Conflict Behaviour Checklist

I spoke at a fundraiser for a local equine rescue today. It was a discussion about horses that ‘misbehave’, and how to methodically eliminate triggers. I put together a handout with a number of possible causes for conflict behaviours. It’s not comprehensive, and I don’t think any checklist ever could be. But it at least gives a number of common triggers to check a horse for when there are problems. I thought I’d post it here on the blog in case anyone else is interested. I’d welcome additions to the list as well, so feel free to comment.

Horses do not like conflict. They don’t like it with other horses and they like it even less with predatory species like humans. Conflict behaviours during handling or riding (rearing, bucking, bolting, propping, balking, biting, striking, kicking, etc.) indicate that the horse is unable to cope with the training situation. When assessing a horse with a chronic behaviour problem, try to eliminate the following possible causes before assuming that the horse is just being bad:

1. Pain

  • Teeth (direct pain, or imbalance can affect TMJ which cascades to back)
  • TMJ, atlas, or hyoid (pulling back, etc)
  • Feet (long toe, low heel, abcessing, low grade laminitis, bruised soles, lateral imbalances)
  • Lameness (low grade/intermittent lameness can be hard to identify, especially in the hind end)
  • Sore back (saddle fit, kissing spines, muscle damage, SI joint)
  • Ulcers (far more common in ALL equine sports than previously recognized)
  • Neurological deficits (EPM, Wobbler’s Syndrome, brain damage, tumours)
  • Body pain (generalized sore muscles can be a result of any of the above)
  • Poorly fitting tack (saddle, girth, breast collar, bit, etc.)

Identification Techniques
Do a pen test along topline (see below for a video)
Palpate back
Palpate legs
Do yoga stretches
Watch chewing at meal times
Analyze movement on a lunge line, in hand, loose, under saddle.

Outside Help (Get recommendations for the best you can get)
Veterinarian (Equine vet or equine vet with a specialty such as lameness or chiropractic, etc.)
Equine Dentist (Vet with a dental specialty)
Farrier (barefoot or traditional, but make sure the trim is balanced)
Massage Therapist

2. Physical Inability

  • Immaturity (mental or physical)
  • Lack of fitness
  • Conformation flaws

Many young horses buck during trot to canter transitions. It’s primarily a balance issue, not behavioural.

3.  Fear – Horse

  • Fear
  • Excitement

When a horse acts afraid, they are either truly frightened or have far too much energy. They are not “pretending”. Either trigger is real and should be managed as a valid emotional state. Punishment is not appropriate in either case.

4.  Fear – Human

  • Expecting bad behaviour will tend to create it
  • Rider tension causes rider imbalance and resulting body pain in the horse (and the rider!)
  • Rider fear triggers horse fear

5. Training

  • Poor Training (creates fear, confusion, learned helplessness)
  • No Training (never expect a horse to know anything that has not been specifically trained)

6. Riding

  • Unbalanced rider
  • insecure seat
  • hanging on reins for balance

7. Temperament/Personality

  •  When all other possibilities have been eliminated.


There are many videos on YouTube that illustrate the above points, and you can search for them individually. Here are just a few examples:


[Here is a video of the pen test]


[Back palpation]


[This video shows a test using acupuncture points to indicate possible ulcers]



[Checking Teeth]






This and That, and Pictures

I haven’t written much lately. Obviously. Quite a bit of stuff happening, but I’ve just been a bit cranky and haven’t felt like inflicting my bad mood on the world. The weather has been atrocious for months. Snow and ice everywhere, which has severely limited what I can do with the horses. But the temperatures have finally gone above freezing.

Dressy came home on Monday. She and Brooke have been getting along very well together. But unfortunately Brooke was not getting along so well with the boarding barn. And whether it was a consequence of that situation or a lack of attention to the problem, or just being cheap (they charge $750 a month so you would think….) I don’t know. But Dressy really wasn’t being fed enough. She’s not in terrible condition, but she’s leaner than I like to see her. Apparently the barn staff didn’t like Dressy either. Which I wasn’t too happy about. She’s a sweet mare with people. It’s just horses that she grinds beneath her queenly hooves.

