Our mare is sensitive to the touch and grouchy. Is there hope for her? How can we fix this?

Question: We’ve had our 7 year old QH mare for 5 years. I love her, but she is stubborn, grouchy, and very over sensitive to touch. I have to use a soft rubber brush on her, and a brush with very soft bristles. She doesn’t like to be pet or even lightly rubbed for that matter anywhere on her body (though I have to admit, I do it anyways. My thought is if I don’t touch her, she will never get accustomed to it). She tends to threaten more than actually ever do anything about it. She will pretend to bite, or swoosh her head at you with ears flat on her head. When you tack her up, she is soooo grouchy (pretends to bite with ears back.) We’ve had her back checked by the vet, as well as an equine massage therapist. We’re told she is fine. Her tack fits well, but I’ve had that checked as well to see if I’m missing anything, but, nope, it’s fine. She’s very green, and we are not trainers ourselves, we’ve had a trainer come in to work with her, and, they GAVE UP!! She couldn’t get a response from her.

As a side note, she’s pastured with my gelding, a 9-year-old Arab, who is a bit of a bully with her. But she will stand up to him if she has to. They have full access to the barn, we’ve turned it into a large run in, so they come and go as they please. The don’t love each other for sure, but, they ‘put up’ with each other. She was with 2 other mares as well, about 2 years ago, but we had to downsize to just the two. She does seem to have gotten ‘worse’ since they left. She is great with other animals, (she especially loves cats?? Not sure why..), just not too happy with people. Is there any hope for this girl?

Answer from April Reeves: There are several things here that are playing out to make your mare like this. Also, to fix the problem does take some level of experience to do well. What I will do is set up the lessons for you and you can attempt them or find someone who can.

First, lets go over the root causes of her problem. Your mare’s attitude stems from the need for mares to be dominant. Many of them do not assert this until later in life, but there are some who just seem born to be the boss.

Having her pastured with other mares in the past may have accelerated the dominance. Then, once the two mares were gone, and she had to deal with a rival gelding who also tries to claim superiority, she has to rise to the challenge. Most mares will quietly deal with this problem in the field. Other mares take this dominance issue into every other aspect of their lives if allowed. That is what she has done with you.

How does this happen? Most problems with horses bossing humans are caused from the humans inability to assert dominance over the horse. The problem brushing her; the ears back while saddling – these are all areas where she is asserting dominance over you. You and your mare are a herd of two, and someone has to take charge.

The other cause of her grouchiness is almost always the handlers in her life. We often see a negative response in our horse to something we are doing, so we pat them gently and tell them it’s okay. While this is understandable to the human brain, (that the person is just trying to calm us down), to the horse, in their language, it means good for you to be so grouchy. So you are setting up a pattern of training to teach a horse how to be grouchy, aggressive, angry and ‘bad’ (I use that term lightly), never realizing that we are really good horse trainers – that is if we want our horses to behave badly.

But we don’t. We want them to be agreeable, likable and kind. Like us.

What to do about it
When you watch a good trainer work with their horses, the trainers are very deliberate in their movements, and their communication is very clear. You know this to be true because the horse is doing everything they ask in an obedient manner and time frame.

When working around horses, you need to just get in and get the job done. However, we as humans tend to pass on our emotions and feelings onto our steeds, and expect them to pick up on what we are asking. We pamper them at the wrong times, speak softly when we should be quiet, and ask our horses to learn our way of doing things. We ask too much of them, as they will never learn our language. We must learn theirs.

Where to start
Your instinct to just keep brushing her is a good one. I would take this a step further. Find at least one other person who is not too green and can read horses fairly well or is use to her, and pick one week of having a brush-a-thon and human currycomb lesson. Warning: you may need lots of time, like up to 2 hours per session, and you are going to do this twice a day for one week or so.

Tie her up with a quick release knot to a strong place. You don’t want her pulling back and getting away from this. Next, bring out your good brushes. I find that sensitive horses don’t like the long bristles – they prefer the short bristle brushes that are somewhat large and oval. Not too hard and not too soft a brush. You can also bring in a soft rubber currycomb – the kind that is very bendable and rubbery.

Make sure she has had a run or buck around the pen or tired out a bit. You will tie her so that she can’t get her head around and bite anybody, or get her foot over the rope, but not so tight that she is encouraged to pull. I always use a rope halter and long soft lead with everything I do, so if you have one please use it.

