Dealing With The Over-Friendly Horse
A Friendly Horse?
A friendly horse seems entirely desirable. Surely, you want your horse to show affection? Not everyone would agree - some horses are all business in their relationship with their riders and some riders prefer that.
Most people, though, want to hear a friendly nicker when they walk into the barn. The problem is that some horses can simply be too friendly. Sometimes they forget they are interacting with a human not another horse, with results that range from annoying to potentially painful.
Most horses like to be groomed. In the pasture, you may well observe horses grooming each other.
Because of this, it's common for a horse to think that the human grooming him or her will appreciate the favor being returned. A horse may reach around and nibble on your jacket and I have even had a horse pull my hair. Needless to say, nibbling is not good for your clothing and you certainly don't want your hair pulled.
Also, some horses may graduate from friendly nibbling to less than friendly nipping. Nibbling, therefore, should be (gently) discouraged, just as you might discourage a cat from extending its claws when on your lap. The horse is just trying to be nice, but needs to be taught that humans don't need to be groomed.
I've found the best way is to gently push the horse's nose away with a firm spoken "No". (Needless to say this is not what happened when a certain Thoroughbred yanked on my hair. Ahem.) This discipline needs to be applied consistently...if one person lets the horse nibble because it's 'cute', it will never actually learn.
Playing with a horse on horse terms is generally a bad idea. Sadly, some people find rearing and the like cute when a foal does it.
The foal then tries to play fight with humans as an adult - and this can be dangerous. Additionally, many of these games are part of establishing a herd hierarchy, and a foal can learn to express dominance over humans (As I've said before, a dominant horse can easily become a dangerous one if not handled properly). Needless to say, play behavior in foals should not be encouraged.
One way to discourage play behavior is to act the way another horse would if they are not in the mood to play. Walk away and simply ignore the animal until it behaves appropriately. Another approach is to put the animal to work - to make it play your games, not horse games. Exert your dominance with your body language and keep the horse moving away from you and then approach only on your terms.
An overly-friendly horse tends to lack the concept of personal space. Such horses will follow you around like a dog - and almost step on you doing it. When being led, they will try to get as close to you as possible.
These horses need to learn to back away. I sometimes recommend carrying a whip. In this case, you do not use the whip to hit the horse, but rather as a barrier between you and the animal...for example, when the horse barges forward, you bring the whip up in front of it, not touching it. It's a signal and a reminder that the animal should not be so close to you.
The best way is still to put the horse to work. Even a weanling or yearling can benefit from training.
Some people have found it effective to turn out a horse that doesn't respect personal space with a highly dominant animal. The dominant animal will not accept that behavior. There is a small risk of injury with this technique, as horses can get quite tough with one another, but it often proves effective for a considerable length of time.
Although most overly friendly horses are simply affectionate in personality, some are human-bonded or human-imprinted.
This results most commonly when a horse is bottle fed or when foal imprinting techniques are used incorrectly.
Human-bonded horses can be dangerous because they literally do not grasp the difference in size and strength between themselves and a human. They also do not respect humans as humans in the way a normal horse will. Because of this, they often have to be handled by firm and dominant humans and some behave better for large men.
Because they did not learn proper horse behavior from their dam, they are often social misfits in the herd and may be beaten up or shunned.
Prevention is the best cure with human-bonding. If a nurse mare cannot be found, then orphan foals benefit from being turned out with an older open or barren mare or a well-mannered gelding who can teach them manners. Many breeding farms have older geldings, often horses that can no longer be ridden, whose 'job' is to be turned out with the weanlings and help them socialize properly. (Interestingly, a problem herd of elephants in Africa was also fixed by relocating an elderly bull who got the younger animals in line right away).
Imprint training is something I personally am opposed to, but many people swear by it. If you do want to go this route with your foal, talk to an expert on the matter.