Much like young children, two-year-old horses are still immature in mind and body. Their minds wander, and patience is still an ungrasped virtue. It is not surprising, then, to consider that those with little experience in trimming have not yet learned the skill of balancing on three legs. Any hoof trimmer is taking his/her well-being into risky territory when attempting to trim young horses that have not been trained properly by their owners.
The truth? Most hoof care professionals are afraid, myself included. We navigate our days with an underlying fear of getting hurt while being under a 1,000-pound animal whose behavior we often cannot control. This fear drives certain behavior patterns that only surface under this unique set of circumstances.
Fear of failure, fear of injury, fear of income loss, fear of the unknown… fear creates an escalating ladder of emotions that include:
- Loss of Control
As trainers, farriers, veterinarians, or trimmers, when we feel ourselves moving deeper and deeper into the escalation of fear, our greater logic tells us that we need to walk away from the situation.
Similarly, while horses lack the ability to reason or logically analyze a situation, they experience comparable feelings that result in fear, defiance, anger, or aggression. Their fear can be caused by a number of factors including:
- Lack of experience
- Prior neglect or abuse
- A new environment
- A new owner, trimmer, farrier, trainer
- An angry human
On a side note, physical pain can also cause fear and, therefore, fear-based behavior. In these cases, we need to identify and treat the source of that pain.
While horses may display similar behavior from one to another, the underlying reasons for that similar behavior can be vastly different. It is helpful to learn the history of specific horses to deal with specific behaviors. Studying the horse’s body language, and most importantly, interpreting the expression in their eyes, are both key to correctly confronting the behavior while avoiding major harm to the horses and ourselves.
Below are three key primary causes for unsafe behavior of horses:
- Fear-Based, Inexperienced, or Ignorant Horses
When a three-year-old horse cow kicks the hoof trimmer, it most likely is acting out of fear or ignorance. It needs additional love, reassurance, and training. When it jerks the hoof away or leans into the human, it may simply be unbalanced, having not yet learned to stand on three legs. A healthy dose of patience, compassion, and understanding is required. Talking to the horse in a soothing tone with gentle touches will often get the job done.
2. Hierarchical Herd Challenge – Who is Alpha?
A more experienced and self-confident horse’s approach to these new things is different. They might want to test the waters and see how far they can push in order to establish a new pecking order. For example, when a 12-year-old seasoned horse cow kicks or bites, it often acts out of defiance, trying to establish dominance over the human. This horse needs discipline, and the rank order needs to be reestablished.
Equality does not exist in a horse herd. Horses categorize both humans and equine counterparts in a hierarchy. It is imperative that we humans remain on the top of the ladder from a safety perspective. Imitating the behavior of the alpha mare in the herd will reap good results. What behaviors do top-ranked horses display to maintain their rank? What do mares teach their youngsters? You’ll see laid back ears, biting, broad-chested approaches, and a swift turning of the hindquarters, often followed by kicking. This is the language of horses. Imitating this behavior as humans will reap positive results.
A defiant, senior horse challenging us for a higher standing in the herd should be disciplined within three seconds of the punishable offense. If we fail to provide that discipline within three seconds, we are essentially yielding our standing as a leader. After three seconds, the horse will no longer associate the punishment with its behavior, and it will resent the human for it.
3. Overly Aggressive and Dangerous
Only a very small percentage of horses are inherently aggressive. Most horses in this category develop their aggression through human interaction, either through abuse or through a lack of training and boundaries from a young age.
A horse that cow kicks, strikes, or bites indiscriminately is an aggressive horse that needs remedial training.
Below are a few photos of horses’ eyes and facial expressions that allow us a glimpse into their souls. If we pay attention, horses will teach us where they are coming from and allow us to make an educated decision about how to proceed, regardless of our role as equine servicers or enthusiasts.