More often than not 🥲
So your horse is presenting some sort of “behavioural” issue. Perhaps they won’t stand at the mounting block anymore, are napping back to the gate or they’ve started bucking through the canter transition. Maybe it’s something much more subtle, they’re chipping in at fences or they seem to be struggling to bend. Often I go out to see horses and I’m the first person to suggest their issues may not be just behavioural. You can get a horse to do lots of things if you hassle them enough but I’ve noticed some trainers rarely mention pain issues despite the horse they’re working with showing blatant signs. Just because you can train a horse to stop moving their feet at the mounting block, doesn’t mean there isn’t a discomfort issue, it can just mean they’ve learned it’s easier to stay still so you don’t hassle them.
You would think (I hope) that the first thing to look for is pain and while this is obviously important, I actually want to look at the management first. You can treat pain issues and change the training all you want but if your horse’s basic needs aren’t being met you are fighting a losing battle. What are those basic needs?
🐴 Forage - your horse needs a species appropriate diet, horses are trickle feeders which means their digestive systems are designed to take in a steady flow of fibre(hay/haylage/grass) throughout the day and night, yes even laminitics, yes even obese horses. If horses do not have access to enough forage they will be stressed, raised cortisol levels wreak havoc in the body and over time can cause insulin resistance. The last thing you want to do with an overweight horse is starve them. It is counterproductive. There are plenty of ways to reduce calories without leaving your horse stood with nothing.
🐴 Freedom - no I don’t mean turn your horse loose on the village green. Horses need turnout daily, for as long as possible, with suitable forage available. If there is hardly any grass available then put hay out for them and let them potter and forage, of course they’re going to stand at the gate if there’s nothing of interest out there and they know the food is inside. Horses are designed to cover miles every single day, every system in their body thrives on movement. When you restrict movement things will not work as they should, the digestive system needs movement, the respiratory system needs movement and the joints need movement.
🐴 Friends - this is a much undervalued need. Horses are herd animals, they NEED interaction with other horses. They are incredibly social creatures and they have evolved to live in herds, they feel safety in numbers. It is unfair to keep them alone and take away such a necessary part of their life because you’re worried about injury. A solitary life is a miserable one.
If any of these needs are not met, you have a stressed horse. A stressed horse isn’t necessarily climbing the walls, they can look calm, but being conditioned to something and being happy about it are two very different things. If a horse is coming into a training scenario already stressed from their daily life you are setting them up to fail. Fix these things first and then see how your behavioural issues are.
Okay now let’s talk about pain and discomfort, this is so complex. You often see people say “all the checks have been done” or “pain has been ruled out”. Firstly you can NEVER completely rule out pain, you can do all the scans and tests and still not find anything, but the horse may still be feeling pain somewhere, just ask anyone with chronic pain that doctors cannot find the cause of. Also quite often “all the
checks” actually means they had someone look at the back/teeth/saddle. There are a lot more working, moveable parts to a horse 😅.
Now I’m not saying you need to rush off and get an MRI scan of their whole body, but we need to start to unpack what could be going on and what the horse is trying to communicate. There are incredible vets, bodyworkers, trainers, hoof care professionals and saddlers out there doing the work to understand the horse’s body on a deeper level. So much of what we do with horses is unintentionally damaging their bodies and if we can look at training in a different way and start to help the horse change some of that dysfunctional movement we can often improve them hugely.
A horse that doesn’t feel good in their mind cannot feel good in their body and vice versa. 🐴
A quick story about the horse in the photo - this is one of my own horses Lenny many years ago. He started this all for me, anything I could’ve done wrong with him I did 🥲, with all the best intentions. He was on terrible management, hardly any turnout all winter then chucked out 24/7 on lush grazing in the summer. He had a horrendous laminitis episode that nearly killed him. He was incredibly explosive and I actually had a vet out who told me he was “just a bolshy young horse”. In this photo he is exploding in the pen, which he did every day despite me working him regularly with, what I thought were good, natural horsemanship techniques. It turns out he was lame in all 4 legs and had stomach ulcers. Not one trainer or professional around me even mentioned the possibility of pain, I was let down when seeking help like many of us are. Lenny is still with me enjoying a lovely retirement on our track system, I am only just starting to patch his body up a bit with the knowledge and amazing professionals I have around me now. ❤️