As a trainer one of the most difficult tasks I am faced with is determining whether a horse’s problem is due to pain or due to purely poor behavior. Figuring out the root cause of the problem is essential to fixing it. For instance, if I have a horse with a bucking problem that bucks when he feels nervous I can fix that by helping him feel less nervous. However if that same horse is bucking because his back is hurting I can work on his anxiety until I am blue in the face and I won’t get anywhere because his back still hurts.
Oftentimes bad behaviors are a coping mechanism for pain. However, once the horse becomes accustomed to the behavior he will often continue to do it long after the pain is gone. Thus the difficulty of the task. Even if I know the behavior originated from pain I need to be able to tell when the behavior is no longer being reinforced by pain and is merely habit.
When I am faced with these situations the first thing I tried to determine is what situations or physical pressures cause the horse to exhibit the particular undesirable behavior. Once I figure out all of the causes for the behavior then I can start to look at why the horse responds to these particular situations as he does. Eventually I can then narrow down the suspected root cause.
For instance, if we go back to the bucking horse maybe he bucks when I put my leg on. If he only ever bucks when I put my leg on then I know it has something to do with me putting my leg on. This could be the emotional relation he has to me putting my leg on or the physical reaction he has to either me putting my leg on or what is going to happen next. Still a lot of things to narrow down.
I might further test this theory by working with the horse on the ground. If sending him forward makes him buck then I know that moving forward is causing the bucking. If my hand pressing on the horse’s side causes him to tense, kick out, or buck then I am fairly certain there is a physical issue with pressure.
Once I have some theories on the root cause of the problem then I will test the theories by working through part of a suspected issue and seeing if it has any effect.
For instance if I suspect the horse bucks in fear of being forced into something scary I will build trust and relaxation. As this gets better the horse should buck less and it should take more to trigger the buck. If this doesn’t help at all I go back to the drawing board.
If I suspect ulcers then I will have a vet out to diagnose the horse of suspected ulcers and treat accordingly. Whether or not this solves the problem I can safely assume it will be helpful to the horse and I can then work through the residual habits once the treatment is over.
Figuring out why a horse performs a specific behavior is a difficult, lengthy task. It is a bit like putting together a puzzle upside down. You end up searching for pieces and seeing if they fit with no understanding of what you are putting together.
In order to be fair to the horse I always look for physical causes for behavior before mental causes. If there is any soreness, heat in a leg or joint, swelling, back pain, suspect mouth, ulcer signs, tense muscles, etc. I work with a vet to rule out issues. I do this before ever working with a horse that has come in for training with behavioral issues.
Once I have a fairly good idea the horse isn’t in pain I will look at symptoms of stress, anxiety, and fear. Very rarely does a horse misbehave for the sake of misbehaving. Some horses are very good at hiding anxiety so it can take a trained eye, but this is always a good thing to work on regardless of the horse so I will always incorporate relaxation into my training. If the problem persists even when the horse is relaxed through whichever exercise prompts the poor behavior then the horse is confused or I must have missed something.
Oftentimes working on relaxation will also accentuate any lameness or pain source the horse might have. If I suspect the horse does have a physical issue a vet cannot easily find then I will often work on relaxation until the issue becomes more clear.
While working with the horse I will respond to the undesired behavior by immediately redirecting and moving on. If the horse is confused that will take care of the issue. If that doesn’t then I am back with a vet digging for more potential issues, checking saddle fit, and going over every possible source of discomfort.
Although this process is lengthy, it is the only way to ensure a bad behavior is actually eliminated and to do due diligence in respecting and caring for the horse. All too often trainers merely hide problems by covering them up. They reprimand horses for expressing fear, pain, or discomfort. The horse learns to hide his pain and fear, which comes natural to them as prey animals. When the horse goes back to the owner the problem eventually resurfaces either because the horse becomes more uncomfortable and can no longer deal or he realizes he will no longer be punished for misbehaving. Then we move into the cycle of trainer tune-ups which I talked about here in case you missed it.
It is far better and far fairer to the horse to take your time to uncover the why of a problem instead of finding ways around it. Over time you have a nicer, more reliable horse who knows he can let you know when he is in pain or struggling with fear. Always look to rule out pain and anxiety when dealing with poor behaviors then find a calm, kind way to redirect the behavior until the horse learns a new way.