For No Apparent Reason: Learning to understand why horses behave the way they do

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When folks tell me about problem behaviors, I hear one phrase often. I admit I’ve even said it myself when I was a young trainer. “For no apparent reason, my horse….” You can fill in the next part with any frightening horse behavior. Choose from a list such as: bucked me off, kicked me, bit me, ran away, spooked, refused to get in the trailer, refused to go in the arena, reared. The list of behaviors that follows this phrase is long.

This one little phrase—for no apparent reason—seems to absolve the human of all responsibility. Surely the horse was to blame for his unexpected reaction. The phrase implies that there’s something wrong with the horse’s behavior. But there’s an important word buried within this phrase: apparent. Just because the human doesn’t yet know what caused the behavior, doesn’t mean the horse didn’t sense something real. It wasn’t apparent to the handler, but the horse knows what caused the behavior. It’s our job as horsemen to find out what was apparent to the horse.

Behaviors Have Purpose

All behaviors have a reason or purpose. There is always some purpose or meaning behind the behavior that a horse displays. It doesn’t always seem purposeful to us, but it is to the horse. You cannot watch a horse more than a minute without seeing behaviors.

Let’s get this fact straight: just because we do not like a horse’s behavior doesn’t mean that it is a bad behavior. For instance, a horse that kicks is not a bad horse; he’s a horse—they all kick. Horses may kick when they are startled or feeling the need to defend their space—or to ward off a predator. Or it may be an aggressive move to gain dominance. Kicking does not make him a bad horse and it is not a bad behavior from the horse’s point of view. He actually finds it quite useful. It’s just a behavior we humans don’t like, so we think of it as bad.

There should not be any value judgment when observing a behavior. Behaviors that are undesirable to us humans are not bad they just are. The challenge we as horse people have, is to promote the behaviors we want and try to eliminate, or extinguish the behaviors that are undesirable, unsafe or unmanageable– not to get caught up in the horse’s drama and react in an emotional way or take his behavior personally.

I talk a lot in my clinics about horse training—teaching the horse manners, cues, obedience and responsiveness. We are all horse trainers—anytime you interact with a horse, you are either training him or un-training him. It’s just that some people are better at training –or promoting the good behaviors– than others.

Find the Motivation

To me, after a half-century of training horses, the most effective way to have an impact is to first understand the natural and instinctive behaviors of horses. Then try to understand the motivation for the specific behavior. Only once you have an idea of the motivation, employ well-known, science-based training techniques that are proven to be effective (such as classical conditioning, operant conditioning, negative and positive reinforcers, replacement training vs. punishment, finding the amount of pressure needed to motivate change, etc.). If you understand the behavior first, you’ll see that it doesn’t come “out of the blue.” You’ll think of reasons that may have caused the behavior and choose your plan to teach the horse to act another way.

You will always be more effective in changing a horse’s behavior if you can understand the origins of that behavior: is it instinctive or learned behavior; how is the horse benefitting from this behavior; how motivated is he in this behavior; and how engrained or habitual is the behavior (how long has he been doing this)? These answers are sometimes hard to know, but the more you understand about the horse’s behavior, the easier it is to affect change.

Calm and Carry On

Noticing the horse’s body language and state of mind can only happen if you’re calm and paying attention. There is often a mystique around some horse handler’s ability to “read” the horse. You know, some people are nicknamed “horse whisperers.” But reading a horse and understanding his language doesn’t have to be confusing or mystical. If you understand the communicative language of horses (they speak through postures and gestures), they are actually pretty transparent. But you do have to be aware and pay attention. Even a person that has no experience with horses ought to be able to look at one and tell you whether it is relaxed or nervous, attentive or distracted, agitated or content. The information is there—all you have to do is observe and think about what the horse may be sensing.

But keep in mind that because they are herd animals–and prey–they are hard-wired to take on the emotions of the other animals in the herd—and that includes you! If one animal becomes frightened—all the horses in the herd will tend to respond the same way. So when things get tough, it is incredibly important that we humans try to keep our emotions in check. No matter how you feel on the inside (scared, angry, frustrated) keep your body language and emotions in check and remain calm. No need to throw gas on the fire.

