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:
- 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.)
Do a pen test along topline (see below for a video)
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)
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
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
- Poor Training (creates fear, confusion, learned helplessness)
- No Training (never expect a horse to know anything that has not been specifically trained)
- Unbalanced rider
- insecure seat
- hanging on reins for balance
- 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]
[This video shows a test using acupuncture points to indicate possible ulcers]