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Help! Territorial Behavior in Stall

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    Help! Territorial Behavior in Stall

    I have a homebred gelding who is now 5 years old. From the time he was born, he was handled by myself, experienced grooms, and professionals. He has been brought along very slowly as he is a "forever" horse for me. I have been very careful not to treat him like a pet or a "friend," because I have always understood the importance of not allowing him to think he is the boss.

    In all other ways, he is a perfect gentleman. He stands on the crosswise pleasantly, no ear pinning or aggression. He loves the attention of being groomed, and even bathes well. He is calm and pleasant under saddle. He has had the normal baby moments, but he really is a solid citizen.

    He is turned out with my lease horse. This horse is 17 years old, a gelding, and your typical grumpy old man. The lease horse definitely dominates the pasture, but these two love each other. My baby has always been a Beta in the field with other horses.

    Baby horse has, on sporadic occasions, acted in a dominant way with stall cleaners. This is not a regular behavior, but he would pin his hears and show them his rump. He has never kicked, but he frightened the helpers. He has never acted that way with me.

    I have not seen him in about a month. Today I walked into his stall. After he determined I did not have a treat, he started pinning his ears and opening his mouth at me. It was not an intent to bite, but to intimidate. I also noticed that he was putting his head up against my torso and trying to ease me out of his stall. I wanted him to know I was not afraid and he was not the boss, so I stayed and petted him, talking sharply (nothing physical) when he continually opened his mouth to me. It seemed to be an unending cycle, so I finally patted his neck and walked out as he pinned his ears. I didn't feel like I had made my point to him.

    Question: What do I do? I don't want to start a destructive fight, I don't want the behavior to continue. I am giving up my lease horse in May. Will that help his behavior to change? I really think he is being territorial over his stall as he never does this otherwise. I don't want the stall to become an unpleasant place by overly punishing. I don't want to change his otherwise wonderful attitude toward life over this. HELP!

    I don't think barn help should muck a stall with a horse in it. Horse should be in turnout or work when they go in.

    Sounds like horse needs an update on ground manners and you need to observe what the barn help is doing when you aren't there.


      I have one that was kind of like that. He came to me that way from a big boarding barn. He would make horrible faces when you enter his stall or if you were standing outside his stall. Pinned ears and made snake face. He did not turn his butt to me, but maybe he would have if he were pushed to do so. He is much better now, but it took time and patience.

      I never leave or give ground while he is doing that. Nor do I push him. I stand there and leave only when he makes an attempt to be pleasant, even just the slightest easing of his expression. It takes patience. I would certainly not pet him. He can have his space, but he must look pleasant. I never yell or punish. Just wait him out. If I actually need to go into his stall and halter him, I try to wait until he not only looks pleasant but takes a pleasant step to me. You have to know when to pressure and when to not pressure. Don't pressure when you see the slightest try on his part.

      It took a long time, but now, I enter his stall, stand at the door, and first let him know what my intent is. He will pin his ears but the minute he sees what I want -- halter in my hand, stall cleaning rake, whatever -- his ears go up and he says oh ok.
      Last edited by ToTheNines; Jan. 8, 2020, 05:57 PM.
      Rest in peace Claudius, we will miss you.


        I agree that if a horse is acting like this, one should simply accommodate and move the horse to another stall while it's stall is being cleaned.

        It's hard to know what your horse's motivations are without being there. Is he expecting to be fed and he's being disrespectful because he wants you to hurry up and dump him some feed? Has he been getting bullied in turnout and now he's a little defensive overall? Or is he annoyed and grumpy about being handled/ridden/worked with for whatever reason (could range from him being full of himself and disrespectful or at the other end of the spectrum it could be a response to rough or overly negative training methods).

        Until you know what is driving this behavior, the best course of action is to just "be normal." Handle the horse calmly and confidently with a measure of both gentleness and firmness.

        If the stall seems to be an uncomfortable place for the horse to be handled, just avoid it for now. Pull the horse out into the aisle or cross ties or wherever to handle him. By pushing the matter in his stall, I think you are simply reinforcing the behavior by putting him in a situation that encourages him to repeat it.


          Originally posted by Didi View Post
          I have not seen him in about a month. Today I walked into his stall. After he determined I did not have a treat, he started pinning his ears and opening his mouth at me. It was not an intent to bite, but to intimidate. I also noticed that he was putting his head up against my torso and trying to ease me out of his stall. I wanted him to know I was not afraid and he was not the boss, so I stayed and petted him, talking sharply (nothing physical) when he continually opened his mouth to me. It seemed to be an unending cycle, so I finally patted his neck and walked out as he pinned his ears. I didn't feel like I had made my point to him.
          This scenario is enhancing your problem, not correcting it. The way your horse perceives this interaction is very different from the way you do.