Instincts Rule

Recently, the results of scientific research into horse behavior proved something that horsemen have known for centuries. Horses are prey animals and as such, they instinctively hide their pain. Think about it—which horse gets eaten first by the predator? It’s the one in the back of the herd—the slowest, sickest or lamest horse. Horses don’t want to show pain if they can mask it because showing pain shows weakness. This one fact of life explains a lot about horses.

Some horses have a very high threshold of pain and will mask any discomfort they feel (while others, like my horse Dually, will let you know if a hair is out of place). That means it is up to us to become the investigator, to know each horse as an individual, and also we have the responsibility to address every problem as a pain issue first, and rule out any possible physical cause for undesirable behavior before we address it as a training issue. After more than three decades of training horses, I can tell you that more “training problems” originate from physical problems than most people realize.

Also, related to this same instinct, is the horrific instinctive fear that most horses have about being left behind. If you only have two horses at home and you take one out of the pen to ride, it is the horse that is left behind that throws a fit. If you try to hold your horse back in a group trail ride while the others gallop off into the sunset, you are picking a huge fight with your horse that you may not win. The horse’s desire for safety and to be part of the herd is strong.

Horses are herd-bound according to their instinct—it is called gregarious behavior. They simply want to be friendly and be around the herd. Yet we tend to speak of herd-bound, barn-sour behavior as an affliction. The behavior is deemed bad by humans, but it’s simply a typical horse behavior. It is a simple fact of horsemanship that unless and until the horse gets the same sense of security and comfort from you that he gets from the herd, he is not going to want to leave with you. It is not the horse’s affliction—it is your lack of leadership and authority that is at issue; you have to change, not the horse.

Listen to the Horses

We owe it to our horses to understand their behavior and learn more about effective training techniques and to be the strong leader that they need, including accepting responsibility for our own actions or failures. Nothing happens “out of the blue.” Nothing happens “for no apparent reason.” The horses are telling us something with their behavior and we need to help them by finding out what doesn’t feel right.

A great example of this concept happened at one of the shoots for my TV show. In this instance, it would have been easy to blame the horse, but he indeed had something to tell us. His behavior only seemed “out of the blue.”

Several of us were fussing with a horse to get him ready for the segment we were taping (wiping his nose, adjusting the tack, checking the microphone on the rider, etc.). Several people rushing around a horse at one time is a recipe for disaster indeed. But this was a horse we knew and he’s known to have a calm and accepting attitude. Still, it’s just too easy to not notice something that you would see if you were the only one checking tack and doing all in a slow, intricate order. We were saddling the horse with brand new tack—fixing the cinches, adjusting all of the new leather. In the mix and chaos, one of my crewmembers was suddenly kicked.

Some may have said the horse’s kick was “for no apparent reason.” It did seem out of the blue for this horse. But a little investigating showed us it was us humans, not the horse who needed a lesson. As it turns out, the new saddle we placed on the horse had a back cinch that wasn’t connected to the front. In the chaos and hurry, we hadn’t noticed that the hobble had come untied. The back cinch slid back to an uncomfortable position for the horse. It was in the position of a bucking strap! To the horse, the reason for his behavior was obvious. His kick was a behavior to get that out of his space.

Later that evening, my crewmember called his wife—who happens to be a horse trainer. He told her he had gotten kicked. I’m sure he was expecting her to say, “OMG, are you ok?” Instead, her response was, “What did you do to the horse to make him kick you?” (A woman after my own heart!) The fault was with us humans. What wasn’t apparent to us was apparent to the horse. And we now have practices in place to make sure that we slow down and check details instead of being in such a rush to hit record. Only two crew members attending to a horse at any given time. It was a lesson for us to learn. Slow down, notice, and think about what the horse is experiencing.

We, as humans, must accept responsibility for understanding horses better. We must think about why and how our interactions with horses work or don’t work. Horses will never study human behavior or effective training techniques. It’s our job to learn about them. Embrace it—horsemanship is a journey— and the more you learn, the more rewarding it becomes!

Enjoy the ride,

Julie

My Horse Is Herd-Bound And Barn Sour

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My horse is herd-bound and barn-sour–calling to others constantly

Would your horse rather stay with his buddies? Is he letting his voice be known? Follow Julie Goodnight’s behavior and training advice to help your horse willingly leave the herd and be focused on you as the center of his universe.

