“Naughty” Horses- Part 2

Bear with me…this is somewhat of a lengthy post. Why? Because there are so many different things that impact our horses on a daily basis. So many things that can cause them to display a “naughty” behavior before they even step a hoof in the arena for a lesson. This is a very important topic that directly impacts our equine coworkers, and in turn the safety of our students. A short, shallow post just won’t do.

In Part 1 of the “Naughty” Horses blog, we talked about some things that we can do to set our horses up for success and decrease those “bad” behaviors that we see.

In Part 2, we are going to dig a little deeper and take a look at a lesson horse’s day from start to end. We will look at some common problems and “bad” behaviors we may get from our horses and consider the various factors that could be the root cause. This post is not just about pointing out problems, but also mean to offer some possible solutions that can help you work towards resolving those less than desirable behaviors.

A quick note: If you are an instructor that offers Adaptive (therapeutic) Riding then you most likely have the additional ‘volunteer’ factor. A lot of the problems and solutions below mention volunteers and/or other people handing the horse beyond you and the student. The volunteer factor is something that is fairly unique to adaptive/therapeutic equine activities and brings its own host of benefits…and also challenges. When shifting from the traditional riding world to the adaptive riding world, getting used to having to utilize volunteers with and around the horses was the hardest thing for me to adjust to. Now, don’t get me wrong, volunteers are absolutely wonderful, are often the lifeblood of larger programs, and donate an astounding amount of their time and energy. However, volunteers often mean more people handling horses, more people to keep on the same page, more people to keep up to date on handling policies, more people to train that have differing levels of experience, and more bodies and energies to watch, manage, and be responsible for around the barn and in lessons. If you came from the traditional riding world and are wondering why managing equine behavior in and out of class is so different…and difficult…don’t forget all the extra people that tend to be involved in the adaptive equine activities world!

Available in The Intuitive Instructor Club: Recording of the live presentation “Naughty” Horses by Jenny Hartung and Saebra Pipoly that was offered at the 2019 PATH Intl. Region 10 Conference.

Before the lesson begins

Sometimes we see some ‘bad’ behaviors before the lesson even begins. So what are some common things pre-lesson (everything pre-mount) we might see:

  • Grumpy face at humans or other horses
  • Nipping at humans or other horses
  • Unhappy tail swishing
  • Pinning of ears
  • Pulling to food or just poor ground manners in general
  • Overall unhappy or tense body language
  • Other signs…

So what might be the root cause(s) of the behaviors?

The horse’s environment and living conditions

Ample, quality forage is key.
  • Is the horse getting enough food and is that food spread out over the day to try and simulate their natural eating habits? Horses are meant to be grazers and eat throughout the day but the modern barn setting and setup often tries to make the horse’s feeding schedule line up with what we need to make be convenient for our human schedule.
  • The horse may be getting enough ‘quantity’ food but is it quality and meeting nutritional needs. Nutritional deficiencies and imbalances can impact the physical and emotional health of our horses.
    • Possible Solutions: Check to make sure you are feeding quality feed by using your senses. Read up on deficiency and imbalances that can occur in equines.
  • How is the horse’s overall physical health? Do they have arthritic changes, ulcers, sharp teeth, vision problems, etc.? Just like when we don’t feel good or have health issues our demeanor often changes…this too applies to the horse.
    • Possible solutions: Consider the horse’s age, conformation, and history. Is there something they may be predisposed to due to their build or past training? Are they reaching an age where they may be encountering common geriatric struggles. Seek out help from other experienced equestrians and/or veterinarians to identify and manage problems.
Are the herd dynamics impacting your horse not only during social time but also during class?
  • Is the horse getting picked on by others? Or perhaps are they lacking social interaction?
    • Possible Solutions: Watch herd dynamics and see if turnout buddies need to be changed. Check the horse over after turnout time to see if there are bite or kick marks. Try finding a suitable turnout partner for the horse or have them in adjacent turnout areas where they can touch each other
  • Is the horse getting enough structured, quality exercise?
    • Possible solutions: Try to reserve exercise time outside of class for quality, constructive time for the horse. This should be a time that is catered to the horse’s physical and mental well being and a time for them to be cared for instead of being the caretaker or teacher like they so often are. Include mentally stimulating activities and exercises in the exercise time to keep things interesting.
  • Is the horse getting enough turnout and ‘free’ time to just be a horse?
    • Possible Solutions: Horses are not meant to be confined in small spaces and, if given a choice, would most likely not ‘choose’ to be working with humans all the time. Try to find a way to give them time that most closely simulates being a natural horse free from human intervention. This may look different depending on the setup of each barn.

