How many times has your horse behaved badly? How often have you thought he/she has an issue you must solve with either better discipline or a different training technique?
I am often contacted about problems people have with their horse and I’m happy to help them get to the bottom of the issue.
Over the years of solving various issues, I’ve realised it’s generally not bad behaviour that is the true problem.
A horse will usually only behave in a negative way if there is an underlying cause, so our job is to find out what that is.
There are the obvious things to check like teeth and saddle fit but when you look closely there are so many other parts of a horse that can be affected and therefore cause behavioural problems as a result.
Here is my Check List:
Feed (pasture, supplements, minerals, grain, hay):
What goes into your horse will change what comes out – in the way of condition, overall health, ability to focus, strength, soundness, gut health etc.
Having experienced first hand what the lack of a vitamin or mineral has on me, I know how detrimental this is for good function. Without supplementing magnesium I can be crabby and irritable at times, and without good iron stores, I’m lethargic, tired and can’t think straight.
So, the same can happen to your horse – if the diet is unbalanced or lacking, then all sorts of symptoms can manifest – some physical and some mental or emotional.
For example, a horse lacking in magnesium, perhaps because it is eating false dandelion or flatweed, or capeweed, will display physical symptoms of stringhalt.
An excitable, nervous, stressed horse may also need supplementing with magnesium which is one of the minerals tied up by toxins coming from weeds or grass.
An oversupply of feed can cause a horse to be excitable or lethargic, irritable or unable to focus. It can cause hoof tenderness which then causes a shortness of stride, unwillingness to move forward or to jump, inability to cope with hard surfaces and these can all manifest in behavioural abnormalities.
If you want to find out if your horse’s diet is balanced go to www.feedxl.com where for a small subscription you can have the diet analysed by special software, and then make changes to get the right balance of roughage, grains, minerals and vitamins.
Pain – teeth, feet, body:
Physical pain is one of the major causes of behavioural problems. Some horses cope with pain better than others. It’s in a horse’s nature to hide problems that may indicate to a predator they could be the next choice for lunch!
Even when pain is not physically obvious, it can cause the horse to avoid any activity that makes it more uncomfortable. When pushed to do things, a horse will display signs such as tail swishing, ears back a lot, teeth grinding, head tossing, threatening to kick, refusing to go forward, bucking and rearing.
These are all messages from the horse trying to tell us there’s a problem and therefore it should not be ignored.
A horse with pain anywhere in its body may show any of these signs so it’s important to have teeth, hooves and body/muscles checked out by a qualified, competent equine veterinarian, dentist, bodyworker or hoofcare provider.
A mare who had such bad behaviour problems it was recommended she was euthanaised, turned out to have a vaginal infection that caused her great pain when ridden. With a course of antibiotics, and a ‘caslicks’ operation she was back to being her old amendable self.
Other physical issues – old injuries or ulcers:
A horse may have limitations due to old injuries that may or may not be obvious. A well qualified Equine body worker will be able to detect those that can’t be seen, otherwise, you must rely on the horse’s previous owners to reveal anything that might be a causing a problem.
For instance, I have a horse that fractured his pelvis as a yearling. It is not visible but it has affected his stance and muscular development to the point that he will only ever be a pleasure riding horse.
Horses that are kept stabled, yarded and on limited or infrequent amounts of roughage, can develop gut ulcers that affect their behaviour. If you’ve ever had a sore gut, you will know just how little you feel like doing, so it is no wonder horses with a gut ulcer are irritable and behave badly.
Whatever equipment we use on a horse must be comfortable and fit well or the horse will show negative responses.
Badly fitting saddles, girths and bitted bridles are often the cause of undesirable behaviour. Horses are incredibly sensitive in a tactile way – just as we are. We get cranky if our clothing isn’t comfortable, and get rid of it. The horse has no choice, but to wear whatever we choose to put on them, so it’s up to us to take heed of the subtle signs when we tack them up.