Does your horse refuse to respond to your aids and throw a wall-eyed fit if you try to ride him out of the barnyard alone? Does he scream in your ear, calling to his herd mates every time you take him out of the pen? Is he unruly in-hand when you take him away from his buddies, stomping his feet and ramming into you?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above questions, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying behavior then give you steps to take to make your horse want to be part of your herd–willing to go with you anywhere.

The Reason
Horses are herd-bound animals. The behavior known as gregarious—defining animals who live in groups and have a specific social order. A herd-bound tendency is one of seven instinctive behaviors a horse acts out—the others center around flight, reproduction, combat, investigation, ingestion and elimination. Being herd bound is a survival skill for horses. They need the protection of the herd for comfort and security–which they want more than anything else in life.

The whinny, one of four audible communications a horse makes, is a high-pitched scream, sometimes ending in a nicker. It’s the loudest and longest audible a horse makes and can be ear-splitting, carrying over long distances. Like all four audible communications, it has specific meaning. The whinny is a social call; a searching call. It means, “Where are my friends,” or “Is anyone out there willing to be my friend?” When a horse is separated from his herd and feels vulnerable and exposed, he will whinny and search frantically until he finds it or a suitable replacement.

The leader of the herd–the alpha individual–is responsible for maintaining the safety and comfort of the herd. As long as the leader is in charge, her subordinates can relax, live in peace, munch grass, roll in the mud and commune with their buddies. Life doesn’t get any better.

You and your horse comprise a herd. At least that’s what you’d like your horse to believe. Due to the hierarchy of the horse herd, within your herd of two, you have two choices: you can be the leader or the follower. There’s no option for equality. Just wanting to be the leader of your herd of two doesn’t make it so; your horse is very adept at detecting leadership skills–or lack there of. In his mind, his very survival depends upon good leadership.

Unless and until your horse can look up to you as his leader, trust that you’re in charge of the universe and able to make him feel safe and comfortable, he’ll not be willing to go anywhere with you and will always be drawn back to the herd he knows.
The Solution

You’ll have to convince your horse that you’re in charge, that you’re a worthy leader. He’ll need to know you can be trusted to enforce rules, keep order in the herd and that you direct all his actions. You’ll tell him when to eat, when to sleep, when to work, when to rest, when to be alarmed, when to be relaxed. You’ll teach him that when he is quiet, obedient and focused on you, you’ll make him comfortable; when he is not, you’ll put him to work. He won’t have to make any decisions because you’re the leader, the Captain of the ship, and you make all decisions. That’s a tall order to fill!

Horses establish dominance in the herd with swift and certain actions, by controlling space and resources. The alpha individual of the herd owns the space of all the subordinate herd members; she can enter their space at any time—and the herd will move judiciously out of her way. A subordinate can never enter her space. Horses are very spatially oriented (unlike us humans) and highly respect the space of their leader. In natural horsemanship, we do groundwork with horses to control their space and actions, gain their respect and focus, until the horse is hooked-on, following with admiration because he feels safe and comfortable in your presence.
Resources include anything the herd values, like food, water, shelter or other horses, and the dominant horse always controls the resources. The quickest way to determine the pecking order of any herd is to watch when they are fed; the alpha always eats first, followed by the beta horse; the last to eat is the omega, if he gets anything at all. Be careful when you feed horses, that you do not reward rude or bullying behavior, even when there is a fence between you and the horse; if he comes to believe he is taking the food away from you and controlling your actions, he believes he is dominant. For this reason, I’m not an advocate of hand-feeding treats to horses; it doesn’t take long before he’s calling you to him by nickering (the second of the horse’s four audible communications), controlling your actions and your resources (keep in mind he doesn’t know it’s horse food and humans won’t eat it).

