In which I muse a bit about "submission", and how Fiddle gets some

I must start by apologizing for the dearth of good photos in this post. Jim is away from home on business this week, and the kids are staying with their grandpa, so I'm alone at the Farm--and taking photos of a big horse doing stuff really requires an extra person.

I did try to take pictures to illustrate my points. Most of them turned out like this:

Not very helpful. Sorry.


Laughing Orca Ranch asked why Fiddle's behavior backslid so rapidly when Jim's daughter Lisa started handling her.

Let me clarify a point: Lisa never actually handled Fiddle. I would never in a million years hand the leadrope of my gigantic, pushy mare to an inexperienced handler.

Lisa merely interacted with Fiddle, mostly when I wasn't looking, and inadvertently chose some inappropriate ways to do so.

LISA THINKS: Fiddle is so pretty. I want to pet her, even though Aarene and Dad and Willy told me not to touch her. So I will pet her very quickly, when nobody is watching. I will stick out my hand and touch her really fast over the fence and then pull back my hand and it will be okay.

FIDDLE THINKS: Here comes that girl, watching out of the corners of her eyes for predators. I should be alert for predators too.

Now what is she doing? She is sticking out her hand really fast! Is she poking me? Is she hitting me? I wasn't doing anything wrong! I need to tell her not to poke me! I will raise up my foot to tell her not to poke me when I wasn't doing anything wrong!

She is not paying attention to my foot raised up. I will kick my foot out so she will pay attention. Hey! She didn't make the "bad buzzer noise" and crowd into my space. She let me raise up my foot at her! I must outrank this girl! If I outrank this girl, maybe I outrank other people! I must test this, to see which other people I outrank.

LISA THINKS: Fiddle is so pretty. Hana lets me kiss her on the nose because Hana is so pretty. I want to kiss Fiddle too, but I must do it quickly.

FIDDLE THINKS: That girl is coming close to me again. She is walking very fast and jerky. Does she want to fight with me? Maybe she wants to outrank me. I thought I outranked her?

Now she is biting at me! I must bite back at her! Hey, look: I can bite at her and she will jerk back and run away. I do outrank her. I must try biting at other people. If they make the bad buzzer noise or crowd my space, I will know they outrank me, but if they don't do that I will be able to bite them. I will have to try biting all new people. Maybe I can find other people to boss around.

When I got Fiddle, more than three years ago, she was a biter and a kicker because some people in her past allowed her to do it. Probably some people insisted that she keep her mouth and feet to herself, but some people didn't insist, and that's important: Fiddle learned that she could physically "outrank" some people, and so she tested her dangerous behavior on everybody to find out what they would (or wouldn't) do about it.

The solution was to only allow people around my horse who could be trusted not to allow the bad behavior. We knew she would "test" new people, and so we selected people who knew how to insist that she behave. If she stood quietly, with her head off to one side, she would be praised or at least left alone. If she crowded anybody at any time, the people we had allowed near her knew to crowd her backwards and make her work to keep out of the human's space because we wanted her to know that all humans outrank all horses.

For more than a year, I was able to keep timid humans away, and her behavior improved dramatically. When we moved her away from the boarding barn (where handling could be a little haphazard) and brought her home (where Jim and I were the only handlers), it improved even more.

There were setbacks: at Renegade Rendezvous every year, one of the ham radio operators was just like Lisa. He just didn't understand that Fiddle didn't want him near her, and he kept trying to pet her with those quick, jerky motions. She would respond by pinning her ears, snapping her teeth, and shooting her feet around until I could finally successfully shoo the guy away and then make my horse work in circles to bring her back into control.

That brings up the second part of Laughing Orca Ranch's question: what do you do to enforce submission?

This varies with each horse. I was originally taught that you needed to holler and whomp on a horse with a crop to get them to submit. Eventually I learned that hollering and whomping is appropriate for some horses in some circumstances, but it's not for everyone. Mugwump has a great article about respect HERE.

Many of the techniques that I use with Fiddle to reinforce submission and remind her of her place in the herd are things I learned when training dogs. I used to train a lot of rescue dogs, many of whom had weird, neurotic behaviors. I would start every dog with a few basic commands--things that they could do even when they were very scared, nervous, or angry. "Sit" is a good dog trick, because it's hard for a dog to misbehave when he's sitting.

But you don't want to teach a horse to "sit" (at least, not for this purpose!). So I started with an easy one: "Look away." This is easy to teach through a stall door with a window, or over a fence. You've got a cookie. The horse knows you have a cookie. The horse wants the cookie. The horse reaches over to you with lips outstretched to grab the cookie, and you fwap the lip with your finger and say "look away." The horse pulls back because that lip thwap was a surprise, and when the head is pointing away from you, you say "good!" and hand over the cookie.

Do it again: Pull out another cookie. Horse reaches towards it, a little more carefully this time. You say "look away" and fwap the lip (sometimes you just raise your hand as if you're going to fwap it--horses learn this trick really fast!) and the horse's head moves away fast. "GOOD!" you say, and hand over the cookie.


Pull out another cookie. Horse wants the cookie but is wary. You say "look away." When the horse moves that head even slightly away from you, hand over the cookie and say "GOOD!" If the head comes forward before you say "good", then fwap. When it turns away, "GOOD!" and hand over the cookie.

Do this a lot. Several times a day is good.

