Recently I have become quite distressed at the amount of posts I have seen online asking for public suggestions of what to do with their ‘horse from hell’. You will know the kind when you see them; ‘My child’s pony is a spoilt brat, constantly tries to get the better of her and is as naughty as possible. Spooks, bucks, bolts, does everything he can to deliberately scare her. Need someone to teach him a lesson.’ Or ‘My young horse is a little devil. He messes about constantly when he doesn’t want to do something, but can be nice as pie when getting his own way. He is rude and knows he can get away with it. Needs someone to teach him some manners.’
All of these posts list endless imaginative ways that the horse has deliberately plotted and deceitfully planned to outwit their owner. After reading them you would think that all horses were evil mastermind geniuses capable of overthrowing the human race if not kept in their place. What is more bothering though is the onslaught of heavy handed, ill-informed helpers who would be more than happy to come and aid in showing this horse a thing or two. My suggestions of seeking professional help to find the cause of the behaviour and retrain accordingly are lost in swathes of ‘use a stronger bit/ carry two whips/ try this person/ that person/ this method/ that gadget. My heart goes out to the horse in that instance, knowing what sort of retort he is in for, and through absolutely no fault of his own.
One of the major problems with this is the false belief that the horse is being deliberately naughty. The definition for ‘naughtiness’ in the dictionary is: badly behaved, disobedient, failure or refusal to obey rules or someone in authority. This of course depends on the subject knowing exactly what the rules are, and fully understanding the task at hand. They must also be able to perform it, and not hindered by fear, discomfort or pain. Finally they must be suitably motivated to carry out the task. The truth of the matter is that the majority of the horses probably do not understand exactly what is being asked of them, especially if the rider or handler is beginning to get angry, as this will send mixed signals. Essentially, they’re damned if they do, and they’re damned if they don’t - imagine a horse who starts to refuse a jump, and so the rider gives him a sharp smack with the whip before the jump. Very soon the horse starts to learn that the jump means pain, and will refuse it more, so the rider gets even angrier. The cycle continues, with the rider exclaiming what a lazy, naughty, manipulative little so and so the pony is, blissfully unaware that they are the entire problem.
Deception is another kettle of fish all together. In order to be deceptive the animal must be self-aware, in other words they must have ‘theory of mind’. This means that they are able to ‘consider the mental states, intentions and perspectives of others’, and understand how their behaviour will change the beliefs and therefore behaviour of the other (Kuczaj et al, 2001). Now, does that not sound a little too complex for a horse? Theory of mind is an advanced state of consciousness thought to only be possessed by humans and some primates, cetaceans and birds, however even this is disputed (Penn & Povinelli, 2007). Horses on the other hand do not have the cognitive capacity to be able to perform such complex tasks.
Insinuating that horses deliberately go against our own wishes for no other reason than to cause a problem for their owner or to get their own way is a completely reductionist and unjustifiable argument. This statement says more about the person’s lack of understanding than it does about the horse.
Labelling behaviours with human connotations is known as anthropomorphism, and it’s hugely damaging to our ability to understand horses. Describing a horse as lazy, bad mannered, rude or insinuating that he is deliberately undermining you are all perfect examples of this! First and foremost, this hugely over complicates horse behaviour and cognition to something far removed from what is actually occurring. As I have already discussed, horses are unable to speculate on another beings state of mind. They cannot form complex theories as to how their actions might change the beliefs and so behaviour of offers. They simply act in response to learnt experiences about what makes them feel better or worse. It is unreasonable for us to project human emotions onto our horses and expect that this is how they process the world.
Secondly, these negative labels also change the way that people respond to the behaviours. If someone believes that the horse is acting in that way because he is being ‘deliberately difficult’ or ‘trying to scare them’ then they will act emotively and defensively. They are more likely to be punishing and unforgiving of the horse’s behaviour, acting through anger and retaliation. These labels make allowances for heavy-handedness and justify taking negative emotional states out on the horse. After all, he knew what he was doing, right?
