Iâ€™m so sorry you had such a scary experience with Falco!
It started when I asked him to follow me: in stead of following, he started pushing me, ears flat and his nose almost up in my neck. I didn't feel comfortable at all! When presenting him with some food, he would almost eat up my entire arm and when asking him to back away and move out of my space, he simply refused. I gave him a touch on the chest to encourage him to back-up, at which point he backed, but at the same time grab my coat and not in a playful way... When I asked again he refused and reared.
Do you know what this instantly reminded me of? Dogs who get overexcited, throwing themselves on people and grabbing, nipping, then some of these dogs go just so far over threshold that they become aggressive - especially if someone attempts to physically control them, or verbally reprimands them. They seem to have no self-control and no idea how to manage excitement or stress properly. I think these dogs do need boundaries (from the human) but they also need to learn how to control their own emotions and actions. While Falco is of course different to a dog, perhaps some boundaries (when I say boundaries this does not necessarily have anything to do with leadership, or do to with pressure) but definitely some self-control. Not enforced by you, but actual control of himself - to know that he doesn't have to behave like that with you.
I donâ€™t think that empowering Falco and also being safe (and you both being happy) is an either/or thing. Of course I donâ€™t know Falco, I only know what I have read here and in your introduction post (Welcome, by the way!
) so what I write here is just from my own experiences. Iâ€™m not saying that this is what you should or must do, of course, just giving you something to think about and use if it suits you.
Of course you need to keep yourself safe and make sure that Falco doesnâ€™t become too wound up and show these potentially dangerous behaviours, but doing so doesnâ€™t need to involve you getting angry, sending Falco away, or using pressure. It can if you want it to, but if youâ€™d rather find a less forceful way, it is certainly possible.
Am I right in thinking that Falco is generally comfortable with you being near him? I ask this because with a horse who is uncomfortable with people but coming near just to get treats I may suggest a different thing than for a horse who is happy to play and train but just becomes too full on about the treats. I know you say he was trying to push you, but do you think he actually wanted you to go right away from him and leave him alone, or was he trying to get the treats? The almost eating your arm, and the fact that he did not just take the chance to run away when you first started pushing him and claiming space, sounds to me as if he does want to be near you (and the treats). Of course I may be wrong.
In either case: is it possible for you to work with him for a time with some sort of safe barrier between you? This could be a fence for example. This is just to start with, so that things are safe for you. It will eventually cross over to working without a barrier between you - once Falco no longer feels the need to behave in those dangerous ways. You are still the one in control/in charge in this scenario if thatâ€™s what you want â€“ you can walk away and he canâ€™t follow, and he definitely canâ€™t walk on top of you or grab at the treats.
If he shows any of this pushy behaviour or rearing etc. that you donâ€™t want, simply walk away. Assuming he isnâ€™t doing these things because he actually wants you to leave, this takes away any possible reinforcement for this behaviour.
This is to say to Falco (and you could actually say this to him if you wanted), I am not going to continue spending time with you while you are being scary and dangerous.
Walk away a reasonable distance, totally ignore him for a few seconds, but stop where you can still see him, and watch (don't stare at him, just watch casually) for him to show peaceful, calm behaviour. For example ears and face relaxed, nice expression, lowering his head in a relaxed manner. Immediately go back and continue whatever you were doing as if nothing had happened. (Only go back once you are also calm and no longer angry, upset or frightened by his behaviour).
Hopefully two things will happen: one, he will realise that the pushy and dangerous behaviour isn't having the desired effect. and two, very importantly, with you coming back when he is calm, you are reinforcing the calm. Don't click/treat the calm behaviours - just come back to him, and then continue giving the treats in the course of your training.
It won't take long before you see if this is starting to work. He may continue trying to be pushy or aggressive for a while, but if these behaviours increase or don't change at all, it may be the case that he did indeed want you to leave him alone. In which case -
If he is being aggressive because he WANTS you to go away: Same set up with him behind a safe barrier. Approach him, but go away while he is still showing calm behaviour. Next time you come near, come one step closer. Try not to trigger the aggressive behaviour, but if he does show anything but calm/pleasant behaviour, well... you have two choices. 1) You can respect his feelings and back off. This MAY or MAY NOT reinforce the behaviour. He may be happy you have listened to him and the need for him to do this will go away - and the behaviour will go away. With SOME horses this would be my choice. OR, if you want to be more scientific about it, 2) you can stop there and wait until he shows something a bit nicer. Then
walk away. And so on. I can go into more detail if you like. (Oh, and yes, this is of course negative reinforcement rather than positive reinforcement. But a much milder form of -R than sending the horse away.)
This second method has the potential to be fairly controlling, especially depending whether it is done with the horse in a stall or free in the paddock (free is my choice). Others may have less set up and controlled suggestions - or much more controlled ones. Again it all depends on which direction you wish to go.
Also â€“ just want to point out that itâ€™s perfectly possible to be the one â€œin chargeâ€ (â€œleaderâ€ if you like â€“ I donâ€™t use the term) rather than having a more equal relationship, but still use positive reinforcement, if you want to. You can certainly set boundaries using positive reinforcement. And it needn't be anything like the husband holding the cookie bag scenario.
On AND the focus is on empowering the horse and letting them have a say, and indeed decide the way the training will go, but everyone here does this to different extents, and many, many animals have been trained with positive reinforcement to do exactly as the trainer wishes with not much input from the animal â€“ the trainer choses exactly what criteria to shape and reinforce, all the time, every time. If that animal feels better with boundaries, direction and guidance, they can certainly find that within clicker training. It all depends on what you want and the relationship you want with Falco.
One more thing. Just putting this out there. I very strongly believe that, even if a person is going to use some negative reinforcement in their training (or even for all their training) that driving/chasing a horse away when they are showing stressed behaviour (and I use stress to mean behaviour like Falcoâ€™s too, not just â€œstressâ€ that is related to fear) is very unhelpful and in many cases counterproductive. It may suppress (stop) the behaviour (at least temporarily) but it doesnâ€™t stop the emotions behind it. One of my mares, Bonnie, used to charge me if I went into her paddock. When I was near her, she would threaten to kick and bite. She was, frankly, absolutely terrifying. Walking into her paddock with her feed bucket was something only to be done if you had no wish to keep living. I drove her away from me and told her in no uncertain terms that I would not put up with this behaviour. It just made her worse. Sometimes the behaviour would stop for a little while, but it would always come out again. Then, I stopped using aggression back at her and tried a different way (some of the ideas expressed in this post, plus lots of clicker training) and she has not done anything scary for years. I now trust her very, very much. I trim her hooves at liberty (I used to only do her hooves with her tied up and from the other side of a strong wooden fence! I would reach under the fence to trim the hooves - I had to because she would lash out at me with teeth and heels), and I can sit on the ground in her paddock, for example, and feel perfectly safe. Just to give you an idea of how this can work.
I do not force him to play with me, so if he is not willing, he should walk away, not confront me and express rude behaviour. After all, I was asking nicely!
You are absolutely right, but in my experience some horses literally cannot walk away. They don't actually realise that that is an option instead of the rudeness. The "working behind a barrier" exercise can help with that. It may seem that it won't because YOU are the one walking away in the beginning, but it's about helping the horse begin to feel calmer in the training situation so that he CAN think about his behaviour and choose to do something like walking away or letting you know in some other less dangerous manner if he can't cope, instead of aggressing at you.
I hope you find the answers you are looking for. Have a look at the threads Romy linked to, and also I highly recommend this body language video (by Romy) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgazfDHoIvQ