Why We Need To Listen To Our Horses
I hear it all the time, “She’s so naughty!”, “He hates dressage!”, “She’s just being a little b***h” “Can you recommend a stronger bit/calmer/training aid to stop her bucking/pulling/biting me when I tack her up?”
In a lot of these statements and in some of the messages read on social media forums and messages from potential clients, the emphasis is on what is wrong or lacking in the horse and how quickly they/I can fix it. My first thought whenever I’m approached about these kinds of issues is WHY is the horse having difficulty or displaying challenging behaviour and too often, their owners haven’t even considered what the reasons might be, they’re just looking for a quick fix or to sell their horse and replace with a ‘better behaved’ one.
As horse owners and trainers, I could not feel more strongly about the fact that it is of utmost importance that we listen to what our horses are telling us. They can’t communicate with us using words but how they behave can absolutely be key to us understanding how they’re feeling. Failing to consider why a horse might start being unhappy about being tacked up or resist working correctly on the flat or why they’re bucking/rearing/bolting etc not only leaves you without all the information to chose the right course of action to resolve the issues, but it’s also extremely unfair on the horse.
In my opinion, there are 3 main reasons why horses start to display challenging behaviours;
Pain or discomfort
Lack of education/understanding or a learned behaviour through poor or inconsistent training.
Quite often, there can be more than one cause of an undesirable behaviour, but whenever I’m trying to help a horse through an issue, I work through the three main reasons in the order they’re listed….
Pain or Discomfort
The number one thing I check is, is the horse in pain? Are they about due for the dentist/farrier/physio/saddle fitter? If so, get them booked asap, if not, is it worth getting them checked anyway?
Are they showing any obvious signs of pain in any particular area? Have you looked inside their mouth? Have you trotted them up and looked at them on a circle on a hard and soft surface? Is there any heat or swelling or an area of their body that they’re not happy with you touching? If so, call the vet to investigate further.
Has your horse grown or changed shape at all recently? Chances are your tack will need re-fitted and it would be worth calling the saddle fitter.
We’ve had horses in the past who started bucking under saddle so we thought they might be sore in their back - having had the physic check them and saddles re-adjusted, the bucking still continued. We then had the dentist out and found that the problem was in their mouths. It’s always worth having everything checked to be able to discount pain as a factor - no bit,noseband, training aid or calmer will fix a behaviour that is caused by pain.
So quite often, someone will contact me about a horse who’s started to behave ‘badly’ and they’re looking for someone to ‘fix’ the problem. They’ll send the horse to us and they stop displaying the behaviour. In these circumstances, it can sometimes mean there’s something about home that is bringing out these behaviours in the horse.
Horses love routine, and a calm predictable environment in which to exist. They like to have good nutrition, access to good quality forage and water, shelter, a daily routine they can rely on, quiet and confident handling, company and little bit of love and attention. If anything changes in their world or if something becomes out of balance, behavioural problems can arise.
It is well worth considering how your horse’s environment, routine and feeding meets their individual needs.
Lack of Education/Understanding or Poor/Inconsistant training
Sometimes we come up against an issue that is due to a gap in the horse’s education and once we fill that gap, the problem disappears. For example, I had a young rider recently who was having difficulty with her horse resisting the contact, holding the bit and running. On assessment, it was clear that the horse was working well and happily in the contact until she was asked to move sideways. The minute leg was put on to move her off the inside leg into a bit of leg yield, she got tense, grabbed the bit between her teeth and ran. She just had no idea what was being asked and it turned out this had been going on for some time and her rider had been getting stressed about it too. The horse’s response was to run - a totally natural response to a stressful situation for a flight animal. The ‘fix’ in this situation was to firstly un-train the stress and anxiety associated with leg-yield, and then to re-teach the correct aids and responses so that it was no longer something that caused fear and worry for both horse and rider.
A few years ago we were sent a horse to do a bit of work with as he’d developed a habit of napping, refusing to go forward and eventually, bucking and running away for what, to the owner, appeared to be for no reason. After having everything physical checked on the horse and being satisfied there was nothing pain-related causing the problem, we had to dig a little deeper. We tracked down the horse’s previous owners and found out he’d had a lot of moving around, some very novice owners who were frightened of him, and at least one dry heavy-handed owner who had been very aggressive with him whenever he’d found something scary. In essence, his circumstances and ‘training’ hadn’t always been positive and in fact, at times when he was scared of something he was hit. It’s not a huge stretch in imagination to conclude that if he’d been hit whenever he’d spooked at something he was scared of, he had learned over time to buck and run away when something made him nervous. These kind of behavioural issues are always harder to ‘fix’ because we have to re-condition sometimes years of poor or inconstant ‘training’. With this particular horse we did a lot of in-hand work to start with using vocal praise and a few treats. We progressed to ridden work and made some headway in improving his behaviour but his new owner sadly didn’t feel like she could take him back so she found him a new home where he would be a companion for their other horse.
It really is a story of how bad training can impact on a horse and it makes me really sad when these horses are labelled as “little s***s” or worse. Please, please listen to your horses - do everything to find out why they might be behaving the way they are, there’s always a reason and if you listen carefully enough, your horse will tell you.