By Laura Crum
I am addicted to Janet’s mugwump chronicles blog. I read every single comment and am fascinated with the discussions. A lot of very nice folks gather there to talk about their horses and training issues. Its lots of fun. And it frequently gives me something to ponder.
Not so long ago someone posted there about wanting to get her bossy, cranky mare to be her friend. This mare reminded me a great deal of my little trail horse, Sunny. I have posted before on this blog about Sunny, see “The New Horse” (May 08) and “My Little Palomino Plug” (Dec 08). But I thought it would be fun to tell you all about how I was able to get this recalcitrant little mule of a horse to become my friend. Especially in light of the posts on Janet’s blog.
From the day I bought him (New Year’s Eve 2007) Sunny watched me attentively whenever I was around. It was kind of unnerving. I’d go down to the barn and my other horses, sure I wouldn’t feed them, would eye me in a relaxed way and carry on with what they were doing, unless I walked up to their pens. Not Sunny. As soon as he saw me, Sunny would leave whatever he was up to, march across his pen and park himself as close to me as he could get. He would then proceed to watch me as I went about my chores. Even if I just sat down in my chair and did nothing—other than watch him back—Sunny persisted. He could watch me for hours at a time.
Now, you might think this meant that Sunny liked me, and maybe in a way he did, but it wasn’t as simple as that. When I did go to his pen to catch him, Sunny was determined to test me. The very first day after I got him home, I walked confidently into his corral to catch my new acquisition. Bear in mind that Sunny had been sold to me as a family horse and I’d known the horse for several years and knew he would pack beginning riders down the trail. I had every reason to suppose he was gentle. As the route toward his left shoulder was blocked by a big mud puddle, I decided to walk behind him and around him in order to catch him. Imagine my surprise when the gentle kid’s horse swung his butt around, humped up and popped his back feet in my direction.
Now, he didn’t come anywhere near me. And he didn’t mean to. This was a threat, not a blow. But no horse of mine is allowed to threaten me in any way. So I caught Sunny and proceeded to beat the crap out of him with the end of the leadrope.
However, this procedure did not go unchallenged. Sunny was not at all sure that I was the boss of him. He thought there might be room for argument. When I whacked him on his shoulder as hard as I could, he flew back and hit the end of the rope, trying to drag me backward. Some might have thought him intimidated, but it wasn’t so. I jerked him to a stop and hit him again. And again. This time he tried to jerk his head away and swap ends to kick at me. I snatched his head back to me and hit him again. And again. Sunny then charged forward, in the run-over-the-top-of-you maneuver. I jerked his head around and continued to beat on him. He leaped sideways and tried to pull the rope out of my hand. I was getting tired. But I kept jerking his face and hitting him.
Now some of you may consider me a fairly abusive horseman at this point. You may be wondering why I was still hitting this little horse. I’ll tell you why. Because I’ve dealt with horses like this before. Horses who will test for dominance. You need to know how to read such a horse. And if you take one on, as I was taking Sunny on, you need to keep on until the horse shows submission. Or you just go backwards.
Sunny had shown no sign of submission. I kept beating him. It wasn’t bothering him all that much, to tell you the truth. He’s a cold-blooded, tough-minded little guy. But in the end, at the point where I had worked up a pretty good sweat and was getting out of breath, Sunny gave up. His head came down, he made mouthing motions and he just stopped. I stopped, too. And the horse immediately stepped forward and put his face up to me in a very submissive way, asking for a pet.
I’ve seen this reaction before, many times. If you beat a horse who is asking you to prove you can be dominant, the horse will like you for it. Sunny was accepting me as the boss. I petted his face. We were friends.
All well and good. Unfortunately, Sunny needed to test this out once every so often. We’d get along fine, and then one day, as I was catching him or saddling him or something, Sunny would assay a nip, or pantomime a kick, or try to step on my foot. He never connected and he never meant to. He wanted to provoke me into proving I was boss. He wanted a beating. After I beat him up, we got along just fine until he decided to test me again.
Lest you think I’m being fanciful, Sunny displayed exactly this pattern when I turned him in with my son’s horse, Henry. He challenged Henry, and Henry put him in his place. Sunny remained submissive until a few days later when he challenged Henry again. And this went on and on. Eventually I separated them. I was afraid that Sunny’s need to keep challenging was going to get him hurt. And I was sick of the bite and kick marks on his shiny gold hide.
So, for what its worth, there are some horses that you can’t be nice to all the time. Strange as it may sound, these horses want and need a beating from time to time, and they angle for it. If you can dish out the required treatment, they will love you.
My little palomino plug nickers every time he sees me. He presents his muzzle for a pet any time I go near his pen. He shows every sign of being fond of me and is a reliable riding horse. I enjoy him very much. And every few weeks he tests me. And I let him know I’m boss. And we’re both happy. Sometimes that’s what it takes to be friends.