Wednesday, April 15, 2009


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.


barrelracingmom said...

You are absolutely right! I used to provide care for several horses in exchange for board. The three year old gelding, who was 16.2 by the way, required a "beating" about once a week. I think he just didn't feel safe if he didn't know where he stood with me. Good as gold day in day out for about 5 or 6 days, with a lovely routine, and then next thing you know he would stand up, charge, cow-kick, or some other crazy thing! Would mind better when I was gruff with him - no kissy, kissy for this guy.

Laura Crum said...

barrelracingmom--I'm glad you understand. I was wondering if I would get a lot of comments about how abusive I was. I do have horses that I never hit, that I would never even yell at, because they wouldn't benefit from it, but Sunny really needs this approach. I have known others like him--obviously you have, too. The funny thing is that Sunny and I both enjoy each other. Weird, huh? Though no weirder than some human friendship dynamics, I suppose.

Promise said...

You actually had me laughing at this. I've encountered several horses like this when I was working for the trainer that sold me Promise.

The ones I remember best were lesson horses. Every few weeks, I'd have to get on at least one lesson horse or pony who was being unruly or just plain mean and "beat" them into submission either on the ground or under saddle, or both -- and remind them what their job was.

I occasionally have arguments like this with Promise, also, although she knows her place in our herd. If she's really adamant she's not going to do something (like cross the river, if you happen to have read my latest blog post) - she needs to be told in no uncertain terms she IS in fact going to do it...because I said so. I'm the boss and I'm not going to let anything happen to her.

Shanster said...

Good post! I liked it - so accurate!

mocharocks said...

I think most people who know horses well will understand and agree with you!

I have to do the same thing with Mocha, just not as often. Once about every six months, she decides she's going to bite me and bite me hard. It's happened when I'm tacking her up or leading her to another pasture. I just beat her up until she submits and move on. You can tell she's not afraid when I'm smacking her with the lead like a maniac, it's like she says to herself "oh crud, that didn't work" and then she just stops and stands. She also comes running to me whenever she sees me and follows me around the farm like a shadow. She will leave green grass, other horses, anything to be with me, we seem to have a very strong bond. But every once in a while she just has to test to see where our relationship really stands ;)

mugwump said...

Wanna know something funny? I don't consider whaling on a horse with a leadrope beating. That's simply making a point.

Sunny simply wants to keep things interesting. Most kids horses I have known are who they are because they like kids. Adults annoy the tar out of them.

Cassie-andra said...

My mare is fairly opinionated, but she doesn't do much more than pin her ears and snap at the air without the intent to connect. Whomping on her doesn't really do much for this, but if I growl at her, get in her space and make her back up, she usually gets the point. On the rare occasion she connects (I don't think she usually means to, judging from her patterns of behavior) she "punishes" herself - she backs off wild eyed as if I am beating her before I even get the chance to react. After that she is generally subdued and cautious in her actions for a while.

She will always have her opinions though....

Laura Crum said...

mocharocks--Mocha sounds a lot like Sunny. He's very calm while I whale away on him, too. You can just see the wheels turning in his little brain. "Guess the old alpha mare is still number one. Oh well."

Anonymous said...

Yep. That's how my current horse is. He totally enjoys this little domination game, despite the fact that he always loses, and he needs to check his status (and get a correction) fairly often. After 3 years I usually catch his first move and correct him before anyone else even notices, but if you ignore that first move, he escalates the challenge. He also pulls it more when we're in a new situation, which is a pain.

I was hoping he'd eventually outgrow this game, but sounds doubtful from what you all have said.

Jami Davenport said...

My mare was scary when I first got her. She would chase me around her paddock with teeth bared or turn her butt to me and try to kick me. Believe me, she needed a serious attitude adjustment. Now she's the sweetest thing, but I know what you mean about domininant horses and putting them in their places.

Heidi the Hick said...

I am thinking more and more that horses get really freaked out and insecure if they aren't sure who's in charge. THey need to have it set out very clearly.

Sounds like Sunny there isn't insecure but just needs to check. Just to make sure.

I don't think you can seriously abuse a horse by whupping a head rope on him. He'll feel it but there are a lot worse things you can do.

And you're right - some horses don't need it at all. If my mare gets snotty I either poke her in the cheek or growl at her. If I whacked her with the rope I think she'd fall apart.

I like your palomino plug, Laura! He's a pretty cool little horsonality, fake kicking and all!

Redsmom said...

Abolutely! Couldn't agree more. I have a 23 year old former schoolie who has to be put in his place soundly every once in awhile. I almost wrote a question in Mugwumps about whether there are any horses that never have to be fussed at or disciplined. Probably not, I decided. But your story helped.

Redsmom said...

Mugs, I so agree about the kid horse thing, too. Matty runs to my daughter when she comes around. Tolerates me. At the show the other day, I saw him put his head down for a toddler to pet him. So sweet (rotten thing!).

AareneX said...

I am SO GLAD to read this, you have no idea--not only about Sunny, but all the other folks who chimed in with their stories too.

I've got one of those "just gotta test" horses right now: a 7 year old standardbred (I know, weird to have a STB who isn't a model citizen) who isn't really the boss, but just wants to make sure that YOU are the boss.

She came to me from a weird situation, though: former owner kept having dizzy spells that turned out to be a nasty brain tumor :-( so the mare was allowed to get away with fake kicking/fake biting, because who wants to "beat on" a horse when you get dizzy and fall over, right?

When I got her and she did the fake kick/fake bite thing at me, she was surprised and RELIEVED that I reprimanded her. But, alas, she still has to test me every few weeks. There are some people at her barn who are not allowed to go anywhere near her, because I know they won't get after her. Argh.

Ah, well. At least I'm not alone.

Libby Scrivener said...

Great story.
I only have ponies but they can still be brats. And they frequently have "who's the boss" contests with all the biting and kicking. It's been a while since the Dartmoor filly showed me her heels, though. She made the mistake of doing that in a roundpen so we free-lunged for thirty minutes, both directions. When I let her stop she'd show me her butt so I'd make her go again. Finally she stopped and lowered her head. I'm so glad I'd left the lunge-whip propped up against the gate!

Thirty-plus years ago, when I was in England, I walked and led an "unrideable" Dartmoor gelding for hours. He was harnessed and dragging concrete posts. He let me ride him after that. Thanks for letting me remember him!