Is It My Horse or Is it Me?

I received an email the other day from someone asking for help with one of her 3 horses.  She has ridden and owned her own horses for several years and has no problems with the two geldings she started with.  But, the gelding she recently acquired has her frustrated and looking for answers.

Trainers have told this woman that she is too passive with her horses and that she ‘lets them get away with too much”.

The frustrations and challenges this woman has with her horse are common – especially with a new horse.  I’ve shared her email below to give you her full story.  Then I’ve focused on 3 points that stood out to me and gave me a good idea of what’s happening between her and this horse.

“My two geldings I’ve had this entire time have never challenged me. They’re pretty laid back, low-ranking horses.  I just got a new horse that’s a whole different story and he has exposed me. The trainer who sold him to me said he is going to take you to another level.  He also told me he was a “in your hip pocket” kind of horse.  So when he first start nudging with head and nipping when I pet him, I just thought he was being playful and friendly.  My other two horses don’t do this.   I wasn’t prepared.  It was subtle at first, then got worse and worse.  Then one day he literally ran over me trying to get in stall and push another horse out. That’s when I Googled for answers and discovered my horse had lost respect for me as his alpha horse and he was now the leader.

I start reading all I could on what to do to regain his respect and assume my role again.  So I basically started “herding” him in every situation I could.  I “free lunged” him in the arena and did the join up and had the licking of lips, yielding hindquarters, all that.   Even when I go out to feed twice a day I herd him to his feed instead of letting him walk behind me like I used to. But still, I felt like there was still something missing.  

The “willingness” to follow me or be my partner is not there. So I found myself still searching because I feel like his attitude is “I will move because you are forcing me to, but I don’t like you and I’m not doing it because I want to.”

I guess my question is, is this something that is going to come in time, or am I possibly being a bully by not understanding that even standing in the wrong position while herding him or using the lunge whip could be sending the wrong vibe?  Geez, this is so complicated to me.

Just when I think I have it right, by being lots more aggressive, I see that maybe I’m bordering on being bullying, causing him not to trust me, and still not getting the desired relationship, which is one built on respect and trust.  I just know that even after I lunge him and he licks his lips and follows me all around, if I attempt to rub him on neck or head, he will still nudge and semi-nip, like he is annoyed.

I am having trouble leading him as well.  I read that a horse is more confident following while being lead, so I tried that, but he is constantly trying to bump into me, plus it feels like he is “pushing” me, so I don’t think I should do that. Then when I lead him from shoulder, I am constantly having to bump my elbow to keep him out of space and he gets all wide-eyed and acts all offended.  

I am so discouraged right now.  I just want to get something right.  I feel like I can’t touch him, pet him, reward him, because when you give him an inch, he takes a mile. I will take any advice you can offer.  You have made the most sense to me than all the other articles combined!!! Thank you!

As I like to say, “you don’t always get the horse you want; you get the horse you need”.   But, I have good news for you – it may be simpler to change your relationship with your horse than you think.  I’ve picked out 3 points from the email that stuck out for me and give a pretty good idea of what is going on in this relationship.

1) “So when he first started nudging with me with his head and nipping when I pat him, I just thought he was being playful and friendly.  If I attempt to rub him on neck or head, he will still nudge and semi-nip, like he is annoyed.”  

Your horse is telling you that he does not like his face and neck being touched.   This is an ‘intimate’ area for horses and we need to earn the right to be in there.  I relate it to meeting someone you have just met or someone you don’t know very well who assumes to give you a great, big bare hug. It’s not a very comfortable feeling.  Some people just stand there politely and tolerate it.  Other people might have a more ‘volatile’ reaction – from stepping away to put some distance between them and the other person or even pushing the person away.

