Posted: Fri Sep 01, 2006 4:35 pm Post subject: At wits' end with Boss Mare
I have a 6-year-old mare who is (underneath it all) a very kind, sweet and forgiving horse. Under saddle she is excellent -- responsive and dependable. Nevertheless, she is most definitely a “boss mare” and her appalling ground-manners are both annoying and dangerous.
Before I got her it seems no one ever insisted on decent, respectful ground manners. Problem is, now I’ve brought her to MY farm.
She has never been taught to lead correctly – she drags her handler from place to place. Whenever food is involved, she becomes a complete lunatic, including when you try to place food of any type (or even salt) in the feed tub in her stall. You would think she had been starved or had to fend for herself in a herd at some point in her life, but I know for fact that is not the case. So far, I have taught her the word “back” and she will now reluctantly grant me a bit of leeway to get in and out of her stall to feed -- but only when I have a sturdy crop in my hand. I just hate to resort to physical punishment but unfortunately, I’ve had to use that crop across her chest a couple of times.
The other related issue is her dragging me when I turn her out or bring her in. Often she is anxious to get away from the heat and/or flies so I can understand that she wants to “get “moving” but she is almost out of control at times. Not a safe situation! Of course, I make certain that there is NO food of any kind in the feed tub in her stall before I bring her in as I don’t want it to be a motive for barging. So far, I’ve tried making her halt repeatedly when she gets going too fast and have also tried making her back a few steps and settle before we proceed. Neither of these approaches seems to be making ANY impression on her whatsoever. Nor does using a chain across her nose. We go just as fast when we start out again! She is a very large, very strong and exceptionally muscular horse and she can easily intimidate me (which SHE knows full well.) I have noticed she is marginally better for my husband – but still not at all acceptable. Her breed is known for being food-oriented and bargey but I don’t blame that – I blame myself!
Galadriel, I am at my wits’ end with this mare and don’t know what else to try. None of my other horses are anything like this. I read your article on dealing with a boss mare and would like to know if you think Natural Horsemanship type round-pen training would solve these problems? My instincts tell me that I need to take a multifaceted approach to solve (and survive) this mare’s issues – but exactly WHAT to do escapes me. I know she’s not “bad” – I just need to get a leg-up in the pecking order!
Any advice you could offer would be very much appreciated. (Sorry this post is SOOOO long!)
You're going to need to completely re-establish your relationship with her, because she is indeed taking incredible advantage of you. At this point you are probably also using defensive body language which further erodes your ability to be in control of the situation. You need to work on both the mare's behavior AND your behavior around her.
With our bossmare, we had success with round pen type methods. However, when you're starting with a stubborn bossmare who's already got your number, you're not likely to acheive the "join up" that's described by many of the big names. Marv Walker has an excellent description of his technique, which he calls the "bonder." You can find him here:
We had a rough week or so when we realized that Duchess's behavior was simply unacceptable, and that she was going to hurt somebody if she didn't start respecting people. First I took her away from the herd; I left her in the arena for several days. While she was there, her only interactions with me were round pen type exercises. I was very positive when she was giving and beginning to be submissive; I ignored her and made her move when she was ignoring me or being pushy. Eventually, we got some response. Instead of trying to ignore me or trying to turn away, she would turn toward me.
At those times, I would go "hook her on" (if you've ever done round pen exercises, you'll know what this means--if you haven't, you've GOT to try it). I'd then work with her on leading. Once a horse is "hooked on," she'll actually follow you just as if you were leading, but without even a halter/lead. The horse's behavior is perfect ground manners. She should stay just behind you, stop when you stop, walk when you walk, etc. I'd reward her for her good behavior on the lead; she almost can't misbehave at that time, so it's a very good time to reinforce good ground manners. I would spend quite some time after each round pen session working on her leading. It got better each time.
After about a week of this routine daily, I was able to return her to the herd. She was still bossmare out in the pasture, but she was respectful towards people. She was willing to be attentive when led and to behave when handled.
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For a horse with food issues, you'd need to have several round pen type sessions to get her used to the idea, then probably incorporate the food in the session. Keep something signifying food with you, like a bucket--but *drive*her*out* as long as she's being disrespectful. If she's looking at the bucket and not at you, make her move. Once she's willing to look at you instead of the bucket, you can put the bucket down and allow her to approach. If she gets dangerous on the approach (charging, putting ears back, etc) chase her out again and make her move again. ** You'll want to have some really good sessions under your belt before you even start with this, so that she knows what you're looking for and she's starting to get into the habit of complying. **
That multifaceted approach you mentioned:
Once we got Duchess' behavior sorted out, we had to be sure to keep it. We have to be watchful of ourselves at all times with her. If she starts acting pushy, we have to back her up, and get her to back down, then try to keep the situation from coming up again.
She's actually happier with her status defined--even if it's defined as "I outrank you, horse"--but she's always looking to see if we're not truly worthy of the dominant horse position. She's just not as trusting as many horses. SOMEBODY has to be responsible all of the time. If we're not watching out for the herd, then SHE needs to watch out for the herd. So we can't let her down, and we can't let her think that we're not watching out for her and all her buddies.
Among our precautions:
* We stay on "bossmare body language" all of the time. If we slump, or aren't alert, or otherwise don't use dominant body language, she gets pushy again. This involves walking tall, looking up (not at the ground) and keeping shoulders back. Basically, BELIEVE you're bigger than the horse is.
* We can't let her intrude on our space. She does this in subtle ways; she creeps up to "beg" for treats, or she brushes past us as she's walking somewhere. Both of these are big no-no's; letting a horse walk into your personal space (especially to push you out of it) is submissive horse behavior. She must wait to be invited to come closer. If she tries to brush past me, I instead push HER to the side. As she's taking a step, I push against the moving leg at the shoulder or hindquarter. This makes her move away from me, and establishes that she can't brush against me and push me aside.
* If I ask her for something, I'd better get it, or she'd better have a darned good reason why not. If she is not attentive (whether loose, stalled, on a lead, or tied) she hears about it. If upping the volume and the body language doesn't impress her, we go have a roundpen session.
* Any time she gets less than responsive overall, we need to immediately stop what we're doing and have a little "round pen" session. [This may involve trying to ignore people asking her for things, or being overtly pushy around people.] We can do this wherever she happens to be (as long as it's enclosed), and whether or not other horses are there. As long as we're focusing on her, and making her move until she stops and turns to us, it doesn't matter how big the area is or what other distractions are there. We used to have to do this every 6 months or so--we haven't now in over a year.
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I have to admit that she's been unwell and we've been indulgent possibly more than we should. This is terrible for her; when we don't maintain discipline, she starts getting pushy and bratty again. But she's anhidrotic (doesn't sweat, so overheats easily) and last year she developed heaves. SOME of her behavior becomes excusable. It's a very, very fine line to walk...keeping her comfortable but keeping her from deciding that she's in charge again.
If her behavior deteriorates, we will know it's our own fault. Anything we have to put her through, in terms of restoring discipline, will be our own fault. This is an awful month for her, dusty and insanely hot; if OUR behavior leads to her misbehavior, we will have some justifiable guilt on our consciences. It's something to consider.