Horse is aggressive about…everything! (Food too)

Question sent in by Theresa:
Do you have any material on horses that are aggressive?  Bite and or kick when asked to do something as simple as move over.  We have a rescue exhibiting this.  Haltering also an issue…
Response from Shawna:
I haven’t made a DVD on this topic yet.  This behavior is challenging because the aggressive ones are all over the map…both mentally as well as physically!  However, I have dealt with this sort of thing occasionally  and have found the best success with starting as if the horse were green and didn’t know anything.  In a way they are indeed  green, because they haven’t learned how to have healthy, balanced interactions with people.   Though we can address each issue individually,  when everything seems to be an issue, it seems like it is all a symptom of a bigger, underlying problem. That fundamental problem being the horse’s perception of people.   I like to start from the basics using only positive reinforcement.  This way we are able to build a new, better reinforcement history with everything.  Once the new history is established the horse will approach training with a new and improved, more cooperative attitude.
When horses have this aggressive attitude toward training (or doing anything that humans ask of them!), it is usually rooted in fear.  At some point they were left with no other option, other then to protect themselves.  Once they learn how well being aggressive works for them, the behavior tends to  escalate.  Once the’ve reached this point they offer resistance without even thinking.  As far as they are  concerned there is nothing in it for them except the possibility of fear and worry.  By putting something in it that he values, he will become invested in the training equation and will even look forward to his time with people.  I highly recommend dropping all of the old stuff and start over again, this time with pressure not being part of the equation.  I think this is important since it sounds like even minor pressure triggers his aggressive attitude.  I suggest using only positive reinforcement training.  Also, teaching him to be very strong with his targeting skills will be a huge benefit.  The target can serve as the new halter and lead rope, allowing you to get him to move and adjust without the need to use pressure.  I know it sounds like a lot of work, however you will find that some parts will go quite quickly and some will jut take a little longer. The places where it tends to takes longer is because these places have more baggage attached.  By allowing him to make choices (and not coercing him  to do things) he will gain a whole slew of trust, minimizing his need to resort to aggressive behavior.  Please keep me posted.  I would love to see you help him get past this destructive habit.  It will help him to be happier and more well adjusted with all parts of his life.  The training also has a lot of unanticipated benefits, you will see parts of his personality blossom as the trust builds.
Thank you so much.  I am a believer in positive reinforcement big time and have worked with a lot of abused horses but this guy is the most aggressive with small things.  I wondered about fear being the root do will pursue based on that.  I’m still waiting for my order to arrive.. I have the basic info and clicker but not the target.  
Would associating food with the clicker make him worse?  If he gets a treat now for just standing politely it seems to trigger pinning and teeth to get another treat which he does not get.  I am expecting very little right now… Just to walk without nipping.  Standing head forward and waiting to the count of 5 then getting petted.  If his head is turned at all toward you while leading he takes opportunity to nip.  I just move his head over with the back of my hand and continue.
You are SO right about being all over the map!!!!!  Describing tiny behavior exhibited is difficult but I am very in tune with that.  This one is very challenging for me and he does scare me which is NOT helping!!!!  This is the first horse in my life that actually made full contact and bit me on the leg!
Any ideas are greatly appreciated … This horse was taken back to the rescue place 5 times in 2 1/2 months likely from his behavior…  So I bet he was hit a lot…
I’ll continue to work on the trust which I know is THE most important issue with horses.
Thanks again!
First of all, I LOVE your dedication to helping this horse.  Too many horses get discarded for “bad” behavior and the sad fact is that nearly all of the problems were unintentionally taught by humans in the first place.  Kudos to you and thank you for being there for him…even if he doesn’t appreciate it yet!
Okay, the first thing to do will be to establish a proper attitude about food and feeding.  Often times this sour attitude is also displayed at feeding time.  I recommend that you keep an eye on that behavior as well.  If he is surly, just wait him out (while outside his stall or paddock).  As soon as he softens his demeanor, deliver the food promptly.
