What Makes a Horse Mean?

If you’ve been around horses much at all in your life, then you’ve seen those horses who flatten their ears when you go to feed them, or who take the first opportunity to cow kick you with a hind leg when you’re doing nothing more than trying to clean their stall, . . . or who employ numerous other dangerous actions seemingly for no reason at all.

There can be lots of reasons for these behaviors. Plus, horses are like people — they have different personalities and so some are just grumpier than others. But usually a horse who is mean has had a bad experience and is holding the memory so is reacting out of fear or expectation that something bad will happen again. Usually, with the right handling, they can get over it.

But there are exceptions.

I talked to a horse this week who was the most mean-spirited I have ever encountered. I was asked to talk to and reason with him because he overtly tries to hurt people. He strikes with his front feet, and he bites with a vengeance. If you’ve ever watched a horse do this, or kick with his rear feet for that matter, you know what deadly aim they have and how vicious they can be.

Most horses use these defensive techniques as a warning, so they don’t really aim to connect. I’ve seen my own horses in the past give a very gentle kick to one of my pups who didn’t yet have barn etiquette down — just enough to roll the pup and scare him into a little more respect. The horse could easily have killed the puppy if he had wanted to. So most of the time an offer to bite or kick is simply a warning that you are pulling the cinch up too tight and too fast or that you’re forgetting how one leg has to be handled differently because of an old injury.

But not the dude I talked to a few days ago, Gus. Given a description of his behavior, I expected him to be scattered in his thinking and unwilling to communicate. But instead he was clear as a bell and was happy to let me know, over and over again, that he had no intention of changing his behavior or trying to get along.

So what was going on here? Well first, the horse was born with an attitude. He was very haughty from the get-go. Second, he was left a stud until he was a year and a half old which certainly would not help an I’m-king-of-the-world stance. Third, he had a bad accident shortly after being gelded that required months of painful rehab. And fourth (at least to my way of thinking), he had received many rabies shots* in his short four years.

The horse was pissed. He had been in pain for much of his life (and still was, he showed me), and he had learned early on that he could easily intimidate the humans around him. So why not?

I don’t know what will happen to this horse, but if he cannot be rehabbed he is truly a danger to all humans. A horse in this shape has very special needs — physical and mental — and there are few people truly equipped to satisfy them. Patience and love can help a lot, but finding the right combination of feed, activity, supplements, and meds is key as well.

As we all well know from our over-crowded prisons, shifting a mean streak in a hardened criminal is not easy.  Sometimes it cannot be done at all. The bottom line seems to lie in the individual’s nature itself. Some horses, and people, can experience tons of abuse and still be forgiving, loving individuals. Others can suffer the smallest insult and never let it go. I hope Gus can be rehabbed eventually, but if not I sure hope the people around him don’t allow themselves to be victimized or maimed by his mean spirit.


* Over-vaccinating can be very detrimental to animal or human. The rabies vaccine in particular can affect the nervous system in deleterious ways, including exacerbating aggression. To read more about how vaccines really work, go HERE.

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