          Here's his version: I tell her I want her to back off and she pats me (good horse! good horse!) I try to push her out of my stall and she rewards me (good horse!) I think she's getting my point.

          The first thing you might want to do is change your mindset with regard to the way you interact with him. Despite saying you've been careful not to treat him as a pet, you refer to him as "Baby horse." Right about now he's thinking of himself as "Boss horse."


            I agree with LaurieB. Especially since you haven't seen him in about a month. You have no idea what's going on when you're not there. Having a young horse at a boarding barn is super tough! You don't know who is cleaning his stall. You don't know what their horse background is. You don't know if they're timid or assertive or what's happening.

            A little background... I have a soon to be 4yo who I have raised from a bottle. He's a dream for me for everything. But when he was younger at a boarding barn, he became very grumpy and crappy in the stall with the staff when they would go in to clean his stall or feed him. They allowed it once and he ran with it. They're young horses who are learning everything they're being taught. Go in his stall and be assertive. Of course walk in thinking he's going to be as happy to see you as you are to see him but have a plan if he gets grumpy. I used a flag with my colt in the stall. If he got grumpy or crabby, I sent him away from me to the back of the stall till his attitude changed. If he perked his ears and wanted to be friendly, then I would give him a pat and leave. But he wasn't allowed to stick by me and be grumpy at the same time. That's like patting the dog who's growling and threatening to bite you. But outweighs you by a lot. Once he grasps the concept with you, get the staff involved. Show them how to do this. This is a learning opportunity for all but you have to nip it in the bud now before it gets worse. Feel free to DM me with questions


              I never really understood the whole mindset that being physical with a horse is bad. Completely agree that by petting him and then leaving, you aren't telling him he isn't the boss, you are only reinforcing that the behavior is okay.

              It doesn't matter if it's in a stall, in his pasture, in the crossties, whereve . He needs to learn that every space is YOUR SPACE and he has to politely respect that no matter what.

              You are on the right track with not wanting to baby him, you just haven't quite got the attitude down yet. If you feel like you can do it without getting hurt (you have to really be able to read a horse's reaction and intentions), spend time in the stall hanging out with him. If he is sweet and pleasant with no pinned ears, love on him. If those ears go back, make him move away from you WITHOUT you backing up a step. If he is munching on hay, make him move off the hay until you say he can go back. If he is looking in his bucket for feed, move him off that. He has to learn that you are the boss, you aren't afraid of him, and he is expected to behave like a good citizen. If he opens that mouth like he is thinking about biting, throw that elbow up into his face so he hits that. Honestly, if it were me and he threatened to bite me, even just an open mouth, for about three seconds I would be making him convinced I was going to kill him (yelling, waving, smacking him, putting the fear of god into him) and then go right back to normal like nothing happened.

              Right now, he doesn't think there are any consequences for his behavior, he actually gets praised for it. If you don't feel like you can make yourself physically take over his space and make sure he knows he dies (or thinks he will) if he acts on his baser instincts, then you need to get someone to come in and help you that can.


                Original Poster

                Thank you all. This is some really solid advice and insights.

                I can definitely see the part about petting him. I guess my reasoning was, "My purpose in coming in here was to pet you, you don't like it, so I'm going to pet you, damnit!" I guess that really was mixed messages.

                He was "flag trained" at two years old. He will know what that means, so I might give that a try.

                As for the barn, I have been at this barn for over 12 years. There is a new girl, though, who seems to think she knows more than she does. She cleans his stall at times. Your warnings have me concerned.

                Thank you all, and if anyone has anything else to add, please do. I am certain this is as helpful to others as it is proving to be for me.


                  My young horse has recently started similar behavior in his stall. After a good examination by the vet to rule out vision or other physical issues, we determined that he's a bully. He's not mean but he gets very defensive or attempts to be dominant. Now, most of the barn staff is intimidated by him and he knows he can get away with this behavior (they don't correct it). Like yours, he's very good on cross-ties, while riding and when I handle him. My vet suggested that we do a groundwork lesson (or 2 or 3) with a groundwork professional so that he can re-learn manners and spacial awareness. FWIW - before horse came to me, he was in a very regimented professional program.


