Understanding Causes of Behavioural Problems in Horses
Trauma and miscommunication could be among the reasons for behavioural issues...
Dr Krisztina Nagy (or simply Kristin) is an expert in horse behaviour. She boasts a PhD in Equine Behaviour and is also an accredited Level 2 International coach specialising in Classical Dressage.
So, who better to talk to about horses with behavioural problems? Of course, each situation is unique – but the general principles of equine behaviour can be applied quite widely in most cases. And though some people will tell you that there are no difficult or easy horses, Dr Nagy disagrees.
When asked whether some horses are naturally more challenging than others, Dr Nagy says: “Yes. Horses, just like us, have different personalities they are born with.” Of course, Dr Nagy agrees that “their learned experience influences their reaction too.”
Some previously “good” horses might become less willing after repeated exposure to a scenario or after a specific experience. And the opposite can happen too, as we often see with “problem horses” becoming easier to ride and manage after skilful handling. Learning experience can also influence their reactions.
So, as with most things related to horses, it can quickly become complex. Both nature and nurture can play a role, and you are often only presented with part of the puzzle.
As Dr Nagy says, “that is the art of horse training - to find the right motivational tools for each individual to help them reach their full potential."
So, what might cause behavioural problems in horses?
Let’s start right at the beginning. As most horsemen and women will agree, the first thing to do is check for pain-related causes and bring in the experts – vets, dentists, saddle fitters, and so on.
Dr Nagy explains: “In some cases, there is an underlying medical condition which affects the horse’s behaviour and which should be addressed before dealing with the behaviour problem itself. In these cases, the unwanted behaviour is more like a medical condition, such as: poor eyesight, painful back, subclinical or clinical lameness, neurological disorders or other diseases rather than a behaviour problem.
“I would say stereotypical behaviour problems such as crib/biting or weaving should also be listed under this category as well; their successful treatment is usually more complex.”
If you’ve exhausted those avenues and are as sure as you can be that there’s no medical condition or underlying pain causing the behavioural issue you have, then it’s time to dig a little deeper.
"Horses, like us, have different personalities"
“In other cases, the horse is traumatised previously in such a significant way that it has a long-lasting and detrimental effect on its behaviour,” Dr Nagy says.
A good example would be a horse who was in a trailer accident, for example, and is now scared of loading. But they can also happen under saddle too. Perhaps a horse who is refusing to jump cross-country once had a bad fall.
These are the kind of examples which have obvious causes, but it’s worthwhile remembering that a) you might not know the history of every horse, b) trauma could occur without us ever realising – either because we aren’t present or because we haven’t recognised that a scenario or event has been traumatic for a horse.
Nagy continues by cautioning at “these cases are usually considered extremely dangerous to deal with, and need well-designed behavioural therapy.”
Essentially, they require the expertise of someone with a lot of knowledge and skill.
Miscommunication and lack of understanding
In the absence of severe trauma and pain though, there are still a lot of horses with behavioural problems. Perhaps your gelding has a bad tendency to push through you when you lead him to the field. Or your Dressage horse is a bit too fond of a buck. Or you’re not sure whether your new showjumper will throw in a stop at something in the ring.
These are the kind of horse behavioural issues that many riders and owners deal with on a day-to-day basis. We might even watch other riders and wonder why our horses aren’t as well behaved!
Dr Nagy says: “In most cases, behaviour problems in horses arise due to our incorrect dealings and communication with them. Simple changes in our daily interaction with them can result in significant improvement with regards to how well our horse is listening to our requests, how well they behave around us, or how promptly they react to our aids in the saddle or out of it.”
How do we move past behavioural issues?
Once we’ve ruled out the possibility of any underlying medical condition, there are two questions to ask ourselves when a horse is not behaving the way we wish them to behave:
- Does the horse understand what I am asking him/her to do?
- Is the horse feeling motivated to respond to my request?
Once we know the answer to these two questions, we have a way to move forward and start tackling those behavioural issues. If the answer to either or both of them is ‘no’ (and it almost certainly is!) then our next goal is to address the problem and turn no into yes.
How do we help our horses understand better?
Our second installment with Dr Nagy addresses communication between horse and rider, and how to help your horse better understand what you’re asking for.
Original text and images by FEI