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Bad Manners:  An Infectious Plague

By Jeffrey Rolo

Poor ground manners and/or behavior is not necessarily representative of a problem horse as even the best of horses can succumb to the temptations of inappropriate actions. Unfortunately the plain and painful truth is bad manners are as infectious as any plague, and by the time you finish reading this article I think you'll fully understand and agree with the analogy.

Behavior problems are highly contagious.

When a plague breaks out the first thing governments or health officials try to do is isolate the afflicted parties, lest the plague spread like wildfire to other healthy parties. While the extremity of poor horse behavior cannot be held to the same level of urgency as a virulent plague, there is a fundamental truth to be found between them: exposure to bad manners can turn a great horse into a problem horse.

Horses tend to follow the examples of their peers, particularly any peers that are alpha horses amongst the herd. When one member of a herd spooks or recoils from a perceived threat, most will follow suit unless a leader manages to assure them the threat is nothing to worry about. When alpha members of a herd move towards distant pastures, the rest of the party often follows suit. In summary, horses generally do not hold an individual mentality – they possess a herd mentality.

Any horse owner who has experienced the maddening scenario of a cribbing horse (a horse that chews and windsucks on fences, borders, etc.) knows all too well how quickly this poor behavior can spread. If you are not careful about isolating a cribbing horse, or do not take steps to prevent the behavior, before you know it nearly the entire barn can break out in a cacophony of horse belches.

Cribbing is an example that makes most experienced horse owners wince, realizing how infectious the behavior is and how difficult it is to overcome once a horse has picked up the habit. You can substitute cribbing with any bad habit or mannerism and the infectious nature of problem behavior will still hold true. If, for example, a herd of well-behaved horses notices a young upstart gets away with nipping you, ignoring you or generally being disrespectful, eventually your status as the alpha will deteriorate. Your authority will eventually erode as they decide you are on an equal or lower basis as they (or the upstart) are. A horse is less prone to make a one-on-one comparison between you and him as he is to take in the entire picture. You're either the alpha leader of the herd or you are not.

Be a good friend to your equine companions, but also make sure to be a consistent leader. Try to respect their rights, happiness and ways, but also make sure you draw the line at inappropriate behavior that cannot be tolerated. If you allow a bad habit to take seed in one horse, you may soon find previously well-behaved horses indulging in the distasteful behavior.

Behavior problems become progressively worse.

Many plagues are beyond our body's ability to control, and without proper treatment or medical care symptoms can become progressively worse. A light case of bronchitis can eventually become pneumonia, etc. The same holds true for problem horse behaviors – what starts out as a relatively minor infraction can eventually develop into a significant problem if the infraction is not confronted immediately.

Take for example a stud colt. Colts generally have less respect for boundaries and personal space as fillies, so it's not uncommon for them to run right up to your personal space, lean on you or even nip at you as they would a fellow colt. Each of the these three light infractions can easily develop into more serious problems as the horse grows if they are not taught correctly from the start:

bulletThe horse that runs right up to you instead of slowing and stopping at a safe distance may someday slip or miscalculate its ability to stop in time. If a grown horse collides into you, it's going to hurt.

bulletWhereas it is cute for a young colt or filly to lean against you, as the horse grows up it will eventually become too heavy for you to bolster. The image of a horse leaning on you as a support may seem like a thing cartoons are made of, but I have owned fillies and colts who have tried exactly that!

bulletA nip can hurt in itself, but as a horse grows and/or becomes more comfortable with the act of nipping you he will become less cautious and more aggressive with time. This is particularly a danger for colts since many stallions have a tendency to bite. Nipping should be clearly and effectively handled when the horse is a colt and thus still more easily managed and taught.

Problem behavior from horses is not something to be dismissed, no matter how seemingly light. Like a disease, these light symptoms can steadily develop into more serious behavioral issues… issues that will be much harder to confront or remedy after they have become firmly ingrained.

Treat potential problems with care and efficiency, for it's much easier to train a horse correctly from the start than it is to train a bad habit out of a horse after the habit has taken root.

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