There is a real lack of understanding of what behaviour actually means in the horse industry. More frustratingly, its not just lack of knowledge, its misinformation being presented as fact, in a very confident manner, which makes it very believable. We often notice “loud” behaviours such as biting, rearing and bucking but there is very little education on recognising subtler signs and what they might mean. We now have so much evidence-based research on behaviour that there is no excuse to go along with dated, unethical horsemanship practices that were cutting-edge 30 years ago.
I used to be so focussed on how I could shape behaviour I didn’t really look deeply into why a behaviour was happening. I would do the groundwork on people’s “tricky” horses and things would improve, and sometimes the horse would then be okay to ride and sometimes it wouldn’t. I didn’t really understand what was happening. It was very much “do this or I’ll make life difficult for you”. I got horses to be obedient and react quickly to my cues, I was really good at pressure and release, but I used far too much pressure and there was no real thought of the horse’s feelings about it. Physical issues aside, I now realise that getting the horse to do something isn’t enough, what matters is how the horse feels about doing it and we need to be the least confrontational we can.
Let’s take an unbacked horse being introduced to the saddle for the first time as an example, the horse is stood still but with his head in the air, whites of his eyes showing, tense neck, tense face, this is a freeze response. The best thing to do help him feel better and reduce the stress would be to back off and let him take a breath and relax before approaching again. But because the horse is standing still most people take that as acceptance and just carry on and girth up and keep going. Maybe he spins round a bit, maybe he explodes, maybe he doesn’t move at all and stays frozen, eventually the horse relaxes but he’s gone through much more stress than he needed to and he’s also learnt that people don’t listen to him.
You see this frequently come out during the backing process. The amount of videos I’ve seen of a horse being mounted for the first time in a total freeze response, who then explodes and ditches the rider as soon as they take a step, the video is always captioned “that came out of nowhere”, when actually you could see it was about to happen before the rider even touched the saddle. Not only is this dangerous for people, it creates worried, frightened horses and sets them up for a difficult life. 🐎
I could make 100 posts about this with 100 different scenarios but here’s some food for thought for today.
Photo of my old horse Lucy showing a lot of tension at the mounting block.