When horses act up, it’s easy to point the finger back at them. But what many horse owners may not know is that their own management practices may actually be to blame. At least this is what many equine behaviorists believe, including Beth Gibbons, whom I recently interviewed for my blog, The Naturally Healthy Horse. Whether your horse has an annoying habit such as stall weaving or wood chewing or even if he’s anxious while being ridden, there’s a reason why this behavior developed.
“The horse’s environment has a much greater impact on their behaviour than most people believe,” said Gibbons. “It is a common misconception that the horse’s management and training are two separate, unrelated components, when in reality they are both intrinsically linked.”
Modern-day horses live nothing like their ancestors or even today’s feral horses. More often than not, we keep our horses in small pastures, pens, or stalls, and their care usually revolves around our own lifestyle.
“Being managed in a manner which prevents the vast majority of the horse’s natural behaviours creates a huge amount of stress,” said Gibbons. “Most horses kept in this way are chronically stressed, which in turn, contributes to a multitude of behavioural as well as physical problems.”
At the top of this list is feeding practices. Horses’ digestive systems are designed for a near continual intake of small amounts of forage. But instead, we tend to feed one or two ‘meals’ a day, which often include high energy concentrates, along with an inadequate amount of forage.
“Feeding concentrated feeds rather than ad lib forage has been scientifically linked to an increase in oral stereotypies such as crib biting and wind sucking,” noted Gibbons.
Gibbons also relayed that many of the behaviors we view as “bad” are actually just coping mechanisms for the horse as he tries to deal with stress. Alternatively, these behaviors may also be a learned response as the horse tries to avoid something he finds unpleasant.
“I believe that most of these behaviours come down to a fear response,” said Gibbons. “For example, horses who are aggressive towards people are fearful of what may happen if the person touches them. Spooking and bolting are a response to a perceived threat. Present or remembered pain will also create a fear response in the horse.”
“These problems are then further compounded by trainers and handlers using excessive force or punishment in an attempt to resolve it. This creates negative associations with the training, and even more stress and fear. In a process known as second order conditioning, these negative associations also become generalised to other related experiences. The horse goes on to develop more behaviours to cope with the increased stress and avoid the negative experiences, and the cycle continues.”
According to Gibbons, untreated pain can lead to behavior problems as well. If a horse displays any type of avoidance behavior, such as flinching, reluctance to move under saddle, or resistance to the bit, this is a good indicator that pain is present. In this instance, a trip to the vet is called for.
So how does one go about changing negative behaviors in his/her horse?
Gibbons said, “The best way to address these behaviours is to first address the environment to reduce chronic stress. This may involve moving yards or changing your entire management practises, and will certainly take continual tweaking. Nevertheless, it is essential to get right.
This may include having constant access to an outdoor area such as a field or yard space, living in a permanent herd, and developing lasting social bonds, as well as being fed ad lib forage.”
She advised that changing the environment should come before behavior modification training. But once the environment has been addressed, “Non-forceful behaviour modification techniques such as positive reinforcement training may be used to address the cause rather than the symptom.”
If the horse owner feels he/she cannot completely address the negative behaviors, seeking the help of a qualified equine behaviorist is always a good option.
Gibbons noted, “With a physical problem you would contact your vet, if it was a rider problem you would ask your riding instructor, and likewise behaviour problems should be referred to a behaviourist.”
Beth Gibbons is a qualified Animal Behaviorist who works with horses in the UK. She upholds the belief that no person has the right to cause pain, suffering or fear to any other individual, and says this is equally relevant when it comes to dealing with horses. To learn more about Beth and what she does, please visit her website.