Dangerous Horses? When Good Horses Go Bad
Have you ever come across a horse whose behavior posed a serious challenge to your horsemanship skills? Maybe a horse that could be described as dangerous? How do horses become this way? Are some horses just born with “attitude?” What is a dangerous horse? How do people, for better or worse, influence the behavior of the horse? And, the million dollar question… can “bad” or “dangerous” horses be made better? Safer to be around?
What is a Dangerous Horse?
Interacting with horses is inherently dangerous. Even the sweetest, kindest, best trained horse in the world could kill a human in a moment of fear or confusion.
The solution to that problem is to take steps to mitigate obvious risks. Things like wearing a helmet, being aware of the horse’s blind spots, and cultivating situational awareness go a long way to preventing accidents.
But what about when the horse is not necessarily the sweetest, the kindest, or the best trained?
Three Kinds of Dangerous Horses
Dangerous Horse #1
Dangerous Horse #1 is only dangerous because he is a horse. He weighs 1,000 pounds plus, he is a prey animal, and he has a mind of his own. By his nature, he will always be a potential danger to the smaller and weaker creatures in his world. Dangerous #1 is the lesson pony, the husband horse, the bombproof packer. This is the horse that, except in the most extenuating circumstances, can be relied upon to be reliable. He is worth his weight in gold.
Dangerous Horse #2
Dangerous Horse #2 is dangerous because the people in his world do not necessarily have the tools to coexist with him safely. His level of dangerous-ness depends heavily on the situation.
This danger runs along a spectrum; a horse that is a #2 to a new rider might be a #1 to a seasoned rider. Even a seasoned rider may encounter a horse that is a #2, because there is always more to learn. Most often, though, Dangerous #2 is the horse that is good natured and well handled, but green, or the horse that has a known and manageable quirk or two. On the average, most horses in the world fall into this category.
Working with a #2 is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you put yourself and your #2 within the learning curve. It’s ok to be challenged by a horse. If we only work with bombproof horses, we won’t become bombproof riders. The trick is in approaching the #2 horse with the appropriate attitude, knowledgeable assistance or backup, and precautions.
Dangerous Horse #3
Dangerous Horse #3 is the horse who must be handled with extreme care and caution by all. This is the “problem horse,” the habitual bucker, rearer, bolter. This horse might even show outright aggressive behavior, like charging or striking at humans.
With the exception of the untouched wild horse (which I would also initially place in this category), this type is fairly rare. This is the horse who, through nature or training, behaves in a way that puts its humans at risk, no matter their skill level. There are a further two subsets of this type of dangerous horse.
Some #3’s are created by humans. Perhaps the horse began as a #2, and was purchased or adopted by someone who could not cope with his needs or quirks, or establish themselves as an effective herd leader. Possibly, ineffective training has taught the horse that bucking or bolting gets a release of pressure. Or maybe the horse is simply in unrecognized pain or distress… a #1 or #2 who just cannot cope quietly any longer. This horse has either assumed a position of dominance in the horse-human hierarchy, or is behaving out of defense – fight or flight.
This sort of dangerous horse might still be rehabbed or corrected. A skilled and subtle enough horseman might establish a healthier and safer relationship with the animal. A source of pain or discomfort might be located and treated. This is the ideal outcome; maybe not a Disney story ending where a preteen rides the untrainable horse to victory, but at least the horse might be helped to become a more reliable citizen for the right person.
The Perfect Storm
Dangerous Horse #3 could also be a product of fate, so to speak. A perfect storm of physiology and environment that creates an unfixable (or nearly so) pattern of behavior. The example that comes to my mind is from the documentary “Buck” (which I very highly recommend watching if you have not already done so). For horses in this position, there really are no good outcomes. The undesirable behavior is so ingrained that the horse may never really be relied upon to do otherwise than he does. In these cases, sometimes difficult decisions must be made “for the safety of the public.”
Am I Dealing With A Dangerous Horse? How Do I Know?
There are a few ways to recognize whether you are in a dangerous situation with a horse. First, do you find yourself surprised or caught off-guard by your horse’s behaviors? Do you find yourself managing behaviors instead of fixing them? These are subtle signs that you may be over your skill level with a particular horse.
Have you been hurt or injured repeatedly by the horse? All riders fall, but if every trip to the arena with a particular horse includes an 8 second ride… Are you routinely crowded on the ground? Stepped on? These might also be symptoms of an unsafe situation.
The role of fear shouldn’t be discounted in evaluating your situation. All riders struggle with fear to some degree, but if there is a particular horse that you “don’t turn your back on,” or a horse that you wouldn’t climb aboard for all the tea in China, that is your brain telling you something valuable. It’s worth listening.
Helping Dangerous Horses
Do No Harm
Like trying to help people in difficult situations, helping troubled horses should always be undertaken with care. First rule: Do No Harm. To yourself or to the horse. Check your ego and your expectations at the gate, and don’t dive in unless you know that your intervention won’t make the situation worse. Not only do you want to ensure that you are treating the animal humanely, you also don’t want to mistakenly reinforce the behaviors you’re trying to correct. The horse’s quality of life in the future often depends a great deal on his lack of dangerous behavior.
Basic common sense safety rules and considerations are sufficient for dealing with most horses. Things that we learn on our first day at the barn, like wearing a helmet in the saddle, not crossing directly behind a horse, being aware of pinned ears. These basics are basic for a reason; they neutralize the most obvious and common hazards.
The best way to help a dangerous horse is through education. If you are lacking it, seek it out. Read. Take riding lessons. Most “dangerous” behaviors can be mitigated with enough knowledge and skill, or by approaching the horse or the task a different way. Experience and exposure to good learning opportunities make better horsemen. Knowledge is power.
Even professional riders have coaches. There is no shame at all in taking regular lessons and working with a coach even if you have a steady-eddy type #1. Indeed, there is wisdom in the practice. The best way to learn how to interact more safely with your type #2 dangerous horse is to regularly check in with a more experienced horseman. This becomes especially important if the horse’s behavior catches you off-guard or you are unsure of how to manage it. Sharing your experiences and asking others for feedback and advice can be remarkably helpful.
If you are dealing with a type #3 with serious or ingrained behavioral problems, the first order of business is to get a knowledgeable and experienced horseman on-site. Brainstorming and online advice are probably not going to substitute for in-person evaluation and assistance in those cases.
Despite our love for the animals and the sport, it is imperative that safety of human come first and horse come a close second. Even the tamest and sweetest equine should be handled with care. When a horse is greener or has confirmed problem behaviors, the need for safety-consciousness increases.
Have you ever dealt with a horse that you felt was dangerous? What kind of behaviors strike you as particularly dangerous in a horse? Do you have a “dealbreaker” behavior? Is there such a thing as an “incurable” problem horse, or do you think that there is a way to “get through” to any dangerous problem horse?
Share your thoughts in the comments, drop us a line, and remember, you should be riding!!