One of you will start brushing on one side, and do not stop. You can go all over the horse, starting from the neck or shoulder area, and keep brushing. Do not stop.

The other person on the other side will put on a pair of gloves and start the human currycomb process. You start to rub the horse, firmly but not too aggressively. Just keep rubbing all over. This is not a patting exercise, it’s a rubbing like a massage style of rub, but not too hard or soft. It has to have a level of intention with it; it must say to the horse that this is business now and you need to deal with it. Keep your brushing and rubbing in a rhythmical pattern, not an erratic aggressive movement. Flow.

If you have problems when getting closer to the hindquarters, have one person hold the horses tail off to the side they are standing on, while the other person works in the sensitive areas. The handler with the tail will gently rock the horse to keep it squarely on both back legs. If the horse is keeping the legs quiet, and the tail does not want to swish then just keep holding it, but keep a vigilant eye on the back legs. If the horse brings one up or tries to rest one, pull on the tail softly until you rock the back legs solid again. Horses cannot kick if their tail is not in the air. They can’t raise their spine to kick easily when you are holding the tail. They can get a cow kick in, so the handler needs to watch and rock the horse gently. Do not pull hard on the tail as you can do damage.

What is happening here is that the horse now has to deal with something happening on both sides, and with horses, that means two eyes – two horses. As you start, she will be grumpy, probably very grumpy, and grind her teeth and get really mad. Let her. Do not take it personally. Do not speak to her in any way. Then she will be quieter for only a moment, as she figures out how to deal with it again. You will find that she tries another outburst again as her final attempt to get rid of you two. Keep brushing, just stay away from her back legs if she starts to move around too aggressively at first. Go back up to her shoulder, where you are safer, and keep brushing and rubbing. Unless she pulls back, do not stop. Work your way to the back when you are ready, using the tail hold.

You may switch sides now and then but don’t stop the process.

Keep watching her eyes and her ears. As long as she is angry, keep going. You are looking for a particular breakthrough. Eventually, regardless of how bad a horse is, they will surrender. I look for surrender with every ‘bad’ (I say this lightly) horse I have to deal with (there are no bad horses). Surrender is a very prominent sign that you should be able to pick up quickly. She will quit her aggressive attitude and do one or all of the following:
– Bring her head down and relax her body
– Sigh and let out a big breath
– Lick her lips

The second she gives in to the process, the second you see her surrender, with no ears flat back or aggressive attitude, quit. Both of you just walk away for a minute and give your arms a rest. Don’t speak to her; don’t do anything but just walk away. She will not ever have her ears up and forward, but watch for them to be more inquisitive rather than angry ears.

This is her reward for surrender. You have just set up the lesson of “if you behave this way, we behave that way”. She wants you to stop what you are doing, so she will begin to accept the process.

When you have been away for a minute or so and your arms are okay again, go back to her. This is where you need to read her. If she pins her ears and gets grouchy again, start the process all over. Watch for the same things. Repeat the same process. Do not change the program.

If she pulls back, stand back and let her go through it. If she has a rope halter on and is tied high enough she should not get hurt. Do not yell or even say a word to her. Just stand and watch that she doesn’t get into trouble. Let her come back up and just settle for a minute, then begin again. Normally, when I do this exercise with another skilled handler, we keep brushing right through the pulling, but I want you to be safe.

You can see why this may take a while. Once you get the second surrender, you can put her away.

She may just stand there and not show any signs of surrender for some time. If you do find that she seems to give in to the process in the sense that she is not outwardly expressing the anger, but just conditionally accepting the process, you have gone a long way. If she does not seem to do anything different other than stand for the whole thing, this may be all you can ask of her.

All you are looking for is a safe horse that can accept what you are doing. She does not have thin skin (or you would never be able to saddle and ride her) – she has an attitude of dominance over what others can do with her body. All you are doing is changing the dominance – she must relinquish this ‘job’ to you. That now puts you above her in the pecking order. You are now the boss of the herd of 2.

You will do this twice a day until the mare accepts the role without displaying aggressive behavior. I will assume by this mare you will need 5-7 days, twice a day.

As you can see, you may need a lot of time to do this. It is very important that you begin this process with that commitment in mind. If you go half way, you will create a monster. You cannot quit until you get a result. Even if that result is small, you must get it.

To stop the process when the horse is angry just instills in the horse to get angrier, as she has now learned that this is what she must do to get you off her back. You have set up the training to allow this. That is why there are no bad horses.

