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Horse Behavior

Horse Behavior: Forgetting a Painful Past

If your horse becomes uncooperative, whether overnight or over time, there is always a reason—whether physical, mental or emotional. Photo by Dusty Perin

If your normally cooperative horse has become resistant to something he’s done willingly for ages, it’s important you investigate what’s causing his change in attitude. Often what we call “bad behavior” in horses is simply a lack of training, but sometimes it’s a response to pain. When a horse begins to do something out of character—like making a face as you tighten the girth, not picking up a specific lead, or stopping at jumps—something is off. It’s important to consider the question: Is my horse in pain?

These types of changes are worth a call to your veterinarian, who will most likely conduct a physical and lameness exam to determine if and where the horse is experiencing pain. Unfortunately, once the source of the pain is located and treated, your horse may still act differently. Why is this?

The horse may have formed a habit, which can persist long after the pain is removed. Because of this, some horses will need retraining after the physical problem is resolved.

The goal is to override the negative reaction with training or desensitization, thus turning him back into a steady mount. It should go without saying that if the horse is dangerous, a trusted and qualified trainer should be enlisted to help.

How can you get your horse to forget his painful past?

BE PATIENT: Patience is key when teaching your horse that what hurt before, whether it was a tack issue, a physical issue or something else entirely—like loading in the trailer or being seen by a vet—won’t harm him anymore. The equine memory is long; horses can remember who treated them well and who caused them pain (intentional or otherwise), so it’s not a surprise that they can hold on to painful memories for a long time. Rushing to overcome a bad memory will only worsen the problem.

PROVIDE POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT: Also called “counterconditioning,” positive reinforcement rewards the horse for handling the previously feared stimulus, such as picking up the hoof or asking for a lead change.

It’s helpful to think of this retraining as training for the first time, where the focus is to not push your horse past his comfort zone and to ensure each session ends on a good note. Always reward your horse for good behavior and gently correct him for the incorrect response.

If a horse becomes dangerous after developing a bad habit in response to pain, then you may need to call in a professional to help. Photo by Dusty Perin

DON’T PUNISH “BAD” BEHAVIOR, even if you feel that “he knows better.” A major shortcoming of punishment is that it doesn’t address the fear at the root of many behavior problems, and fear cannot be reduced through force or pain. Instead, punishment validates the horse’s fear.

WORK IN SMALL BLOCKS OF TIME AND REPEAT THEM OFTEN: Counterconditioning works best with gradual exposure to the thing that’s causing the horse anxiety, also called desensitization. This is especially helpful for horses that are fearful of being handled by the vet because of a prior negative experience.

DISTRACT THE HORSE WHILE WORKING ON THE FEARFUL SUBJECT: This could involve asking the horse to do something he’s very familiar with to shift his attention away from the feared thing. It could also involve things like wither scratching or brushing to divert his attention. For example, scratching a horse’s neck while the farrier trims his hooves may stop him from pulling his feet out of the farrier’s hands.

Remember, if your horse becomes uncooperative, whether overnight or over time, there’s always a reason. It may be physical, mental or emotional, but no matter the cause, once the reason is identified and addressed, it’s your responsibility to kindly and methodically help your horse forget his painful past.

This article on horse behavior issues related to pain appeared in the March 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Sarah E. Coleman

Based in Lexington, Ky., Sarah Coleman has a soft spot for chestnuts with chrome, including her off-the-track Thoroughbred, Chisholm. The pair competes in the hunters.

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