Learning to Read Your Horse
Learning To Read Your Horse
Thoughts by Michelle Gilles
How many times has your horse acted out and you thought he's just a bad horse? How often have you thought he/she has an issue you must solve with more discipline or a different training technique, or a stronger bit?
I am often contacted about problem horses and in most cases it's not the horse it's lack of us KNOWING our horse.
Over the years of solving various issues, I’ve realised it’s generally not bad behaviour that is the issue it's typically something we overlooked!
Negative behavior is a build up of negative energy and tension in the body and to release the energy the horse has to move, it's instinct that determines how they move, weather it be exploding in to bucking, rearing, pawing, bolting, etc.
The obvious things to check are teeth and saddle fit but when we dig deeper there are so many other parts of a horse that can be affected and are often over looked! It starts from the inside out!
Feed is the largest factor (forage, supplements, minerals, grain, hay):
What you put into your horse is a direct factor to what he will give back. I like to compare it to a four year old child given candy and a Red Bull put in his room and told to sit still and be good. It isn't happening! We throw horses in a stall feed them empty calorie sweet feed and take them out for 5 mins a week and wonder "why won't he stand still and listen???"
Feed we provide affects not only the condition of our horse but the overall physical and mental health. His ability to focus, to relax, his strength, the soundness, and more!
Think how our bodies react without our caffeine, vitamins, high starch foods.. We get irritated, tired, burnt out! Why would it be so far fetched that our horse would have the same issues???
If our horses diet is unbalanced or lacking some thing major then all sorts of symptoms and behaviors can manifest in the form of vices! Physical, mental , emotional, and dangerous behaviors!
For example, a horse being given an abundance of NSCs (Non Structured Carbohydrates) can become a hard keeper, lethargic, or weak. the NSCs become hard to digest and the horses digestive system now had to work hard processing the feed and in turns burns more energy digesting then they are receiving.
A tense, excitable, nervous, stressed horse may also need supplementing with magnesium which is a mineral that gets locked up by toxins coming from weeds or grass. Magnesium is important because it helps balance the digestive rates and transportation of oxygen through out the body. Getting the magnesium in the feed out of balance causes tension, muscle spasms and more. The results are horses on the edge of blowing up.
An oversupply of certain feeds will cause a horse to be excitable or lethargic, irritable or unable to focus at the task at hand. It can cause a whole array of lameness issues from tenderness, shortness of stride, unwillingness to move forward or to jump, inability to cope with hard surfaces and these can all manifest in an undesirable behavior in our horse!
To find the right balance of roughage, grains, minerals and vitamins please consult your vet, local ag extension office, or animal nutritionist.
Ulcers are the number one cause of our out of control horses in the barrel horse world and other show horses as well.
Ulcers are wounds on the inside lining of the stomach caused by stomach acids. Signs most common of gastric ulcer include:
• Grinding of the teeth.
• Belching noises.
• Slow eating, often walking away without finishing meals all at once.
• Picky appetite that includes the horse refusing foods or supplements that were consumed readily before.
These symptoms aren't diagnostic of ulcers, but they do suggest discomfort associated with the upper GI tract/stomach.
Other signs frequently associated with ulcers are:
• Crabby attitude.
• Poor coat.
• Weight loss.
• Poor performance.
• Sensitivity in the belly
Identifying your horse may have ulcers is an important step in curing undesirable behaviors.
Pain from teeth, hooves, limbs, back, internal organs are all major factors in misbehavior in horses.
Physical pain is so often over looked in behavior issues. If your horse is acting out due to pain I believe it has every right to do so! Some horses cope with pain better than others just like people! Instincts tell horses they have to mask their pain in order to survive. If a horse shows weakness in the wild the alpha will cull him from the herd. A weak horse slows the herd down making them more accessible to predators. It draws the predators to the herd looking for a quick lunch.
Even when pain is not physically obvious, it can cause the horse to avoid any activity that makes it more uncomfortable. When pushed by humans to continue on vices such as as tail swishing, ears pinned, teeth grinding, nostrils flared, head tossing, threatening to kick, kicking the belly, refusing to move, pawing, bucking and rearing all start to manifest!
This is the way the horse is communicating to us there’s a problem and please do not ignore it.
A horse with pain anywhere in its body could show any or none of these signs so it’s important to have a good relationship with your horse so you know when something just isn't right! Early detection can save you lots of headaches and money!
When a client brings me a horse with sudden behavior issues I always look first at the physical issue before deciding its a training issue. I check teeth, hooves, body, muscles, vision and condition. I get the opinion of my trusted equine veterinarian, dentist, chiropractor, or farrier.
I rescued a mare who had such bad behavior problems she was on the trailer about to be euthanized, when my vet called me with a rescue. Turns out she had an ovarian cyst that caused her great pain. She lived with this for years! With a course of antibiotics and a small operational procedure she became one of my favorite rescues and us now owned by a young girl!
Mental Anxiety over past negative experiences are triggers to bad behaviors. Many past issues have developed from pain and once you solved the pain issue you have mental blocks to get past!
If problem gets ignored or the horse is disciplined for reacting to discomfort, they can develop mental anxiety. They have a couple of ways to cope with the anxiety, shut down or act out, even after the situation has been addressed!
My dad use to always say a horse like an elephant never forgets. They are incredibly forgiving animals but they have a memory you wouldn't believe. They wear the memory of those issues on their sleeve and it won't take much to trigger them and rear their ugly heads! A complete reprogramming in training and time is the only way to help solve these issues! A trainer that works with positive re-enforcement, at the horses pace, with complete understanding of the horses particular needs is what is best suited for these kinds of horses.
