Boundaries with the Dominant Horse

This will be a controversial topic. However, here it is and again, I make no apologies for what I’m going to write though it may displease some. Before you read what I have to say here be sure you have viewed my following videos about using the whip: Part 1; Part 2; and Part 3.

As those who have followed Z’s journey these last three years you know that I’ve commented several times (perhaps many times) that she is an aggressive and dominant horse (“strong willed”). Studies show offspring of dominant mares  have a high likelihood of becoming dominant in turn. Genetics or learned behavior? I rather lean towards genetics on this one, and Z was the offspring of a very dominant mare in her breeding herd and she dominated all her fellows, even horses older then her such as her father, when she was less then two years old.

After two years of attempting an exclusively,  resistance-free training regime I have decided to give up on this as the only means to train her. While we have made great progress in many areas, there remains a huge stumbling block: I must ensure my safety.

Rewarding “good” behavior and ignoring bad does not make the bad behavior become extinct (behavior gradually lessens and then disappears) in the dominant horse (it will work in other, more “want to get along with you” horses). Since this is a genetic, personality type you will always have the horse revert to what is his base personality: aggression and the need to dominant any other personality during interaction.

For example, this last week, Z refused to let me halter her before letting her out to graze the front lawn. Instead of fighting her about this, I haltered pony and let Pandora out, keeping Z in and went and did chores. When I came back, she allowed herself to be haltered. Once released to the grazing area she immediately chased pony about a bit to make herself feel better and relieve her frustrated tensions through aggression.

AGGRESSION is going to be the knee jerk response given by the dominant horse to anyone when asked to do something they didn’t want to do.

Pie in the Sky, Romantic Dreamers living in a Utopian world find the idea of aggression appalling. In my experience, these people generally have a childhood history of living with angry people. They have become 100 percent turned against the idea of using any force or domination because of a personal history of abuse. These are the same people who will babble about how horses never use aggression against each other and live in peace and harmony, while in the pasture behind them, a dominant mare in the herd group is beating the shit out of their passive gelding.

On the other hand they are totally correct that a horse should NEVER be punished when the handler is angry. Correction should never spring from emotions but from what is needed. It should be just, short, to the point and fit the crime.


Biting. A horse will bite from several reasons:

1.) History of being given treats improperly. This is the horse constantly checking out your hands and pockets for treats. Clicker training actually makes this behavior go extinct because the food reward is only given when the horse looks away from the handler.

2.) Owner/Handler plays with the horses’ mouth and finds it cute when the horses nibbles their hand. This needs to stop as you are training your horse to bite you. Again use clicker training to reinforce positive interactions and to extinct undesirable behavior.

3.) Pain. Pepper used to attempt to bite when being girthed. This was because a former owner had girthed her overly tight when she had back pain. While the back pain was cured, the biting was a learned habit. I never punished her for it, but just made sure I girthed up gradually and kept a tight off rein when I did.

Horses should never be punished for responses given due to pain, however, you would be surprised at how many horses are punished just for that.

4.) Aggression. I deal with it in one way – ONE fist punch in the muzzle. This is one place that John Lyons and I agree with.


Play is not to be punished. Pain is to be alleviated by proper treatment. If the horse is overfaced, training needs to be brought back to basics.

1.) Most often this is pain related – either saddle fit or something that needs to be adjusted with a chiropractor. I would always look to pain FIRST. If your horse suddenly develops a bucking problem, I feel 100 percent sure the problem is pain.

2.) If the horse bucks when being lunged or in liberty work (no rider) I do not punish this. I would like to see a reduction in bucking as the training progresses but many horses use this as a way to let off steam and it is more in a sense of play then disobedience. The more you work with your horse, the more you will know if this was a playful act or due to pain.

Some horses are described as “cold-backed” – these are horses that need a long warm up period and it’s usually due to pain, often arthritis. Again, look at pain management options first.

3.) Under saddle. If pain has been ruled out, the only solution to bucking is to move the horse forward (which may required a sharp whip tap) with the head up. This is one of Z’s favorite evasions as she loves to kick out with one leg while she humps her back.

I believe that her bucking with Rugby Guy’s riding was mainly due to her being overfaced in her training (that I’ll address in a separate blog post). Overfacing should be dealt with by going backwards in the training and returning to basics.


Rearing is really about a refusal to go forward. Bring the training back to “going forward” and often rearing problems fade away.

1.) In my experience, horses rear when being overfaced. This is a direct challenge to the human. If the horse rears, he comes back to ground, and then obeys I don’t punish, but again there should be a quick reduction in this behavior as the training progresses.

If the horse rears and then charges that gets punished (in groundwork). I’ve only had one horse “charge” me and that was more of a sideways run that didn’t go over the top of me. For a horse to charge a human, means an act of high aggression. I would consult a PROFESSIONAL on how to proceed.

2.) If riding, bring the horse down by lowering the head with the reins and then pushing the horse forward (this may require a whip swat).  I’d rather deal with a bucker then a rearer any day of the week as rearing can quickly become life threatening to the rider if the horse goes over backward. If this is the issue you need a PROFESSIONAL.