Dressy checking out her territory with Diego and King devotedly following her Highness
Dressy checking out her territory with Diego and King devotedly following her Highness

We do have another place in mind to send her (not nearly so fancy, but with someone that I know and trust), so that Brooke can continue on with her. But it will be another month or two before she can go. In the meantime she can lord it over the geldings and they will like it. She seems very cheerful and full of herself.


With the improvement in the weather, all the huge snowpiles are melting. My driveway has now fallen apart. In a big way. I took the horse trailer out yesterday for a short trip down to the farm to do some trailer training with the young thoroughbreds (Reno and Al). And coming home, I got the truck and trailer buried in the muck. We managed to completely block the main driveway for about an hour. Luckily we have been getting piles of free wood chips from a local tree service and were able to shore up the whole mess enough to finally shift the rig. But it’s quite a mess.

On Saturday, I am taking McCool to a charity fundraiser for Canter On, the rescue that twisted my arm into bringing him home. We are supposed to do two demos. The first will be a talk about assessing problem horses (McCool had some behavioral issues that are what got him into trouble in the first place). I’ve written out an outline of what I think riders should look at before they label a horse as just having a bad attitude. Things like pain, fear, badly fitting tack, teeth/bitting, bad training or lack of training, conformation or lack of fitness, etc.

The second demo is a clicker training session with McCool. He does love clicker. But he’s kind of a pushy, enthusiastic guy. He was like that before the clicker, and we’ve actually made quite a bit progress with it. He’s a lot more polite than he was at first. But I hope that he maintains a reasonably gentlemanly demeanor through the demo. I don’t want the audience to think that he’s become that way because of the training. I wish the weather had been better this winter. With all the ice, I’ve really only been able to work with him inside the barn, which is a bit limiting. And he hadn’t been ridden since November.

I have been riding him this week though, and he’s been very good. He had one moment the first day where he hiked a little bit when I first got on and put my right leg on him. That’s the side where he had two ribs out, and he was very goosey there before the chiropractic treatment. When he hiked, I put my leg back on and just held it there with light pressure until he figured out that there wouldn’t be any pain. After that, he was fine and went forward happily. Forward being the key word. He likes to move and has lots of energy. And it’s not nervous energy either. He loves to explore.

With everything melting this week, the grey horses are looking pretty disgusting. McCool is getting dirtier by the minute. I have no idea how I will get him presentable for this event. One way or another, he’s bound to embarrass me!

Can you tell that I’m nervous about the demo? It’s not exactly that I’m afraid to speak in front of an audience. I’ve been teaching at OCTRA clinics for years (Ontario Competitive Trail Riding Association). But I’m so familiar with that material that I don’t need to prepare. This one I had to really sit down and organize my thoughts. I’m sure we will be fine once we’re there. But in the meantime, I’m fussing.

Here are some random photos that I’ve been taking lately…

Ella (Spanish Lady). Veronica's Standardbred mare.
Ella (Spanish Lady). Veronica’s Standardbred mare.
Bandit. A friend's cat.
Bandit. A friend’s cat.
A friend's very friendly cat. Snorkely.
A friend’s very friendly cat. Snorkely.


One of the Ladies
One of the Ladies


Ares Loves Ana

Ana's first ride on her own horse.
Ana’s first ride on her own horse.

This week, I signed Ares over to Anastasija. I’ve resisted actually giving him to her because Anastasija is young. She hasn’t been out of school for long, and that’s a difficult time to get a horse. However, she’s been paying his bills for quite a while now, and the two of them are utterly devoted to each other.

Ares is a Standardbred. He was a difficult horse to break to harness, and eventually was sent to the Mennonites for training. They are very competent, but have no time for neurosis. And Ares is a lily-livered little weeble. So he came out of that with a very well-developed case of learned helplessness. When terrified (which is often), Ares goes into a sort of quivering state of suspended animation. He has never ever bolted or bucked. He does occasionally pop a little half-rear when he is completely overwhelmed. But he would never EVER be deliberately bad. When frightened, he just stands, shaking, awaiting his doom.


He’s a small, stocky horse, with a disproportionately large head. And sort of oddly placed, large eyes. Despite his less that elegant appearance standing still, Ares can move. Really move. He was a pacer on the track, and will sometimes pace under saddle. But luckily his pace is very smooth, so that’s not as much of a disadvantage as it is with some pacers. His trot is huge and sweeping. It’s unusual for a Standardbred, but he loves to canter, does it very well, and that is his preferred gait under saddle. He also has a multiplicity of other gaits. None of which I can identify (though someone with more experience with gaited horses would likely know).

