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  • Writer's pictureLouise Stobbs

Evasive behaviour

A lot of advice for behavioural issues is very much focussed on how to fix the behaviour as if its a stand alone problem rather than figuring out why. You can think of behaviour as a symptom, if you don’t figure out the underlying cause you’re just suppressing the behaviour and the horse still feels the same, if not worse, about the situation underneath. Behaviour is the only way horses can communicate with us.

Lets say the horse spins away when you go in with their tack. A common training solution would be to keep making the horse move around the box until they give up and stand still, so you’ve “fixed” the behaviour. But what you’ve also done is ignored and shut down the horse’s communication efforts and potentially reinforced his negative associations with you by using movement as punishment.

We need to look at the possible reasons. The obvious one is pain/discomfort either from the tack, the body or whatever follows being tacked up. Just because you’ve had your saddle checked or their back checked doesn’t mean they aren’t in discomfort, we’ve got to listen to the horse. Its not willing participation if the horse’s other option is being chased around the box or spun in circles.

Another common phrase you hear is the horse is “evading the contact”. There’s a lot to unpack here but thinking about it simply, if a horse is going to the lengths of causing themselves discomfort/pain by leaning/pulling on the bit, it seems logical that they’re desperately trying to get some relief because what you’re asking is too physically difficult. We are so disconnected from the fact we have metal in their mouths and what we perceive as “rude” in our hands must be extremely unpleasant on their end.

When try to fix this evasion by using more pressure or stronger tack, all we are doing is suppressing their communication yet again and at best causing tension, at worst we are forcing the horse into postures that are physically damaging for them in the name of “softness”. Most of the time horses are leaning on your hands because they don’t have a choice, they’re too unbalanced and they’re being asked to work into too short of a rein for their level of development.

If we want to train more ethically we need to think in a much less simplistic way about behaviour. What is that horse trying to communicate? When we start to think about how our horses are really feeling, rather than just trying to shape their physical behaviours to our convenience, that relationship becomes much more fulfilling for both parties.

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