Ears laid back, avoiding the saddle or bridle, trying to bite or kick, holding the head high, are the only ways a horse can indicate there is a problem with the equipment we’re using.
If a problem is ignored or the horse disciplined for reacting and showing its discomfort, then they will either ‘shut down’ and put up with it, or continue to display bad behaviour, even after the situation has changed.
A horse, like an elephant never forgets. They can forgive but that memory of past issues is carried with them and it usually doesn’t take much for the problem to resurface. Sometimes it takes a compete change of the person’s attitude, or ownership for the horse to overcome an issue sufficiently for them to be comfortable and happy.
Positive based training such as ‘Clicker training’ often has good results with situations where the horse’s past resurfaces frequently.
If a horse is socially deprived in any way during its life, it’s behaviour will not be normal. It can range from excitability around other horses, to separation anxiety, intolerance of other horses, to aggressiveness.
It may take some time and patience along with a change in the horse’s social situation, to change their behaviour. Being a herd animal, a horse needs appropriate company for its age and social status to feel happy and comfortable. It needs good leadership to feel secure enough to leave the herd, along with a consistent routine to become used to the activities we ask it to do.
There are probably as many methods of training or educating a horse as there are horse personalities. Different personalities cope better with some methods than others and it is important to choose the discipline or pursuit most suited to the horse you have. Or go and buy a horse suited to the discipline you want to ride in.
Even sticking to the same old training routine can cause a horse to develop behavioural problems through boredom. Cross training is recognised as the best way to keep a horse interested and athletic in their field of specialty.
Rider/handler ability & attitude:
Ability and attitude have a huge effect on horse behaviour so it’s not surprising that beginners and those with a stiff, inflexible attitude have more problems.
Some horses cope better with beginners, or are more forgiving, while others will not tolerate their lack of independent seat, feel, timing or balance.
Even amongst experienced riders there will be horses who respond better to another style or way of being with them. I guess that’s why there are a lot of horses for sale and magazines like Horse Deals are so popular!
As in marriage, everyone is looking for their perfect partner so if your horse is looking for a divorce, maybe its time to realistically assess your situation (or have someone help you do that) and make the change to a more suitable partner, or method of horse handling/training.
The nature of the horse has developed over hundreds of thousands of years so no matter how good the breeding or the temperament, you’re never going to remove those natural reactions or instincts.
Some horses are more reactive than others, but an understanding of the horse’s instincts and the ability to see things from their point of view can reduce many so called problems.
It’s natural for a horse to shy or spook, refuse to step over or into scary things (until proven they are safe) or to leave the herd. It’s natural for the horse to run from perceived danger, to fight if cornered or trapped and to experience emotions such as fear, grief, anxiety, distrust, playfulness and high spirits.
Young horses and those inexperienced in the ways of the human world will turn to their natural instincts quicker than the ‘been there – done that’ older educated horse.
If we can educate ourselves in the way of the horse and learn horse psychology or ‘know the nature of the beast’, we will be more tolerant of their natural behaviour and be able to educate them to cope with human demands.
So the next time your horse displays some kind of ‘problem’ look behind the behaviour and be a good detective to find out the true cause.
After all, displays of behaviour are just one of the ways a horse can communicate with us.
When we get really good at listening to our horse, we will have very few if any issues to deal with and isn’t that the relationship without horse we’re all are looking for?
Is it really bad behaviour?
Cindy from Horses Just Wanna Have Fun writes about her experience with solving a behavioural problem with her mare.
Trainer Clinton Anderson says “Any problem that a horse could possibly have comes from either a lack of respect or fear, or in some cases both”. (source Midwest Horse Digest Jan/Feb 2010)
There is a another reason – maybe she really can’t do what you ask. Read the story of Lucy, the dream quarter horse mare who over a period of months turned into Lucifer, the night-MARE. You will gain some understanding into that other reason and maybe head off problems of your own. Click here to read the whole story.