Addressing Behavioral Problems in Horses

In the old West, it was common for cowboys to force their horses into submission, using harsh and sometimes abusive methods to ensure cooperation on long rides across the country. Since horses were the primary source of transportation, they had to be reliable and “bomb proof” for travel far from home. If a cowboy were to take a nasty fall, there would be no one to help him and he would be left in the wilderness to die. For that reason, horses were not regarded as pets or sources of entertainment, but as necessities.

Nowadays, things have changed. We don’t use horses to travel cross-country or to go to the store, but rather for pleasure. We compete, ride for fun, and take our horses on trail rides for relaxation. Some trainers still use the older methods of fixing behavioral problems, but most have adopted new ways of enlisting a positive response.

All horses have bad habits, just as people do. Some paw at the ground in boredom, some refuse to stand still while you mount, and some buck when they don’t get their way. It helps when working with your horse to think of him as a toddler who needs guidance from you to learn what is expected. If we don’t teach our horses how to behave properly, we can’t expect them to grow into respecful, civilized adults.

Using that analogy, what does a toddler do when he is upset? He might cry or pound his fists or even hit or bite. It is up to his parents to teach him that those responses to anger are not permissable, but as a young child, he doesn’t know any better. Likewise, toddlers are extremely selfish. They aren’t yet aware of the rest of the world in the way that adults are. They are mostly concerned with fulfilling their own needs: to eat, sleep, and be comfortable.

Horses are the same way.

As much as Mr. Ed would like to have convinced us, horses are not very considerate of their human counterparts. Their thought processes do not include our feelings or desires, but strictly that of their own self-interest. When they buck or kick, they aren’t necessarily showing a malicious intention of hurting a human; most likely, they aren’t even considering that a human is close by. They are simply angry, afraid, nervous or excited, and need an outlet for those emotions.

Knowing this, it will be much easier to work with a problematic horse. You must approach each training session with the knowledge that the horse really doesn’t know what you are asking, and that it might take time to teach him how he should behave.

YOUR EMOTIONS

The most important lesson that you can learn is that your emotions cannot take part in the training of your horse. Remember the toddler analogy? When parents get upset, frustrated or angry, they don’t wack their child upside the head to show their distaste. Instead, they take a few deep breaths and drink a cup of coffee to relax. That is exactly how you should react to your horse.

Your four-legged toddler doesn’t know anything that he hasn’t been taught. The horse is a blank slate of pure instinct until he is captured and instructed by humans, which means that he behaves exactly how he would in the wild. Since horses are flight animals (versus fight animals), they respond to danger or adversity by running away from it. They sometimes kick or buck in a last-ditch effort to express their anger or frustration, but they will typically bow out of a fight if it is possible.

This is where reinforcement comes in. If your horse misbehaves, and you have not taught in him that it is unacceptable, then how can you be angry with him? You can’t! He isn’t a mind reader, and if you become frustrated with his inability to respond to your commands, perhaps you should back track and determine exactly what you have done to teach him. If he is simply misbehaving because he hasn’t been properly taught, then that is your fault, not his. So keep your emotions in check and respond with the patience and loving attention of a parent.

HERD INSTINCT

As I said before, a young or inexperienced horse responds to stimuli the same way that he would in a herd. He is a pack animal, and in the pack (herd, moreover), there is an established heirarchy of dominance. The Alpha horse, or top of the heirarchy (the King, in human terms) is the horse from which all other animals take direction. He alerts the other horses to danger, takes care of finding fresh grazing land, and manages the mares and their foals. He is the horse that the rest of the herd depends upon.

In your relationship with your horse, you must establish yourself as the Alpha horse. Your horse must feel safe with you and feel comfortable in responding to your cues. If he feels that he stands above you, then you will never get anywhere with him because he will assume that you defer to him. This isn’t healthy.

In order to establish yourself as the Alpha horse, you must always take the lead. In the roundpen, always drive him forward with a rope of lunge whip. When you mount and dismount, insist that he stand perfectly still and wait for your cue to move foreward. When you walk him to and from his stall, insist that he follow you and resist munching grass or distraction from other horses. Walk shoulder-to-shoulder, with your hand firmly grasping the lead just six inches from his halter. This is important.

ESTABLISH LEADERSHIP

There are good and bad ways to establish leadership, and this can also be linked to the toddler analogy. With a child, you cannot consistently yell and spank and threaten in order to gain respect. The toddler will enter into screaming matches with you and never learn to follow your lead. Later in life, he might take the same example, and become heavy-handed with friends, siblings, and other adults. This is also true with your horse. If you are constantly smacking him and jerking his lead shank and growling at him when he misbehaves, he will rebel against this negative treatment.

Instead, be firm. Work with your horse on the ground to make sure that he knows who is boss. If you are standing in the pasture, talking to friends, and he wants to graze, let him. But as soon as you decide to leave, insist that he stop grazing and follow at your command. If he responds as he should, give him a pat and say, “Good boy.” No treats or bribes are necessary – you want him to respond whether or not he receives a carrot.

Practice grooming, bathing, clipping, and tying your horse and reward good manners. A well-behaved horse will stand still while you work with him and not paw or kick or dance about. If he begins to misbehave, give a sharp tug on the lead rope and say, “Stand!” in a loud voice. Eventually, he will learn that “Stand!” means to be still.

