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DEAR DANA: My horse is scared of other horses in the show ring and will often pin his ears or try to go to the middle of the ring if one gets too close. How do I break him of this habit?
–Arika of Lyons, KS

DEAR ARIKA: Every once in a while I come across a horse that has a problem with other horses. This horse has probably lacked socialization with other horses. You said that he is scared, but you also said that he pins his ears — when a horse pins his ears, he is communicating anger! Such a reaction may be “fear-based”, and he is genuinely afraid, or it may be that he’s showing aggression to say “Get away from me!”

In the wild, if a horse pins his ears, it is often a warning — the next step would be a bite or kick to the other horse. I would assume that your horse is warning the other horses, but you should be very cautious. Be watchful that your horse doesn’t kick or bite at you or at other horses while you are working with him.

If I had this horse, I would start by ponying him off of an older, broke horse. Keep your lead short enough so that he can’t swing his hip around and kick at you or the horse you are riding. Most horses after a while will relax as they start to accept another horse being that close. You are re-programming a natural response, and this may take time. Give him positive experiences around other horses, using a safe, good-minded horse that will help instill confidence in your horse. Pony your horse at the walk, and if he becomes totally relaxed, you can trot and lope him. But don’t rush it! We want to build positive experiences.

Also, you might condition him to the arena. I would tie my horse in the arena and ride around him until he relaxes, being careful around his hindquarters. After he starts to accept a horse close to him, I’d go back to riding in the arena with a few friends riding around me. I’d start at the walk and have someone alongside until he relaxes, then I’d have my friends jog and lope around me — but I’d remain at a walk. Many horses learn to track with or try to follow a horse that goes around him, so it’s important to teach him to be patient and just walk. If you’ve shown very much, I’m sure you’ve had a horse come thundering up behind you. This can scare your horse as well as program him to go, so I would work on desensitizing him to the horses all around him. Teach him that he needs to wait for your cues. Your horse may have become aggressive to other horses because a horse ran into him or scared him. Be patient and spend a lot of time practicing this.

Your goal is for your horse to trust you, wait for your cue, and ignore the other horses. This will take maintenance. If horses are all around you and he starts pinning his ears again, pick up on him firmly, but don’t scare him. You don’t want him to be mentally rattled and associate the experience with the other horses. Good luck to you!


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