Don’t Protect Your Horse
When it comes to cranky horses, there are two schools of thought on how to deal with the problem. The first approach is to avoid riding in group situations and only ride your horse when you’re sure you’ll be all alone. The second approach is to make excuses for your horse and try to take the responsibility off your shoulders and put it on someone else’s.
If your horse is kicking or pinning his ears when he’s around others, he’s telling you that you’re not keeping him busy enough and he doesn’t respect your leadership. In other words, there are holes in your foundation. A lot of groundwork—moving the horse’s feet forwards, backwards, left and right and always rewarding the slightest try—will teach him to respect you and keep his attention focused on you. Although this probably won’t cure the problem, it will certainly help by laying a foundation of respect.
The best way to get a horse over pinning his ears or kicking other horses is to expose him to other horses, let him commit to the mistake, and then correct him. Protecting him by keeping him away from other horses is not going to make his cranky attitude go away.
In fact, it will only make it worse. A lot of people who have horses that misbehave in group situations mistakenly think that keeping their horse in the barn while others are riding and only sneaking in rides when the trail is clear will fix the problem. That’s like putting a Band-Aid on a sore—it fixes nothing. Instead, I’m going to share with you two different strategies that will shape up your horse’s attitude. Generally, I start out with the first strategy by redirecting the horse’s attention back to me by bending him in a circle and hustling his feet. This is the mildest correction and not only shows the horse that he has to keep his attention on me, but proves to him that a cranky attitude means nothing but hard work. If that doesn’t work, then I’ll have to get more aggressive with my correction and make the horse feel uncomfortable for his behavior using the second strategy. In the first strategy, you’ll get the horse to focus his attention back on you and condition him to associate kicking with hard work. Horses are basically lazy creatures—they’ll always pick the path that involves the least amount of work. So by making the horse work hard every time he kicks or pins his ears, he’ll stop doing it. First, you need to set the situation up so that you can correct your horse. It’s best to practice this at home in an arena or a pasture. You wouldn’t want to take your horse on a trail ride with 12 other horses and try to address the problem. (However, if your horse does pin his ears, try to bite another horse or kick out on the trail, you can incorporate this fix right then and there.)
Ask a friend on horseback to help you. It’s important that the other horse is quiet and doesn’t have a problem with another horse being close to him. You’ll already have your hands full fixing your horse, let alone trying to deal with two cranky horses at the same time.
When you’re set to go, have your friend ride their horse about a horse-length behind your horse. You want to dare your horse to pin his ears back and act snarly, and if he truly has a problem, this shouldn’t be hard to do. When the other horse is following him, if he pins his ears back or gets cranky, immediately bend him around in a circle and kick his side with your inside leg. Then put him to work. Really make him hustle his feet.
You don’t want this to be real easy for him to do, like: “Oh Precious, you shouldn’t have done that, now let’s bend around in a circle.” Instead, you want him to clearly understand that his behavior is unacceptable and if he even acts like he’s going to get cranky, there are going to be consequences. And those consequences are moving his feet and working hard. You’re telling him, “You don’t have time to be pinning your ears back because you’re way too busy moving your feet.” This not only keeps the horse from kicking out or biting the other horse, but it also teaches him why he should avoid kicking in the first place. If he kicks, he has to work hard. A good thing to do here would be to yield the horse’s hindquarters around with a lot of energy.
Hustle the horse’s feet in the circle until you feel that he’s got his attention back on you, and then go back to having the other horse follow yours. Dare your horse to get cranky and misbehave again. If he does, no big deal, just bend him around in a circle again. You may have to repeat the process several times before the horse finally understands that when he acts cranky, you’ll make him work hard. When he remains pleasant and relaxed, you’ll leave him alone.