A horse kicks another horse that comes up behind him.
An impatient farrier thumps a horse in the ribs with his rasp.
A person leading a skittish horse gives a few good jerks on the chain across his nose.
A horse lunges at another horse and bites him on the neck.
A trainer ropes a horse by the leg and brings him to the ground.
Are these acts assertive or aggressive?
Horses learn much better when one doesn't use aggresive force and/or fear. Everyone knows there are times you have to get firm with a horse. How you do it, the attitude you have, the emotion behind it, the circumstances, and the kind of result you have in mind are what make the difference between being aggressive or being assertive.
What is the difference between being aggressive and assertive?
Aggressive has synonyms like forceful, defiant and coercive.
Assertive has synonyms like insistent, compelling, confident, positive and urging.
Some synonyms for assertive do include the word "aggressive", so what I would like to do here is differentiate between the terms according to the treatment of horses.
Where horses are concerned, punishment, vengeance, or using intimidation and force to get results is what I would call aggressive. To be assertive, you may need to get firm, but without being angry, frustrated or scared. The big difference is an attitude of justice that always gives the horse an opportunity to respond and find the positive outcome.
Most people have a hard time understanding the difference between aggressive and assertive because they see how horses are with each other: biting, striking, kicking, breaking the skin, sometimes even breaking bones. Although this looks aggressive to us, it is just assertiveness from the horse's perspective. The difference is that one horse knows another horse is not out to eat him, just to dominate him.
There is a pecking order in every herd which establishes different things such as who drinks first, who eats first, who gets to stand with who and so on. The pecking order is challenged on a daily basis and especially as youngsters get older or new horses are introduced into the herd. The alpha or top horse in the herd needs to re-established his position constantly by being the most assertive (in this sense, confident and insistent), the bravest, the quickest, the strongest and the fastest thinker.
People who are aggressive with horses will often defend their position with comments like "I couldn't hurt that horse, horses hurt each other a lot more every day". From a physical perspective, that's probably pretty true. But from a mental and emotional perspective, there is a big difference to a horse between another horse coming after him and a predator coming after him. Horses cannot handle aggressive action from people (predators) because they think people want to eat them, not just dominate them. A scared horse that believes his survival is threatened will do anything to defend himself if he cannot escape. He'll strike, kick, charge or bite. He will do whatever it takes. In my experience horses are not prone to viciousness, they would much prefer to run away.
I have found that most of the bad experiences people have had are because the horse is afraid, frustrated, confused or just bored and looking to play some dominance games.
Horses can take a huge amount of pressure from another horse because the pecking order is a natural part of herd behavior. They were born with an innate understanding about dominance games and they have played them with other horses all their life to establish who is the strongest, fastest and smartest horse. If horses feel threatened in the wild, they'll herd up and protect each other. They look to the alpha, or strongest, most dominant horse to direct and protect them.
When a human puts pressure on a horse it's a whole other story. A horse (prey animal) sees pressure from a human (predator) as life threatening. He wants his herd, he wants his alpha, he wants to save his life. Even though we might argue that horses have been domesticated for thousands of years, what we must never lose sight of is that domestication has not altered the innate belief system of the horse. Horses have ensured their survival for hundreds of thousands of years by listening to mother nature as a prey animal. Even if you personally don't eat horsemeat, thousands of people do. Horses are programmed to recognize life-threatening predators such as lions, grizzlies, dingoes, hyena, wolves, coyotes and humans.
Try to imagine what it would be like as a prey animal? Picture you and your friends walking through the Amazon jungle in an area known for its cannibalistic tribes. Would you feel a little tense? Would all your senses be heightened so you could perceive the approach of a cannibal? Your survival would depend on early perception, the speed of your reactions and the ability to get away from the danger. How would you react to a rustle in the bushes, a sudden or unusual noise, a movement detected in the corner of your eye?
Let's say that one of your friends is the leader of your group. He is calm, confident, experienced and athletic. You trust him. Every time you hear something scary, you might look at your friend. How did he react? If he still looks calm, it calms you down. What if he got wide-eyed and tense, what would that do to your sense of security?
Suddenly, cannibals jump out of the bushes from all directions. You run as fast as you can with all your friends, only to wind up caught in a cage at their camp. You stand there all night long, scared out of your wits, knowing you're going to be lunch.
