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Naughty Horses, Part 1 - 5 Reasons Horses Misbehave

You get off, you look like you’ve done ten rounds with Tyson and you’re sweatier than your horse! And by the way this is supposed to be your hobby!!!

A naughty horse can be anything from frustrating to down right dangerous so why do horses misbehave? And, more importantly what can we do about it?

First off, DON’T DESPAIR!!! Most problems are solvable with a bit of time and patience, all you need is to be able to break it down and help your horse with each piece of the puzzle. So let’s get started by understanding what’s going on for your horse...

Horses don’t plan, they don’t start their day thinking ‘how can I frustrate my owner’ however much it might feel like that at the time 😬. Horses simply respond to the situation at the time as they see it based on 3 things:-

  • Their instinct (fight, flight or freeze)

  • What they have been taught

  • What their previous experiences tell them - good or bad

This is why it’s so important to ‘finish on a good note’. Try and finish every session on a positive however small the progress may feel on the day, progress is progress, Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that good stuff!! No seriously we all know things take time with horses so don’t despair!

So back to our naughty horses. Why do horses misbehave? Here’s a few possible reasons...

1. They don’t know what to do

2. They have learned to respond incorrectly

3. They are scared

4. They don’t have enough incentive

5. They are in pain

Let’s look at each one of these in turn...

1. Don’t know what to do 🤷‍♀️

To use a cliche ‘there’s a first time for everything’ however old a horse may be if your horse isn’t doing what you want the first question has to be ‘does he/she actually know what I am asking of him/her?’ If they have done it before, have they practiced it enough times to be confident and consistent?

If the answer to both of these is ‘yes’ then the problem is more likely to be associated with one of the other reasons however, it might be valuable to break the task down again and just check that there are no problems with the component pieces.

What to know more about how to do this? Download my free eBook ‘3 steps to help your horse understand what you want’

2. Learned to respond incorrectly

This is one of the most common problems I see, whether it’s teaching a horse to load, teaching him not to nap, to stand for the clippers, to stand at the mounting block, not to spook and so on. Especially young horses need to be taught what’s expected of them in a given situation.

It’s really easy to teach a horse something that you don’t want, if it happens then all is not lost, it may need some unpicking but it’s nearly always possible to resolve these things.

A few years back I met a horse that had real problems going forward and would just stop and plant his feet, his owner described him as not wanting to do it, lazy etc. What had actually happened is every time he napped, the owner had either given up or got so tough with him that he had run off! So what had this horse learnt? If I stop, my rider gives up, well then stopping is not a bad idea, he get's a break, he doesn't know that's not the right answer!! Or, he had gotten scared and all learning/thinking had stopped so he really didn't have an answer in this situation.

Solution... when he stopped, the rider kept her legs on with a squeeze (no kicking) if he didn't go forward from the leg she would then tap him with the stick and keep tapping until he took a step forward, as soon as he did, legs off and stop tapping, even if he was going at the pace of a snail, he was going forward - it's progress I'm looking for not perfection (yet!!). It took a couple of sessions before this little horse worked out 'Hey! Every time I stop she puts her legs on and if I don't got she taps me with this stick, might be better if I just kept going' - problem solved!!!!

3. Scared 😱

Sometimes, even if they have been taught and they have done it lots of times they are simply still scared of that situation, or something has happened to scare them. If that’s the case, then it might be more, calm repetition is required to resolve the fear or that a more indirect route is needed to get them better.

For example the horse that doesn’t travel well because of separation anxiety. Travelling more won’t help that situation, working with the separation anxiety and building relaxation/trust in new environments will be more likely to resolve the problem.

If you have a horse that gets scared you can teach them how to find confidence and relaxation after something has bothered them. This makes a huge difference to the results we get and how relaxed we are! Read my blog mini series on spooky horses for more ideas for scared horses.

4. Not enough incentive

Horses can have bad days too and sometimes they just don’t fancy doing it!! Some horses will just keep trying and doing everyday but others need a bit of extra motivation. If that’s the case for your horse then it’s really important to think about what’s in it for him. Why should he do this for me? And you can’t explain to him that it’s because you pay the hay bill (if only)!!

In these cases I try to find something the horse likes and use that as a reward for doing the task. With my own horses I have one horse who is really motivated by food and one who is motivated by rest so I can use these things to keep them both interested in what we’re doing.

5. Pain 🤕

I think we live in a time when more and more people are understanding that a misbehaviour can be due to pain issues and investigation of pain should be high on the list especially if the misbehaviour has ‘come out of the blue’.

It’s not always the case that pain is at the route but it’s definitely worth ruling it out if it’s out of character for your horse.

Break it down

Except in the case of pain breaking the problem down into manageable chunks is key to being able to solve the problem. So in case of a horse that naps for example I will have a check list of things that I need to ensure the horse understands to be able to resolve the problem.

That checklist might go something like this..

  • Does the horse have a physical problem? Pain/saddle fit/dental

  • How confident is the horse in the environment without a rider?

  • Does the horse move forwards easily on the ground/lunge?

  • How well does the horse respond to direction on the ground? Being asked to stop and turn as well as to go?

  • Are there any mounting problems? - may suggest saddle fit/back problem/bad association with being ridden

  • Does the horse move forwards from the seat/legs? If not, do they understand that they should?

So this is my checklist, if I find a problem at any point I will resolve this before moving on to the next point on my list.

Over the next few weeks I will be looking at each of the reasons horses misbehave in greater detail and also how to deal with some common problems so keep your eye out for the next blog in the series.

I love to hear your comments and questions so drop me a line any time 😊🦄💕

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