Warm-up and Prep

Now that we have gotten the horse out of where they live, it’s now time to getting the horse ready. We might see the same ‘bad’ behaviors as listed above during the time the horse is getting prepped or warmed up.

So what might cause behavioral issues during this time?

Who is handling the horse during prep work?
  • Are they hanging on the horse? Is the person putting on the halter pushing, pulling, putting it on too tight or loose, etc? Are they pulling and hanging on the leadrope as they walk the horse around? Are they in the horse’s bubble? Is the person honoring the horse’s space and expecting the horse to respect theirs or are they all over each other like a Jr. High couple? Are they allowing the horse to rub on them, ‘play’ by pushing them around, etc?
    • Possible Solutions: Thorough education, and continued education, of those that work with the horses in any way. Have clear, consistent handling standards that apply to everyone
  • Is the person poking at the horse’s nose? Is the person playing with the lips, folding ears, leaning on the horse because they are just soooo cute and their nose is just soooo soft? Do they find it amusing when the horse is mouthy and plays with their clothing or leadline (at least until they get a good chomp and are ‘shocked’ at how their furry friend could do that to them)?
    • Possible Solutions: Again, thorough education of those in contact with the horses and clear, consistent policies. Making it very clear why doing these things to the horse is not a good idea and what negative behaviors might arise from this type of interaction.
  • Do all the humans interacting with the horse expect the same behavior? Yes, horses can act differently around different people. You may see a horse that is more spunky become more quiet and reserved around small child, but that does not mean that we can expect the horse to differentiate between those situation and know that behavior with an adult can be different than with a child. Whatever ideal behavior you want form the horse needs to be practiced and expected with every.single.person that works with the horse.
    • Possible Solutions: Create clear, consistent behavioral expectations for the horses. Set them up for success by asking them to act the same way across the board so there is not confusion as to what is expected of them. Thorough training of those handling the horse so they understand equine psychology and learning theory. Teaching people to listen to a ‘whisper’
What kind of warm-up did the horse get?
  • Was the warm-up geared towards that specific horse? Horses are individuals and how we handle them should reflect that. Each horse may have a different warm-up that works best for them.
    • Possible Solution: Try different warm-ups with the horse until you find one, or some, that work best. Be willing to be flexible if they need something different that day.
  • What was the energy during warm-up? What type of energy was passed off to the horse during the warm-up? Was the person handling them nervous because it is their first time warming up the horse for a class? Was the person feeling rushed because things were running late and now they are scrambling to get that horse ready? Was the horse lunged in a very energetic way to make them ‘run’ the energy out…but it just caused them to become more hyped?
    • Possible Solution: Educate the people warming up the horses on how their energy and demeanor can impact the horse. Teach breathing techniques and how to do self-checks to see how they are feeling while handling the horse. Reinforce the importance of a calm warm-up to set a good tone for class
  • Did they get over or under warmed? Is the horse with a student that can do the warm-up themselves but the horse still gets pre-warmed…and ends up getting over warmed up? Is the horse just pulled from their stall and made to work under saddle without any type of warm-up?
    • Possible Solution: consider the student the horse will be working with and what amount of warm-up may be suitable. The warm-up may also change based on the skill to be practiced that day. Educate those warming up the horses to realize that what they do with the horse pre-class is not just for the horse’s body but also for their mind.
  • Ignoring the horse during warm-ups. Is the horse getting drug around the arena in a preset pattern wile the person handling them is thinking about the fifty other things they have to do before class? Is the horse trying to ‘whisper’ something to the person warming them up but is being ignored?
    • Possible Solution: Encourage those to warming up the horses to engage with the horse during that time. Watch and listen to the horse. Is the horse their usual self that day, are they a little off? What might be causing it?
Grooming, tacking, and equipment.

Now it’s time to get the horse tacked for the class. There are many things that may impact the horse and how they act.

Horse-centered grooming can be not only incorporated into ‘prep’ time that is often done by instructors or volunteers, but it is also a great topic to include and consistently reinforce with your students that help groom!
  • Is the grooming catered towards the horse or just a cookie cutter routine and time? Is the horse trying to whisper something is not right or feels uncomfortable during grooming but is being ignored? Are the grooming tools comfortable for the horse? Is the horse enjoying the grooming time or just standing there and expected to tolerate everything?
    • Possible Solutions: Teach those grooming the horse how and why it is important to be very aware of the horse’s communication. Encourage more horse-minded grooming based on a general routine instead of making every horse endure the same exact routine. Watch for indicators of enjoyment and discomfort during the grooming and act appropriately on those communications. (yes, routine is important for a lot of our students, especially if you are offering adaptive/therapeutic services…but we can also teach our students to read the horses’ body language and have empathy for the animal they are working with)
  • Are they being tacked gently? Is the saddle being placed gently on or just thrown on? Is the girth comfortable or is it too narrow? Is the girth being over tightened? Is everything done ‘quietly’ or is equipment push, pulled, shoved, around until it is in the right spot. When the girth is checked is it being done gently or is it a tug and pull?
    • Possible Solution: Teach a gentle, horse-aware tacking routine that focuses on the ‘whys’ behind how you are asking people to do things.
  • Does their tack fit? Does the saddle fit the horse well? Does the bridle fit the horse appropriately? Do the pads and support boots feel comfortable to the horse?
    • Possible Solutions: Check tack routinely (at least twice a year after major changes of season). Try different tack and equipment until you find what the horse likes.


