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What’s Really Behind Horses Behaving “Badly”

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

Last week I was scrolling Facebook and came across a young equestrian asking for advice on a challenging situation with her horse. The feedback she was receiving in the comments from many of the group members was primarily, "It's not the horse. It's YOU!" As she was getting hammered by keyboard crusaders, someone stood up for her with the opposing opinion of "it's not always the rider, and sometimes horses are just idiots and jerks," and... some other choice words.
While this defender's intentions were good in nature, the reality is that placing blame and/or fault on either party during a conflict is the most ineffective outcome possible. In no way, shape, or form is it helpful to improve the situation or the relationship. Placing blame on yourself will create guilt and placing blame on the horse will create resentment. Both of which will impact both you and your horses' behavior. Working with horses can be a rollercoaster of emotions - high highs and just as low lows. It can make you question your ability, life choices, and some days even your sanity, IF we choose to see through the lens of placing blame.
I'm here to introduce a third perspective of CAUSE and EFFECT. There is no blame involved in this perspective, only the intent to solve a problem. And to solve a problem, we must find the root cause creating it in the first place. This could be many things across the board for both you and your equine partner. Take into consideration your expectations, level of knowledge and experience, skill/ability to communicate effectively, confidence and trust in yourself and your horse, training style and methods, and even your emotions and trauma. We must consider the horse's age/level of development, training, environment, nutrition, pain level, and past experiences.
In this article, I will list some of the most common challenges I've seen my clients face and give you problem-solving questions to ask to create change and build confidence in both you and your horse. One thing to always keep in mind is that the quality of your relationship with your horse is based on the questions you ask. If you want a better connection with your horse, start asking better questions.
Additionally, I will be making some personal recommendations with some group and product suggestions. I am in no way being compensated by these groups or companies, they are just items I have found helpful in my journey.


Behavioral problems in the environment

Let's start by looking at how the horse behaves when humans are not in the equation. Is your horse expressing challenging behaviors in the paddock, such as breaking fences, chewing wood, stall kicking, or unprovoked aggression towards others in the herd? All of these behaviors indicate an imbalance in the horses' system. This could be mental, emotional, physical, or energetic. To have a relationship with your horse that is filled with trust and connection, at a minimum you must provide a species-appropriate lifestyle that meets their basic needs.

Does your horse have:

1. Adequate turnout? Every horses living situation is unique and based on many factors. Still, we must remember that biologically, their basic needs do not differ. Horses thrive in the most natural environment we can give them, but at a minimum, they should have daily turnout. Horses quickly become bored when stalled for long periods. The longer they are inside, the bigger the risk of developing stress-related behaviors and stable vices. As flight animals, horses are most calm and confident when they have an escape route if needed. A stabled horse cannot move away from things that frighten him. By affording our horses this perceived escape route, we can learn more about their individual boundaries and make adjustments that create a feeling of safety for them, resulting in a willing partnership filled with trust and confidence. You can read more about what appropriate turnout looks like and the consequences of not turning out your horse here.

2. A healthy and balanced digestive system and access to some form of forage 24/7? Continuous roughage intake is a fundamental high priority need for every horse to ensure physical, mental, and behavioral welfare. A horse should never have more than a 4-hour pause in its intake of forage. A large number of studies have shown that depriving your horse of this basic need can create detrimental health problems such as colic, gastric ulcers, and constipation. Lack of adequate forage is considered a leading cause of behavioral disorders in horses. You can learn more about appropriate access to forage here and

3. At least one pasture mate? A horse would never live alone by choice. Domestic horses still have instincts that tell them they are in constant danger of predators and rely on herd mates to fulfill their basic safety needs. Horses also rely on one another for connection and confidence through shared responsibilities of herd life. When we do not accommodate this basic need, our horse can become stressed and ill. While offering another species as a herd mate is better than nothing, animals such as goats and cattle eat faster and spend more time laying down. This falls short in meeting the horses' need to be up and grazing for extended periods. You can find more information on the companion needs of a horse here.

Suppose these basic needs are not afforded to your horse. In that case, there is a high probability that some type of challenging behavior will be expressed, whether depression, anxiety, boredom, aggression, or destructiveness. You may try calming supplements, no chew wood glaze, kick chains, or training tactics. Those are not solutions, they are bandaids, and the symptoms will continue to manifest in other ways. If your horse is in a situation where offering 24/7 forage or adequate turnout is challenging, consider slow feed or enrichment products such as these.


Behavioral problems in hand

Does your horse have:

1. Past trauma or negative experiences related to what he's being asked to do? Sometimes we know the background of our horse, and other times we don't. How a horse is raised also has a tremendous impact on how they respond to humans and stress. Having bred and raised my own and working with mustangs from the wild, I have personally seen this difference. Suppose you are looking to sustainably rehabilitate an undesirable behavior, instead of blaming him, calling him a jerk (or other choice words), yelling, running, or even hitting him, we must ask what is causing this and why the behavior is occurring. It is only then that we can effectively begin to modify the behavior. It is also essential to consider if you've brought something into the session that day. Whether we like it or not, horses can FEEL our health, and it does impact their feelings of trust and safety. If I've had a challenging day, I make it a point to take several deep breaths and at least temporarily let go of what's bothering me so that I can be present with my horse. If you haven't tried this before, you'll be amazed at the difference a few deep breaths can make.

