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  • Writer's pictureLouise Stobbs

"Grumpy" horses

We all know those horses that you’re warned to be careful with when entering the stable. It is so common to see horses pinning their ears, nipping and lifting legs when being rugged or tacked up. These behaviours have been so normalised that they’re seen by many as just an undesirable personality trait and in some cases actively punished as a “disrespectful” behaviour.


Behaviour is the only way a horse can communicate with us, if your horse is showing these behaviours they’re communicating pretty loudly that they’re uncomfortable with the situation. The answer is not to try and just stop the behaviour, its to find out why your horse is feeling that way.


Lets take a really common scenario, you’re putting your saddle on and your horse starts to pull faces, as you girth up maybe they snake round to bite you, maybe they lift a leg and the tail is swishing. There could be so many reasons for this, saddle fit, back pain, ulcers, muscle pain, pinching girth or maybe just negative association from rough or confusing handling. We need to figure out why so we can start to help the horse feel better about it.


It is so damaging to see these behaviours as just one of those things. We ask so much of horses yet most of the time we’re taught to dismiss their discomfort as long as we can still get on and ride. Behaviour is often ignored until it can’t be, only then do people seek answers. It doesn’t help that some professionals also push this narrative. Just because a horse has “always been like that” doesn’t mean its okay and it definitely doesn’t mean that they’re fine.


We are so often encouraged to train horses in such a way that the only goal is to achieve the task. “I can get the saddle on and she’s just a bit grumbly about it so its fine, she won’t hurt you.” This attitude completely disregards the fact the horse still feels rubbish about it. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.


There is an alarming trend of using these behaviours to justify rough treatment of a horse in the name of safety, as if these are the signs of a horse about to go off the rails and attack people. 🙄 If someone is telling you to punish a horse for putting their ears back run a mile. Sharply making a horse back up until their ears go forward is akin to shouting at and pushing someone who is trying to tell you they’re upset until they put a smile on their face and shut up about it. You are just creating a shut down horse who is afraid to express emotion around you.


I am currently working with a traumatised horse alongside a qualified behaviourist who displays all of these behaviours even just when being lead, all of the usual training methods had been tried but this horse has such negative associations with humans she just shuts down and goes into a freeze response. People were able to get her to do things and be safe to ride but you cannot make a horse feel better emotionally by bullying them. Her owner was told to ignore the behaviour and just get on with it despite her valid concerns the horse was feeling really unhappy. ☹️ We are now training her in a completely different way and she is starting to come out of her shell.


So much of what we do with horses can be really uncomfortable for them, try to think about things a little differently, how might that tight girth actually feel, what would it feel like to have something heavy on a sore back? Stop and think next time someone tells you “there’s nothing wrong with her she’s just a moody witch”. She is in pain or she is struggling emotionally with what you’re doing.


If we can start to change the narrative and think about our horses in a more compassionate way, we can all have a more fulfilling and enjoyable relationship. Lets become somebody our horses want to be around. 🐴


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