Saturday, November 7, 2015

When Good Horses Go Bad: the stressors behind bad habits

I'm going to step up onto my tallest soap box for this one...

Carrying a rider comfortably may seem like a simple thing that any horse can do, but in some cases our horses may be struggling, and often without our knowledge.

Why Horses Develop "Bad Habits"
In all the time that I have been riding and training horses, the one thing that I have come across more often than anything else is clients misinterpreting the negative behavior and habits of their horses.

I cannot even keep track of how many horses I have seen with undesired behavior that the owner has written off as "bad" or "stubborn." The fact that it really boils down to is that a horse, being by nature a quiet creature with typical prey instincts, only exhibits negative behavior or poor movement when they have been conditioned to do so, whether through inadvertent training flaws or through a series of discomforting or painful experiences.

It's as simple as classical conditioning; if the horse is made physically or mentally (or possibly even emotionally) uncomfortable by something in their work, they will avoid that "something" by beginning to experiment with other behaviors until they get rid of the "something."

Case in point: Years ago, a horse that I had in training came to me with lumbar scoliosis, an ill fitting saddle, navicular and a poorly balanced, heavy rider. (Mind you, I have absolutely no problem with heavy riders, provided - like all riders - they work to become body-aware and strive to make themselves uncomplicated to carry.) When she first got him, the horse went smoothly for her first couple of rides, trying to please his new owner. On the third ride, the horse was in considerable discomfort so he stopped and refused to go forward. The rider kicked and kicked and he still refused. She got out her whip and spurs, and the horse, now faced with the choice between one discomfort or another, began to move again, his trust in his rider now lost. Flash forward to a handful of rides later, the horse was in severe pain at this point and their relationship had deteriorated to a spurring, whipping disaster. In the horse's mind, he had no choice but to relieve himself of his rider. With one swift buck from a stand still, his rider was on the ground - unfortunately with several broken ribs and a broken hip. Weeks later, the horse was sent to me for training where we discovered the scoliosis, saddle fit issues and ultimately the career-ending navicular. He was retired and still lives at their house as a pasture buddy for their new horse, which is a happy ending that many horses in this condition aren't offered.

Horses have a limited vocabulary with which to express discomfort. They may use head-shaking, teeth, hooves, weight and non-compliance to describe their discomfort, and if we are not listening closely we will not hear the things they are trying to tell us. Often our horses are so apt to please that they stifle their natural vocabulary and create compensatory behavior to protect themselves rather than lashing out.

Addressing a "Bad Habit"
Of course, my example at the top is an extreme case. Often times horses will express their lack of mental or physical comfort like the horse in the photo directly below, who was just learning to trust her new saddle fit after having an ill-fitting saddle for several weeks. The photo was taken mid-head-shake, so no, she wasn't going around the arena with her head on sideways. ;)

Because this mare had previously been in a saddle that caused her discomfort, she had been conditioned not to trust that the saddle, and ultimately the rider, would cause her discomfort. After being fitted with a new saddle she spent the first two rides showing a toned-down version of the behavior that led me to suspect saddle-fit issues in the first place. As she learned to trust that the discomfort was gone and wouldn't readily reappear, the behavior quickly disappeared and she returned to moving joyfully.

Initially this mare's old saddle had become too wide on her back due to her topline muscle narrowing as it developed. It was slipping forward onto her shoulder blade, especially in the canter. She responded initially by moving with a tight shoulder (which should have been my first clue), and ultimately she began shaking her head violently when in the trot and canter. She also became considerably spooky, but I'll be addressing why horses become spooky when their saddles don't fit, in next week's post.

Because of her tight back, the rest of her body suffered and she quickly became a very unpleasant creature. Her gaits were short, she began to tightrope with her front legs, she was girthy, difficult to catch in the field, and even a little bit nippy. It took her a week off, some body work and a newly flocked saddle, as well as several shortened, "positive" rides to show her that she could, in fact, trust her saddle and rider to no longer cause her discomfort. Regaining trust is perhaps the hardest part of the process, as fear of pain is very hard to overcome. 

Over the past few years I have had the chance to work with a number of horses who have, in one way or another, developed compensatory behaviors that were detrimental at first to their movement, and later to their muscular and mechanical soundness. It's alarming how quickly things can escalate, in some cases. Often, what begins as a poorly fitting saddle or pushing a horse through a "stiff day" will slowly devolve into a whole myriad of problems including lack of suspension/impulsion, bracing in the neck and back, gait abnormalities and even muscle wasting and loss of topline, leading to further, sometimes more traumatic injury.

Anthropomorphizing vs Evaluating
I'd like to put forth that by calling these behaviors "bad" we are anthropomorphizing our horses, and simply covering up the infinitely more difficult to understand truth. We simplify the complex problem of "fear of pain" by giving them humanistic labels such as "sassy" or "naughty" instead of finding the root of the problem. Our horses will only develop these habits because of stress, whether it is physical, mental or even emotional, and the only way to truly get to the root of the undesired behavior is to evaluate our horses for negative stressors.

It could easily be saddle fit; it easily could be a misinterpretation of training. It also could be something as complex as a social stressor (such as a dominant horse stealing another horse's companion in the field) or even a mental stressor (such as lack of social interaction due to prolonged stalling) or even an innate prey-animal fear with a lack of exposure and trust. Each of these possibilities must be considered when dealing with a new habit or response that your horse has picked up. 

On the other hand, however, the horse may be responding to a stressor that we know can be overcome, such as stiffness at the beginning of work or weather conditions, or confusion due to being asked for a new movement. That is why it is important to stay in tune with your horse's responses to various stressors. Obviously it is for you as the rider and owner to decide if the horse's stressor is worth working through or not.

Next time your horse offers a response that you would like to label "naughty" or "bad", I challenge you to pause, evaluate and try to identify the stressor, before reacting.


Have you ever had an "Ah Hah!" moment when you've realized that your horse's "bad" behavior was actually a response to a stressor in his life? Let us know about it in the comments below! 

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