Many people have trouble figuring out the difference between assertiveness and aggression in other humans. Sometimes we have the same problem trying to nail down the truth about our own motives or actions.
Aggressive behavior in horses sometimes manifests as pushiness; a lack of respect that invades your personal space or recognizes a cue but purposefully ignores it. At other times aggression is demonstrated by a horse that insists on not only having a vote, but veto power as well.
The worst kind of aggressive behavior is physical, where a horse actually threatens you with its head, teeth, feet, or body slam. If mildly aggressive behaviors are not properly resolved they often escalate over time. Actions some horse owners think are signs of confidence and boldness in their horse may really be aggressive in nature.
How would you answer these questions?
- Is using a loud tone of voice aggressive or assertive?
- Is pointing a finger at someone aggressive or assertive?
- Is banging your fist on a table aggressive or assertive?
- Is standing really close to someone else aggressive or assertive?
- Is looking directly into someone’s eyes aggressive or assertive?
- Is touching someone’s arm aggressive or assertive?
- Is walking away during a disagreement aggressive or assertive?
- Is drawing a “line in the sand” aggressive or assertive?
- Is an ultimatum aggressive or assertive?
There isn’t a correct universal answer to any of these questions. The answer for each one is, “It depends.”
The difference between Assertive and Aggressive
Are horses that buck, rear, and kick behaving badly? All horses run, buck, and kick. The only way to determine if running, bucking, or kicking is appropriate or not is putting the behavior in context.
The important question is “Why?” What caused the horse to respond in such a physical way? Is it just expressing himself or reacting to something another horse or a person did?
Unless you know why the horse bucked, reared or kicked it’s difficult to respond correctly. Horses rear, buck, and kick when they play. Horses rear, buck and kick when they are attacked. Horses rear, buck, and kick when they’re trained to. Horses also rear, buck, and kick when they are being forced to move and don’t recognize any other option.
Characteristics of Aggressive Behavior
- Aggression is reactive.
- Aggression is evidence of weakness.
- Aggression is a sign of imbalance.
- Aggression is destructive (intentionally or not).
- Aggression has an emotional basis (unless it is drug induced).
Characteristics of Assertive Behavior
- Assertive behavior is responsive.
- Assertive behavior is evidence of strength.
- Assertive behavior is balanced and proportional.
- Assertive behavior is constructive.
- Assertive behavior is considered and measured.
Responding to an Aggressive Horse
As master, trainer, or leader it is your responsibility to know what caused your horse to act out. Unless a horse is good-naturedly playing with other horses or is trick-trained you must respond to the negative action swiftly, proportionately, unemotionally, and constructively.
You are responsible for the state of relationship you enjoy with your horse and with God. Not only are you accountable for your horse’s behavior but you are accountable for how you respond to it. Do you tend to be assertive or aggressive?
Raising your voice to a horse is seldom appropriate unless you are giving a short staccato message like “Quit!” and you’re 30 feet down the breezeway. When would you consider it appropriate for someone to yell at you? The only example that occurs to me would be some short staccato words of warning – “Look out!” or “Loose horse!”
Examine the characteristics of both aggressive and assertive behavior. They are active responses or reactions. The only other option is a passive response which is inactive. When training horses and building foundations of relationship you will generally choose to use either a passive or assertive response. Aggression is the display of negative emotions. There is no place for negative emotions in relationship with a horse, or with anyone else for that matter.
Assertive – Aggressive – Accountable
Jesus was despised, denied, rejected, and crucified. Jesus wept, He cleared the temple, and He lived for three years with men who didn’t understand Him. The example our Lord gives us is the perfectly balance of authority and humility.
“[Jesus] had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.”– John 2:25
Jesus knew the hearts and minds of all men. He responded accordingly. All who offer worthy leadership to a horse are expected to know much about what is in a horse. No one will ever know all there is to know about horses, but the learning process never stops unless you quit.
You need to learn how to read and predict a horse’s reaction to what you do. You have to know why you do what you do. If you’re about to put pressure on a horse’s hip, why? If you’re going to pick up the left snaffle rein and apply pressure, why?
All we do is in the sight of God. When we are alone in His presence we are accountable. When we interact with other people we are accountable. When we accept some blessing of the world God created we are accountable, and for anything we do anything with a child or animal we are even more accountable.
Is your horse’s behavior aggressive or assertive? Is yours?
Aggression is a sign of leadership failure. If your horse reacts aggressively it is your fault. If you react aggressively to your horse it is your fault. In that case the failure is in both your leadership and your own followership to your Master and Lord.
Aggression is evidence of weakness and imbalance
Aggression is a sign of weakness. Your horse should grow stronger and bolder through right relationship with you. Your own increasing strength is the product of being the child of a holy, omnipotent God.
Aggression is a sign of imbalance. Faith cannot co-exist with imbalance. Seek balance in your own life and extend the blessing to your horse as well. If you’re overly emotional, out of balance, weak and indecisive, then you will be hard-pressed to keep the promises you make your horse.
“He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8
Hands of mercy may be assertive or passive, but grace is never aggressive. Just as darkness and light cannot co-exist it also impossible for mercy to be applied by a hand powered by weakness or negative emotion. Mercy may reveal an uncomfortable truth, habit, or behavior, but mercy and grace never destroy the foundations of right relationship.
Before you tack up the next time consider your bit and rig. Why do you use a snaffle? Why a shanked bit? Why a breast collar, martingale, or tie down? Why spurs? Every interaction with your horse should leave a net-positive result. Be certain your methods and lessons are constructive, responsive, balanced, proportional and build faith.
If you have any questions, please ask! That’s why we’re here. Happy trails!