Do groundwork exercises with your horse every time you get him out, so that he is in the habit of listening to you. There are many excellent exercises outlined in my groundwork DVDs, Lead Line Leadership and Round Pen Reasoning (available at JulieGoodnight.com or 800-225-8827).
If you invest some time in groundwork, your horse will learn to accept you as a suitable leader. Once he begins to accept your authority, do your groundwork further and further away from the barn so it becomes habitual behavior for him.
When you’re riding, be aware of barn gravity and be diligent for any disobedience from your horse, no matter how small. If he cuts corners, slows down going away and speeds up coming back, breaks gait or deviates from the path and speed you have dictated and gets away with it, you’re telling the horse you’re not in charge; not a worthy leader. If you’re in charge, you’re the Captain, there should never be any negotiation, compromise or turning a blind eye to his bad behavior– no matter how minor the infraction.
I ride literally hundreds of different horses each year; between clinics and expos, I sometimes ride or work with as many as 10-15 different horses a week on a one-time basis. In five minutes or less, what I call “the golden moments,” I can convince the horse that I’m in charge by simply controlling 100 percent of his actions and demonstrating my leadership ability. Horses figure this stuff out quickly.
When people come to look at one of my horses for sale, I want to make sure they start off in the Captain’s seat. I tell them to take the horse directly to the rail and go all the way around keeping the horse right next to the fence and controlling every step he takes; then thy can start telling him to do something: stop, go, turn, etc. A well-trained and obedient horse (the only kind I sell) knows immediately that you’re a worthy leader and falls happily into the role of your first mate, eager to carry out your orders without challenge.
When your horse accepts your authority without question, and feels safe and comfortable in your presence, he will no longer be herd bound and you’ll b able to take him anywhere you want to go without so much as a whinny or nicker.

To learn more about teaching your horse to respect your authority and accept you as his leader, check out Goodnight’s groundwork training package with the DVD series, Round Pen Reasoning, and Lead Line Leadership and other training tools at www.JulieGoodnight.com.

Issues From The Saddle: Gate Sour Horse And A Tom Thumb Bit

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Julie,

You have a similar question presented to you being great on the trail but terrible in the arena that you have already answered. That statement is also mine but a different problem. This seventeen-year-old Fox Trotter gelding is new to me and is being ridden western with a tom thumb. All tack fits but I believe there is a small amount of barn sour in this horse’s mind due to his speed home on the trail (holding him to a walk is constant) and having to push him in the arena at the gate. He does ok at the walk and trot in the arena until you get to the gate and have to apply more pressure. Asking him to turn half way down the arena, I really have to pull his head around and his hindquarters fall to the outside. The big problem starts when you ask for a canter. He acts like he’s never done it. For instance, he will take the correct lead half way around the arena, as he makes the turn toward the gate (even half way across the arena) he will break. When I attempt to correct him, he picks up the incorrect lead. I tried ignoring leads entirely and just tried to get him to complete a circle without breaking and I have been unsuccessful, I even tried spurs. I decided to go back to basics, meaning groundwork. He will longe at the walk and trot but I am not able to get him into a canter at all. I have tried a round pen and I am unable to put enough pressure on him to go into a canter. I have found myself becoming very frustrated. I realize it is hard without seeing the exact situation, however, any helpful advice would be appreciated.

Sincerely,
Charlene

Answer: Charlene,

The problems you describe are certainly very common and while that might not make it less frustrating for you, at least there is some hope in knowing that you are not alone and that you can resolve these issues with your horse.

Your horse is certainly gate sour (or barn sour) and this is simple disobedience that he has learned he can get away with. All horses go through this stage but when a skilled rider is riding them, these problems go away quickly because the horse learns it doesn’t work or it is not worth the effort. Sometimes when we think we have won a certain battle (because we got the horse past the gate, for instance) the horse also thinks he won (because maybe he got to pause momentarily or break gait).

One of the best ways to resolve these types of issues is to simply think ahead of the horse. You know exactly where he is going to cause a problem each time around so instead of waiting for the problem to happen and then taking action, be proactive and do something ahead of time, like make the horse speed up before you get there. Also, make sure you are not reinforcing his behavior by stopping him at the gate or dismounting at the gate or, heaven forbid, riding him out of the gate. I always make sure not only that I dismount as far away from the gate as possible and lead my horse out, but also that I work the horse extra hard when he is near the gate so he comes to associate the gate with a not so pleasant place to be. If your horse is disobedient in these areas, chances are he is disobedient in other areas as well, whether it is leading, standing, staying on the rail, staying at a steady speed, or whatever. This is generally one symptom of a horse that is not subordinate to you and does not think that you are in control of him. So, as always, more groundwork is in order.

