Many times, after working a colt at a demonstration in front of spectators, someone makes a comment that goes something like this:
“Well, this method works okay on the gentle ones, but what would you do with one that just wants to fight?”
Most of the time, I’m in awe after hearing this, for that person has missed the whole point. A horse will not fight or resist us unless we push him to the point of panic, at which point he may fight with everything he has. If we stay just short of pushing him to panic, it may be uncomfortable for him, but he is still thinking and analyzing the situation with a clear mind. If pushed into a state of panic, the horse reacts without giving thought to his actions. We use the term “self-preservation” to describe this.
I don’t think you can teach a horse anything at this point. He is born with an instinct for self-preservation, and, in the first weeks of his life, his patterns are established. Basically, when a horse doesn’t trust a situation or environment, the first reaction he learns is to flee from it, and if he feels confined, his next reaction is to fight. Most people have some understanding of this concept.
But let’s take it a step further. If you don’t want to cause a fight, don’t confine the horse and then cause him to panic. If you don’t cause the horse to panic, his mind stays open and he thinks his way through the new experiences you may be exposing him to. The horse would much rather operate in this frame of mind. He obviously doesn’t enjoy operating in a state of panic, not to mention the injuries that may come to him. It is usually when the horse is in a panic or a fighting frame of mind that injuries to people come about.
I think fighting horses can be classified into two groups:
In the first group is the horse that hasn’t had any fighting experience to speak of, but is just extra defensive by nature. Under pressure or when surprised, he may kick or act out in a defensive way.
In the second group is the horse that isn’t fearful or respectful of people and may come into a person’s space aggressive and ready to fight. This would probably be a horse that has had some bad experiences, maybe even an abused horse. He has learned to take care of himself because he can’t trust a person to do it. In either case, I would watch the horse closely to see when or in what areas he may be anticipating a fight and just work in a different direction.
The old myth of “not letting the horse get away with something—staying there to finish what you started,” has probably wrecked more horses and frustrated more horse people than anything. You don’t win by fighting. You may win a battle, but in doing so, you lose the war. Many times, pride and ego get in a person’s way here, and, when emotions take over good sense, you have already lost. When that happens, the best thing to do is to identify the situation as soon as possible, cut your losses and get out.
Start over with a fresh mind, set up a different environment, and try building the horse’s confidence in other areas before coming back to the area you had trouble in.
You may not always know the right thing to do, and this can be frustrating to an ambitious horse person, but by being patient and satisfied that you are not doing a lot of things wrong, you will do a lot for the horse.
By being aware of the horse’s response to our subtle gestures, we can accomplish a lot and never cause him to feel he has to defend himself.
Stallions are by nature more aggressive and challenging. They are used to playing rough, which only makes it more important for you to be effective, but fair. By meeting their aggressiveness with a blunt surprise, then coming right back and offering them some comfort, they will respect you and you avoid the challenge.
Most other horses are going to be mild-mannered, and if a person doesn’t cause a fight, there is not going to be one.