SOLVING HORSE BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS AND ME
It was during my studies under Dr Anne McBride and her team at the University of Southampton that I learned that the art and science of resolving horse behaviour problems relied on the correct diagnosis of the causes of behavioural issues. And that appropriate tailoring of behaviour modification relied on that differential diagnosis. This skilled undertaking relies on knowledge and understanding of both horse and human behaviour. This almost harks back to Barbara Woodhouse claiming that there were no such thing as bad dogs, only bad owners. I wouldn’t go so far as to label the owners of ‘misbehaving’ horses as ‘bad’, horse behaviour can appear to ‘go wrong’ for many reasons, but one thing is certain: The horse’s behaviour is unlikely to change unless its human changes their behaviour first. The owner leads the way in behaviour modification since they are the one who calls me in to facilitate the process. If I fail to undertake full assessment before starting retraining, the less efficient, ‘therapeutic’ approach, ‘sucking it and see’, is the (usually) less satisfactory or humane result.
Another thing I learned pretty early on is that behaviour always happens for a reason, even if the humans around can’t identify one. Horses act to gain things they need or to avoid things they don’t. These reasons are purely equine and reside in the horse’s mind; my job is to translate ‘horse’ into ‘human’. Horses are only capable of equine behaviour, thoughts and emotions, and all too often humans give human reasons for horse behaviour. The concept of horses being ‘bad actors’ and performing bad behaviour on purpose just to get the better of people is probably as old as equine domestication itself. But I ask, “is that fair?” All horses want is to stay alive, eat and procreate. They don’t lose sleep over lost ribbons or the next show. Most problem behaviour comes from a conflict of interest between what horses were born to do, and human ambition. Compromises can be made, and there are good examples of them everywhere, its just that there are bad compromises too. Just as a plumber sees more faulty toilets than the average human population, so I see more horses where it’s all gone horribly wrong.
Good equine reasons for unwanted behaviour are fear of pain, loss of life and the unknown, frustration and confusion regarding trained behaviour, bad handling and social mismatching. Every behaviour has an emotional and cognitive reason behind it, I like to understand how the horse feels and thinks as well as what it does.
In my opinion good training is an art where the end goal is presented in successive, achievable chunks. Some horses require smaller chunks than others, especially where emotional problems such as intense fear or anxiety are a primary concern. I’ve learned that proper diagnosis enables finer tailoring of any training plan before it’s begun.
Any behavioural problem, be it excessive aggression towards other horses, refusing to load into the box, or napping on rides out, will have the following elements in its past and present. There will be an emotional reason for the behaviour – the psychological state that motivates its performance. I have found that I can ascertain such a reason from the triggers for the behaviour and from its consequences. There will be elements in the horse’s temperament, breeding and past experiences that predispose it to the particular behaviour. There will be a learning experience that started the problem in the first place. And there will be factors and circumstances in the horse’s day to day life causing the behavioural problem to continue.
When these things are known it is possible to do that fine tailoring, creating the individual rehabilitation programme. And this is where I’m able to use my creative streak alongside good instructional and coaching skills. In my experience rehabilitation usually requires husbandry and handling changes as well as specific retraining. I’m glad that these days I have a large tool box to facilitate this. I’ve found this toolbox necessary to maximise the potential for change without harm to the safety and welfare of both horses and people.