You may find that she is tough to catch after one or two of these sessions. It’s normal. She still sees you as bugging her. Before you put her away, give her 2 apples and 2 carrots on the ground in a bucket. She needs to find another type of reward at the end of her day. I always feed my horses something after a ride.

Also, a carrot a day gives them beta-carotene, which horses can turn into vitamin D, and an apple a day changes their PH balance in the hind gut to slightly acidic, which sets up an uncomfortable environment for many of the parasite eggs to hatch in, becoming somewhat of a natural wormer.

We train our horses to do everything they do. Every little step you do is training, from leading them in and out of the pasture, to feeding them. Training is not about riding. The horse you lead is the horse you ride, and everything starts from the ground.

Let’s go over some groundwork. This is often a daunting task for a beginner or green owner, but I will keep the lessons simple. These are basic, but effective methods for establishing control and dominance over a horse. They are not cruel or abusive, but they do ask that you work your horse with a level of intention to get the job done, in a soft, efficient manner.

Rope halter
Soft lead rope, 12-14 feet long
Horseman’s stick or shorter lunge whip

You are going to establish leadership through the simple process of moving her feet. When a horse moves another horses’ feet, they instantly establish leadership and dominance. When your mare turns her back and you move your feet, you are becoming the ‘lesser horse’, and those horses are the ones who suffer injury from other horses. Eventually, your mare will begin to see you as a lesser horse, and this is where you could get hurt.

Biting, kicking, turning the hindquarters to you, ears back, chasing you or flicking their tail aggressively are all signs of dominance over you.

Horses can feel your emotions, and if you ever approach her mad or angry, you may find she avoids you and runs away. Horses are incredibly smart; more so than we give them credit for. They communicate to each other this way, through body language and reading emotion. They cannot learn our language; we must learn theirs.

The First Lesson – Move Your Feet
Bring your stick or lunge whip with you. Use the rope halter and lead. Find a nice spot to work in if you don’t have an arena or ring. Consider the whip an extension of your arm only. It will not be used to punish the horse.

Step away from her, holding the rope not too tight. Step away at an angle, about 5 feet away, at her shoulder angle more than her head. Take the stick and gently tap her on the side of her shoulder until she moves. If she moves away from the stick, stop tapping immediately and stand very quiet, letting her think about this. Do not speak to her. Do not move your feet. Do not ask for a big step. The smallest of steps is a big step for the horse.

You have just begun to set up leadership as you moved her feet. You also are asking her not to point her hindquarters at you. Do not tap too hard; you don’t want her to run off – just enough for her to slowly move away for a step. If she moves one foot, let her stand there for a few seconds. Stay back and ask her to move her feet again.

Practice this on both sides every day. You don’t have to do it for a long time; about 7 times one-way and 7 the other. If she is fussing after the first time, don’t make contact – just point the stick at her, and when she moves away, take the stick away and stand there quietly. This exercise is to be done very slowly and quietly. All you are doing is establishing a level of dominance. I do not want you to attempt things that may involve more experience on your part. If she keeps moving, just stand there and hold the rope, keeping it soft; do not pull. If she backs up just move with her until she stops. She will find a place for her feet. If you remain quiet you will instill that in her too. Always after every time she is good, stand quietly. That is her reward.

Do not try to micro-manage her at this level. Do not try to put her in an exact spot. All the lesson is asking of her is to move her feet when you ask. That’s it. Nothing else. When you teach a horse something, keep it simple. Always remember what the lesson is about. As the horse learns the lesson well, then you can add to it and refine it. But always, remember the single reason for the lesson.

If she gets grumpy, don’t talk to her, punish her or do anything. Just keep at your job of moving her feet. Again, in time, and with her, a lot of time, these things will diminish.

In many of the training methods we use, it is time, as much as the lesson that teaches. It is not so much about punishing the horse for habits “we” don’t like in the horse – it’s about us diminishing one habit (the ones we don’t want) in exchange for these new habits (the ones we want).

This really is what training is about, broken down into simple terms.

Vices such as kicking, biting, rearing and bucking are punishable, but only to make these more dangerous habits very difficult for the horse. Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. I try to separate habits from vices.

I think your past trainer did not take the horse to the place of surrender. It is not a single day training issue. When I get called out for these sessions, I teach the owners how to handle it on their own, and show them step by step the process they are to do after I am gone. I get this in my clinics all the time. I have yet to see a horse that could not be helped.

