“My horse used to be perfect, now he bucks so much I can’t ride him anymore!”
“I love my horse, but she just started spooking at everything, I don’t know why!”
Sound familiar? There are many reasons our perfect horses go from being Mr. Reliable to Mr. Unpredictable. Most of the time our horses are simply trying to communicate with us and we have missed previous changes and communication efforts, however subtle. Our horses then become frustrated and increase their negative behaviour to make sure they are being heard.
Horses are not vicious, vindictive or aggressive by nature. It is most often a cause and effect. Did you know that almost 80% of horses experience some form of back pain at some point during their life? It is no wonder we see behaviours!
Some indications of pain that we sometimes mistake for bad behaviour may include:
- Refusal or Balking. A horse may refuse to take equipment, or move forward in order to tell us something is going on. These are gentle conversations and should be taken seriously. Make sure your horse is sound, complete a body check & check equipment. A perfect example of this is a horse I have recently started working with. She was perfect, on the lunge for her owner. I arrived to work her and needed to use a saddle that was already at the barn. We went to the arena to lunge and she bronced like a rodeo star. We put it off to the wind and weather, let her settle in, which she vaguely did and figured we would try a lap of the ring. Upon stepping into the saddle both her owner and I could sense and feel the tension. Again, putting it off to the weather, we did our one lap, with MANY refusals and balking. She preferred even to go backwards to forward. Our next session together, I tacked her again and lunged. It was a beautiful day. She started to crow-hop, her owner didn’t understand because she was perfect on the lunge just the day before. We both decided she didn’t like the saddle (which had been checked for fit, both times and was deemed both safe and acceptable to work in). We switched her equipment, which freed up her shoulders and she worked the ring at a walk/trot with NO refusals and NO balking.
- Nipping and Biting. Horses may bite or nip, when you feel there is NO reason for this behaviour. This can be associated with meals and/or be a behavioural issue. Or it could be an indication of pain. Take note of when your horse tries to nip and bite. Mounting? Dismounting? Tacking? When you run a brush in a certain spot? Make sure if your horse recently started nipping that you do a thorough body check. Check for spots of rainrot, bruising, or heat that you may not have noticed. Flinching, or tail swishing. Ensure your equipment is fitted correctly. Any changes to their diet or environment? If you can’t figure it out, make sure you talk to your vet and/or equine body worker. There may be some medical concerns such as ulcers, or skeletal adjustments that need attention!
- Threatning to kick during grooming, tacking and ground work. Horses that threaten to kick are not only dangerous, but can be a ticking time-bomb. They are talking loud and clear. If your horse has been trained and this is not a dominance behaviour, you need to look very closely at your horse’s situation. I once knew a horse that kicked a brush out of my hand. Upon further investigation she had ovary issues and would kick in anticipation of pain. Pulled and torn muscles, as well as internal concerns can cause a horse to kick.
- Shying and Spooking. Horses sometimes shy or spook at things that used to seem familiar to them. This is because they are in a heightened state of “Fight or Flight”. Many things can cause your horse to become reactive and trigger their “Fight or Flight” response. One of those causes is pain. Your horse is no longer focused on learning or the task at hand; they are in reaction mode. This doesn’t mean they want to be bad, it means they are stressed. Horses are excellent communicators and they tell us in many ways that something is going on. It is our job to observe and question new behaviour and not assume they are simply acting out.
- Bucking and/or Rearing. This is dangerous and escalated behaviour. If a previously reasonable horse is showing a new desire to lift limbs and hooves off the ground at accelerated rates, there is something going on! This could even be a dental issue! Horses often rear if they don’t understand the demands of a bit, or they are “over-bitted”. Going back to “pressure and release”, if we ask our horse to move forward but the bit is hurting or is too strong, their only release is avoidance of the pressure by up or down. Bucking can be an indicator of many things, back pain, pulled muscles, shoulders being pinched, saddle pads that are non-supportive.
I have stories and examples of MANY scenarios where bad behaviour seemed to come out of nowhere. I’m sure you all have some of your own! Just remember, our horses love us. They want to enjoy their time with us, they are social creatures. If their behaviour changes, increases, or disappears, make sure you question it. Always complete a thorough body check and equipment check. Rule out any medical and physical concerns before assuming your horse is “just being bad”.
What are your experiences with bad behaviour?