We have our horse out of it’s living space, warmed up, and ready for class. Now it’s time to ride!

  • What are you seeing?
    • Resistance going to mount?
    • Grumpy face?
    • Head tossing?
    • Walking off after mount?
    • Nipping or biting?
    • Something not listed?
  • Where are you mounting from? The ground? A mounting block? A ramp? Is the mounting location something that not only helps the student mount safely but also helps to keep the horse’s back comfortable?
    • Possible Solution: Try different locations and heights of mounting blocks to see what works best for the horse and rider. Remember the amount of torque that is applied to the horse’s back when any rider, big or small, mounts. The article linked shows the torque from the ground, but there is also stress applied during any mount so don’t think this information is not vital to you just because you don’t mount from the ground.
  • Is the horse standing square? Are you setting your horse up for success and comfort by asking them to stand square at the mount? Allowing a horse to stand with legs not square sets them up to be unbalanced while the rider mounts, which often then results in the horse stepping forward to get balanced, then the people get tense and push, pull, get tight because they think the horse is taking off.
    • Possible Solution: Have a policy that horses should be square to mount (this is industry best practice for able bodied and adaptive/therapeutic)
  • Did the student sit hard on the horse? Pull on the reins while mounting? Grip with their legs or bounce in the saddle once they get on?
    • Possible solution: Expect every student, to the best of their ability, to do gentle and mechanically correct mounts for their sake and the horse’s sake. If a student needs assistance, do everything you can to make the mount as comfortable as possible for the horse.
  • Is someone ‘heading’ the horse during the mount? Is that person (Horse Leader, Instructor, etc) applying unnecessary pressure during the mount? Are they pulling on the reins. Grabbing the sides of the halter? Pushing on the horse’s chest? What about other volunteers or people assisting during the mount? Is the person on the offside leaning on the horse? are they poking and petting?
    • Possible Solution: Handlers  and EVERYONE involved in the mount must be aware of intentional and unintentional pressure applied during the mount. Offer additional training if needed and give supportive feedback that is both positive and corrective during the mount as needed.
  • Have you trained the horse to stand after mounting or do you allow them to walk on?
    • Possible Solution: Train your horse to stand during and after the mount with every rider. Be consistent and expect the horse to stand every time even if it is just a schooling ride. Often we expect our horses to stand during a mount for class but all the other times the horse is ridden they are allowed to move off too soon after the rider is seated.
  • Are you checking and/or adjusting tack or equipment in the mounting area? This can cause additional stress to the horse (when they are already surrounded by predators, one of which that is going to get on their back). Also, checking and adjusting tack from a raised elevation can increase the amount of pull we are able to give and can easily lead to over-tightening. Not to mention, it is next to impossible to check the girth tightness in the correct location if you are standing on a block or ramp!
    • Possible Solution: Do all tack checks and adjustments well away from the mounting area.

In the Lesson

Our student is on and our class has begun. What are some different things that we may see from a “Naughty Horse”?

