This scenario is common: A previously quiet mount becomes over-reactive and spooky; a beautifully forward horse becomes sulky and reluctant to go to work; or a child?s pony puts on a rodeo display. A rider?s happy little apple cart has been upended.
For most trainers, problems like these take up a significant portion of their lives. They learn to investigate the problem and interpret what a horse's behavior is telling them.
So let's put on our CSI hats, and walk through the steps of a thorough investigation.
Step 1:The Interview. Like any good detective, we start with an interview, questioning the owner/rider about the initial incident and what may have led up to it. We ask questions about the horse's history, both with the current owner/rider and with any known previous rider. We ask about any history of injury, illness and lameness, and we ask what kind of work the horse has or hasn?t had.
We ask how the behavior began?the day, the environment, any apparent triggers, and whether or not it's gotten worse over time.
We ask about changes to the horse's diet, turn-out or living situation, or tack. We ask about the rider?s experience and their aspirations with the horse.
Step 2: Ignore the Interview. Well, we don't ignore it entirely, but once we?ve gathered what information we can, we begin to interact with the horse. This is because a fresh eye is as valuable as what we?ve been told. It can often be hard for an owner who?s been dealing with a difficult situation to see things as they truly are.
Sometimes it's not a horse problem at all?it's a people problem. If we approach the horse with a clean slate, and we don't experience the bad behavior, that's a strong indicator that the issue may not be with the horse.
Also, someone who sees a horse every day may not see subtle lameness, stiffness or unevenness. In additon, one man?s, ?No, He's fine, not lame or anything,? is another man?s, ?Yikes, He's really uneven behind and locked up in his back.?
Step 3:Line Up The Usual Suspects. The usual first suspect is? physical, and the most frequent culprits are:
Dental: The horse either has never had his teeth floated or examined, is terribly overdue, or has been done poorly or insufficiently, most commonly with a hand float that hasn?t been able to float the entire mouth effectively.
Veterinary or Chiropractic: The horse may have a lameness or other physical problem that He's trying to compensate for an acrobatic maneuver that has seriously misaligned its body, causing stiffness or pain.
As Dr. Grant Miller discusses in the cover story in this issue, ulcers are extremely common in horses, and they can cause all sorts of misbehaviors. Consider working with a constant stomachache. It would make you grumpy, at least.
Feet:? The horse may need shoes, different shoes, a balanced trim, or may need his shoes pulled so his feet can heal from a bad trim.
Tack Fit: This usually means saddle fit, but we have seen an ill-fitting bridles and blankets cause body soreness.
Gradual changes in behavior are more challenging to figure out, and they often involve multiple components?physical, lifestyle and training. Often, the problems can start with a small physical discomfort that's then exacerbated by a lifestyle change, such as a decrease in turn-out.
Similarly, some horses need to be regularly ridden or kept in a rigorous training program to keep them interested and focused. Others need plenty of down time to stay fresh. Those two personalities will have different reactions to an active show home or to a twice-a-week private home.
That's one reason why, when buying a horse, it's important to think about how different the horse's lifestyle may be once He's in your care. A horse used to extensive turn-out, for instance, may struggle with minimal turn-out, or a horse used to an intensive training program may not be suitable for someone who rides two days a week.
Step 4: Identifying A Suspect May Not Solve The Crime. Here comes the part that's depressing: While we do find there is usually a physical component to a sudden change in a horse's behavior, just solving the physical problem may not always cause the horse to revert to his previous good behavior.
Often that's because the horse has now learned that bad behavior can mean he doesn't have to work. Even if they had a good excuse to start with, they've figured out an effective evasion that they may continue to capitalize on.
But it can also be that, because a horse harbors memory of the pain, the horse acts out in order to protect himself from experiencing the discomfort again.
In either case, a strong, purposeful rider is often the only cure. Often, with a few months of work, a horse will revert to his good behavior.
However, a horse will rarely completely unlearn a behavior, so vigilance, perhaps with a stronger rider, may be necessary in perpetuity.
If there is an environmental component to a behavioral issue, you may have to sell the horse or place him in a different barn if you can't make the changes that are necessary where you keep him.
For instance, someone who works full time may want to keep their horse at a boarding stable with a lighted indoor arena so she can ride at night, but if her horse is miserable at the only local farm with a lighted indoor arena, should she give up on the horse, or should she move him somewhere else and accept that she can only ride on weekends'
Similarly, if your horse needs extensive turn-out, but you live in Los Angeles and want to ride daily, the chances of finding a barn with more than pipe corrals is slim. Do you find a new horse that will be happy there, or do you and your current horse move'
BOTTOM LINE. Often, solving a behavior problem will force a rider to decide what changes they?re willing and able to make to their lifestyle with their horse.
If you can't make the necessary changes?to your riding or to the horse's living or training situation?you may want to sell him and find a more suitable horse.
Finally, it's the rare horse who simply isn?t ?right,? either physically or mentally. Bad behavior is often caused by a problem that veterinarians can't pinpoint without extensive, and expensive, diagnostics. And most often veterinarians will advise against such procedures because there's no way to fix the problem, at least not without spending thousands more dollars.
Fortunately, most problem horses are fixable, with good detective work, help and self-awareness. See sidebar information: Horses Don't Think Like Humans
Article by Performance Editor John Strassburger.