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Leading An Aggressive Or Angry Horse Safely – Part 1

By Jeffrey Rolo

Elsewhere on AlphaHorse we recommended the round pen as the most effective long-term way to tame an aggressive horse in a safe and efficient manner, but the reality is that often confrontations take place outside a controlled area, such as when you're leading your horse. What should you do in such a case?

First and foremost, know your limitations. One cannot be meek around an aggressive horse or you will surely lose the "battle," but by the same token overconfidence can easily lead to ineffective action or even injury. Be confident, but know your limits, and if you're seriously uncomfortable confronting an aggressive horse consider seeking the aid of a professional instead of tackling the issue with your own hands.

Although it is essential to react immediately and firmly when your horse presents a challenge of any size, I also believe that one should use just enough force to get the job done. Overreacting or exhibiting overly aggressive behavior will impair the established or budding relationship between you and the horse. At the same time, if a more subtle reaction doesn't get your point across sufficiently, you must be willing to escalate the pressure until your horse acquiesces to your will. Too little reaction, while not as unproductive as severe overreaction, will still leave you with the losing hand at the end of the game.

So let's look at some ways to help control an aggressive horse while you're leading, starting with the least pressure and working our way up:

Voice Control

It often amazes me at just how many horsemen underestimate the power of their own voice. I've watched people get into pushing or yanking matches with their horses when often had they instead firmly vocalized their discontent the physical match may never have taken place.

Equally important as knowing to use your voice is knowing how to use it. When chastising a naughty horse, you want to use a deep, stern tone, not a harried, out-of-control tone. Often people equate loudness with authority, and that simply isn't the case. A hysterical loud voice will more often than not suggest a lack of confidence and control, whereas a stern voice that focused on controlled intensity rather than volume reflects a collected and intense demeanor. So when using your voice as a disciplinary agent, focus on controlled intensity, not volume or hysterical rantings.

Next is knowing when to use your authority voice. Sometimes horse owners are reactive rather than proactive, whether it be due to inattentiveness or a desire to avoid confrontation if at all possible. Regardless, it's a lot more difficult to regain lost control than it is to preemptively caution an aggressive horse. If you see the ears begin to dip back aggressively, or the body tighten, or any other behavior that indicates the horse might soon be up to no good, it's a good idea to start growling. Don't be too emphatic about it instantly… the horse hasn't done the crime yet. You're just reminding him that you're alert and aware of what he's thinking, so it would be in his best interests not to go through with it.

Sure, the horse won't always listen. But avoiding any confrontation solely through voice control is an accomplishment, so don't let a failure here or there dissuade you from becoming comfortable with this reliable tactic.

Finally, what should you say when confronting an aggressive horse via your voice? Really, the words you use don't matter. I personally use the standard "whoa" most of the time, but sometimes I'll say things like "watch it," "knock it off," or "don't even think about it" instead.

Many horse owners believe in using a consistent verbal trigger/word/phrase so that the horse memorizes the meaning of the word. I won't say that such a belief is wrong, but I will say that horses aren't as simple-minded as to require you use specific words all of the time. When I'm working with my horse, he detects displeasure or praise by my shifts of vocal tone (and, of course, body language). I can say "pink bubblegum" and have the horse stand at attention if I use the proper authoritative tone. Horses detect tone and attitude rather than words.

That being said, it may be easier for many horse owners to develop a consistent pattern of vocal cues and commands. Novice horse owners may be better served to consistently stick with single phrases like "whoa" until they gain confidence, experience and mastery over voice control. So although I may not always personally follow the "consistent vocal commands" school of thought, I will acknowledge its potential merits.

Okay, we've learned that the power of voice is not to be underestimated, whether used alone or as a supportive corrective action alongside physical force. Unfortunately a cranky or frisky horse often won't adhere to vocal control alone, so it's time to up the ante a bit and see what happens when we need to get physical while leading an aggressive horse in Part Two of Leading An Aggressive Horse Safely.

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