The Benefit of The Doubt

I am sitting at the ferry terminal on my way home from teaching a clinic. Reflecting about the events of the weekend a few things came to mind about some of the horses I worked. The horses ranged from old faithful geldings to very inexperienced yearlings to a couple that were exhibiting “problem behavior”. I have long been a believer that problem behavior is only an expression or symptom of a deeper rooted problem. The problem for us is to correctly diagnose what is actually going on so we can truly help the horse overcome their seemingly problem expression. I believe that too many horses are unfairly labeled as problems when really they were just miss understood and miss handled.

Pain, fear, confusion, frustration, poor early training, multiple or inconsistent handlers and in some cases both, ill fitting equipment, environmental factors that the horse can not understand, can all lead to what projects itself as being a problem. Too often we do not see or understand the whole scenario and we jump to the conclusion that the horse is a problem. The horse isn’t usually the problem; he just has a problem that he can’t find a better solution for.

I had a couple of “problem “ situations this weekend, one horse that rears, one horse with a trailer loading issue, different problem situations with different causes and different solutions that were only indirectly related to the expressed behavior.

Horse one – Rearing: The rearing horse was a seemingly quiet, mature mare. She was relatively new to the owner so there was not a lot of background info on her. She had been ridden but was over sensitive with the bit and bridle. When she was being ridden by a heavier rider and got upset and reared up and flipped over. That is about all the info I had to start with.
When I started with her I had her tacked up and started some work in hand using the bridle. I wanted to know just how sensitive she was. It became evident that she was trying to be obedient in giving to contact but was unable to maintain any connection with the bit. She was very stiff laterally through the body. And the combination of forward and contact caused her to stop moving. Her head and neck were consistently too high and tense. I tried to help her learn that she could lower her head and neck to release some of the tension she was holding and she was willing to do what I asked of her but she could not easily bend her neck, her head and neck were just pivoting from her withers. She was also fussing with the bit if there was any contact on it.
At this point I have much more to go on. I know she is obedient and likely sore so I removed the noseband on her bridle to allow her to open her mouth. Dental issues can sometimes cause an increase in tension and discomfort and inflexibility. Once she could open her mouth she did relax quite a bit. I stopped trying to put her “on the bit” when I would take contact with her mouth. I did want her to lower her head and neck and try to bend through the neck which she could not do. Now I have a couple of factors that are contributing to the problem, the stiffness in her neck was not allowing her to relax through her body and she was expecting contact to cause more discomfort so she would overreact through this anticipation of pain. Over the rest of the weekend we tried to help her relax and accept the contact from the bit in a more comfortable way. We encouraged her to bend and soften through the body as much as she could with her neck still out. The solution to her problem never really touched on rearing at all. We addressed the factors that led to rearing and she turned out to be a wonderful, quiet, tolerant, very sweet horse that has been dealing with chronic pain. A visit from the chiropractor will help her with the physical aspect of her problem and a change in approach through understanding what she was dealing with should ensure she does not rear again.

Horse two – trailer loading: The horse was a 5 yr old gelding that has a reasonable amount of trailering experience started to develop a bad habit of bolting out of the trailer. The problem then progressed to bolting to escape his handler. This horse has an undiagnosed unsoundness that comes and goes, Owner and a team on vets are unsure what the problem is. I personally know the horse as I helped start him and have worked with him off and on over the past several years. He is bratty but not a bad horse, but does like to push people’s buttons. He continued to make the trailer a big deal and could be loaded but would not allow a divider or the door to be closed without him bolting to escape.
Knowing the horse helps a lot because I already know what his past education consists of. As I worked with him and the trailer he was just looking for an excuse to bolt, which he did and took me skiing across the yard with him. He fortunately did not get away from me but there was no point in continuing with the trailer while he is only thinking about escaping. I went back to working on helping him learn that escaping and bolting were bad options. He did eventually decide that trying to avoid the situation by getting strong and was not effective. When we approached the trailer again he was apprehensive but he did load and unload quietly. The apprehension comes from anticipation and an expectation that he is supposed to get upset and then escape. Changing the pattern of escape allowed him to think more about dealing with the trailer in a more deliberate manor. I did not have another problem with him at the trailer.

Every horse has the potential to exhibit “problem behavior” although they are not really problem horses. We are often the cause of whatever it is that goes wrong. There is no such thing as a problem horse in the wild so we should accept the responsibility. If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem. If we take the time to analyze the whole picture from where they live, how much turn out they get, and how much companionship they get we often find situations that lead to problems. There are too many variables for me to list them all here but it is almost always underlying factors that are overlooked that lead to behavior changing for the worse. If the behavior is always bad try changing some of your habits before you can expect to change your horse’s habits. Give him the benefit of the doubt and get some help to find resolution. Remember he is not a bad horse but a good horse that has learned to behave badly.
© 2008 Will Clinging