If he paws consistently, slapping him on the shoulder or hip of the leg he uses and saying “Stand!” will eventually stop this habit. The slap isn’t to hurt him – it won’t – but to create a loud noise. You are not being unkind, but firm.

GIVING FEEDBACK

Your horse responds to feedback just as well as any human. This goes with the information given above. Good feedback tells him that he is behaving himself, and bad feedback tells him that he’s done something wrong. Eventually, though not right away, he will learn to distinguish between the two and crave good feedback.

Examples of good feedback: patting him on the shoulder or rump; scratching him in places he likes; talking to him gently and softly; allowing him to stop working; giving him treats (use sparingly).

Examples of bad feedback: harsh words, slaps (not to hurt, but to create a noise); sharp tugs at the lead rope; pressure (on the reins, for instance).

PRESSURE

Horses are pressure animals, and they respond magnificently to it when applied. For example, if you press your right leg against your horse’s side, he will move to the left, away from the pressure. If you pull on the left rein, he will turn his head (and body) toward it to relieve the pressure. This is why riding works the way it does.

As I said in the previous section, pressure is an example of bad feedback. It tells your horse that he is doing something wrong, and he will usually yield to it. When you are working with a problematic animal, use pressure to your advantage.

In the roundpen: when you are lunging your horse, driving him with your body language is a kind of pressure. Staying behind his shoulder in the middle of the pen, using a rope or whip to push him forward, you are applying pressure. When he responds to it, calm your movements and be still to relieve it.

On the ground: when you lead your horse, tension on the lead shank is pressure to move forward. If your horse is walking confidently and mannerly by your side, there is no reason to pull on him. If he tries to stop and eat grass or wander off, reapply the pressure to tell him that he is misbehaving. It may seem subtle, but it works.

On his back: this is where pressure is most effective. Using your reins, your seat, and your legs to create pressure will inevitably achieve the desired results. If your horse is constantly trying to take off with you, for example, use a stronger bit for a few days. The harsher pressure will serve to put your horse in check, but you must be careful. Use your hands less to give cues, and be gentle until he attempts to take off with you. At that time, give a hard pull, sit deeply in the saddle, and say “Whoa!” After two days of this, your horse will not even need the reminder of the bit, and will stop to just “Whoa!”

BE CONSISTENT

This goes back to the toddler analogy once more. If you are a parent, and you continually change the rules of the house, the child will become confused, and won’t know how to behave. Horses are exactly the same way. If you change what is acceptable from week-to-week, your horse will stop caring what you want and behave the way he wants, because he has no other choice.

To avoid this, be consistent in your training. If you decide not to allow your horse to graze, NEVER let him graze. If you want him to stand still when you’re mounting, never let him walk off. This is important for your horse’s state of mind, and will help you get better faster.

BUCKS, REARS, AND CROWHOPS

Bucks, rears, and crowhops are the three largest behavioral problems with horses. They are dangerous for the human because they are meant to unseat the rider, and they are certainly examples of bad behavior. These three problems should be dealt with more severely than other problems because they can result in injuries.

Bucks
A buck means that a horse lowers his head, puts his weight on his front legs, and throws his hind quarters into the air. You will most often see this in bronc riding at rodeos, because cowboys are timed and judged on how well they ride a buck. For regular horsemanship, however, bucks are not something to celebrate, and they can be extremely dangerous.

If you have a horse that bucks, it is important to make it clear that such behavior is unacceptable. There are a few ways to deal with this.

1. Back Up – as soon as your horse bucks, halt him sharply with your reins and seat, and force him to back up across the arena. Depending on the severity of the problem, you can back anywhere from 2-15 steps. This is effective because horses don’t like to back up, and because it works their hindquarter muscles, causing stress. They will learn that bucking is associated with backing up, which is a negative connotation.

2. Ride Forward – this is my least favorite method, but it works for some people. If you are confident in your seat, lift your horse’s head and drive him forward with your legs, forcing him to move out of the buck. If his head is lifted and his weight is on his back legs, he cannot physically buck.

3. Lunge Him – I recommend this method for the inexperienced or timid rider. It is less hands-on, but delivers the same method. Carry a lunge line and lunge whip with you out to the ring, and set them next to the fence. If your horse bucks, immediately stop him and dismount, and lunge him for 10-15 minutes. Keep him moving the entire time, at a fast canter, until he has worked up a sweat. This tells him that if he bucks, he will have to work. It serves two purposes: bad feedback to your horse as well as working him with you safely on the ground.

Rears
Rears are even more dangerous than bucks because they involve the front legs of your horse leaving the ground. Horses can rear vertically in the air, which might potentially send you flying from the saddle.

The most effective combatant against a horse that rears is to carry a crop. As soon as your horse attempts to rear, tap him smartly between the ears with the crop. More often than not, it will shock your horse, and he will come back down to the ground. Repeat this until he stops the habit, and you can also use the third suggestion under ‘Bucks’.

Crowhops
A crowhop is similar to a buck, but involves all four of your horse’s legs leaving the ground. They typically do this when they are angry, and should be dealt with the same as a buck. The behavior has to stop!

When you are having trouble with your horse, it is always a good idea to understand his mental thought processes, and to respond to them with a firm, albeit loving, hand.

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