Monthly Archives: May 2005

Problem Horses

Problem horses are not generally born problem horses, they have been taught to be problem horses! There are certainly a few exceptions to this but as a rule they behave they way they do because of the handling they get or lack of handling as the case may be. They most effective way of dealing with problem behavior is to prevent it in the first place. Unfortunately this is not always possible, and if you find yourself with a horse you can not manage what then? There is a solution to most problems that horses develop. Unfortunately there are some that are so well established in their problem behavior that they are not fixable. Fixable is also a relative term as there are several factors that determine whether a problem horse has actually changed their behavior permanently.

If you have a young horse that is essentially a clean slate you are in a fortunate position. You are capable of creating and directing behavior patterns that the horse will live his life by. This is a big responsibly and one that should not be taken lightly. Many young horses are spoiled by inexperienced hands. It is not the inexperience itself that causes this but a lack of understanding of how horses learn and often input from other horse people offering bad advice although given with the best of intentions or good advice taken out of context. When this advice is received by inexperienced handlers they are not able to tell whether the advice is valid. Mistakes are made and not resolved and this leads to horses developing resistant or evasive behavior because they know their handler does not know how to get what they are asking for.

If we can understand why horses behave the way they do we can start to notice problems before they are developed. This is best accomplished by studying your horse. If you pay closer attention to your horse when interacting with him he will tell you all you need to know. How does he react when you ask him to do something? He will ignore you, challenge you, anticipate what you are asking for, respond correctly or run away from you. Which response you get should indicate what you need to change if anything. Maybe you need to be more difficult to ignore, or be less predictable, maybe more confidant, or more assertive, possibly more sensitive? If you try a different approach it might be enough to change the response you are getting for the better. If you teach good habits you won’t need to fix bad ones.

If you have a horse that is already established in his poor behavior you will have a tougher job. Remember that your horse is not bad rather he behaves badly. There is a difference. Before you can start to change things you need to determine a set of guidelines for you and your horse. Do not set unrealistic goals for either of you. Be prepared to consistently correct the behavior you don’t want and reinforce the behavior you do want. Inconsistent handling will not change problem behavior and will more likely reinforce bad habits rather than good ones. The beauty of horse training is that there are no set rules. If you are your horses’ leader you are allowed to make all the rules! Be disciplined, if you do not fix the things that go wrong every single time as they are going wrong they will never be right.

There are solutions for most problems. There are unfortunately several limiting factors that can slow or prevent progress. It has taken me many years to accept that I can not help them all. The older the horse is the harder to change his behavior. The quality of the early training the horse has to fall back on. If he had a good start he will often remember with a little help how he is expected to behave. If he has been abused he may be very difficult to help. Mental trauma has a way of building walls around what a horse has left of his true personality. These horses are sometimes unwilling to accept our offers of help. These horses need special sometimes extreme measures to get through to and are not for the inexperienced handler. Love and gently handling will not always get through to them.
Some horses are just plain mean. Just like people there are a few bad apples. No amount of training will discourage this type of horse. If you feel you may have a truly bad one get a few trusted opinions before you decide what to do.

Economics is the last limiting factor in changing behavior that I want to mention. Is your horse worth what he might cost you to try and change him into a horse you can enjoy? There is the emotional cost also to think about. Are you prepared for disappointment if the money runs out before he is reformed? What if he is beyond salvage? There are no guarantees in life or horse training. We all have the occasional disappointment. Given enough time (possibly years) I believe that they are all fixable but that brings us back to the limiting factors for changing behavior.

Most horses will respond positively to remedial training. The handling he will get when he returns to the environment where the behavior was established will dictate how long he remains well behaved. If the handler is not part of the solution, the problem behavior will likely return. It is important for the handler to understand the remedial training and continue it or the time money and emotion involved in the process may be wasted. To quote Ray Hunt “they live what they learn and they learn what they live”