"Naughty" horses... Do they really exist?
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
We've all been there. In that session, where the instructions are coming and you're trying desperately to follow them, but your horse just won't listen. The frustration is rising, you try harder and harder, but your horse has decided that today, just when you're forking out 70€ for a lesson, is the day that she will not cooperate. Things escalate, and oh, there's that annoying buck that she throws whenever you decide that enough is enough and that canter transition needs to come NOW. Damn her. Or, maybe, your horse has it out for you when you try and girth him up. You know him now though, and you see those teeth coming before he can get you. So, you're faster than him and land a smack before he can land a bite. Naughty horses. We all know them. But what if we don't actually know them at all? Horses are social animals by nature. They have cooperative and communicative instincts because this is how herds work and maybe not in domestic settings, but in the wild, cooperation can definitely mean the difference between life and death. So in animals who are instinctively social and cooperative, why is it that "naughty" horses are so common? Why is it that we, as owners and professionals, encounter what we consider bad behaviour so often?
Well, the truth is that a "naughty" horse is communicating extremely loudly because they are uncomfortable with whatever is happening. Pain, fear and confusion or all three are very powerful and disruptive emotions. They provoke massive reactions from animals who are sensitive and who are flight animals by nature. The truth is that a horse who is not listening, who bucks when they are obliged to do something (that pesky canter transition from earlier), or who bites when you tighten the girth, is a horse that is trying to tell you something is wrong. There are many, many reasons a horse may exhibit what we as humans deem "bad behaviour" and the main ones are pain, stress or both with a healthy dose of confusion. Horses experience pain from teeth issues (avoiding the contact, refusing the bit, bolting, rearing...) and need to be seen regularly by a good dentist. Think about it, we put metal in their mouths. If their teeth and mouth hurt, of course this will be painful to them and they won't want to be involved in anything relating to the bit or bridle. Saddle fit is essential for horses to be comfortable during riding and bad saddle fit can provoke enormous problems... Remember that buck and bite from earlier? Yep, that could be due to inappropriate saddle fit. If your horse doesn't stand still at the mounting block, that could also be linked to your saddle fit. Think about it, their saddle fit is just as important as our own shoes fitting. If our feet are cramped and painful, we can't walk properly. Bad saddle fit causes pain and discomfort which means that horses find it painful to move under this saddle and will show this in their behaviour. Linked to saddle fit, is back pain. Any pain in this area will enormously affect the horse's way of going and remember that Kissing Spines is present in many more horses than we think. Some horses don't present with painful symptoms, most do in one way or another. I know if my back hurts, there's no way I'll be letting anyone touch it let alone sit on it. And if I'm forced to take weight any way... well, I know I'll be throwing bucks and doing my best to avoid that pain.
These are just some of the physical reasons a horse may be "naughty". But stress is also a major factor to consider. Many horses are actually not physically capable of performing what is being asked of them. We are driven by results, but training takes time and it cannot be forced otherwise you will experience setbacks at some point down the line. A horse not yet strong enough to canter, may well bolt out of sheer panic when forced to do so anyway. And boom, there's that "naughtiness" again. A horse overfaced in showjumping by going from 70cm to 80cm instead of going through 75cm first, may refuse or run out because the step being asked is too large. Again with the "naughtiness". Man, this horse is really testing my patience. A horse being asked to lead all the way to the field when they're barely halter broke is likely to pull away and panic again purely because they are stressed and cannot cope with the questions being asked. "Naughty" horse, they should know better.
Horses communicating this way have already been showing signs that there's a problem well before explosive behaviours appear. It is our duty and responsibility to learn what these signs are and respond to them appropriately.
The truth is that horses are never "naughty". They do not go out of their way to inconvenience us. Nor do they decide to be difficult because you happen to be paying for a lesson. Perhaps many of you reading this are shocked to think that there are people who could feel this way, perhaps some of you feel uncomfortable... Either way, it is essential to discuss these "naughty" behaviours because understanding the reasons behind them and addressing them will help the horse cease the behaviour. It will make for a happier horse and owner. It will make for a better bond between horse and human. Horses do not speak. They don't vocalise like dogs when they are in pain. Behaviour is their language. It's up to us to hear their voices.
So, no, "naughty" horses do not exist.
Fureix, C., Menguy, H., & Hausberger, M. (2010). Partners with Bad Temper: Reject or Cure? A Study of Chronic Pain and Aggression in Horses. Plos ONE, 5(8), e12434. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0012434
Greve, L. & Dyson, S., 2014. Saddle fit and management: An investigation of the association with equine thoracolumbar asymmetries, horse and rider health. Equine Veterinary Journal, 47(4), pp.415-421. doi: 10.1111/evj.12304
Hendriksen, P., Elmgreen, K., & Ladewig, J. (2011). Trailer-loading of horses: Is there a difference between positive and negative reinforcement concerning effectiveness and stress-related signs?. Journal Of Veterinary Behavior, 6(5), 261-266. doi: 10.1016/j.jveb.2011.02.007