3.) Was taught this as a trick or thought to be clever so was encouraged. I would quickly unteach this trick or make him understand the trick is only to be given on command.

4.) Orphan foals will also rear with human playmates. Put the horse with more dominant horses and let the horses teach him how to behave.

5.) Certain breeds, such as Lipizzaner’s are often more prone to rear due to their breeding program. This is also true of higher level dressage horses which know how to properly use their weight on their hindquarters. Just be aware of it and work through it. I would not punish so much as re-direct the energy.


1.) Horse kicks due to flies. Use fly spray and no punishment.

2.) The horse kicks from being surprised. That seems self evident right? But a famous personality was kicked in the face when she entered the stall to apply flyspray and the horse didn’t see her approach. You should let your horse know where you are and what you are doing – no punishment for your mistakes.

3.) Horse kicks in play. I would do no liberty games with a Dominant horse until ALL hierarchy issues have been completely ironed out.

In liberty work, I allow kicking, rearing and bucking as long as the horse understands the spatial relationships and does this behavior in PLAY and at a DISTANCE from me so I remain safe. Trust me a horse knows exactly the dimensions of how close and how far to be to make contact – or not make contact. You can see this behavior in the pasture when they are with playmates.

For a high energy horse with lots of aggressive play, make sure you are working in an arena large enough that they can let off steam safely away from you. Working in a small area with an aggressive horse is just asking for trouble.

4.) Horse kicks due to aggression. If the horse was close enough to me that it could have made contact, that is punished with ONE swift whip swat on the fleshy hindquarters. If on the ground, turn the nose towards you and that moves the hindquarters away from you.

Let me give you an example of how I’ve used my judgement to determine punishment. When we were at FR, Z got a lot of ticks around her udder area. I started removing them and she kicked because it hurt and I was in a sensitive area. It made contact with my thigh (the only time she has ever made contact) and I yelled NO! and brought her nose in, turning her hindquarters outward. She looked at me with “ohnoes! I didn’t mean that!” and she received no further correction.

Last week I was asking her to lift the hindfeet with a small tap-tap of the whip on her fetlock. We had done the front feet and she did great. Moving to the back, she decided to give a really big, left hind kick. I was at the side so no real danger but I don’t want her EVER LIFTING HER FEET UP LIKE THAT when asked by a human, so she received one big swat to her fleshy hindquarters. She turned to me with an an affronted expression. We went back to the work and no more kicking.


1.) The horse is afraid such as crossing water, a bridge, walking over a tarp etc… This is about training for confidence, using patience and chunking down the steps towards success. Where many people might say, “that horse is stupid”, it’s really about fear and the lack of confidence the horse has. This can be corrected through proper training and should not be punished.

2.) The horse is experiencing pain. This is especially true if the horse has lameness issues or back pain. Always, always, always consider pain as the number one source. Definitely consider pain, if this is unusual behavior in your horse (i.e. horse always follows you to the mounting block but today won’t).

I once saw a trainer ride a horse who she didn’t realize was colicking. The trainer bitched about the horses’ lack of response only to end up calling the vet within the hour for treatment.

3.) The horse would rather do something else. Typical of the “barn sour” horse who would rather be with his buddies then go do work with you. You can use a pleasant reinforcement such as follow me and get a carrot, or use a light whip tap to get their attention. Depending on how bad the barn sour attitude is you may need to re-train in chunks (i.e. start with bringing a companion with the horse and gradually increase the distance between the companions etc…).

Always make it more fun to be with you and be careful of punishing. A classic example of poor training is the dog owner that calls the dog to them and then whips it. Then the owner wonders why the dog won’t come to him.

4.) As clear resistance and due to dominant behavior. By not moving the horse controls the game. This is such a big issue with Z that I will be dealing with it over several blog posts.

How do you know you gave the right amount of punishment?

1.) After the punishment the horse can be immediately touched with the whip and doesn’t move or show any fear (this does not include horses that are paralyzed with fear and won’t move for fear of being struck). Horses that were overly punished or who felt the punishment was unjust (you struck when the horse was confused not resistant) will also shy from the whip.

2.) The punishment consisted of ONE application. The problem I see people (with anger management issues) doing is they keep hitting and hitting and hitting. Really? Now that is abuse.

3.) Always strike a fleshy and well padded area of your horse such as the hindquarters. Do not strike the face, neck, legs or spine. Do not use the reins, lead rope, or bit to punish the horse.

4.) Understand that different horses have different levels of personal sensitivity to punishment. Brego, the half Arab, never needed to be punished with a whip. He would correct with a whisper. Tristan, the TB, could sometimes be a bit disobedient due to his history as a lesson horse. A firm hand and a light tap was all that was needed.

The dominant Z needs someone who lets her know, without any hesitation, but also without any excessive punishment, that X is expected and will be complied too.

This entry was posted in Pyschology and Behavior, Training, Z and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.