Relaxation is the key, it will help him to settle.  We need to teach him that relaxation is part of the equation with food.  He values food, but we need to establish appropriate behavior around food.  You can do this from outside of his stall or paddock.  Simply stand nearby, at first he may be a little worked up, since he knows you have food.  Look for turning his head away and/or softening.  We will want to shape this toward more relaxation but at first we need to communicate to keep your head away from the food source.  In the case I suggest doing this outside of his enclosure so that you can let him process all of his bullish behavior while still being in a safe place.
The initial goal is for him to stop focusing on getting the food, when he softens, relaxes, or gives up and becomes less interested, even just a little, that is when you should click and feed.  Remember it is an approximation toward our goal.  As soon as you click, feed promptly and feed a big handful.  Meager amounts often times seem to exacerbate tension and the feeling of wanting more.  We want him to get a good dose of reinforcement at the moment he softens.  Also, I have found that while they are still chewing that huge handful of feed, they are content (relaxed) because they are not actively seeking more food yet.  Even though they are still chewing, this is a great opportunity to click and feed again, as long as they are offering the soft demeanor.   After 3 or 4 good handfuls for exhibiting softness, give him a moment to process again.  He may stay a little relaxed for a short time, so if this is the case, even for even a moment, click and reinforce again promptly.
What we are looking for is the smallest increments of improvement.  We are shaping the new, correct behavior so we shouldn’t be too strict with our criteria at first.  If he gets wound up pretty quickly, just step back out of his reach and repeat the process and  wait  for the softer, more relaxed  attitude.  Eventually, we will fade away from this incessant feeding but for now we need to help build a solid reinforcement history with the correct behavior.  Right now he has a strong relationship with being pushy and aggressive to get what he wants.  We are looking to rebalance the scales.  It will take some repetition at first.  I would suggest continuing with this exercise.  Start with very short and highly reinforcing sessions.  End the session with a jackpot or magnitude feed.   Often I will pour the rest of the food from the bucket into his feeder or on the ground.   He wants the food, we just need to help him learn what will work…and that the old stuff won’t work.  Because his old habits have worked for so long, he will resort to them rather quickly for a while until he figures out that it works no longer.  The more repetitions we can do to reinforce the attitude we are looking for  the quicker we can get him turned around.   I have found it is better to do short sessions more often, rather than doing longer sessions.
Another good thing to keep in mind…if any behavior increases(or maintains) in frequency, then something in the environment is reinforcing that behavior.  That is the bottom line.  It is up to us to figure out how to change things around.   It may be a bit different for every horse but there is a way to come to a better place.  One caveat: safety is first, always!!  So do what you can to keep you and others safe.  If you need to employ further professional help, please don’t hesitate.  When we can get him taking food nicely I suggest we move onto target training, but for now you have your work cut out for you. ?  Again,  we will want to associate targeting with relaxation.  You will find that relaxation will be an ongoing theme!   In my opinion, relaxation is paramount in all that we do with our horses, even for the biggest, boldest, most energetic behaviors.  Well, all right then, that is all for now.
Oh thanks again!  You hit the nail on the head!  He is food aggressive and I tried the wait but did not give a big treat and yes, you are right about that making him worse.  Fortunately I stopped immediately when I realized it didn’t work so that only happened once.  
I will try this new technique with larger amounts for sure.  I know there is a good horse in there somewhere… I haven’t to date given up on a horse but do need help as each one of us has a little different skill set!
I live to learn and am open to trying as it seems the more I learn the more there is to learn!!
You have a great attitude.  I too, never want to stop learning!  ?
I have gotten rid of mouthiness, biting and aggression using positive reinforcement/hand feeding.  As you know, it is not the food that is the problem, it is the people who have unintentionally reinforced the wrong attitude.  The good news is we have sorted it out, rebuilding trust and manners using positive reinforcement/clicker training.  Hang in there…and keep me posted on your progress!
Ask Shawna Clicker and Target Issues On Target Training On the Ground

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