Humans greet each other face to face.  We share this trait with our dog and cat pets because it is a predator based behaviour.  Watch how horses approach each other when they are being passive or friendly.  They extend their lowered neck and head softly towards the other horse (or human).  The other horse extends his/her neck and they exchange breath. If they are bonded, they come closer bending their bodies away from each other and share in some mutual grooming – generally on the withers or along the back.

Only when horses are challenging or telling another horse to move out of their way do they approach with a high head and strong energy.  Going ‘head to head’ is aggressive, bullying body language in horses – picture 2 stallions fighting.  This is what colts and geldings are mimicking when they play halter tag.  Predators also approach the head and neck.

When you want to pat your horse, approach with softened body language (just soften the energy coming from your core), and walk in an arc to his shoulder.  Rub or scratch his withers (horses don’t pat each other).  This is the sweet spot that all horses like to have scratched.  Make sure you are standing with your weight away from his head/neck.  By that I mean, don’t cock your hip towards his head.  Try this with your horse and let me know how it goes.

2) So I basically started “herding” him in every situation I could.  I “free lunged” him in the arena and did the join up and had the licking of lips, yielding hindquarters, etc.  Even when I go out to feed twice a day I herd him to his feed instead of letting him walk behind me like I used to.  

Only horses that are bullies herd other horses all the time.  Instead of constantly asking him to move, enforce your personal space boundaries.  Carry a whip or a rope with you if necessary and just use it to extend your arm.  Keep it low – pointing at the ground and only bringing up as high as your waist if your horse needs a stronger message.  Move the whip back and forth to define your bubble.  Some horse’s are sensitive enough that just pointing the end of the whip towards them will get them to back off.  Others might need a stronger energy coming from twirling the lash. Always bring the lash from the ground up towards the horse because this is less aggressive than bringing it the other way.

When you put a new horse in with a herd, there is usually a bit of running for a few minutes.  But, soon everyone settles down and one horse (usually the 2nd in the herd hierarchy) takes on the job of keeping the new horse out of the herd.  She decides how close the new horse can come and as soon as she crosses the line, #2 chases her out.  Once she is outside of that line, #2 leaves her alone.  This is simply defining personal space. Eventually, that space gets smaller and smaller until the new horse establishes her place in the herd hierarchy.

3) I constantly have to bump my elbow to keep him out of space and he gets all wide-eyed and acts all offended.  

When you have established your personal space with your horse in the field, you may find that it is much easier to lead him without him crowding you.  There are two other things that might be causing this problem however:

i) If you are standing in just in front of his shoulder when you lead him, you are in that sensitive head/neck zone.

ii) If your core (belly button) is aiming towards his head/neck.

Both of these things relate to your alignment to your horse and can cause him to turn his head away from you which then causes his shoulder to push into you.  So you are constantly fixing what you are inadvertently causing.

When you lead from his shoulder, your hip should be lined up with the middle of his shoulder.  Your core and his spine should be on parallel tracks.  So, if there were laser beams coming out of your centre and your horse’s nose, they would look like train tracks in front of you.

The photo below shows me leading a horse from the shoulder with correct alignment.


When establishing a relationship with your horse based on mutual trust and respect, don’t mistake being a ‘leader’ with being a bully or being a ‘friend’ with being a push-over.  The ideal relationship should be more like that of a bonded pair within the herd.  Although one horse will yield to the other, there is rarely any aggression between them and they enjoy hanging out together.

Isn’t that what you want with your horse?


Watch for my book coming soon – “Confident Rider, Confident Horse: Build Your Confidence While Improving Your Partnership with Your Horse from the Ground to the Saddle”

Interested in organizing a clinic at your location? Click here for more information.

Let’s spread the word about a better way to work with horses.  Share this blog with 3 friends, send a Tweet or post a link on your Facebook page.  The horses thank you.

You’re welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you include my credit information: ~ Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship (  

I would also appreciate it if you’d send me a copy for my media files.

Anne Gage ~ Confident Horsemanship
Facebook Group – Horseback Riding Solutions with Anne Gage

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