Q&A: Coping with stable aggression

  • Q: I keep my 15.1hh 11-year-old British Warmblood gelding at a riding school on part livery.

    He is very aggressive towards anyone who enters his stable or goes near him and he objects to being groomed, especially with a dandy brush. He has to wear a muzzle to stop him biting me when I groom him and there are bars on the stable door to stop him biting passers-by.

    At feeding times he is even more aggressive.He goes out at night with other horses, is stabled during the day and exercised for an hour by the riding school and up to an hour-and-a-half by me each day.

    His exercise includes schooling, jumping or hacking. I know he came from a quiet yard and was turned out 24 hours a day. I don’t want him to live out as he loses weight easily and needs to get plenty of bulk food.

    I don’t think he bites out of spite. If I smack him he gets more aggressive – I think he does it because he’s afraid and defending himself or being territorial.

    I compete him on a regular basis and he is very good natured to other horses and humans at shows.

    We do well at shows and I don’t want to sell him. I don’t want to change yards either, because he’s very well cared for where he is. Please help.

    A: It sounds as though your gelding is very stressed, which could be one of the main reasons he finds it hard to keep weight on. If you can help him to relax, hopefully he will be able to maintain his weight.

    It would also appear that this stress has been going on for a while, so to change your horse will take time, patience and perseverance.

    Horses tend to be claustrophobic and being in a stable is unnatural for them. It seems people in your horse’s space makehim anxious, so groom him outside to help break his habitual response.

    Muzzling only helps to protect you and does not help cure the problem.

    Your horse is not remonstrating for the sake of it when you groom him but is trying to tell you that he dislikes being groomed. You must start listening to him, learn his language and read the signs he gives you.

    This dislike could be for one of two reasons:

    • He is thin-skinned and grooming hurts. If this is the case don’t use a dandy brush. Invest in a soft-hair body brush or a soft mitt.
    • He has so much stress locked up in his body that he cannot cope with the added pressure of grooming.

    Horses don’t bite out of spite and I don’t believe it is aggression. Most horses bite people as a last resort, because we have not listened.

    Watch out for the swish of the tail, the odd foot lifted or the anxiety lines above the eyes or under the nostrils.

    There are relaxation solutions you could try.

    First, take your horse into the yard in a headcollar and attach a leadrope to the near-side ring. Ask a friend to clip another leadrope to the off-side ring. Keeping your horse’s head in the middle (don’t keep the tension on) ask him to walk up and down the yard in between you both.

    You should both position yourselves to the side and a little in front of your horse. While standing in this double lead position, take a schooling stick and wipe it all over his body imagining you are painting your horse a different colour.

    This will stimulate latent neurological endings, giving him a different feeling, and helping to shift tension. It will also help to “ground” and calm him, as you go down the legs and gently tap on the hooves.

    Then, I would suggest you “work” your horse’s ears. The ears house hundreds of acupuncture points and by massaging them we can use these energy channels to release tension, alleviate stress and help the body heal itself. Massage the base and work up the flute ending by rubbing the tip of the ear – an anti-stress point – with your thumb and forefinger.

    Next work your horse’s mouth. This really does help biters and although it seems daunting for the owner, it is not too bad. Start by rubbing your index finger on the bars of the mouth (where there are no teeth!), then put your middle three middle fingers on top of the tongue and “play piano” on the tongue.

    Insert your moistened index finger in between the gums and the top lip and rub from side to side. This has an incredible effect on the limbic system and is the emotional link to the brain.

    At first your horse may object to this but if you persevere he will accept it and find relief.He may close his eyes, yawn and let out big sighs – signs the stress is shifting and your techniques are working.

    It will take time but if you are patient you can change his behaviour.


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