ‘The Horse Mind Doctor’. For years he has studied horses and their natural behaviours, working to find solutions to behaviour issues. He stresses that horses are ultimately herd animals, and that so many of their actions result from how they would behave in the wild around each other. He said, “In the herd, each horse is constantly trying to improve its social position, usually by force”, and this suggests that a horse barging a human mirrors this attempt to climb the ‘hierarchy’. It is therefore linked to a lack of respect, and represents the horse trying to have power over you.
I also spoke to Felicity George, a Horse Behaviour Consultant who works to solve problems between horses and their owners. She believes that poor behaviour on the ground can also result from a horse being in pain. She told me, “I once worked with a horse who was very bargey on the ground. He was very dull in his outlook and did not respond to any kind of punishment or reward, making it difficult to teach him that what he was doing was wrong. However, it turned out that he was actually suffering from Cushing’s disease, so his behaviour stemmed from him being ill!” She added that changes in a horse’s management can also be a factor leading to pushing and shoving on the ground. She said, “I worked with a horse who’s owner had recently started at college, meaning his turnout was reduced to just two hours a day which wasn’t enough. As a result, he started to push humans around on the ground, but this was because his needs weren’t being met.”
So whilst barging and pushing might often be a result of testing boundaries and lack of respect, the possibility of a horse actually being ill or distressed should not be ruled out either.
How can we manage this behaviour?
As my experience with Chief showed me, we need to teach our horses to respect us on the ground to prevent things from becoming dangerous and to ensure that everyone is kept happy. Renowned horseman and foundation trainer Jason Webb refers to the idea of ‘personal space’ between horse and human. He labels this so-called personal space as “an area in which the horse can’t influence you”, and suggests that we should always maintain a distance of an arm’s length between us and the horse. Jason believes that seemingly harmless behaviours like sniffing and nudging can actually lead to far more serious issues, and in order to prevent them, the horse must learn to act independently. To create this independence and respect for personal space, we must maintain a kind of ‘bubble’ around us, never allowing the horse to enter this bubble unless it is on our terms. Jason says that a simple way to do this is to create energy by moving the horse around you – this will teach the horse to focus on you, and to realise the appropriate distance to maintain between them and you.
Felicity George also stresses the importance of personal space, although for her it isn’t necessarily about maintaining a certain distance. She said, “I was once told that I should keep a space of about 3 feet between my horse and I, but for me this didn’t work. I personally see having personal space as just not allowing my horse to push me, but really it comes down to each individual.” However, for Felicity one of the most important training principles is to be consistent in what you ask for. She said, “Horses are like children, so in the same way that a parent might teach a toddler the difference between right and wrong, we must be consistent with our instructions and really mean what we say.” She pointed out that if for half the time we allow our horse to gently nudge us and then suddenly tell them off for doing so, they won’t understand what you want from them. She said, “Make it clear how you want the horse to behave around you, and then stick to it.” If you don’t want your horse to push you around, then make sure that you never let him – this is the only way they will learn.
The Horse Mind Doctor also warns against giving horses too many treats, “People tend to spoil horses in behaviour and treats – don’t, because the horse will simply take advantage. A low, calm but firm voice and posture will soon teach the horse which one of you is in charge (you) and this goes for all movements around the horse”. He suggests that the over-use of treats can also be a cause of pushing and bargey behaviour, and that other reinforcement methods should instead be opted for. You as the human must assert yourself as leader of the ‘herd’, and giving treats isn’t always the best way to do this.
Staying safe in the stable
One of the areas in which bargey horses can really become a problem is in the stable. The last thing anyone wants is a horse who tries to shove past you out of the stable, or even a horse who behaves threateningly by pinning you against the stable wall. In order to prevent such behaviours from developing, Felicity suggests that you should avoid doing jobs like mucking out when your horse is in the stable too, and instead recommends turning them out or moving them to another stable. Felicity explains, “When we are doing jobs like mucking out, we aren’t giving the horse our full attention. As a result, the horse might nudge you without getting any kind of response, leading them to think that it is okay to do so. Keep the stable as a place for training, and make sure that when you are in there with your horse, you make it clear how you want them to behave.”
It is often suggested that we should tie our horses up at all times when we are in the stable with them, but is this really the solution to our problems? The Horse Mind Doctor suggests that actually, it is not always necessary for your horse to be tied up in the stable. He says that it can be beneficial to leave your horse loose, explaining that “It might lead to a better relationship if your horse could walk around you and feel more relaxed in your company.” Similarly, Felicity suggests that in the long term, it is better if your horse stands in the stable without being tied up. She says that when a horse is tied up, they aren’t free to show something is worrying them by moving away which can consequently lead to behaviours such as kicking out. By leaving them loose they are able to move around and relax more easily, preventing them from becoming panicked and lashing out.
Leading our horses
Another potentially problematic area is leading horses – we do it every single day, but are we really doing it safely? What if your horse suddenly shies into you or decides to gallop off?
Felicity advises that we always lead a horse at the shoulder to avoid such disasters. She says, “The shoulder is definitely the safest place to be. Never pull the horse along from the front, since here you are at far greater risk of being run over. Also, think back to the horse in the herd: they herd others from behind, so if you are walking in front of your horse he might actually think he’s herding you which would put him in charge!” The Horse Mind Doctor also suggests leading with as slack a rope as possible can be a good idea, since this encourages the horse to relax and follow you willingly.
Both Felicity and The Horse Mind Doctor stress the importance of leading with a hat and gloves on – although it might seem over the top, your horse could kick out at any time, so it is far better to be safe than sorry.
Felicity also adds that leading our horses should be treated with exactly the same importance as riding them. When we ride our horses, we wouldn’t let them get away with not listening to us, so why shouldn’t the same apply for leading? She recommends doing exercises like transitions, and bending and neck flexions with our horses when we lead them – this way, we can ensure that we have their full attention and that they’re actually concentrating on where they’re putting their feet! “Heavier horses in particular will often barge into you simply because they are unbalanced. They’re on the forehand and are paying you no attention, meaning that when you ask them to stop they find it really tricky. Lead them out to the field as if you are riding an advanced dressage test – keep everything engaged and balanced, and lead your transitions as if you would ride them."
So, behaviours such as pushing and shoving are ones we shouldn't ignore and should work hard to prevent for not only our safety but the horses as well.