So. When I first got this guy and started working with him, all I could think was “OMG, who is ever going to want this horse?” I could see some potential in him. But first impressions are important, and Ares doesn’t exactly overwhelm you with his elegance, beauty, or presence. Anastasija is a very athletic and very brave rider. She lacks experience, but she’s still young and unafraid. So I gave her the project of riding Ares in the hope that we could at least turn him into a decent trail horse. Which, surprisingly, he took to very easily. He’s not particularly spooky and enjoys going anywhere that Ana goes.

Ares very quickly became devoted to his beloved Ana. He’s like a cartoon horse. Ana goes out to the paddock and calls “Ares! I’m here!!” And that crazy little horse pops his head up and runs to her with little hearts and flowers circling around his ears. He rests his chin on her shoulder and closes his eyes in a swoon. It’s ridiculously sappy.

Anastasija thinks he is the most beautiful horse in the world. And when he’s with her, he kind of is.

Lining up so Anastasija can mount… yes, from a bucket. I think we all fell off that bucket at least once this winter. The real mounting block is under several feet of snow and ice.



Dressy has been showing signs of problems with her teeth over the last few days. Crossing her jaws, wadding hay, and most alarming of all, her face swelled up quite badly. So when Kathy, our dentist/vet came today, I was expecting her to find work to be done in Dressy’s mouth.

Once she got in there though, there wasn’t anything serious. Just some sharp edges and evidence that Dressy had bitten her cheek on one side. She’s a very thin-skinned and sensitive mare, despite being tall, dark, and imposing. So I guess that’s what the swelling was about… biting her own cheek.

After Dressy, we brought out McCool. I figured we’d find some work to do in his mouth too, although he hasn’t really shown any overt signs of discomfort. But in fact, he had a lot more nasty stuff going on than Dressy had. Most of his teeth were razor sharp, and he has scarring and divots all the way up the inside of both cheeks, and was only able to grind in one direction. He must have been quite uncomfortable. He’s probably never had his teeth done in his life.

Although I’m not exactly happy that McCool had so many problems in his mouth, it’s nice to be able to identify things that can be fixed.  It pays to go through a checklist of all the various possible pain issues a horse can have before you blame bad behaviour on a bad temperament.

McCool was quite cooperative about the whole process. He’s a sweetheart to handle.






Meet McCool

So, I am not quite sure how this happened. But there’s a new guy here on the farm. His name is McCool. He’s an 8 year old Arab who had nearly run himself out of chances in life.

He came off a rental string somewhere up north, and ended up at the stockyards. He had no name, no papers, and very little history. Someone spotted him, bought him, and had him delivered to a dealer who tried him, and found him occasionally balky and a bit difficult. So she (not having the time or the inclination to work through those sorts of issues) was going to send him to auction. Canter On Equines, the rescue that found Wise Affair, sort of talked me into buying him to give him another chance.  I brought him home Saturday evening.

All week I’ve been trying to come up with a name for him. We tried and discarded quite a few. But McCool (after Finn McCool aka Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the Irish mythical hero) is finally the one that stuck. McCool is a confident, cool guy. He doesn’t fuss about being separated from other horses, is not easily startled, and is a smart as… well… smart as King actually. In fact he reminds me rather remarkably of King. Even in looks. Though McCool is smaller than King at 14.3hh.

Anastasija is helping me with him. She’s been ponying at the racetrack lately in addition to her regular job as a groom, and her riding skills are coming along well with all the extra practice. Not to mention that she’s young and energetic (and has no recently broken body parts). After doing groundwork with him all week, Ana had a short ride today after his lungeing session. Just walk/trot in the round pen. It was incident-free, and he got tons of praise and scratches. All of which he loved, since he is a seriously friendly guy.

It seems likely that he got sour as a rental horse. I am hoping that with consistent training and lots of positive reinforcement, he’ll enjoy his work a little bit more, and maybe we can find him a new, permanent home. He seemed pretty cheerful today anyway. So it’s a good start.

Click on the images to see full-size versions…


Wise Affair: Fat and Sassy

We think Weezy (Wise Affair) is totally and completely back to blooming good health at this point. So I figured it was maybe time for an update.

