What is a Vice?

Cribbing, stall kicking, weaving, and any number of other self-destructive or barn-destructive behaviours have historically been categorized as ‘vices’. They were held to be transmissible from one affected horse to another by observation, and they made it more difficult to sell a horse. Some vices were connected with physical ailments, and for all these reasons they were often physically prevented. What is the modern take on ‘vices’, and how do we deal with them?

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Is He Trying to Scare Me?

Rearing is a hyperreactive or agonistic behaviour in horses, characterized by stimulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (McLean and McGreevy, 2005). Behaviours controlled by this axis are fast, dangerous, and difficult to extinguish after only one display (McGreevy and McLean, 2010; McLean and McGreevy, 2005; McGreevy, 2002). Continue reading

Go For It!

Riding is fun. I think you’ll agree with me. All the same, we don’t often act like we are having fun when we ride. I see a lot of scowls and tense bodies, and I am guilty of scowling and being tense too.

Try this for me. Find a trampoline or other bouncy surface (a small, four foot one works best, but I imagine any kind will). Step on and straddle your imaginary horse. Begin trotting, shifting your weight rhythmically from one leg to the other. Hold your hands like you are holding reins. At this point it may be necessary to ignore the neighbours looking over the fence.

Now think about the hardest equine manoeuvre you know. Perhaps your horse bucks every time you ask him to canter—then think about cantering. If you just learned how to leg yield, think about asking for that.

Wait a minute! I didn’t ask you to stop trotting! What happened when you thought about those things? If the subject you thought of was scary enough, I can say with confidence that the end result was your legs stopped moving rhythmically and you may have received quite a jolt from the trampoline.

If that didn’t happen for you, congratulations. You are a more relaxed rider than most of us. Try this instead; I still want you to feel it: go back into your trot and tense up an arm, your wrist, an ankle, your neck… whatever you can think of and see what happens. It will be the same as above: your whole movement will become stiff and your rhythm will be lost.

What the trampoline did when you got tense shows you just what your horse feels. You get stiff and concerned, your body stops giving him the support and cues he needs to keep on going or move into a different gait, and so he starts making up the rules or totally falls apart or gets tense and concerned too. And what do you do when your horse starts ‘acting up’ (even though you see now that it was your fault from the first)? Probably you get more tense or pull on his mouth or punish him…. Does that make the situation better? Hardly.

If we think that riding is scary, our horse does too. If we get tense, our horse does too. If we freeze, our horse takes over or falls apart. It follows that if we have fun, relax, and feel what we want the horse to do before making him do it that he would have fun, relax, and feel us too.

Go for it! Do that scary thing like it’s a walk in the park. If you are unsure of your aid, apply it and see what the horse does. Feel him, then respond to him and he will respond back. That is guaranteed.

The Horsegentler

Tying: A Battle Worth Fighting

How many of us have horses that will not tie? Unfortunately, they are all too common, and yet we cater to them by letting their habit of pulling back continue. The best way to fix a puller is to nip the habit in the bud. But, even if your horse has been a dedicated puller for years, there is hope!

Recently I have been working with a horse, nine years old, who had a slight issue tying. I say had because her issue has been resolved now, and she ties quietly. When I first noticed that she was anxious in the tie stall I started looking for ways to reassure her. I did not wait until she actually pulled back (which she did very soon after exhibiting anxiety). When I took her into the arena to do some groundwork, I found that she did not lead. She followed.

There is a very important difference here. A horse that leads follows pressure on the halter (i.e., will go forward when forward pressure is placed on his head, such as in a tying situation). A horse that follows simply goes wherever its handler goes. This is undesirable on many counts; firstly, the horse will refuse to stand still on command. Secondly, the horse will not tie. If a horse that follows is presented with pressure on the lead rope, he does not know what to do with it. He throws his head up and does not understand.

The key to fixing most tying problems is going back to the basics and teaching the horse how to lead again. Once the horse will lead past the walking handler at a jog and will go where he is sent with hardly any pressure at all, without the handler moving his feet, then the horse may be returned to the tie stall.

Some horses, I will admit, will not be so easy to train (and this method is not necessarily easy. It will take a few months). Their habits have either been ingrained for a very long time, or else they have been so scared in some way by being tied that they will ever after refuse. But do not give up hope! If you have a situation like this, contact us with your situation and we will do our best to help you and your companion along.