Fiddle doesn't get her meals until her feet are holding still (no pawing, no banging doors) and her head is turned away. If I'm feeding in the field, she must walk beside or in back of me as I carry the bucket to the place in the field where I will drop it. If she trots ahead of me or wrings her neck or paws the ground, I stop in my tracks instead of proceeding forward to the feed bin. If she's in front, she's trying to boss me. I am the leader, and she will follow my instructions--and she doesn't get fed until she behaves, even if I'm going to be late for work!

She has learned to say "hurry up" to me by bending her head waaaaaay around to the far side. Fine. A horse who is standing still and looking away isn't doing anything naughty or dangerous.

Next, I taught carrot stretches. These are useful as stretches, but also as reinforcers of submission, because the horse is doing what you ask.

I can cue Fiddle to bend that big head around to almost any part of her body, just by touching it. If I've got a cookie, she will put her nose on the place I touched...and then, when I say "good!" she will bring her head back to the "look away" position so she can have the cookie. She can stretch her head almost all the way to the back of her butt, if there's a cookie involved.

Tricks are handy in new and stressful situations. If she's whacked out by stuff in her environment, I can pull out a cookie (or even just scratch her neck in the especially itchy spot) and she will offer to do a trick in order to get the cookie or more scratching. She will focus, not on the cookie, but rather on what I am asking her to do, because I don't always ask for the same trick. That gives her something to think about--a task that she knows she can do successfully.
If she's being agressive, my demands are more strenuous. If she's biting or kicking out when I've got her on a leadrope, I make her move backwards (which she hates). If she's loose, I don't have a roundpen, but it's okay: We have a big pasture. I make her move around it. She always wants to come back to me, but until she comes back and stands still with her head averted, I will chase her, hollering and waving her away from me.

If she's in that little corral panel in camp, I'll move her around inside that. She doesn't have to trot, but she does have to move away from me. Even in that little space, she never runs into the water bucket and she never crowds me when I'm moving into her space, because she isn't really scared. She also isn't really a bully, but sometimes she wants proof that humans outrank her. It used to take twenty minutes to convince her. Now it takes about 3 minutes (but I keep her going for 5, because I don't want to have to do it again tomorrow).

UPDATE: Fiddle hasn't interacted with anybody but me since Sunday afternoon, and she is back to being a calm, well-behaved mare. I'll take her out this weekend, and hopefully put her in a group of people and horses so we can push her envelope a bit and reward her when she behaves nicely.

Here are a couple of good articles:


  1. Fantastic post. David calls me the "dog nazi" because I am so inflexible when it comes to the rules I expect them to follow, but goddamit we have nice, well-behaved dogs that always look to humans for leadership (and I do have a "look" command for them, which means "eyes on me, no matter where you are" -- the opposite of Fiddle's). Life is easier with our horses (though Tonka will also try to touch any part of his body with his nose if I ask) because their easy horses, but I feel up to the challenge if I ever end up with something more Fiddle-like.

  2. I deal with dominant horses by controlling space and by enforcing manners with leading, feeding and treats. I need to be able to ask the horse to move away from me and have that obeyed, and I need to have the horse trained to move back when I feed and to step back when I feed a treat. With leading, the horse is to stay at an arm's length from me on a loose lead and I do the leading not the horse. These rules are not enforced with any punishment, striking or yelling, but just by consistently asking and consistently rewarding compliance. Both Lily and Dawn are very dominant, and consistent, fair treatment is the key to their respect and compliance. Having others (particularly those who do things that are inconsistent) leads to problems, as you point out.

  3. Wow, thanks for explaining how you have to handle Fiddle with her problematic biting and kicking.

    It must be very challenging to have a mare that constantly has to be reminded that humans outrank her. Her behavior must make it so difficult to take her to new places in social settings, because you have to constantly be on your toes to avoid any contact with people you don't know or aren't sure about, just in case they might let their guard down or if they aren't comfortable disciplining your horse.

    Well at least you know what to do and how to handle her and keep her under control so she doesn't hurt anyone.
    Hey, maybe you could put a sign on Fiddle, like service dogs wear, so that people won't be tempted to ever touch her. hehe!


  4. Lisa (I had to refer to you in the post as "Laughing Orca" because otherwise there would be too many Lisas!):
    Yes, it's a challenge to have a challenging horse. It gets easier as she gets better, and her backsliding is pretty easy to reverse--I just have to "push back" as SOON as I see any bad behavior cropping up.

    Normal horse people aren't a problem (and I do keep a red ribbon in her tail when she's in public)-- it's the NON-horse people who create the problem. When training dogs, I learned that training DOGS was easy but training PEOPLE is hard because for some reason they keep thinking that dogs are like people. Ahem? Do YOU fly off the handle when somebody rings the doorbell?

    It's the same thing with horses and people. I would think that pinned ears and a swishy tail is a universal caution sign, but you'd be amazed how many people think it's "pretty."


  5. This was a fascinating post and one of those posts I'm going to ask my husband to read too. I gave him the synopsis of it already, telling him how easy we have it with Baasha and how most horses are not like this! Sometimes I gasp at how my man cuddles with Baasha so trustingly...

    But after speaking those words, Baasha proved to me that he is not always goodie goodie, I lunged him today and he basically gave me the finger cuz it was raining and the grass was wet and brushing against his knees and he would just TAKE OFF running straight off the circle, dragging me with him. I had to laugh but then I made him do a series of backing, moving over, backing, moving over, and dropping his head to the ground at my request until he had an attitude change.

    I think about all the things Fiddle has taught you, and your creative ways of making her into a good citizen, and I'm totally amazed. I remember her turning her face away too, what an ingenious tool for a pushy horse, and you still get to use food rewards!


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