Lesson 2 – back up and give me space
Another leadership exercise is done standing about 3 feet in front of the horse. If you have an aisle in a barn use it, as it will keep the horse from turning around or shouldering past you.

Keeping the lead line slack, tap the long stick on the ground in front of the horse in a soft rhythmical fashion, for about 6 taps. If she moves back, stop tapping instantly, move with her and keep the rope loose. Don’t let her turn. If she wants to turn and get away, pull one quick, effective pull (it tells her to face you) to bring her face back to you. One good pull and release is more effective than hanging on to the lead line. The release teaches. Steady pull only causes the horse to become numb. There is no reward in constant pressure with no release.

If she moves back easily, stand still with her. Then take the stick, keeping about 5 feet in front of her and ask again. Repeat about 20 times and if she backs up easily, you are gaining respect very quickly.

If she does not move right away when you tap the stick, you need to bring up your energy level and increase the tapping, moving the stick closer to her. At any point she moves back, stop immediately and stand there quietly for a second, then ask again.

If she still does not move back, tap with more energy for a few more times, and then connect the stick between the front legs. This may startle her, so start slowly. If she jumps back in shock, follow her back, keeping the lead loose. Follow her down the aisle. If she gets nervous, stand there quietly, without speaking, and breathe out so the horse can hear you. Breathing out is a sign that the horse is calm, and if you are showing calm, she may respect that and follow your lead.

Licking of the lips, breathing and sighing, head down are all signs of submission.

Whenever she gets a bit flustered, just do your work a bit quieter and softer. Many mares only appear tough, but deep inside they are soft and kind, and have no real idea why you are being tough with them at first.

The sending exercise
This one is a bit more difficult, as it asks you to be very precise in your movements and timing. It is similar to lunging, but has a different purpose (remember the single lesson). Again, the purpose is not to let the horse trot around you, but to move the horse’s feet, and to keep moving her feet to establish dominance and leadership.

This is one of my favorite exercises and I use it extensively when horses begin to lose their brain. It’s called a sending exercise, because the point of it is to keep their feet moving and to tire them out a bit to encourage their thinking brain to kick in.

Its roots are similar to longeing but there are some subtle differences in how you apply the techniques.

To begin, stand still and ask her to move away from you to the left. Take your left hand and hold it out away from you to the left, guiding her with the halter pressure, gently away from you. Most people pull on the halter towards them, tipping the horse in and guiding the horse in towards them. Be careful how your body movements speak to the horse. Move slow but deliberately, not letting her run into you. Keep using this technique until she gets it, and when she makes the effort to walk to the left, let the rope out right away, soften and stay quiet (do not move your feet !!). You will have to start this exercise on a smaller circle so that you are close enough for her to ‘feel’ the pressure to one side. Once she begins to understand, change directions often, asking her to go left and right about every 1 1⁄2 times around. This is called ‘moving the feet’ and the purpose of this exercise is to create leadership and get the thinking part of their brain engaged.

If she gets moving too fast, pull her in and redirect her the other way. Never let her move your feet. Never let her stop and hang out. Eventually she will understand that she needs to conserve her energy and begin with quiet demeanor. This is another one of those lessons that can take time. Just start with a quiet gesture to move out, let her respond by moving out where you suggest, feed her some lead line and stay quiet with your feet. If she is fairly calm, reward her by letting her stand and ‘soak’ once in a while. Never wind a horse. It will sour them and turn them apprehensive about training and learning. If she has had a rather energetic time trying this exercise, and she is breathing hard, let her stand and catch her breath before starting up again.

To get a horse to stay out at first, you need to become ‘large’. Bring your hands up higher and bring up your energy to match the challenge. Never let a horse move your feet. When they come in too close and crowd me, I hold the butt end of the stick out, and let them run into it with their shoulder or ribcage. It they posture you with their hindquarter, use the stick to spank it away from you. This is the advantage of a Horseman’s stick; it is stronger and not as flexible, and when you tip it into the ribcage of a horse, they are going to move from it quickly, as they can’t bend it.

It’s valuable to practice how to lift and lead the rope before you begin. Have another person at the horse end holding the rope and keeping their eyes closed. Lift and lead and have the person move one step to where you are sending them. This will help you to gain ‘feel’ in what you are doing. If the person moves toward you, it’s a signal you are not moving the horse away to the side. Keep your hand out and to the side. Change places with the other person and see just how subtle the ‘feel’ is to a horse.