                    I have a different perspective, and although I suspect most of the posters are correct and he needs boundaries, you might consider other reasons he is so unhappy to have you in the stall. An otherwise happy and healthy 5 year old horse shouldn't act so unhappy to have humans in "his space". I have a chestnut mare (and yes, I own that she is truly a CHESTNUT MARE ), she is definitely... opinionated, but generally well-behaved and respectful both in and out of the stall. My mare is recently weaned from her foal and we had to do some shuffling to put her and baby in appropriate stalls that were separated. The longer my mare was in her new stall, the crabbier she got. We discussed many options (ulcers, lack of attention, disliking her neighbor, etc), we finally decided that it was likely and fixable that she felt isolated in that stall. She had originally been in a big, open stall where she could see everything that was going on in the barn. in addition to spending 6 months with her baby as company. Her new stall didn't allow her to stick her head out and we had to board up the one wall with bars (because her neighbor really is a jerk and annoys her). So we ended up putting up a stall guard and the improvement has been dramatic. If we had tried to discipline her, she would have just been more unhappy and crabby. She was just trying to tell us that she was unhappy and needed help.

                    I'm not saying don't discipline, but consider talking to people who see Baby Horse more often than you do and see if they can pinpoint when this behavior started and if there were any changes/events that should be considered.

                    I also agree that, no matter the cause, this young horse should not be in the stall when it's being cleaned. That is unsafe for a lot of reasons.


                      I had a version of this, and trainer helped me fix it. My horse is not aggressive and is more bark than bite but in his teenage stage he was all “get out of my room, mom!” Since I own that room (and work two jobs to pay for said room) I said “hell no.”

                      If you’re sure he’s just posturing (i.e., not truly unpredictable and dangerous) go into the stall with a whip. The same way you’d correct with a whip if he didn’t listen to your leg, you can correct this type of behavior on the ground. Its not about beating him up, just about the same kind of correction you’d give if you were sitting on him. He snake faces at you, go nuts for three seconds (like another poster said) and he gets a smack on the chest. Then, immediately right back to normal. After once or twice with this method, all I need to do when I think he needs a reminder is enter the stall with a whip visible (or even tucked under my arm) and he’ll immediately stand down and move away from me calmly. The key here is immediate and proportionate correction, and then right back to normal—same way you would when riding.


                        Some words of caution, I have used the above whip/flag method and it has a great success rate, that being said, you need to be sure his behavior is JUST posturing. What I mean is that I've found around 5/6 is when lots of horses start to become more balanced and confident they start to realize how big they are, ie. it's usually when bossiness and aggression problems start to arise. Be aware that using this method could also escalate his behavior if he does decide to challenge you.

                        When I worked for a barn there was an older mare that was downright nasty in her stall, she would try and pin you against the wall, double barrel kick you, bite you, the trainers tried everything but ultimately she was just always awful in her stall. A 3 year old I recently had in for training was a charger and biter, if he was pushed (pressure wise) in a small space he too would simply get more and more aggressive until he got released from the pressure. The reason I bring this up is because both of these horses would not respond well to the above methods, they would simply escalate their aggression and it would have quickly become a dangerous situation. If things go sideways in a stall there isn't always an easy, safe escape method, and it will backfire badly if he challenges you and "beats" you in his stall.

                        Could you do other personal space/boundary respecting ground work outside of his stall first? If that goes well then I would continue with the great suggestions you got above, but first check to see where the problem really lies. Is he just being pushy about his stall? Or is he getting genuinely aggressive?

                        I would also say if he's being pushy or rude when his stall is being cleaned he should just be removed from the stall while they clean it, no harm or foul. Sometimes that path of least resistance is the safest.


                          I have a 3 year old like that. He lives on my farm and has never been mistreated in any way. He is extremely confident and cocky. I wish he was sweet and friendly but he’s honestly just kind of a jerk. He’s extra ugly when the vet and farrier are around. I have found that ignoring his behavior works best. We have rules and he can’t break the rules but I can’t force him to have a smile on his face either. Thankfully, he enjoys work and attention so it isn’t an issue outside of his paddock or stall.


                            Original Poster

                            Thanks again for the great advice. I went into his stall the other day, crop in hand, and he was perfectly lovely. I had no need to discipline or assert my dominance. I stayed long enough to make my presence known but not long enough for him to possibly get antsy. "Teenagers" - what're going to do??!!


                              I would go into that stall every single day with a crop—and use it if he turns his butt to me. I'm betting he knows exactly what it is, and what it's for and was on his best behavior when he saw you with it..

                              And if the stall cleaners are letting him get away with that crap when you're not there, they're reinforcing his belief that he's the king of the world.