2. A clear understanding of your cues and boundaries? As I mentioned already, if you are putting pressure anywhere on your horse's body, and he feels like he has no way out, be prepared for a resistant horse and eventually a meltdown. If your horse is resisting anything you are asking, there is only one reason - the horse does not have enough information. Our job as owners and trainers is to find out what that missing information is and provide it to the horse in a way that he understands. No matter your problem, this works 100% of the time. Keep in mind that your results may not be instant, but when working with horses, less is always more.

3. Trust and confidence in you as a handler? If we do not have trust and confidence in ourselves, we can never expect our horse to have trust and confidence in us. This statement is not a criticism but an observation. We have all been there. Not knowing is a part of growth. It's vital in these situations that we check our ego at the door and humble ourselves enough to ask for help. The number one piece of advice I give to equestrians is, "If you don't know with certainty how to ask a horse for something, DON'T. Please stop and find someone who has experience." You owe it to yourself and your horse. With internet access and YouTube, I don't think there's much of anything you can't find in an instructional video these days. I cannot stress enough, if you aren't certain and confident asking for something in a session, stop and do something else until you have all of the information or appropriate help. While horses forgive to an extent, lacking knowledge and confidence will only cause damage and put you further behind in confidence and connection.


Behavioral problems under saddle

When I was in the training business full time, I would get calls three days a week from people saying. "My horse has a ___ problem!" whether it be biting, bucking, rearing, not loading... fill in the blank. My response would always be, "What you and your horse have a comprehending problem." If you have gotten to the point of anxious or aggressive behaviors, the horse is not being heard. Maybe he's lacking something in his environment, or he feels too much pressure, but if you are experiencing challenges under saddle, I highly suggest taking a few steps back to assess.

Lately, I've been seeing a lot of TikTok videos of people riding horses that are trying to throw them. The comments are full of "Way to ride that rank horse" or "You go cowgirl" because we've been conditioned to "ride the rank out of them" instead of stopping to ask, "Why the behavior?" Watching these videos hurts my heart because I can see clearly that most of them start with the rider using an overly strong but and putting too much pressure on the horse's mouth. It's a predictable ticking time bomb. Every. Single. Time. I am also smart enough to know that many people are not open to hearing these things. That is the reason I've chosen to start this blog. Those who are open to these ideas and information can access it, and those who do not can move along. I digress. If you are experiencing problems under saddle, the questions to ask are:

Does your horse have:

1. Appropriate fitting tack? Improperly fit tack is the root cause of behavioral problems in about 70% of challenged horses I've worked with. could write a book on tack failure alone. If you are unsure if your tack fits properly, please check with someone experienced or even watch videos on YouTube from professionals. You can learn more about balanced saddle fit here and bridle fit here I Additionally, if you've gone out and bought a more harsh bit because your horse won't respond to you, PLEASE reach out to me. A bit should never, ever be used to control a horse. If your horse is throwing his head, either your saddle is causing pain or you've got too much pressure on his mouth.

2. Physical pain or discomfort due to injury or illness? Do you check your horse for pain before each ride? You can do this by running your fingers down his spine with medium pressure. If he quivers, he is sore, which is the number one indicator of tack failure. You can also check to see if your horse has been bracing in his carriage by running your hand behind his jaw to feel for swollen muscle strands. If you check this area on your horse and feel a puffy or enlarged spot, there is, without doubt, improper movement. That may be your horse bracing to protect an injury or bracing because of an imbalanced rider, but no matter the cause, you can help your horse by rubbing liniment on it and massaging the area with the tips of your fingers. One of my favorite products is the essential oil Past Tense by Doterra. If your horse has physical challenges or is in regular work, is he receiving appropriate care such as chiropractic or massage? The benefits of equine bodywork are endless!

2. The skill, physical development, and level of maturity to perform the maneuvers and/or collection you're asking based on age and level of fitness? Did you know that a horses' pelvic bone and sacrum are NOT fused before the age of 6 at the earliest? Horses' growth plates cannot close if their bones are under great physical stress, as the pull of high developed muscles keeps them open. You can learn more about the physical development of horses here.

I often hear people say, "I wish my horse could just talk." I wish that people could be quiet enough to listen. The reality is that our horses are talking to us all of the time. We owe it to them to be humble, present, and aware enough to listen. I genuinely hope this article has given you some awareness and taken away the need to blame either party. Because in the end assigning fault gets us nowhere. When we go deeper than what we initially see, we will always find a better answer, an answer that will hopefully bring a level of growth and transformation to both our equine partners and us.
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