Injuries and ability! Some horses no matter how hard you try can not always preform at the level we think they should! Wether it be from injury or conformation it just may beyond their capabilities. If we continue to push we are just adding wood to a fire we don't want to start. When pushed past their limits horses will stop or blow! There are some limitations we have to accept! Not everyone's born to play basketball and not every horse is born to run, or slide, or jump! Limiting factors can come from structure of the horse, injuries, or genetics passed on at birth!
Sometimes these limitations may or may not be obvious. A well qualified trainer will be able to help identify these limiting factors.
Equipment can cause so much chaos when it comes to horses! I have been on trail rides where I thought the horse should buck the rider off because of the injustice that comes from the riders equipment! To small a saddle for horse and rider with 5 pads, tie downs, croupiers, halter under bridle, Brest collar, running martingale, spurs the size of tires, too much equipment no use and a poor horse accommodating a rider that has no clue how to use half the stuff!
Whatever equipment we use on a horse must be comfortable and fit well or the horse will and should let us know! It's our responsibility to educate ourselves on proper equipment and fit for our discipline!
Ill fitted saddles, too much bit, nasty cinch are most always the result of negative behavior! Horses can feel a tiny fly on their back, so you can bet they feel the bur on the saddle pad, or the wrong sized saddle. We wouldn't wear shoes that pinch, why expect our horse to carry us in a bad saddle? The horse has no choice, but to do whatever we have them do, to wear tack we choose to put on them, and its our duty to know the signs if it hurts!
Human Error has a great deal of power over a misbehaved horse. Learning to ride centered and balanced with gentle hands is one of our greatest assets in horsemanship. Those who constantly balance on their hands while asking a horse to move forward will soon find their horse balking and refusing to move out. Why would be if all your going to do is bump on their tender mouths?! Bouncing on the back instead of having a balanced seat can lead to bucking and a sore back for both horse and rider. Finding your center and letting go of the face is very difficult for most riders. As the horse gets uncomfortable the rider gets more tense and causes anxiety in our horse. Soon the levels are so high on behalf of both parties vices will manifest from rearing to bucking and more. It's our duty to learn how to ride in a relaxed manner and become a partner with our horse.
Herd behavior is one of the largest factors! If a horse is socially deprived in any way at anytime in its life, it’s behaviour will not be normal. Everything from over excitement around other horses, to separation anxiety, intolerance of other horses, to aggressiveness. Orphan foals raised by humans tend to get aggressive towards humans because they do not have a healthy respect of humans and soon views the human as the herd! It will start to challenge for the alpha role because it never had a mother put it in its place!
It takes confident experienced trainers to identify and resolve these behavior issues. Being a herd animal, a horse needs appropriate company for its age, a social structure, and an excellent mother to learn from and understand discipline! The herd dynamics builds and molds each horses mental discipline! Good leadership and guidance teaches the horse to be individually confident, have respect in the herd, and the ability to learn what is asked of it.
Ask 5 different trainers how to correct a behavior and you'll get 5 different answers! Whose wrong? None! There are so many methods to use and learn from and not one is wrong. A good trainer will tailor their methods to the horse . Different personalities seem to work better with some methods than others and it is important to choose the discipline and method best suited for you and your horse!
Keeping the horses training rewarding, interesting, and stress free is the best thing a trainer can do! Having a good attitude has a huge effect on horses behavior. Learning to forget your own emotions and keep things black and white for your equine partner is essential. Just as humans have good and bad days so does our horse. We are not perfect and our horse forgives us when we make a mistake, we should do the same for our horse and move on! Bad behaviors never start over night therefore we shouldn't expect the fix to happen over night. Time is our friend, time heals, time allows our horse to grow.
Nature has ingrained into the horse the ability to survive. Flight or fight is what has preserved our beautiful equine spirit, each person owes it to their horse and themselves to learn what it takes to keep the sprit alive! Training doesn't need to take the sprit it should however instill trust, which is the foundation to all horses training!
Its taken thousands of years for nature to shape you’re horse its important to understand we are never going to remove those natural reactions or instincts. Some horses are more reactive than others, and some take longer to learn the lessons but if you are willing to look at things from the horse’s perspective we can begin to resolve the so called problems. It’s natural for a horse to bolt, spook, balk, refuse to leave the herd or safety of home. It’s natural for the horse to run from what they believe to be dangerous, to fight if cornered or trapped and to feel fear, grief, anxiety, distrust, playfulness and high spirits. Learning to channel those emotions in a positive way is a trainers duty! Young horses and those inexperienced to the humans environment will turn to their natural instincts quicker than the ‘been there done that’ older school horse..
If we can take the time to train ourselves in what its like to be a horse we will be moving towards making a better future for tomorrow's horse and rider.
I like to say there's no such thing as problem horses just horses with problem people!
I agree with your last line :)
Interesting read! You made a lot of good points <3
your own thoughts, or quoted from someone else.
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What do you mean by more discipline?
Thank you for this post! I agree that modern horse management practices cause so many issues for our horses both mentally and physically. When you think about the type of lifestyle the horse has evolved to live (roaming open ranges and grazing all day) compared to the confined lives that we push our modern horses into, its no wonder that they are stressed and act out behaviorally sometimes, not to mention the prevalence of colic, ulcers, cribbing, etc. I hope that as the movement grows for people to live healthier lives with more natural foods and time outdoors we can keep the same in mind for our horses!
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