Bill Dorrance and Horsemanship Through Feel

Another great book is being added to the Manes and Tales Booklist! It is True Horsemanship Through Feel, by Bill Dorrance.

 Feel is the only thing our horses have to go on. If we have bad feel, he can still try, but he won’t understand. If we have good feel, our horse can understand and he will want to be with us.

Feel is very hard to explain, but Bill does a fairly good job of it. After he goes through some very important information about how feel works, he gives seven exercises to work on with your horse. Working through even the first two of these exercises with Jamileh, a nine year old Arabian mare I am working with right now, has made a huge difference in her otherwise crabby attitude, and she is willing to do what I ask of her.

Bill’s feel is much like Centered Riding on the ground. Feel employs many of the same principles, and is a great resource to work hand in hand with that method of riding.

Look forward to the first exercise in the next post!

The Horsegentler

Help for the Halter Puller

Unfortunately horses that sit back against their halter and rope when tied are all too common. There is hope – you will not have to have someone hold your horse for you forever!

The first step is to find out why your horse pulls, and how severe the problem is.

Why: Some horses pull because they are scared of being confined. This is the result of improper training or handling. It can be fixed, in time, if the severity of the fear is not too bad. Others will pull simply because they have learned that if they pull they can get free. Whatever the reason, you must understand why the horse pulls before you can begin to treat the issue.

Severity: I will give you a scale so you can see what I mean. Your horse is a one if he occasionally jumps backwards, then jumps forwards again, looking rather surprised that he couldn’t leave. Your horse is a ten if whenever you place any pressure backwards or forwards on his halter, he resists so strongly that he actually flips over backwards.

I am very sorry to say that there is just about nothing I can do for the horse that is a 10. If he can be taught to stand still, it is possible that when you are least expecting it, he will pull back and fall on top of you. He is very dangerous in all respects! So I hope that none of you reading this ever own a horse that is a 10.

The fix: The first step in retraining is what I always say it is. Start at the beginning. Your horse must respond immediately to any pressure you or anything else exerts on his halter. Do this simple exercise to see where you are with this.

Standing facing your horse’s neck on his left side, extend your left arm, and place a small amount of pressure on his halter. Does he stretch his neck out, or does he step forward softly at your command? Release pressure and then pull harder suddenly. This will be very telling. If he sets his feet, you need to teach him to lead properly to any small amount of pressure. Then, when you do this test again, you will find that with the same sudden hard pull, he will jump forward. This is exactly what you want. Now when the horse goes to set back against his halter, he will feel the pressure and jump forward instead.

Now, tying to a solid post without any give is still going to be dangerous for the horse, even with his new found knowledge. Get a tractor or car tire inner tube, cut off the metal valve, and squeeze it through your tie ring. Loop it through itself once, and tie the horse onto this loop, safely, with no excess loop of rope. If you have a command to tell your horse that he is expected to stand still, tell him so. Leave him be now, not alone, but be a fair distance away. If he pulls back now, he should step forward, but if he does set back, the inner tube will have some give and he will not injure himself.

Good luck with this! If you are still having troubles, Contact Us and we’ll do our best to help you in your own particular situation.

The Horsegentler


Horses that bite can be very dangerous. Most horses do not bite just for fun, in fact, 1 in 1,000,000 horses might have a mean bone, but the vast majority sure do not. When an otherwise sweet horse starts biting, it’s time to pay attention!

More than likely, your horse has been trying to get your attention in more subtle ways such as a slight increase in crabbiness, or little twitches of his tail. You didn’t notice, and now he is saying, “Alright, I’ve had enough!” The most common reason for a horse to start biting humans is pain. He has told you before that he hurts, you didn’t listen (or you just didn’t notice) and now he really hurts and is trying to relieve the pain any way he can. Tying the horse tighter will not help – he’ll just try something else to get your attention, such as kicking, bucking, rearing, anything to get rid of the pain. If he succeeds in stopping you from doing whatever is causing him discomfort, that will be highly rewarding. It is better to stop this behaviour at the biting stage before it progresses to worse aggressive behaviour.

To find out more about biting horses and what to do about them, check out the Horses with Vices page.

The Horsegentler.