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Question of the Week: Taming the Aggressive Alpha Mare

My new horse has become very aggressive towards me. What can I do?


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Q: I recently bought a 15-year-old mare. She seemed so sweet but when I brought her home, she became a completely different horse. At feeding time, she rears and kicks or turns her back end toward me and threatens to kick. If you try to take her away from food, she does the same thing. Sometimes she does it when she's being longed. She gets along with other horses and she's great under saddle, but I need to know how to stop her behavior from getting worse.

A: Sometimes when we’re horse shopping we’re so focused on how a horse performs under saddle that we forget to check its manners on the ground and around the stable. That’s why, in an ideal situation, I always urge buyers to negotiate for an overnight trial before handing over the purchase price. That way, you can observe the horse during feeding time and really get a feel for its general temperament once it’s away from its home environment.

What you own is an alpha (boss) mare who is territorial about her food. She’s also attempting to assert her dominance over you by her displays on the longe line. As you’ve already figured out, her behavior is not only dangerous, but it will typically continue to get worse until you set some strict limits. Although we hear this term a lot in the horse world, it’s quite true: You need to explain to your new mare that you are the herd leader.

The problem with that concept, however, is that it requires a great deal of skill, timing and previous experience dealing with aggressive horses to be safe, humane and successful. You need to know how to read a horse’s body language so you can tell when it’s time to step up and exert your authority and when it’s time to get out of the way of a possible bite, kick or strike. So I urge you to consult with a local professional in your area. It needn’t be a show horse trainer. Look for a community instructor associated with the 4H or Pony Club or a natural horsemanship advocate with perhaps a working cowboy background. They will work with your horse and also teach you how to apply the same techniques.

Primarily what your mare needs is structured groundwork. Right now she is dictating when, and under which circumstances, she will allow you to invade her space. With a knowledgeable handler she’ll learn to yield to you. They should use a combination of voice commands, authoritative body language and a carriage whip (similar to a longe line but with a shorter lash) to convey their commands. Please don’t worry about the use of a whip. It’s nothing more than an instructional aid. It hardly compares to the teeth and hooves your mare is using to keep you in line. And although your teenaged mare has probably developed this bad behavior over many years, she can still be taught to envision you as the new alpha mare. Once she sees you in that role you’ll have a much safer, and much more enjoyable, relationship.

-- Cindy Hale

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Question of the Week: Taming the Aggressive Alpha Mare

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Reader Comments

Galadriel    Lothlorien, ME

2/5/2012 11:29:02 PM

My horse is a bit like this too but only under saddle. A bit scary.

Hillary    Menomonie, WI

1/31/2012 1:37:44 PM

My POA mare used to be aggressive during ground work, too. I had let her believe she was the boss when I was younger and by the time I knew better, it was too late.

I re-established my leadership by free lounging in a round pen. Every time she approached me, I chased her off (the subordinate animal NEVER approaches the dominate in the herd). However, she would come at me aggressively in retaliation. To fix this, I got on another horse that was already dominate to the POA and is used for ranch work. When the POA kicked, the ranch mare kicked back. The POA now associates me with the ranch mare and I am able to safely continue ground work with her.

The moral is, there is always a safe and natural way to establish dominance and respect over a horse. Once dominance is established, the horse will not be aggressive toward you, but will need constant upkeep on their training and a watchful eye.

Linda    Austin, TX

1/28/2012 9:59:40 AM

This is a great conversation. Hope the comments keep coming in. I had a similar experience with my gentle, trained 6-yr old Appaloosa about six months after I brought him home. He turned his back & kicked out at me during feeding. Bad surprise!! I'm thinking this problem developed with my husband feeding him in the morning. I never feed my horse until/unless he backs away from the feed bucket, i.e., honoring my space. My husband was feeding the animals in a production line-type way, not really taking any time to guide my horse's behavior (this was my fault, not my husband's). Now my husband requires the same feeding discipline as I do each afternoon.

Also, I reinforce voice commands every day. I never give my horse treats unless he completes some small task I ask from him (e.g., backing, side stepping--both sides, etc.) by voice command. I never feed him until he comes to the gate to walk with me to the barn/stall/feed. I do this so he doesn't stand in the stall waiting for me to come to him. He knows what he needs to do, is a really sweet and funny horse--loads of personality--and is good under saddle and on the trail.

My trainer has always said 90% of accidents happen on the ground; I believe that is true.

Linda, Austin, TX

mb    oviedo, FL

1/27/2012 6:12:18 PM

Round pen work-you chase HER away if she's being aggressive. She can only run in a circle, & will eventually turn back into you. Eventually, hold her food, in bucket, out to her. If she doesn't behave, chase her away again. You can leave her overnight there. Try for appropriate behavior next day. She won't starve if she misses a feeding, or even 2!

&/or try her in cross ties. Great to teach manners, & sort of evens the odds (ha). You can even bring her food & feed her out of bucket while you're holding it.

Aggressive behavior=no food. You provide the food, & her other needs, that makes YOU the "herd leader."

Teach her manners, then enjoy her from now on! She deserves both.

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