These are basic introductory exercises; if your horses is not ‘behaving too badly’, they should be done every day and always before riding. I do these daily with a few of the more aggressive horses I ride as I always want to know that the horse on the ground is paying attention and using the thinking side of his brain. For my more sensitive horses, I still do groundwork, but it’s more in the style of flexing and bending than obedience. I always look for the surrender before I ride – sighing, licking and chewing, head down, two eyes.

Leading Exercises
These exercises help with keeping horses out of your space, respecting your speed, keeping up and general obedience.

Leading against the fence
Take your horse out along the side of a fence and with rope in one hand and stick in the other, letting the ‘tail’ drag along behind you, ask her to move with you and stay at your hand and her shoulder, not in front of you or behind you (rope is in the hand by her head, stick is in the opposite hand) If she lags behind, flick the tail of the stick behind you as a lead mare would flick her tail at a lazy herd member. Move at a reasonable pace. If she gets in front of you, use the stick in front of her to ask her to stay back. Keep your hand up at her eye. This asks her to stay out of your space while you walk along. As you get better with this you can keep your hand lower. I like to hold my hand in a ‘leading gesture’ – just below their eye and in front of it, once the horse understands to keep their distance.

Always work both sides. Two eyes, two horses (don’t buy another horse, just work the two you already own). Work one side first and get it down fairly well before moving to the other side. The fence line keeps your horse beside you. Do not use your hands to move the horse around; always use your stick. Horses move into pressure when your hands push them. If the horse gets into your space, bring your hand up to the eye and if she continues to move into you, ‘pulse’ your hand rhythmically near her eye without hitting her. If she does continue to move into your space, you will have to use your hand in rhythm and let her run into your hand. Horses seem to know the difference when they run into things and when a human hurts them. By allowing her to run into you, you set her up to learn to be responsible for her own actions.

It’s important to practice the ‘pulsing’ with your hand. It is a continuous, same speed of movement; don’t increase your hand speed if the horse gets pushy. Keep the same rhythm and speed in a moderate pulse.

If your mare tends to throw her head over you to avoid the lesson, take the butt end of the stick and hold it higher than her head. Let her bump into the stick time after time if she chooses, but don’t let her turn and avoid you. Mares tend to give only one eye to a human. It’s their nature. Change it.

The Squeeze
Another exercise is a ‘squeeze’. Ask her to walk in between two barrels by ‘sending’ her at a walk (remember the sending exercise). Keep them far apart for now, but gradually decrease the space until she has to squeeze between them. Do not pressure her to do this; go about it slowly until she is comfortable with the process of having both barrels hit her sides as she moves through. This gets the horse over the claustrophobic issues they encounter, and builds trust that you will not put them in harm’s way. There is always a way through.

You can also back her through the barrels, using the first method above that you did in the aisle way, to tap the stick and ask her to move backwards through the barrels (again, another test for obedience and submission).

An advanced exercise with barrels is to lay them on their side, and split them for the horse to walk through. Slowly bring them together as the horse gets confidence, and eventually you can join them and jump them on the line. Go slow with this and don’t force the horse over the barrels until her confidence is there.

These exercises should get you started and on the road to a happy horse and human relationship. I would start with the groundwork first, and move into the brushing lessons after. That way she will be a bit quieter and already have some level of dominance reversal starting to set up in her brain.

Remember to set aside the time necessary.
Do not quit when the going gets rough.
Keep doing it.
Do not get angry.
Do not speak.
Do not let the horse move your feet.
Release all pressure when you get the result you want.
Learn the language of the horse.

I find even with the most difficult horse, and I have had horses that would make your girl look like a star, that they come around within 3 lessons. If you notice an improvement each time, you are doing it well.

When you ride, if you ever encounter problems, get off and do groundwork, keeping the horses feet moving. This is what the herd does, and horses respond positively to this. They really don’t like being the boss, and prefer to let someone else make all the decisions. Never put yourself in danger up in the saddle. Get off, get their brain back, then get back on and ride.

2 responses to “Our mare is sensitive to the touch and grouchy. Is there hope for her? How can we fix this?

  1. April, liked your answer! Especially about just getting in and getting the job done. I think horses respond much better when we leave our emotions out of the mix.

  2. Wow, what an amazing response. I learned so much. Thank you.

    I know of a massage tool called The Stick that could help in this situation. In fact, Ihave had great response from many horse owners that it works very well to help bond and relax the horse.

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