Why does my horse behave badly?
Last revised April 25, 2017.
A horse with a clipped coat. Work by Melody Cannon.1
Mark Rashid writes
“One of the most important parts of horse training really has nothing to do with training at all. It has to do with being able to look at, and understand, the possibility that our horses just may have a different perspective on life than we do. Just because they behave in a way that we don’t particularly care for or that frightens us at times, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re being mean or disrespectful. I think we are too willing to look at unwanted behavior from our horses as a sign of disrespect from them. The truth of the matter is, they are almost always acting in a way that they believe to be right, whether they are using defensive behavior, aggressive behavior, or even quiet behavior. The unwanted behavior that we see is usually something that they’ve been taught, albeit inadvertently, by the people who handle them — like being pushy when being led or pulling back when standing tied. We need to understand that these are learned behaviors, not inherent behaviors.2”
A therapist might ask some questions of your horse, to determine if he was mentally healthy: “Do you feel like eating all the time? Do you feel fearful, but you can’t figure out why? Do you find it hard to focus?” If your horse answered yes to any of these questions, then he’d be a normal, healthy horse.
There are not many horse bad behaviors, and probably no bad behaviors that can’t be easily cured in a mentally healthy horse. Not all horses are mentally healthy, unfortunately. Common manifestations of mental illness include cribbing, wind sucking, pacing, and stereotypic movement disorders.
For a mentally healthy horse, there are behaviors that may need correction, such as mugging. In this brief chapter, I’ll look at pushy, lazy, and spoiled issues.
The Pushy Horse
G and Bud both love carrots, and they get plenty when they are with me. I also get plenty of abuse from other riders who don’t share my lofty opinion of carrots. Some show restraint, and politely tell me that they give their horse carrots when they are back in the barn after a ride, “if their horse was a good boy.” Their horses might explain their folly thus: “I’m always glad for a carrot or two, and happy to get back to the barn, in case carrots are waiting for me. In fact, I like to go extra fast on the way back to the barn, just to collect them. I’m always a good boy, of course, but have no clue what she’s talking about. Did she like the way I headed down the trail? The way I stood calmly when we saw the deer? My gentle step over the big log? I have no idea.” A treat such as a carrot will reinforce the behavior that immediately preceded the treat, but cannot be connected, by man or horse, to any behaviors that occurred a few minutes before receipt of the treat. So if you are going to give your horse carrots when you both get back to the barn, assume only that it will serve to hasten your return trip, not that it will teach your horse anything useful.
I know a rider who believes that giving a horse carrots will make them “pushy”. A pushy horse will step toward you, and perhaps move so close that his body is against yours. The word “pushy” is also used to describe horses that ignore you, pulling ahead of you when you try to lead them. This is more of a “pully” than a “pushy” horse, and can’t be blamed on carrots. But for our narrow definition of pushy, do carrots contribute to this? I think not. For some riders, “pushy” is a complaint about a horse’s self-confidence.
Self-confidence is likely to change with the situation, but also to be somewhat stable for an individual across situations. My mule is more confident than my horse whether it is a bridge or water crossing, a new horse to meet, or other attraction. I don’t think this means he never worries, but my horse is much more prone to worry about his safety.
If a horse is repeatedly given carrots by you, he will certainly be more willing to approach you. But I’ve found that I don’t need to share carrots with any horse, at any time, for any reason, and all the horses I’ve ever known have not held a grudge or put themselves in my face. G, who may hold a world record for carrot consumption, is not pushy. He will smell my carrot pouch to see if there are any left. He’ll sometimes do an unsolicited trick, in hopes that I’ll offer one. But he is very quick to determine that no carrots are forthcoming, and settles down as if I don’t have carrots. He understands that sometimes he gets them, sometimes he doesn’t.
If you have a pushy horse — one that is pushier that other horses you admire — you can probably fix things. First, you’ll need to figure out what you are talking about. What specific behavior don’t you like? If he is pushing into you in an affectionate way, then I think you should allow it, and use this physical contact as another way you can show affection toward each other. If he is pushing into you because of other factors, such as fear or belligerence, you will need to identify the motives and address them. But through all of this, remember:
- horses have no conception of “personal space”. They make full body contact with horses they love, and will do the same with you.
- Horses have no conception of “respect”. No horse behavior is a sign of disrespect. Horses do have anxiety and fear, and if you occasionally get violent with your horse because he is “disrespecting” you, you will be teaching him to fear you. When you succeed in getting him to keep his distance from you, you will have succeeded in convincing him that you are not his friend.
