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  • Writer's pictureLouise Stobbs

Behaviour is a symptom

I often get messages from people wanting to fix what they perceive to be behavioural problems in their horses. Napping, bucking, biting, barging, separation anxiety, mounting issues etc. While we obviously don’t want our horse to be displaying these behaviours, we need to think of them as a symptom and do some detective work to figure out the cause if we really want our horses to feel good about working with us. Many things can contribute to unwanted behaviours such as pain/discomfort, not having their needs met, living in an environment they find stressful and even just confusion from unclear training.

There are a lot of training videos around showing before and afters of these behaviours being “fixed” and when you don’t quite have an eye for pain and stress behaviours it can look great. But what you’re seeing is compliance to avoid something they find unpleasant, whether that be whips and spurs, hands and heels or ropes and flags. Horses can seem to “improve” even if they’re in significant pain and distress.

Behaviour is a form of communication, horses can’t talk to us in words, they can only use their bodies. Lets take a common one of a horse turning their backend to you and pinning their ears when you enter the stable with them. You can drive them round the box and only quit when they face you, they’ll be compliant sure, but they’re not going to feel any better about you and they’ve just learned you don’t listen.

I want to figure out why the horse feels so negatively, is there any pain/discomfort associated with people? If it happens only when you go in with the tack I guarantee there is a negative association there from either the tack itself or what comes after. How else can a horse communicate to you that they’re not okay?

Horses aren’t out to dominate you or give you a hard time, if a horse doesn’t want you to come near them its because they’re fearful, uncomfortable or see you as a predictor for something unpleasant and its as simple as that. There is no hidden agenda to get one over on you, they are trying to clearly communicate that they are unhappy with something. If you start really listening to your horse then you can start to address things at the root cause instead of trying to suppress their communication.

I could apply this to so many different scenarios, often we micromanage so much we don’t even notice these behaviours in our own horses until we go looking. If you always have your horse cross-tied or eating a hay net when you tack up you may not see these behaviours. I encourage you turn your horse loose and then approach with the tack to see how he really feels about it.

There is a strong theme within a lot of horse training as if we’re somehow doing the horse a favour by “showing them who’s boss” and if we don’t we are creating dangerous horses. You can set boundaries with your horses without completely shutting down their ability to tell you they’re uncomfortable or unhappy with what you’re doing.

I’ve changed how I approach going out to new clients after going out to a few horses who just weren’t in a trainable state unless I was going to use excessive pressure. I have no interest in making horses comply when they’re clearly stressed and uncomfortable but I felt I left a few clients disappointed as they were expecting me to just come and show them how to fix the behaviour instead of offering management advice/referral to other professionals. There are plenty of other trainers out there who will come and make your horse comply regardless if that’s really what you want.

I now make it clear that the first session will be partly an assessment with training as appropriate depending on what we find. This training isn’t for everyone but if you really want a good relationship we need to listen and let go of our unfair expectations on the horse. It can be uncomfortable for us at times but there is lots of support out there and many people wanting to follow a more ethical path. 🐴

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