Equine behaviour: tackling the cause not the symptom.
There are many roads to Rome … but some will get you lost.
When people encounter problems with their horses they tend to go through a range of responses – some immediately call the vet as they suspect, or want to rule out, pain as a reason for the behaviour. Others might change the horse’s diet or start adding a supplement to their feed; others might turn to a specific training or horsemanship method, get the saddle checked, turn to a herbalist or aromatherapist and so on. With so many professionals in the horse industry there is no shortage of people to turn to – and this brings both positive and negative effects for horses.
It is vital to note that a high percentage of behaviour problems are rooted in present or past pain. For example, a horse reacting to their owner bringing out the saddle and ‘dancing around’ when being tacked up might have current pain issues associated with the saddle or riding, or might have had such pain in the past and although there is no current pain the horse has learnt and remembered a negative association between the saddle and pain and is behaving accordingly. Thankfully most people in this situation would call the vet out although it is very concerning how common it is for owners to fail to do this and call out another specialist instead. Any professional working with horses should work under vet referral and insist that pain is first ruled out as the cause of the problem but some do not. When pain is ruled out sometimes the unwanted behaviour goes away but sometimes the horse needs help to re-learn that the saddle is OK.
Many trainers and owners see the adoption of a method of ‘horsemanship’ as a way of solving a myriad of equine behaviour problems. However, I argue that although training might help in some situations it often doesn’t address the cause of a problem but rather addresses the symptom. For example, let’s consider a horse who is bucking when ridden. The owner first rules out pain, by having vet and saddle checks, and then turns to another professional for help. The trainer or instructor, depending on what method they advocate, might suggest schooling, or a natural horsemanship proponent might advise that the horse needs more groundwork in an attempt to improve the relationship between horse and owner on the ground before resuming riding. A clicker trainer might suggest the use of reward-based training to improve the relationship and ridden work and to establish a positive association with tack; a herbalist might suggest a calming supplement. All these approaches might be effective to a greater or lesser degree. However, the one thing they have in common is applying a tool to tackle how the problem manifests, not the cause of the problem. As such only looking at a problem through a restricted lens might overlook important issues and could make the problem worse or put horse and owner in a dangerous situation.
Behaviourists instead take a wider perspective. Only by addressing the root cause can we be sure to solve the problem effectively and safely and ensure that we won’t just get another symptom emerging as the problem is being tackled. Also it wouldn’t be ethical to train a horse to put up with pain or fear (even if you use reward based training) without tackling that underlying pain or fear; and it wouldn’t be ethical to focus on training the horse if the rest of their life is so ‘unhappy’ through poor management practices that they aren’t in a position to learn. Many riding instructors, back-specialists, trainers, nutritionists and other professionals would consider the management/whole picture but these are few and far between.
The process – finding and addressing the cause
So the behaviourist would take a full case history, including how the horse is managed and find out about the problem in detail before observing the horse, and finally talking through the findings with the owner and working with the owner to put together a feasible programme for behaviour modification. The process focuses on practical elements – there is no point discussing all the theory if the solution lies in the practical application.
The approach behaviourists use places some emphasis on the everyday life of a horse. The way we keep and manage our horses is important for their physical and mental well-being and affects how well they will be able to learn, remember and cope with what we ask of them. Horses are social animals with the physiology to graze for 16-18 hours a day, moving and eating gradually. When they are kept in stables, these needs are not met and this ‘frustration of goals’ can manifest in problems such as stereotypical behaviours (crib-biting, box walking etc.), and rebound behaviours (leaping around when turned out after a period of confinement). Ideally horses would live out with constant access to a shelter/barn. However, this is not possible for practical reasons for many horse owners and so the challenge then lies in trying to meet the horse’s needs given the constraints of restricted grazing or the typical livery yard. It never ceases to amaze me how many behaviour problems dissolve when the management is addressed so that the horse leads a more natural life and even if extensive training programmes are needed then the horse is in a much better position to start them once happy with the environment in which he/she is kept.
So, when management has been addressed, or for horses living out in social groups in an enriched environment, behaviourists go through all the possible reasons for the development of the problem behaviour and suggest approaches to solve it. There are five main elements to this process:
a) Considering whether the behaviour is normal for horses, normal but out of context or abnormal. Many behaviours are normal for horses but are unwanted! Eating a small amount of bark is normal for a horse (horses diets would naturally contain 10% trees and bushes) but if your horse is eating your prize apple trees then this is unwanted behaviour. The behaviour might be ‘normal but out of context’ – to eat a small amount of bark/wood is normal but for a horse to eat his/her way through a stable door is not! Or the behaviour might be abnormal – eating non-nutritious substances such as plastic or sand (known as pica) is abnormal. It is important to understand which category the behaviour falls into before considering how to modify, provide an alternative outlet or prevent it and behaviourists use their extensive knowledge of equine behaviour to understand the problem.
b) What learning is involved? There are many different ways that horses learn and behaviourists have a full understanding of this which is important when considering how to train them to do something different. If a behaviour has become ‘automatic’ (classically conditioned) then it will need to be tackled in a different way to if the horse is still learning about an object or experience. This is a fascinating topic we will be coming back to in future articles when we consider some common behavioural problems for horses.
c) Relevant physiology – an understanding of physiology is important. For example, the chemicals involved in the biology of aggression mean that movement can make it worse, thus it is important to do slow or stationary work with horses with aggressive tendencies. There is certain physiology associated with stereotypical behaviour that make these behaviours ‘addictive’, and many sexual behaviours have physiological aspects that must be considered in order to provide an appropriate programme.
d) Welfare – safety and welfare is of paramount importance; if a horse is suffering through management or training regimes the behaviourist will work with the owner to address this as a priority.
e) Owner-horse relationship – behaviourists also have counselling skills as often part of the problem lies with the owner’s perception of the problem, confidence in themselves, and their own fears, concerns and expectations.
The behaviourist can work with the owner to construct a plan of action. This is likely to involve management changes, handling and training practice, and of course input from vets or other professionals as appropriate.
I hope that this insight into what an equine behaviourist does has whetted your appetite to find out more.