Here is Wise Affair as a racehorse, a few years ago:

 Weezy in her glory days.
Weezy in her glory days.

Canter On Equine rescue located her (along with a couple of other mares in the same condition) this past April, and my boss, who bred her and owned her as a racehorse, was contacted. He sent Linda and I to pick her up at the farm where she had been starved. The man had the nerve to tell Linda how to feed the mare properly and to criticize the leather halter we brought. He thought it was too small for her. Neither of us said a word, since there was still a mare yet to be surrendered. We just loaded our girl up and drove away. This is what she looked like a few days later:

Shortly after her arrival, in appalling condition, all her hair fell out.
Shortly after her arrival, in appalling condition, all her hair fell out.
At this point, she'd actually put on a few pounds already
At this point, she’d actually put on a few pounds already

We took pictures of her this morning. She was rather badly behaved, to be honest. She did not have time for stupid posing. Breakfast was finished… she had a full social calendar, and tons of grass to be eaten. Linda had to put the chain over her nose just to get her to stand still long enough.





Weezy has things to do and places to go. That's her sister Esmerelda up at the top, and her little yearling buddy, Diva (the chestnut).
Weezy has things to do and places to go. That’s her sister Esmerelda up at the top, and her little yearling buddy, Diva (the chestnut).


Venice’s Papers are Reinstated

So the DNA tests have come back, and Venice has had her registration papers reinstated. She is who she is supposed to be. Sire and dam are both correct. The breeder had sent in hair samples from her full sister instead of Venice. So once I sent in a new sample, it sorted everything out. It also sorted out Venice’s daughter’s registration, since she’d had her registration denied (that’s how this all started… when Savannah’s owner tried to register her). The registry is mailing the papers out.

I haven’t done much with her lately. Last week was too hot, and I was not so energetic after Flesherton. But today I had a short little session with her to get her training back on track. She is a very soft little mare, now that we are past being panic-stricken all the time. Extremely responsive even (which is the silver lining of over-the-top reactive). She is more and more willing to take a carrot from my hand, so I hope to start clicker training with her soon. But so far, the risk of taking food from a human hand is more risk than reward for her.

Here’s a few seconds of video from today. Her dapples are not really visible, but I think the gorgeous metallic gleam of her coat sort of comes through. She’s not very big, but she’s got the trot of a much bigger horse. So with the trot, the brilliant light bay colour, and all the chrome, she’s pretty flashy isn’t she? Just don’t look at her feet too closely since they are dreadfully in need of a trim. They are starting to chip off now that she’s getting more turnout though.

Standardbred Filly Looking for a Home

A friend of mine is trying to re-home a nice Standardbred filly. Bay with a few white hairs on her forehead. Three years old. She’s been backed, but is very green. She’s never raced. Her name is Start It Up. Located near Campbellville, Ontario. Extremely sweet and kind temperament. So far all the training towards riding horse status has been smooth and uneventful.

Here are a few photos.






She’s free to a good, permanent home. Leave a comment if you’re interested, or email skykingsgirl … at …

Wise Affair: Fat and Content


Wise Affair, this morning. Waiting for her breakfast. She’s now on 24 hour turnout in the big pasture with the two young fillies, Diva and Esmerelda. I had to go out and convince the three of them to come in to eat, since they were apparently not all that hungry. Esmerelda is roly-poly and does not truly need one more scrap of food. Diva, being a lanky yearling, can always use a few extra calories. But Wise Affair looks just right.

Shooing the three girls in for breakfast (Wise Affair in the lead, Esmerelda on the right, Diva on the left.
Shooing the three girls in for breakfast (Wise Affair in the lead, Esmerelda on the right, Diva on the left)

Wise Affair Dreams of World Domination

Wise Affair has a lot of rules. Timeliness is very important. Breakfast must be on time. Lunch and dinner too. She is loudly disapproving of tardy serving staff. First, the whinnies, then she kicks the walls. “NOW!!! I want my breakfast NOW!!!” After breakfast, she needs to go outside immediately. And if we don’t get her out right away, she glares, and whinnies, and paces around her stall. She has dreams of world domination (right after she eats all the delicious food!).

Here is some video from this morning. This is exactly six weeks after her arrival in weak, emaciated condition, with lice and all her hair falling out.