My Filly has No Respect or Fear of Anything. What Can I Do?

My Filly has No Respect or Fear of Anything. What Can I Do?

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Q. I have a 9-month-old Thoroughbred filly we got when she was 3 months old. The breeder told us that she had been orphaned and was bottle- and bucket-fed. They warned me that she was a bit over-friendly, and that I should stand my ground with her and try to avoid babying her. They explained that hand-raised foals can think of themselves as people or think of people as horses, so they can be too friendly around people.

Well, it's a good thing they warned me, because I have never seen a horse like this one. This filly will follow you anywhere. She's like a dog. She wants to be touching you whenever you're near her. But she has no respect or fear of anything or anybody. If you try to lead her, she just walks all over you. She's not only in your face, she's clumsy and pushy, more like an ox instead of a horse. She gets into everything, knocks things over, and keeps right on going. She walks through gates to get to people. I can't seem to get tough enough with her to keep from getting pushed around. You can't go in the pasture with her, even to get another horse. I'm starting to dread doing anything with her, and I'm also becoming afraid of her.

Do you have any suggestions? I hate to hit her all the time. I've had other nippy, pushy youngsters, but they seemed to learn on the first or second whack. With this filly, sometimes it's like a game, but mostly it's like she's retarded. She's not at all mean, and she doesn't bite as much as she bumps and nudges you.

Will she get over this? I'm beginning to think it's permanent.


A. What an apt description of this type of behavior. Reading your note, several experiences and fearful moments with similar horses over the years flashed immediately to mind. They can be good-hearted, goofball lunks one minute, and really dangerous the next. It's a good question about some sort of mental deficit. On one hand, the tendency to barge around seems to be a lack of respect for you and your space; on the other hand, there seems to be a lack of normal caution, reactivity, and ability to process information. The behavior doesn't seem to change normally with experience, good or bad. They don't correct and don't hold a grudge. I don't know of any research work on that question. But I know exactly what you mean.

For your question about growing out of it, I've seen several horses like your filly, and none have improved significantly with age. They changed a little perhaps as they matured--maybe less playful and more dopey. But with greater size, they seemed to be more into barging through things and dangerous to be around.

Any suggestions for what you can do? Well, that's an even tougher question to answer. One thing that is commonly recommended is to put your horse into organized work on a longe line or in a round pen to try to get her to take directions from you and to get some meaningful interaction going. Then try to build from there. The recommendation is to start them on organized ground schooling even earlier than you would for a normal horse. Also, sometimes these horses do better with different people, probably due to differences in size and handling style. This is one type of horse which you often hear is more respectful of men, particularly tall, stern men.

Just recently, we have been working with a horse which, among other health and behavior problems, has some of your filly's type of over-friendliness and lack of appropriate respect for people. That horse came with a history of doing better with male trainers than with female trainers.

One good thing about your filly--it doesn't sound like she has an aggressive component to her interaction with people. Some of the human-bonded critters, in addition to what you describe, can get aggressive with you just like they might with a herd mate, turning their butts to you, striking, biting, rearing, and lunging into you. Sometimes it seems like play, but it's dangerous no matter what the motivation. Those horses, even as pasture companions, require special facilities and informed, careful personnel to ensure everyone's safety.

You didn't mention how your filly gets along with other horses. Some hand-reared or over-handled foals seem to become misfits with their own species. On top of being a problem around people, they don't normally mingle with other horses. Some can seem fearful of horses. That becomes an additional concern for how to provide a reasonable quality of life for the horse.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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