  • What are you seeing?
    • Horse stopping by gate
    • Pulling rider to a gate
    • Pinning ears or nipping when asked to walk out
    • Pinning ears or nipping at trot
    • Horse coming off the rail or pulling to the center
    • Stopping in the center
    • Stopping every time the rider talks
    • Refusing to transition up or down?
    • Pulling through the Horse Leader?
  • Is the horse just listening to the rider? (leaning forward or back? Squeezing legs? Not using seat? Leaning to the side? So many times our horses are doing what our students are asking….now the student may not mean to or be aware of asking the horse to slow down or speed up. That is where we as instructors come in. We have to see the big picture and recognize if our horse is doing something because they are just listening to the cues that are being given. More often than not a horse doing something ‘wrong’ is user (aka: human) error.
    • Possible solution: Look closely at what your student (and possibly assisting volunteers) are doing. Is a hand bumping on the reins during a transition? Is a heel accidentally pushing into the barrel around a turn? Is a sidewalker leaning or bumping into the side of a horse?
  • Is the horse just following ‘routine’? (stopping in the middle, stopping by the gate, stopping when someone talks). I can say I am absolutely guilty of creating these ‘naughty’ behaviors in  my horse. I have an absolutely horrible habit of allowing my students to stop or slow the horse when I’m explaining something and not encouraging them to walk on if possible.
    • Possible Solution: Look at patterns and routines. If a horse suddenly stops, turns in, etc. see if you can figure out what happened right before that ‘naughty’ behavior. Try to change one thing at a time to try and find the root cause of the problem. If you have a hunch of what is causing something, or you are sure you found the cause of the problem, let your students and volunteers know! Tell the what is happening, why it is an issue and how it came about, and how you/they can help resolve the issue. Remember that it takes time and consistency for a horse…and human…to get out of a routine!
  • Is the horse anticipating discomfort? (rider that kicks, or leans or balances on the reins. Rider bouncing at the trot or canter. Volunteer pulling on the horse during transitions. Unnecessary ‘pressure’ from any human). Does the headstall match the ‘education’ of your student’s hands? Do the artificial aids match the ability and education of your student?
    • Possible Solution: Be very, very aware of what type of pressure is applied to the horse through artificial and natural aids. Teach your students how to appropriately use their hands, seat, legs, and voice. Expect your students to do more than kick and pull the horse around the arena.
    • Be aware of common ‘pitfalls’ that often create a downward spiral:
      • A horse won’t stop or is going to fast so we put a stronger bit in the horse’s mouth (because we want the student to have ‘breaks’…right?).
        • The horse is probably going fast or not stopping because the student is still giving cues to ‘go’.
        • Is the horse avoiding stopping or continuing to speed up because they are uncomfortable and trying to get away from the pain?
        • Is the horse being schooled appropriately and being taught to respond to softer, lighter cues?
        • Is the horse not wanting to slow down because they are so confused and frustrated they are trying to get away from all the mixed signals?
      • A horse won’t go faster or struggles with upward transitions, so we give a student a crop or spurs (because we really want to let them go faster…right?).
        • Is the horse not going forward because the student is giving them the ‘slow’ cue? (perhaps that strong bit you put on the horse to make sure they have breaks?)
        • Is the horse not moving forward because they are so confused and frustrated they would rather just not move?
        • Is the horse not wanting to move forward and/or struggling with upward transitions because they are in pain or they are to weak to do what is being asked of them?
        • Does the horse feel that the student is off balance and they don’t want to move? We love those caretakers…right? But do we listen to them when they don’t want to move because the student is not in correct position?
  • Has the horse been properly schooled…both physically and mentally? Does he even know what is expected of him or are students always on him? Is the horse too young or does not have enough experience to have a beginner rider on them? Has the horse been taken care of and engaged under saddle or is he always with a student and having to be the caretaker?
    • Possible Solution: Be aware of the physical and cognitive maturity of the horse, their past training, and their ongoing training. Do self-assessments to make sure you are not asking or expecting too much of the horse just because they seem to ‘love’ their job or because they are such a good ‘babysitter’.  Resource other respected equine professionals and peers to do assessments as we can sometimes miss things in horses we see every day. If you want the horse to behave a certain way in class, expect that same behavior outside of class with schooling riders and volunteers.


  • What are you seeing?
    • Horse not standing still?
    • Grumpy or nipping?
    • Head going up/tossing
    • ‘Bracing’ body language
  • Is the horse anticipating discomfort? (poor equipment fit, rider pulling on the saddle or reins, volunteers or instructor applying unnecessary pressure)
    • Possible solution: Have another person watch the dismount. They may be able to catch something you can’t see if you are hands on…like the rider’s toe digging into the hindquarters, a volunteer pulling on tack, etc. Also check the fit of all equipment on the horse. Practice dismounts that are mechanically sound for not only the instructor and the student but also for the horse.
  • Has the horse been taught to stand or are they allowed to move in situations outside of class?
    • Possible Solution: Train your horse to stand during and after the dismount with every rider. Be consistent and expect the horse to stand every time even if it is just a schooling ride. Often we expect our horses to stand during a dismount for class but all the other times the horse is ridden they are not asked to come to a complete stop and stand for a few seconds before the rider dismounts.

And a final link for you all….“Listening to ‘NO'” an article written by Kristen Guest and featured on Ritter Dressage, a wonderful site full of great information!

Despite how long this post was, the list given above by no means mentions all the factors or possible solutions for “Naughty” Horses. What are your thoughts on the topic of “Naughty” Horses?

Want immediate access to the recorded live “Naughty” Horses presentation by PATH Intl. Advanced Therapeutic Riding Instructors Jenny Hartung and Saebra Pipoly? Join The Intuitive Instructor Club to view this presentation and also access the ever growing library of other videos and presentations!

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