Is your horse acting like a baby?

I think that this discussion we’re about to have regarding “baby behavior” may be one of the most oft-repeated topics at my clinics. It seems to me that most horse owners are unaware of how the horse is basically designed to move from babyhood to adulthood and the affect that can have on training and horse/human relationships.

Understanding how baby behavior works in horses is really important for a horseman, I think. The great thing about baby behavior is that it is not a permanent character fault and does not mean that a horse is a “bad” horse in any way. He’s just hanging onto some baby behavior. Horses who are hanging on to baby behavior are often called “disrespectful” or are said to “have an attitude” or to be “lazy” or “unpredictable” or “fun loving”. If it’s baby behavior, it doesn’t have to be permanent.

So let’s start at the beginning. Horses are herd animals. Left to their own devices, they’ll live in groups, and in their world, the community is more important than the individual. This is unlike humans, especially here in America, where we tend to value the individual over the community. It’s shocking to us that a feral stallion would kill an ailing or weak baby horse so that the mare would leave it and the group could move on to feed or water or safety together. I think this can be a very fundamental misunderstanding between people and horses.

When a baby horse is born, he can do whatever wants, whenever he wants, pretty much. He can eat whenever he wants, sleep whenever he needs to and he can play however he wants. Babies are allowed to crash into other horses, to put their feet on other horses, to climb on their mothers. There just aren’t a lot of rules, boundaries or limitations early on. Being a baby is great!

So here we have this baby horse who is just having a bang-up time getting into all kinds of cute mischief, and he is mostly being tolerated by those adult horses around him. In a wild or feral horse herd, this would all change at about a year old or when the mother chose to wean her baby. Right then, the baby would become a member of the herd, a grown-up with grown-up responsibilities. In a herd, this transition is done very quickly and with very little drama.

The herd (community) would show the new grown-up horse how to become a functioning member of the herd. He would learn about boundaries. He would fit into a slot in the herd hierarchy and would then be expected to yield to the horses above him in the hierarchy. He would be expected to eat when the others ate, drink when the others drank and to not draw the attention of predators to the group. If he became a liability to the community, he could be ostracized or killed.

The grown-up horse who functions in a community understands how to take direction from others. He feels good about taking direction, and he follows well. He yields when he’s asked to yield and does not draw undue attention to himself with flamboyant or irresponsible behavior. He fits in and blends in.

It is important to understand that the baby horse is supposed to become a grown-up in order to survive. But he is not equipped to do that transition on his own. He is designed to be grown up by the community, by the herd, who shape, modify and model grown up horse behavior. With horses, it does truly “take a village” to grow a baby into an adult horse.

What does this mean for us in a training or relationship context? Well, most of us own domestically-bred and raised horses who were maybe born in a backyard or at a breeding farm. If they were the product of a backyard or small-farm breeding program it’s possible that when the baby was weaned, he went by himself for a while, and then maybe went in with one or two other horses, stayed by himself or maybe even went back in with his mother once her milk dried up. If the baby grew up on a big breeding farm, he might have gone into “the weanling field” with all that year’s weanlings. Then it would become “the yearling field” and then “the two-year old field”.

In neither of these common domestic models is the family unit intact nor is there a sizeable community available to teach, shape and model adult horse behavior to the weanling or young horse.

The upshot of this situation is that by the time training starts, many young horses have had few rules, boundaries, limitations or experiences of yielding their decision making to others. They have not had their community to grow them up, and therefore it’s possible that they’ve just stayed babies. And in a baby’s mind, he can do whatever it wants, whenever he wants.

Horses are experts at being horses. They are not, though, born experts at being horses around people. That’s where they need our help. In order to be safe and useful around people, a horse needs to understand rules, boundaries, limitations and the yielding of decision making.

What horsemen tend to see is a lot of young horses with baby behavior. It’s worth mentioning that even young horses should be checked for physical issues , saddle fit and teeth trouble (a given with young horses!). We don’t want to mistake pain, stiffness or discomfort for baby behavior. Baby behavior can look similar to any of the following, among others:

  • Sometimes absolute refusal of requests
  • In extreme cases, aggression toward people
  • Extreme curiosity and desire to go see/touch/mouth interesting things.
  • Pushiness, lack of personal boundaries with people, “poor ground manners”
  • Nipping/mouthing/chewing on people’s belongings
  • ”Emotional” behavior or reactions, “drama”
  • Frustration in the form of head shaking, foot stomping, kicking out
  • Extreme distractibility, “ADHD”
  • Inability to take direction without frustration
  • Making seemingly arbitrary executive decisions about speed, direction, etc

So what can we do to help a horse with baby behavior? If you ever get a chance to watch a herd (7 or more horses, in my opinion) in action, take it. Watch how they give each other direction and what behavior they see as acceptable and not. Watch a horse ask permission to eat or drink or be in a space.

If you can’t do that, understand that as long as you have a picture of how a grown up horse is supposed to behave and operate around people, you can start to shape baby behavior. A lot of dealing with baby behavior is about showing the baby horse how a grown up horse would do it. “This is how we’re going to need you to do that,” will become a familiar refrain. Since a baby doesn’t have any idea of what the finished product is supposed to look like, it’s not necessarily useful for him to have a lot of creative input. Leave that to the well-broke, grown-up horse.

We have to remember that the “baby horse” can be any age – even in his teens or twenties. They can just go through life like that if the village never shows up to grow them up. Also remember that the adult horse is in there, and it wants to come out. But again, the village needs to show up. The baby horse raised with no role models or direction from a community has no picture, nothing to shoot for and no idea how to be different.

Some babies will really struggle to stay babies, and it seems like it’s hard on them to leave the baby behavior behind. I think that in the horse world, this transition isn’t very hard for horses emotionally, as the herd is very unemotional, absolutely consistent and direct about it. They do it early, usually around yearling time. I think we people are not nearly as unemotional, consistent, direct or early about it. We think baby behavior is “cute” or shows “personality” or “creativity”. We think the horse, like a human teenager, will seethe with self-righteous indignation at being asked to yield decision-making. We think we’re taking the joy of childhood from the horse.

The horses I tend to see who are struggling with baby behavior are not happy, joyful horses. They are often confused, unsettled and generally stressed horses. They don’t know where to be or how to do the things grown up horses need to do in a world filled with humans. They want direction and help growing up. They want the skills that will enable them to negotiate their way through the human world they live in. It’s our job as I see it, since we put them in this world, is to give them the tools to operate safely and usefully in it.

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