Sunday, February 22, 2009

Teaching the alpha horse some manners

No matter where I board Panama, I always get attached to one or more of the other horses, usually one that is somewhat ignored by their owners. At this barn, that's Valentine, the alpha gelding.

Technically it's only lately that I've gotten attached to him. I've always felt bad for him: His owners have four little girls who used to ride him all the time, until they discovered last summer that he had back problems. Now they don't visit anymore at all, not even to groom him.

Horses are like any other animal — if you don't work with them regularly, they tend to revert back to a wilder or more natural state, forgetting to behave politely around people. After months of being ignored (except for the barn owner, who only feeds him), Valentine has become very pushy. He crowds you, blocks doorways, chases the other horses with you standing right there (I'm surprised no one has gotten trampled yet), and refuses to let you handle his head.

The barn owner is pretty permissive, but I don't put up with any of it. I make him back up when he blocks the tack room doorway, and drive him away when he chases other horses and puts me in danger. I'll hold onto his head until he stops tossing it and stands obediently, and drive him away if he tries to evade me. I don't care if he's not my horse — he is NOT going to get away with being pushy in my presence.

Recently I've started seeing results. He's started holding his head still for me, letting me pet him and mess with him. He's completely stopped blocking the doorway when I'm in the grain and tack room. I think he might even be chasing the horses less when I'm present.

But what I was most proud of happened some weeks ago. I'd been talking to the barn owner, petting Valentine's head and scolding him when he'd mouth me periodically. (I don't put up with that either.) Then at one point, I reached for his head and he walked off. Hello — rude!!! So I drove him away, clucking and waving my arms at him.

This is my main way of disciplining Panama when he mouths me in the pasture, or when he runs away when I'm trying to catch him. Panama knows the drill and usually will very quickly start working his lips and tongue — the sign of submission signalling that he's sorry and is ready to behave himself again.

Valentine is the alpha horse, though, and although I'd driven him away before, he had never given me this sign of submission. This day, however, I spotted a very slight working of his mouth. I immediately stopped driving him, relaxed my body language, and praised him verbally.

We'll see if he remembers next time... But I'm still encouraged. My goal is to make sure he knows that when I'm present, I'm alpha — not him. It looks like I might finally be getting that message across!

And what do you know — he seems to like me better for it, too!

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