The next day, you are singled out into another cage and one of the cannibals tries to approach you. He seems friendly and soft, but you know he's a man-eater so you keep your distance. Adrenaline is pumping through your body so hard your nerve endings are screaming. All your senses are incredibly heightened. It seems like you have super hearing, super feeling, super sight, you even have superhuman strength and endurance. If that cannibal came within striking distance you would let him have it in every way you knew how. It's you or him, that's all there is to it.
Although you don't know it, the cannibal had singled you out because he wants to befriend you. Unfortunately, he is not able to convince you to stand still, so he goes for his rope. He swings it and catches you by the ankle. What are you going to do?! You're going to panic, struggle, kick, scream, try to get it off with hands and teeth. You're going to fight for your life, you're not even thinking. You have to react from pure survival instinct! There is no time to think! The ropes keep coming until they are looped around your whole body and you are brought to the ground, trapped and terrified. Once you are rendered completely helpless, the cannibal approaches you and your spirit has one last chance, you're not going to give up. You try to bite. You scream obscenities. The cannibal smiles, lifts his arm and his whip over you... and gently, lovingly strokes you. How long would he have to do this for before you believed, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that he was not interested in eating you?
This is how horses feel. The experience you just had would be akin to the experience of a horse that had never been touched before. Not all horses are like that. Most of them have been handled from birth and they've learned that they don't have to be terrified all the time. Nature tells them, however, to still be suspicious and on guard. Just as you would be living in a town of cannibals. It takes very little to scratch the surface of a horse and bring out the prey animal's protective instincts. Put yourself back in the cannibal's camp, even years later it wouldn't take much to make you think that the cannibal had changed his mind and was going to kill and eat you after all!
Mild aggression vs. strong assertiveness
There are degrees of aggression as there are degrees of assertiveness. What's really important is to examine the emotion behind the action. Aggression, to any degree, is ineffective with horses because even if you get a desired result, you lose the horse's respect and trust.
Some examples of mild aggression would be pulling on a horse as you lead him in order to keep him under control or smacking him across the nose when he tries to bite you. The horse feels your anger or frustration and it does one of two things:
1. It increases his insecurity and erodes all chances of a trusting partnership.
2. It develops resentment and not only does the behavior not go away, it gets worse if the horse begins to retaliate.
An assertive way to deal with the same examples would be:
A horse that is pulling you around when you lead him:
Give him a loose rope and allow him to wander. Every time he passes you up, spank him on the hindquarters without getting mean, mad or flustered, turn and walk the other way. It won't take many times before the horse realizes he is causing the consequence and will stay respectfully behind you or at your shoulder.
A horse that bites and nips:
Have eyes on the back of your head. When he comes to get your arm, flap your elbow like a wing a few times, without looking at him and without any negative emotion! If he tries to bite your rear, bend your knee and lift your foot in his direction a few times. He'll run into you a couple of times and soon realize he caused his own smack in the mouth.
Assertive, non-emotional, responses work for two reasons:
1. The horse experienced negative reinforcement, which is very differently from punishment. Negative reinforcement is instantaneous and the horse recognizes the consequence was a direct result of his action. Therefore, he blames himself and not you.
2. He couldn't push your buttons and get you mad! If you think horses don't do this, you've got a big lesson coming your way. Once a horse has overcome his innate fear of people, he will play games with you as though you were another horse. He figures if you are OK enough to be in his herd, then the next step is to see who is in control.
A horse will trust respect you if you can think quicker, are more athletic, stronger and braver than he is, and if you can stay mentally, emotionally and physically in control of yourself. Going back to the cannibal scenario, remember what qualities your leader had and how you relied on him. Physically, we may be no match for a horse. But if we have the right attitude, knowledge, tools, techniques, savvy and experience, we can earn a horse's confidence and respect.
Learn how to get firm without getting mean or mad
The trouble with getting assertive is that most people are not emotionally fit enough to get firm without getting mean or mad. When people see me getting firm with a horse, they sometimes assume I'm being aggressive because they cannot imagine themselves getting firm without losing their temper. The whole secret is having an attitude of justice. Justice means there are small consequences for small things and big consequences for big things. Consequence does not always mean physical contact. In most instances you just need to know how to cause a horse to be uncomfortable mentally, emotionally or physically when he is doing the undesirable thing.
My mother was a great example of using assertiveness. When I was teenager lazing on the couch and replied with a disrespectful "oh, alright." when asked to take the trash out, she would just tip the trash right over my head and never take the smile off her face. She'd say, "Son, this trash is going out with you whether you like it or not. You have two arms, two legs and one mouth which means you can say 'yes ma'am with a smile, stretch your arms out and hustle over here to take it out." She knew how to make me very uncomfortable without ever having to hit me! To this day I knock on the door with hat in hand and, after kissing her hello, I ask "Hey mom, do you have any trash that needs taking out?"
