A couple of years ago I adopted Sunny, a two year old paint gelding, from a Rescue. Sunny was as huggable as a puppy dog. He would put his head against my chest and wait for me to pet his neck or lean his head on my shoulder. My other two horses had never been as trusting and comfortable with humans as this young paint. I was so enamored with him and had my arms around his neck so much that he began treating me like one of his horse buddies, which felt as wonderful as it was scary. On more than one occasion he put his teeth in my flesh just as he did when he was playing with my other horses, and it hurt like hell. Once he ran up on me and almost knocked me over. I knew then that I needed to change our relationship and let him know that it was not ok to treat me like another horse. It was very hard for me to establish boundaries. I just wanted to walk alongside him with my arm around his shoulder, but instead I now had to flip my arm if he came too close to me and teach him how to walk on a lead rope without running into me.
Changing a relationship from being equal partners to one being the boss of the other is not easy, neither in the horse nor the human world. We develop patterns of interaction that are hard to break. I am a natural softy and love to spoil the creatures around me. Sunny would accept my newly established dominance for a day or two until he realized I wasn’t all that serious and soon got me wrapped around his finger – I mean hoof – again in no time, and I would have to start all over again building boundaries. It was like the friend whose boss I became saying “Yes, certainly, if you say so” one day and reminding me the next day that we were buddies by saying “Really? You’ve got to be kidding me.” I finally admitted to myself that I needed help. I hired a no-nonsense trainer who came to our ranch once a week. No nonsense didn’t mean using force – I made that very clear to her, but it was just her “I mean it” attitude and her acquired skills from handling horses all her life that made Sunny respect her from the very beginning. I would watch the two working together and making progress, and I tried to emulate the trainer’s way of handling the young horse. It helped a lot, and Sunny never tried to bite me again, but it was almost as if deep down he knew me so well, that he took the slightest slip in my attitude as an open invitation to start playing with me again.
It has been a difficult road, and we have come a long way. Sunny is going on five now, and I am riding him, and we are starting to make a great team. My advice is to never even start the buddy attitude with a young horse, but to establish those boundaries from the start. Sunny happens to be a sweet boy and he tries to please me, but deep down I think he remembers that he used to play with me and every once in a while he still tries to act his old self around me. If he had the slightest mean streak in him, I think we would not be having fun riding right now. Another advice is to get help when you cannot get on top of the young horse’s behavior. You may not be able to teach him to behave, especially if you haven’t been around horses all your life. I was inexperienced and thought showing my horse how much I loved him by hanging on his neck all the time was a good thing. It ended up being too much of a good thing. The road to establishing boundaries when they were not there from the beginning is a long one and takes many hours of training and frustration. Be a friend but not a buddy to your young horse.
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