• Stephanie

About those "bad" horses...

Were there bad horses before humans decided to tame and ride horses? Probably not. I imagine the very first bad horse showed up as soon as the first horse displayed behavior that was unwanted, inconvenient, or resistant to the human agenda.

One of humankind's responses to bad horses has been an interesting variety of equipment and training techniques to make the bad horses better behaved and more compliant (where the human agenda is concerned). In the face of much of this equipment and many training techniques I have to ask, "At what expense?"

To an observer of both subtle and obvious equine body language, many horses seem more content without a bit in their mouth or a saddle on their back and hanging out with herd-mates as opposed to in the midst of a training or exercise session. Considering that, the importance of well thought out and smartly and compassionately used equipment and interactions becomes paramount.

What does this have to do with the title of this piece?

Many of us have either heard about or met what other people call bad horses. The ones that bite, buck, rear, bolt, or spook come to mind easily. Definitely bad horses, right? How about the ones that are barn sour, refuse jumps, dislike the horse trailer, are girthy, or won't stand still for mounting? Also bad? How about the ones that don't respond to cues quite the way you'd like, that turn their head away when you reach with the halter, whinny for their friends instead of paying attention to you, or prefer to go only one way when lunging? Are they bad too?

What's really going on when we run into a horse with behavioral issues? What if a "bad" horse is really a horse who is scared, confused, uncomfortable, or unwell. How else can horses communicate with us except through body language and behavior? If we miss the head turning away, the holding of the breath, the first signs of tension, then the horse must speak "louder" through more exaggerated behaviors. If they have to resort to rearing, bucking, bolting, biting, and spooking they will, but often by the time that's happening the horses have already been "speaking" to us about the issue in more subtle ways for a while- we just weren't listening.

From my experience, a large number of these "bad horse" issues can be traced to real or anticipated pain or discomfort, and much of that is related to equipment (the physical equipment itself or the use/application of it) or to management issues that fail to take into consideration the physical, psychological, and social needs of the horse. (Sometimes, of course, there are medical issues and those must be ruled out first.)

Behavioral issues are rarely solely training issues, are not solved wholly and thoroughly by more or stronger equipment, and punishment is rarely, if ever, the answer.

There are fair and kind ways forward with win-win solutions. This is why it's important to work with a professional who can examine the big picture as well as the details. You and your horse's health and happiness may depend on it!

Do you have any behavioral issues you're currently struggling with? I'd love to hear from you about your experiences.


​© 2016 by Stephanie Sawtelle