It's a sorry thing to see someone whacking on a horse. Where knowledge ends, violence begins. Although some people seem to get a perverse pleasure out of intimidating horses, most find themselves smacking, jerking and yanking out of pure frustration. They just don't know what else to do.
What I teach, more than anything else, is how to become more mentally and emotionally fit around horses. I try to help people understand where the horse is coming from so they can act appropriately, and learn to have infinite patience. Most people run out of patience in less than four minutes. Horses know this and they learn to play on it as they get older. After they get over being scared (usually by the time they are over 12!), they learn how to make monkeys out of people. All they have to do is persist with their behavior for longer than four minutes and they win.
The four phases of firmness
A simple way to keep emotions under control when having to get firm is to distinguish four phases of firmness and use them until you are effective. Let's look at how a horse might do this when he's going to kick
phase 1 - the horse lays his ears back, wrinkles his nose, gives a hard look
phase 2 - he tosses his head and lifts his leg
phase 3 - he kicks out without making contact
phase 4 - he kicks out again and makes contact
Before the horse kicked, he gave three strong clues that the kick was coming. Other horses can usually avoid getting kicked because they pay attention to the impending signs and get out of the way. People get kicked all the time because they are unobservant of the warning signals.
How can we use phases the way horses do? One of the first things I teach is to use some kind of rhythm, like kick your leg up in the air three times. It's hard to maintain an angry emotion when you have to do it three times. Same with doing jumping jacks if a horse barges into your space. Do it a minimum of three times without approaching the horse's space, so he has the chance to get out of your space and realize how much better it is not to invade it. To lash out, slap a horse or kick him in the belly is perceived as aggressive by the horse because it is sudden and there is no warning that the horse can reliably detect.
In the photo you can see an example of my "Schwiegermutter Look" (which means mother-in-law in German!) It's the "leave my daughter alone and get out of here before things get worse" look. I cannot physically put my ears back, but I can still make the same face and convey the same threatening message with my body. It's the behavior that precedes any biting, striking or kicking that's about to come. So when I want to drive a horse backwards, drive his hindquarters or front end away from me, I'll use this look as phase 1. For phase 2, I might lift my hand. For phase 3, I'd swing my rope or a stick. For phase 4 I would make contact (not necessarily strong) in the appropriate spot, the one that makes sense to the horse. Then I would relax and start again. Horses are very perceptive. They notice and learn very fast what happens before what happens happens and pretty soon, the horse needs little more than a firm look to yield without question and, more importantly, without fear.
Knowledge is confidence
When you know you can be effective, it helps you remain calm, unconcerned and able to maintain the horse's perspective. The question to constantly keep in mind is whether you doing it to the horse or for the horse? As long as you never cross the line into aggression, your horse will learn to respond with respect and without fear. It's better to have a program of prevention than to punish the horse when you think he's wrong. Once you really understand the horse psychologically, you will see that punishment is never appropriate because you can't blame a horse for acting like a prey animal.
Horses are simple once you understand them and once you have savvy. If you truly invest yourself in learning about them, not just how to sit and hold the reins and what leg to put where. If you learn what makes horses tick, what's important to them, how they think, why they do what they do and how to gain their trust and confidence, you'll never get frustrated or run out of answers again. Work on yourself so you can enjoy your horse.
Some savvy sayings to help you stay sane!
The attitude of justice is effective.
Be effective to be understood, be understood to be effective.
Punishment doesn't work for prey animals, but a program of prevention does.
Cause the wrong thing to be difficult and allow the right thing to be easy.
Don't make or let - do cause and allow. Know the difference.
Walk a mile in your horse's shoes.
I've never seen it take longer than two days!
Be polite and passively persistent in the proper position.
?Be as gentle as you can, but as firm as necessary. When you're firm, don't get mean or mad and when you're gentle, don't be a wimp.
Don't bribe 'em with carrots. Don't hit 'em with a stick. Find the middle of the road.
Don't get mad, get even....tempered.
If your horse wants to bolt... there's probably a nut loose in the saddle.
Don't be a big jerk on the end of the lead.
Don't act like a predator: become more mentally, emotionally and physically fit.
When in horse-ville, do as horses do.
Think like a horse.