So, if the horse does understand what is required, and isn’t being naughty or deceitful, why exactly is he not performing the task? What you are essentially left with is a training error. Now, this is a much less comfortable notion than just blaming the horse for being a horror, but if progress is ever to be made, this is something that needs to be realised.
All of the undesirable behaviours that could possibly be listed are merely the horse’s futile attempts to communicate with the owner that something is massively wrong. The problem is that they have missed, silenced and ignored his efforts so long that now he is practically shouting them for attention. Rather than finally taking notice of this and fixing the problem, they instead try to find someone who can essentially shout even louder. The horse is not trying to scare or get the better of their owner, they are just trying to communicate. What the owner needs to do instead is pay attention and ask why.
First and foremost the issue of pain or discomfort needs to be completely erased before looking at any training solutions. Trying to get a horse to work who is in pain is just asking for problems later on, and is completely unfair on the horse in question. A large proportion of behavioural problems such as bucking, biting and bolting can be traced to present or remembered discomfort. Therefore before any training takes place the horse needs checking by a veterinarian, osteopath and equine dentist at the very least. All the tack must be checked to be well fitting and comfortable. Only when the trainer is completely certain that all of these aspects have been checked by a professional should they proceed.
If the horse is not in pain, or remembering previous pain, chances are that he is scared. Spooking, bolting, bucking and barging are all escape behaviours geared towards self-preservation. The presence of these behaviours suggest that the horse is finding one or many aspects of the situation absolutely terrifying. Even instances of aggression can usually be routed in a fear response. It is the trainer’s responsibility to look into this and try to identify the cause of his fear, rather than rationalise that he just doesn’t want to perform. If they analyse the situation carefully enough they may identify areas within the horse’s education where friction began to arise and was ignored. Did he start to act out of turn when the saddle was introduced? Did the bolting incidents start to happen when he was hacked out alone? Did he start bucking after a scary incident on the arena? This will highlight where the training problem occurred, and most likely was too fast or overwhelming for the horse to process.
Unfortunately most people respond to a ‘naughty horse’ by being tougher and exerting more discipline. However, since most of these behaviours are routed in fear, coming down on the horse with even more punishment only makes them more afraid, and the problem worse in the long term. It’s hardly surprising that whipping a scared horse does not make him less scared!
This horse was very fearful and would repeatedly spook and bolt. Despite this she was forced to stand in the area she found terrifying under the instruction of a professional, as she was believed to be naughty. Looking at her body language you can tell how tense and scared she is, so her response is hardly surprising.
So, rather than being naughty, the horse either does not understand what is required, has learnt to respond in the wrong way, is in discomfort or is afraid. None of these problems will be solved with an iron fist. The trainer must look at the behaviour with fresh eyes, and ask why it is occurring. They must not inhibit their own insight by answering this question with simplistic, anthropomorphic responses such as ‘he’s being naughty’ or ‘lazy’. If problem behaviours are continually misinterpreted as deliberate disobedience rather than a communication problem, the behavioural problem will only be accentuated. Since the problem lies solely with the trainer and training system it will never be truly resolved. By suppressing these evasive behaviours with more force, punishment and fear they are creating ticking time bombs. A terrified horse unable to express his discomfort, who will explode sooner or later as more pressure is put on, creating an extremely dangerous situation. What happens when he injures someone? He is blamed, and sold on, but the problem continues with the next horse and the next until the trainers looks at themselves.
The responsibility lies with the person, not the horse. Take a step back and seek advice from a professional who is well qualified in behaviour, to accurately identify and resolve the problem rather than covering it up.
For the horse’s sake, stop blaming them.
Kuczaj, S., Tranel, K., Trone, M. and Hill, H., (2001). Are animals capable of deception or empathy? Implications for animal consciousness and animal welfare. Animal Welfare, 10, pp.S161-S174.
Penn, D.C. and Povinelli, D.J., (2007). On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a ‘theory of mind’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 362(1480), pp.731-744