The Lazy Horse
If you do a search for “lazy horse” (with the quotes), you’ll find over 80,000 pages discussing this problem. Without the quotation marks, a search for lazy horse turns up about 400,000 pages.
A lazy horse does not want to do what his rider has asked, as fast as the rider has asked for. So the lazy horse takes a beating, as the rider goes kick, kick, kick. Riders don’t want a horse that has just been shot out of a cannon, of course. They want the horse to happily go the speed they wish.
If your horse once moved faster in response to your kick, kick, kick, then the problem is probably not with your boot. You should rule out:
- Issues with your horse’s health. Does he have back or leg or foot pain? Severe arthritis? Sores in his mouth or anywhere else? A vet could help sort through things that you might be missing. My horse G had a break at the track when he was four, and now walks about with enough metal in his ankle to trigger metal detectors. I never ask him to go faster than he wants, never do kick, kick, kick. His arthritis and bad ankle slow him down. Without these troubles, I’d likely get windburn, because he often seems to like to run.
- Issues with your saddle. Does it hurt him to go faster? Hurt him to go at all? Look for signs of discontent as you saddle him. Use an impression pad to assure yourself that your saddle still fits just fine.
- Fatigue. Is he getting along in his pasture, or does he need to keep his eye on a bully who tries to take advantage of him when he sleeps? Are there distractions in the barn that affect his sleep? You don’t feel like tearing around if you are exhausted.
- Depression. We all slow down when we are depressed. Horses get depressed too. Depression for a horse can come from many sources, such as not being able to control his fate. Lesson horses that are mishandled all day long have learned helplessness,3 feel that nothing they do can make a difference in their fate, and can withdraw. If I was treated like a captive horse, I’d be depressed.
- Issues with your horse’s conditioning. If you horse has been kept in a stall 24 hours a day, you can’t expect that he’ll have the muscle development he would have if he was out in a pasture most of the time. And being free to wander around a pasture won’t get him as fit as he’ll get from a daily ride. If your horse is slow, maybe he’s exhusted. Try carrying him for a bit, and see what he’s talking about. You’ll get in shape, and meanwhile he can call you lazy.
The Spoiled Horse
Spoiled horse? What does this mean? Seriously. I spent quite a bit of time with my friend Google, looking for a definition of “spoiled horse”. If you use quotation marks around “spoiled horse” when you search, you’ll find yourself with 46,000 pages to read. None of the spoiled horse authorities seem to think the phrase should be defined, but there are hints at what they have in mind. Some suggest that a spoiled horse has temper tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. Some equate spoiled with pushy, with bossy, or with disrespectful. It strikes me that all complaints come down to unhappiness with a horse that is assertive, that has a will, that is reluctant to do some of things it is asked to do.
The analysis of the problem always comes down to the same thing: the rider is always at fault. By giving too many carrots, these bleeding heart tree hugging horse owners have gotten what they deserve. The proposed solution is always simple: kick the shit out of your horse whenever he makes you angry.
I witnessed a more moderate version of this unspoiling technique yesterday, as a woman walked her horse to the pasture. The two of them would be walking along pleasantly when all of a sudden the woman would jerk the lead rope hard, forcing a sudden stop. Then, a few minutes after standing there, they would proceed and then repeat. The poor mare sustained a fair amount of abuse on the way to the pasture, and I could not see that she was doing anything wrong. I looked at this woman, and she explained “You have to teach them respect.” I had already read my chapters on Respect and Learned Helplessness, so I bravely countered “No you don’t.” She wagged her finger at me, the nincompoop, and said “Yes you do.” My own horse was standing there with me, watching the proceedings. In 11 years, I have never yanked his halter as violently as this woman was yanking her mare. He said nothing, but I know he would not have been pleased to have been treated that way. I popped a carrot slice in his mouth, and we ambled on, enjoying the airs.
Is a horse spoiled because it gets carrots? Or is the evidence that it is spoiled only available when he mugs for a carrot? Is it spoiled because he has a rubber mat in its stall? A pasture where good grass grows thick? A summer where the run-in shed has a fan, the field has shade trees along the edge, and there is always clean water to drink?
The spoiled horse presents us with a problem only in trying to define what it is. Living a good life seems to me to be a good thing. I don’t like to stand in the heat of the sun, surrounded by flies. I can’t imagine why depriving my horse of flies is spoiling him.
