Does Your Horse Head-Butt? Learning Theory Can Fix That

The key lies in offering the horse other behaviors—backing, for instance—to perform besides head-butting.
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Does Your Horse Head-Butt? Learning Theory Can Fix That
The key lies in offering the horse other behaviors—backing, for instance—to perform besides head-butting. | Photo: Alexandra Beckstett/The Horse
At first, it’s kind of funny. Even cute. You go out in the field to see your horse, and as you turn to walk away, he presses his head into your back and pushes you. Or you’re chatting with a friend instead of paying attention to him, and he does that same head-butt move. Maybe you’re cleaning his stall and he nudges you so hard you nearly fall into the sawdust, or he’s tied to a rail and bumps you into the fence with his head.

Suddenly, it becomes not so funny or cute.

Head-butting could be a sign of the horse’s desire for social connection with you, but it could also be a way of exercising control, as a “sense of agency,” explained Andrew McLean, BSc, PhD, Dipl. Ed., owner and director of the Australian Equine Behaviour Center, in Victoria. And regardless of how cute or funny the behavior, it’s important to consider its effects on human safety, given horses’ size and strength.

Instead of pushing the horse away, yelling “No!”, or bracing yourself in anticipation of the inevitable shove, you can train him using learning theory—the theory of how horses’ minds work, McLean says. In the case of head-butting behavior, it helps to see the situation from the horse’s point of view and then offer him other behaviors he can perform instead of butting you.

Understanding Why

Horses ram people with their heads for two main reasons, says McLean.   In the first scenario the horse is simply looking to express his social attachment to his handler, he explains.

“Horses are very social animals,” he says. “They like to seek that touch with you. Sometimes that ‘touch’ is far too vigorous for us to tolerate. But they don’t realize that; for them, it’s perfectly OK.”

In the second scenario they’re looking for a sense of control, McLean says. While this has nothing to do with dominance—as horses don’t seek to “dominate” humans, he explains—it’s still part of human and animal nature to acquire a “sense of agency.” Like a 2-year-old human child tests his parents’ limits, horses try to see what they can get away with, so to speak.

“They want the choice and the predictability, and that’s very healthy and normal,” he explains. “So you want to find ways of managing that without totally crushing it.”

Meeting the Need for Social Attachment and Affection

If your horse is simply expressing his social bond with you, give him a gentler way of doing so, McLean says. “I just have this sentence with my horses, where I say, ‘Do you want to rub?’ ” he explains. “And then they have that permission to rub on the forearm or the shoulder, on my terms.”

If they try to rub elsewhere, he simply moves away from the contact and offers the forearm or shoulder as an alternative, he says. They learn fairly quickly that these are the body parts where they can have that touch they’re seeking.

“It’s like a dog who jumps on people,” McLean adds. “The best way to train a dog not to jump on people is to simply turn your back to him when he jumps on you. In that way, you’re taking away the reward he was hoping to get, which is your attention. And he learns that jumping doesn’t get the results he wants.”

Teaching horses a gentler way to have social contact keeps you safer and more comfortable without denying them that need for attachment, he adds. “They want that connection,” he says.

Redirecting the Need for Agency

In his efforts to control his environment, if a horse head-butts you and you move away (voluntarily or not), he feels the reward of his action, McLean says. In this case he controlled where you were standing through negative reinforcement (removal of pressure in response to a desired action). He gave you pressure, you moved away, he released the pressure.

“Horses are so good at negative reinforcement, they really realize quickly when it works and even when they’re the ones reinforcing (by removing the pressure),” says McLean.

By head-butting, a horse is feeling confident in his ability to control his world and has a healthy sense of agency, McLean says. The last thing you want to do is destroy that.

But because you don’t want him rudely pushing into you either, you can offer him an opportunity to control something else instead, he says.

“You can have him take a step back in response to your vocal command, ‘Back,’” says McLean.

To be effective, you’ll need to have conditioned this response in advance, he adds. Through what’s known as classical conditioning, handlers can teach horses to associate a vocal command with a slight pressure—for example, halter pressure that you release as soon as the horse takes a step backward. Ideally, if you say “back” each time, just before applying that pressure, the horse will eventually realize that if he steps back when he hears “back,” he can stop the halter pressure from happening altogether.

“When he hears the word ‘back,’ he knows that he can choose to control what happens next,” he says. “He knows he can step back when he wants to. When horses perform a learned response, they have a sense of control, so this simple ‘back’ command gives them a nice alternative to pushing you.”

It’s a solution that’s win-win for everyone, says McLean. “We think we’re controlling them, but actually they think they’re controlling us.”

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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