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Is my horse naughty or in pain?

Advice from equine behaviourist Justine Harrison
Is my horse naughty or in pain?

Horses use behaviour to tell us when something isn’t quite right, and it’s our job as their owner to listen and work out what’s wrong. Equine behaviourist Justine Harrison discusses three common behaviours and explains how to overcome them.

Does your horse display negative behaviour when being handled or ridden? Perhaps they pull a face when you do up the girth or refuse to be caught? These could be signs that they're uncomfortable or worried. Instead of punishing the behaviour, we should first ask ourselves why they might be acting that way. By identifying and resolving the issue, we will have happier, safer and more comfortable horses. Read on to find out what could be behind three common behaviours, and how to overcome them. 

Dislikes being tacked up

Although your horse stands quietly while being groomed, the moment you produce their tack, they start to fidget, put their ears back, or even attempt to bite.

“Horses will nip or bite because they may be in pain or fearful about what they are being asked to do,” explains Justine. “It could be that the process of tacking up or the tack itself is causing pain, they may have a memory of pain related to tack or the horse may be anxious about being ridden.

“Some horses resist being bridled as their teeth have been banged by the bit, their ears have been pulled when bridled or they have dental pain.”

A resistance to being girthed could also be an indicator of some form of undiagnosed, painful condition like gastric ulcers.

Start by ensuring your horse is pain-free. Ask your vet to rule out any physical problems with a thorough physical check-up. Get the horse’s tack checked to ensure it fits them well and is not causing any discomfort.

“A Master Saddler will be able to tell you whether your horse’s tack fits” says Justine. “Horses are all individuals and some will struggle with certain types of bit, or even the use of a bit at all. Many horses are more comfortable in a bit-less bridle. If you want to use a bit when you ride, a bitting expert can advise you on the most suitable type for your horse and the shape of their mouth.”

Once you are certain your horse is free from discomfort, you can start to work on their behaviour.

“Begin by pairing the presence of their tack with feed time. Place the saddle and bridle near them when they're eating their feed. This will create a positive association with their tack and ensure they are relaxed once you start retraining the tacking up process. Then step-by-step, you can carefully introduce each item of tack, first the saddle cloth, then the saddle, then drop the girth and so on.

“Ensure you reward your horse with a big wither scratch or a treat at each stage for standing relaxed. If they show any signs of anxiety such as moving away, tension in the face or raising their head, then stop and repeat the last few steps until they are relaxed about the process,” advises Justine. “Repeat as necessary and be sure to look out for the early warning signs that your horse is unhappy.”

Won’t be caught 

Your horse is happily grazing when you approach their paddock, but the moment you attempt to catch them, they gallop off in the opposite direction. Sound familiar?

“There are many reasons why horses can be tricky to catch. This could be because they are nervous of being handled, they don’t want to leave their friends or because they dislike being stabled,” explains Justine.

“The most common reason is that they associate being caught with something unpleasant happening afterwards, such as being ridden in an uncomfortable saddle, or because they are only caught for something they don’t enjoy – like the farrier or vet. They soon realise that if they avoid being caught, they won’t have that unpleasant experience.”

As with any behavioural problem, it is vital that you can rule out pain before attempting any rehabilitation work.

Justine recommends spending time teaching your horse that being caught is a pleasant and enjoyable experience.

“This may mean you have to abandon riding or the unpleasant task until you have overcome the catching problem,” advises Justine. “Spend time approaching your horse in the field and giving a treat before walking away, so they start to associate you with positive things rather than just being caught to be worked.

“When you can actually catch them and take them to the yard, simply give them a feed or a groom before turning out again. Through doing this repeatedly your horse will start to associate being caught with more positive things.”

Rushes through narrow gaps

Leading your horse through narrow gateways and stable doors is akin to running the gauntlet as they rush through at 100mph while barging you out of the way.

“Rushing through narrow gaps and doorways is often the result of a bad experience where the horse may have caught themself, perhaps on a gatepost or stable door,” Justine explains. “The horse may then continue to panic and rush through narrow spaces.”

Other reasons could be that your horse is eager to be turned out with their friends in the field, resulting in them barging out of their stable as soon as the door is opened.

Justine advises teaching the horse to build a positive response towards narrow spaces through desensitisation and counter-conditioning.

“This can be done by walking the horse through straw bales set out with a gap between them, and rewarding them for remaining calm,” she says. “Then gradually decrease the space between the bales until they walk through calmly.”

If the problem is due to your horse’s impatience to get out to the field, Justine advises maximising your horse’s turnout time.

“If your horse has to be stabled, ensure it is as positive an experience for them as possible by enriching their environment with plenty to keep them occupied. Get creative and present their forage ration in different ways. You could give them a couple of feed bowls with different short-chopped forage, haynets hung at different heights around the stable, hay soaked in different herb teas for a variety of flavour, or hang up vegetable treats around their stable to browse on,” she suggests.

If we consider that our horse’s behaviour is their way of communicating with us, we can approach finding a solution by first being curious about what they are trying to tell us, and then explore the possibilities.

About the Author

Justine is a certified equine behaviour consultant. She applies the science of behaviour and learning to help you understand and solve horse behaviour.

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