Dealing with a Horse that Pins His Ears
By Lynn Palm
If you have spent much time in the saddle, chances are you have come across a horse that pins its ears. Whether you are riding such a horse, or you are riding in a group that includes this kind of horse, you know how unpleasant it can be. More importantly, the aggressive, ear-pinning horse can be dangerous.
Why do horses pin their ears, and what can we do about it? Horses use physical actions known as “body language” to communicate clearly with each other, and laying their ears back is just one of the examples of body language. When a horse pins it ears, actually flattens the ears back to the neck, the horse is saying, “Get away from me” or “Keep your distance!” Flattened ears may also mean, “Watch out because if you don’t move away, there’s going to be trouble!”
Mares have a tendency to pin their ears more than male horses, but either sex can develop the habit. With some horses, this is just part of their nature. It could be a horse that is especially territorial and uses this way to let other horses know that they are getting too close. Or, the horse may just have a dominant personality. In any case, the horse that is pinning its ears is clearly letting both his rider and the other horses know he is not accepting the immediate situation, whatever that may be.
It is natural for your horse to flick his ears back to register another horse’s approach, either beside or behind him. He may even briefly flatten his ears to give a warning to the other horse not to get in his personal space, but he does not react beyond this. This causal pinning of ears means, “I’m not happy about this and I’m letting you know.” What we are concerned about is the horse that quickly and aggressively pins his ears and then swings his head to bite. He may also swing his hindquarters to kick. This horse is saying, in no uncertain terms, “Look out!” This kind of attitude can be a nuisance at best, and, at worst, a serious danger to other horses and riders. And, the horse that regularly pins his ears at his riding companions does not make for a fun ride! (In the show ring, this attitude is very undesirable and not one the judges will look on favorably.)
If you are the rider on an ear-pinning horse, remember that it is up to each rider to avoid potential accidents every time you are in the saddle. Your horse will react to what happens around him, and so it is your responsibility to think for both of you and to always keep safety in mind.
Inform the people you are riding with that your horse is anxious about horses coming up behind him or if he has any personality quirks such as being territorial or dominant. Forewarned is forearmed!
Always keep a minimum distance of ten feet (on both sides and front and back) between horses whenever you are riding in company. If you allow horses to get any closer together then they can make potentially dangerous contact with another horse or a rider before you can react in time to prevent it. Stay aware of where other horses are in relation to you and your horse. Do not rely on other riders to maintain the minimum ten foot distance between horses. You are responsible for where your horse is at all times!
A common error many riders make is to tunnel their vision and focus their mind on the middle of their horse’s neck or head. Our instinct is to look at the horse or whatever or wherever the focus (or problem) is. We have to remember to take in the whole picture and not just focus on one particular horse or thing.
If your horse aggressively pins his ears, immediately act to change his focus from the other horse(s) to you, the rider. Continue to keep controlling your horse. Make a transition or gait change to distract his attention and refocus his concentration from the other horse(s) to your commands. This may mean trotting for a few steps, or dong a turn on the forehand, or backing a few steps. Obviously, you want to be sure that any gait transition will keep other horses and riders out of harm’s way.
Many riders want to react by hitting their horse when he pins his ears. I would caution them that when you use physical discipline, if your timing is off by even a second, you could end up confusing the horse or even making him more aggressive. Instead, I suggest using vocal discipline. Get bossy with your voice! The moment your horse pins his ears, say “NO” in a sharp, stern tone. Take charge with your voice, then immediately physically make him do something else, such as a gait change, to redirect his concentration and change his focus.
Speaking of change, it is a good idea to change positions with other riders throughout a trail ride so your horse does not always get the idea he has to be on the lead, or bringing up the rear, or that the only safe place is in the middle. You have to expose your horse to as many different things as possible. The goal is to have your horse focused on listening to you and what you are asking him to do, rather than fretting about the horses around him.
Another method I like to use that can help break the bad habits of the ear pinner is to pony him. Ponying is leading one horse while you are riding another horse next to him. When I start, I will ride a “good faith” horse—one that is steady and totally reliable—and lead the ear pinner. For safety’s sake, always teach a horse to pony in an enclosed area such as a ring or small paddock before going out on the trail on into a large open area. You should have control of both horses and be able to stop, turn in both directions, and back up before you head out of the enclosed area.
When you do go outside the small area, the ear pinner will have more interesting surrounding to focus on rather than directing his negative attention to the horse next to him that you are riding. When the horse flattens his ears in reaction to the other horse you are riding, immediately take the longe line you are leading him with and shake it towards his face. This will make him move away from the horse being ridden and teach him that ear pinning is unacceptable. In addition, remember to use your bossy voice and say a loud “NO” whenever he pins his ears.
When you feel confident after many ponying sessions, tack up the ear pinner and use him to pony another horse. The end result is a horse that is more tolerant and will not express a territorial attitude by aggressively pinning his ears; and, in the long run, that means a happier ride for you.
All that being said, keep in mind that ear pinning for some horses just may be part of their temperament. It may not be possible to get them to totally stop even with training. However, by being a conscientious and consistent rider, you can lessen their aggressive reactions and make them more pleasant to ride in company.
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