Horse Problems: Is My Horse Spoiled?

a Horse Training Article by Cynthia McFarland


We’ve all known them….the family you cringe to invite because their children are out-of-control little monsters. Overindulgence without requiring respect and responsibility can indeed create a “spoiled brat”.

It’s much the same with horses.

A “spoiled” horse usually refers to one who has had a lot of love and allowances, but not enough respectfulness or responsibility instilled to create balance. While you don’t want to create a “slave” and demand that your horse obey you without reward, at the same time you don’t want to smother your horse with love and treats while tolerating bad manners in return.

“There is a great ‘middle of the road’ to be found in love and obedience, or as we advocate: love, language and leadership in equal doses,” says Pat Parelli.

One of the definitions of the word “spoil” is “to impair the enjoyment, quality or functioning of.” That definitely sums up what can happen to the human-equine relationship when things get out of balance. Spoiling your horse can seriously damage your relationship. It can also lead to more horse problems in the future, simply because of a horse’s size and power.

“When you spoil your horse, the thing most at risk is the relationship,” says Linda Parelli. “Not only do you need a loving, trusting relationship, you need one that is based on you being the leader. If you just have love, love and love, or leadership, leadership, leadership… the relationship is out of balance.”

“Through natural horsemanship, you really get to understand what horses like, what’s important to them, and how to have the relationship of your dreams with this incredible prey animal,” she adds. “You can’t do it by just knowing a few techniques. It takes savvy to build a strong relationship.”

Ways of Spoiling

There are numerous ways people unintentionally spoil their horses. A common way is feeding treats without conscious reason. Allowing a horse to lay his ears back or get aggressive at feeding time happens frequently, and mostly because people don’t know what that behavior means or what to do about it.

Another tendency horse owners often have is to treat their horse like a big dog, but this is unwise because horses are wired very differently from dogs.

“Being prey animals, horses default to flight from fear and their motivations lie in safety, comfort, play and food…. mostly in that order, although some Horsenalities refute that,” notes Pat. “Dogs are like humans. Being predators, their motivations lie in praise, recognition and material things. They love to be hugged and petted, hear their name, and will do almost anything for a treat.”

“When people treat their horse like a big dog, they are using a lot of love and friendly techniques, but when the horse starts calling the shots and crowding their space, they don’t know what to do,” adds Linda.

“You can tell a dog ‘no!’ but you can’t tell that to a horse. Things get out of balance when you don’t use herd psychology and make sure that the horse understands his boundaries,” she says. “You have to be the leader and his place is on the second rung. We think of it as 51:49; the leader has 51%. To have it the other way around can be dangerous; you don’t want to put the horse in charge. The horse will have no trouble pushing his person around, once he’s no longer afraid.”

A horse without a trustworthy leader can end up spoiled. Parelli Natural Horsemanship teaches horse owners to treat their horse as the horse’s mother or a dominant horse in the herd would treat him. When it comes to leadership, someone has to assume the “alpha” position…and it shouldn’t be the horse. The human must learn to take the position of a benevolent leader, one who listens to the needs of the follower and adapts his/her style to bring out the best in the horse as partner and follower.

“Many so-called ‘spoiled’ horses are just horses that are not afraid of the human and they start vying for dominance,” explains Linda.

Leaders & Boundaries

You may be thinking, “but I love my horse and I want him to know that.”

Ironically, some horse owners show their love in a way that is rewarding to them – not to the horse. A well-placed scratch or rub is much more rewarding to the horse than hugs and kisses, particularly kisses on his nose!

Showering your horse with treats isn’t the answer either.

“We use treats for specific Horsenalities, the ones who are already confident and who are motivated by food,” notes Linda. “Usually, that’s the Left Brain Introvert, but sometimes it can be for the Left Brain Extrovert who has lost desire and has no incentive to keep performing. We don’t use treats as bribes; the horse has to do something first. We don’t use them to try to calm a scared horse or lure him into doing something against his will, such as loading into a trailer.

“Use treats strategically to reward the horse and not just for the sake of feeding him treats in the hope that he’ll like you,” she adds. “Think about the behaviors you want to reward and use them for that. Then replace the reward with something like a scratch or stroking him so you can use the treats intermittently rather than all the time.”

If you indulge your horse too much without establishing boundaries, you aren’t doing him – or yourself – any favors. Our love for the horse can make us afraid to draw the lines that are necessary for a healthy relationship.

We must constantly remember that horses need boundaries. They need to know where they are in the pecking order or they will assume control. If you truly want your horse to feel “special”, the most powerful thing you can do for him is to become the best leader you can be.

“Horses are natural followers looking for natural leaders,” states Pat. “But they’re not looking for aggressive, cruel or domineering leaders. They are looking for one that also considers them, and then they will happily follow. Horses need to know they are safe with us, but they also need to know what their role is in this relationship. And even better, they can express their opinions, be heard, and know that their leader wants them to have fun, too.”

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