There are some who object when they see others being comfortable. One summer I found myself standing on a hay wagon in 95 degree heat. My job — at 90 cents an hour — was to stack the bales perfectly and as high as possible. It meant running up the stack with heavy bales, and running back for the next. My boss, driving the tractor, stopped so he could take a beer break. As we stood there, a Cadillac drove by, with its windows up. Clearly, those inside had the air conditioning on. My boss explained to me “They aren’t happy.” I wondered about this. He didn’t know them. He couldn’t know if they were happy or not. But I could imagine that they were happy, because I could imagine how happy I would be if I could sit in an air conditioned Cadillac for a few minutes. So why did he say that? I think it must have been to feel better about his own misery. The song “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” has always had a hollow ring to me.4
Critiques of the spoiled horse may be critiques of the spoiled horse owner. They may come from such an owner, who uses projection to reach this conclusion. Projection is a defense mechanism in which we deny the existence of some quality in ourselves, while attributing that quality to others. A politician who is prone to crookedness or deceit might use projection to see it in others. And someone who is uncomfortable that perhaps she is spoiled may see it in a horse.
There is a world full of people who worry about “the slippery slope”, that if you give a horse an inch, he will take a mile. Surely we can never indulge our horse in anything he wants, because the next thing you know, he’ll start behaving differently. Maybe that wouldn’t be bad. If he showed any sign of liking you, would you be full of worry about your personal space or shiny boots?
Spoiled means being too indulgent, too lenient. To a human, what we want usually far exceeds what we need. To a horse, they are close to the same thing. I see no crime in giving a horse what it needs, and with the exception of treats, no crime in giving it what it wants. Giving treats as rewards for behavior you want when he has not asked for a treat? No crime either.
To split some hairs:
- Giving a horse good pasture, with good sun, good shade, good grass is not indulgent. It is responsible ownership.
- Giving a pastured horse a good run-in shed, with its back wall to the prevailing wind and plenty of extra room to accommodate all those in the pasture is not indulgent. It is responsible ownership.
- Ensuring that a saddle fits perfectly is not indulgent. Not using a bit is not indulgent. It is our responsibility to not hurt our horses, and a comfortable saddle and head gear are part of responsible ownership.
- Ensuring that your horse can get out of severe weather (perhaps letting him in the fan-cooled barn during a hot summer day, or letting him in the barn on a cold winter night) is not indulgent. It will contribute to his comfort, help him maintain his weight, and is responsible ownership.
- Cutting your horse’s whiskers is not indulgent. It deprives him of an important sense and increases his difficulties in exploring his environment or even eating.
- Clipping your horse is not indulgent, no matter how nice he looks when it is finished. Clipping will make it harder for him to regulate his body temperature and protect against flies and the rays of the sun.
- Keeping your horse in a stall 24/7 is not indulgent. It is not responsible ownership. Solitary confinement for a horse is no more pleasant than solitary confinement for a human or any other social animal.
- Giving a horse an entire bag of horse treats in his feed bucket is indulgent and foolish, not responsible ownership. Loading your horse with any food that is high in sugar or protein can quickly produce digestive problems.
- Refusing to give a horse a slice of carrot when you are standing about? This is not a moral position that prevents your horse from being spoiled. If he hasn’t asked, you’ll be able to please him without teaching him to mug. If he has asked, you may be teaching mugging.
But “spoiled” is not a personality trait. A horse that mugs for a treat has been taught to mug, and can quickly be taught to not mug. Once that happens, are there other qualities of this horse that make it “spoiled”? Probably not. Whatever the case, I believe in setting this word aside, and not saying anything disparaging about a horse. If there is a behavior we want to change, let’s go change it. The power is in your hands, maybe in your clicker.
1 Image source: “When horses start to go to hairdressers, they become work of art”. People’s Daily Online, April 6, 2016. http://en.people.cn/n3/2016/0406/c90000-9040885.html Melody Cannon of JMC Equestrian Driving and Custom Clipping in Bury, Greater Manchester, UK.
2 Rashid, Mark. Horses never Lie: the heart of passive leadership. Skyhorse Publishing Inc., 2011. p. 106
3 Wikipedia. “Learned Helplessness”. Defines it as follows: “Learned helplessness is behavior typical of a human or non-human animal that has endured repeated painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behavior would be effective. In other words, the organism learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, and so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from such real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.” — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness
4 In fact, John Denver’s song “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” has a verse about these folks in the Cadillac: “Yeah, city folk drivin’ in a black limousine A lotta sad people thinkin’ that’s mighty keen Son, let me tell ya now exactly what I mean I thank God I’m a country boy”