When I hear about a horse with behavioral or training issues the first thing I ask about is the horse’s environment. Although the behavior certainly requires some training to correct, the first step in any problem solving is to determine the cause. Nine times out of ten I find the cause to be environmental.
Horses as a species evolved to live in large open spaces where they would walk approximately 10 miles a day for food and water according to a study published in the Equine Vet Journal on feral Australian horses. Wild horses are also estimated to spend fifteen to seventeen hours a day grazing, according to a study done by the University of Connecticut. This means that wild horses are generally busy moving or eating for most of the time they aren’t sleeping, which accounts for about four hours of the day. The exercise wild horses get is by and large slow, steady walking with minimal intense, concentrated exercise. This lifestyle varies widely from the life of the average domesticated horse.
Domestic horses are normally placed in stalls or small pens for up to 23 hours a day. Even horses in pasture generally do not have enough space to travel the distance a wild horse would unless they are going to spend all day walking in small circles. Instead of spending over half the day grazing, domestic horses normally only get two to three meals of baled forage and grain. This is normally consumed in a few hours, giving domestic horses ten to fifteen hours of boredom wild horses do not normally have.
In addition, domestic horses are generally exercised in short, intense sessions daily. This allows the horse to expend a burst of energy, but also means the horse will always have a bunch of built up energy by his next exercise session since horses evolved for slow, continuous movement.
When we take horses and place them in these unnatural environments some of them cope well, some of them shut down, and some of them develop behavioral issues. How each individual horse reacts depends on how he was introduced to the environment and his own individual temperament / personality. Horses that are by nature fairly laid back and easy going tend to adapt to almost any environment when introduced to it slowly. Horses that learn to shut down with training normally shut down in adverse environments. The more sensitive, anxious, and hot horses have the most trouble adapting to limited exercise and boredom. Of course this is all a generalization because every horse reacts to a situation differently.
Many of the horses I see with behavioral or training issues suffer from limited turnout, limited time spent eating, and limited exercise. This is what I call the perfect storm. The horses are bored and filled with energy. When they are finally released from their prison the horses are increasingly difficult to handle. Some horses might be fairly normal for a few days, a week, even a month. Over time however, the frustration catches up with them and the horses lose the self control they were taught.
This frustration and excess energy turns into spooking, blasting forward both on the ground and under saddle, bucking, rearing, kicking, and biting.
The first thing to do in this situation is to eliminate the excess energy. Put the horse in a round pen or arena if possible and let him run until he is quiet. Then put the horse on a lunge line and work him until he is tired. If the horse is just a little shut down he might not run around when turned loose until something sets him off. Once the horse’s energy is out he should be much easier to handle.
Now you can work on the frustration and retraining. This involves relaxation work to eliminate the frustration and training targeted at preventing the unwanted behavior.
The problem is that if the horse’s environment hasn’t been improved then you will be in a constant “crisis mode”. Every day you will have to get rid of the horse’s excess energy, deal with his frustration, and correct behavior. Since you normally can’t accomplish all of this in one day, the frustration and poor behaviors will escalate over time, even if you are diligent in addressing the issues. In order to actually fix the problem, the environment needs to be changed.
This can be done by putting the horse out in pasture, adding more feeding times, putting hay in a slow feeder, adding turnout (alone or in a group), or moving to a less stressful barn. I’ve seen horses go from dangerous to relaxed, easy horses within a week of being put in pasture or a new facility without any corrective training. The environment makes a huge difference to the horse so finding a solution that works for both the horse and handler is very important. The more natural a lifestyle the horse leads the happier and easier to handle he will be.
I encourage everyone to take a moment to evaluate their horse, his environment, and his behavior. What can you do differently to improve things? Leave a comment below with your experiences of the effect of changing a horse’s environment.