                              Posturing and unhappiness with the stall are fine and good, but it's incredibly disrespectful at best, and very dangerous at worst. And so what if he gets antsy? It's your stall and he shouldn't be allowed to dictate the rules.

                              (I don't care about the ears going back. He can register his displeasure, but he can't act on it.)
                              "Dogs give and give and give. Cats are the gift that keeps on grifting." —Bradley Trevor Greive


                                the only word of caution about entering a stall with a whip and using it is make sure you are not cornering yourself to get injured. I had a similar horse and I am not one to put up with any behavioral crap. Its my space and I own it. BUT; some horses have been known to retaliate against being disciplined; AKA spinning and kicking. If you are trapped in a stall with said horse who doesn't like being told to back off; you could find yourself in a very dangerous situation.

                                Assert yourself but be smart about it


                                  Originally posted by chestnutmarebeware View Post
                                  I would go into that stall every single day with a crop—and use it if he turns his butt to me. I'm betting he knows exactly what it is, and what it's for and was on his best behavior when he saw you with it..

                                  And if the stall cleaners are letting him get away with that crap when you're not there, they're reinforcing his belief that he's the king of the world.

                                  Posturing and unhappiness with the stall are fine and good, but it's incredibly disrespectful at best, and very dangerous at worst. And so what if he gets antsy? It's your stall and he shouldn't be allowed to dictate the rules.

                                  (I don't care about the ears going back. He can register his displeasure, but he can't act on it.)

                                  I totally agree with this but take it one step further. Maybe this is what you meant.

                                  No ear pinning. You can put them back, you can hike nostrils and harden your eyes. But those ears, they better not flatten or you're going to have to Pete and Repeat until it's done reasonably.

                                  I'm the same way with my horses when lunging and riding. Pinned ears get a growly ENOUGH, followed by a re-do of whatever it was that caused the snarky reaction, or a brief escalation into something harder (roll back, whoa and back, transition) to allow some reflection on the fact that the initial request wasn't so bad after all. I call it the attitude check.


                                    Truthfully I prefer a wiffle ball bat to a crop or whip. It makes a lot of noise, is very distinctive looking to the horse, it is hard to really hurt them but it still stings. It has a longer reach than a crop. You can get them from the dollar store for $1.
                                    I will never need to ride with a wiffle ball bat. I many need to ride with a crop or dressage whip so want them viewed as aids and not a scary object. I don't care if the bat is a bit of a scary object.

                                    Carson had a wiffle ball bat that lived on the front of his stall for about a year. It has been sitting behind my trunk for months but hasn't gone home yet. He sometimes needs a reminder on his stall manners. He pinned his ears at me two weeks ago when I went to leave the stall. He was just posturing but damn straight I turned around, waved my arms, growled at him and chased him to the back of his stall. I stood there and left without him repeating the pissiness. I went in and out of that stall a few times in the next ten minutes to make sure he remembered that lesson.
                                    I didn't want him to get the impression he "chased" me from his stall. If I let him get away with it once it would get progressively worse. About every 5 months he needs to be reminded of his manners. It doesn't take much. He is just one of those that will test you to make sure. He is the boy in the back seat that keeps touching his sister even after being reprimanded. He is that way in the field with other horses and it kept getting him hurt. He is now on individual turn-out.
                                    Oh, well, clearly you're not thoroughly indoctrinated to COTH yet, because finger pointing and drawing conclusions are the cornerstones of this great online community. (Tidy Rabbit)


                                      Original Poster

                                      These are really great ideas/nuggets of advice. The whiffle bat idea is interesting. It is comforting to know that this is somewhat "normal" adolescent behavior and can be successfully corrected with time and patience.


                                        I had a TB like this. I had that boy from the day he hit the ground as a newborn to the day he hit the ground when I put him to sleep 18 years later. We called him stall protective but he was all blow and no go. Whites of eyes, neck snaked, it was all for show. Put your hands in the air, he would throw himself back like he had been beat his whole life. Fortunately for him, we all had his number and the few barns we boarded at found his behavior hysterical. you put a halter on him and he became a Labrador puppy. The most I ever did was put my hands up and he would stop. Like Nevada10 said, it was benign and mostly ignored. It's hard when the barn staff is mostly laughing at his antics. But he still always tried, even when you corrected it with throwing your hands up. I mostly ignored him.

                                        I might also add I have seen aggressive stall protective horses and they are a whole other story!
                                        "Punch him in the wiener. Then leave." AffirmedHope