I prefer to use a flag to do ground work with a lazy horse. A flag is simply a 4’ long stick with a plastic bag in the end. Often, the lazy horses that do not respond to the physical pressure of while, rope or spur will run off easily with a shake of the flag. There is more info on this in an article on my website called “Understanding Natural Horsemanship.”

One final thought: the Tom Thumb is a very harsh bit and not a very useful training tool. There is a Q&A on my website that explains the Tom Thumb that you may want to take a look at.

JG

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Issues From The Saddle: Distracted Herd-Bound Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I was at your clinics last year at the Equine Affair Massachusetts. I tell you, you were the greatest trainer there! My horse, Rufus (an 8 year old large pony trained by my 14-year-old self with my trainer, after being abused for six years) was not trained until he was 6 years old. He isn’t what you’d expect from a rushed horse, he’s doing great and we compete a lot in eventing.

Since he was thrown in a field with other horses until he was 6, he is very social. We don’t have another horse, but when we go to shows or I trail ride with my friends, he goes nuts. He won’t pay attention to me at all, and is constantly neighing to others, especially mares (he did try to breed mares in his old field, and he’s a gelding, we can’t ride him if there’s a mare in heat in the area, he goes CRAZY).

How can I make Rufus behave on trails and at shows? It’s not really in the nature of the breed to be this hyper and, for lack of better term, nuts! (He’s a small quarter horse) When I go to shows, I constantly school him, trying to get him to pay attention, but at times it’s dangerous (like the time he broke the hitching posts to get to another horse). What else can I do? My parents are talking about getting another horse, but since Rufus is still in training, I really don’t think he needs that distraction, since he’s already a bit barn sour and I believe that we should wait until Rufus can listen to ME around other equines…am I correct in this thinking? Well, please get back to me!

Gennie and Rufus

Answer: Gennie,

Your horse’s problem is from a lack of discipline and a factor of not starting his training until later in life. When a horse has not been taught certain rules of behavior by the time he is six or older, he has come to believe that his life ought to be a certain way- and that way is the way it has been for his whole life out in the herd where he could interact with horses as he pleased and be impulsive in his behavior.

The solution to this bad behavior is groundwork, so that your horse learns that you are in fact in charge of every movement and action he makes. My video series on groundwork explains this process in great detail and gives you specific exercises to do to help build a solid relationship with your horse and teach him ground manners. Through groundwork a horse learns that you are in charge, you make the decisions and you dictate the actions he makes—you become his central focus, rather than all the other horses. Horses must learn that when they are around humans, there are certain rules that must be followed, just like there are expected rules of behavior out in the herd.

There are many articles in my Training Library about doing ground work with horses to teach ground manners, obedience, fundamental rules of behavior and to develop the leader-follower relationship with your horse. The most important thing you need to work on with your horse is getting control of his nose. If you can control his nose, both from the ground and from the saddle, you can prevent the problems you are having. Read up on nose-control from the Training Library on my website and get some help doing ground work with your horse.

Horses must learn at some age (the sooner the better) that they cannot act out their impulsive herd behaviors when they are in a working situation or around humans. Even a stallion that is bred a lot can easily learn when that behavior is acceptable and when it is not. Never let your horse fraternize or interact with other horses when you are handling him or riding him. This just should not be allowed; it is not safe and it is not good for herd health, when the horses are from different herds.

In a situations like you describe, it is best to use the training theory known as “replacement training.” This means that when a horse displays undesirable behavior, rather than punish the bad behavior, replace it with another more desirable behavior. In the instance of your horse losing his focus, it might work to put him to work doing something else. I would start immediately working the horse, not in a harsh, quick or punishing way, but just making him do something that would probably involve changing directions again and again. So I might put him to the trot, ask him to turn right, then go straight, then go left, then go straight, then go right, etc. Throw in some transitions so that the horse has to listen to you. When the horse focuses on you, let him rest, but away from the other horses. Do not let him come back to the “herd” until he is quiet, obedient and relaxed. Take him away and put him to work as soon as he becomes distracted again.

From the incidents you describe and the herd-bound behavior you are dealing with, it sounds like your horse is emotionally needy. His herd-bound behavior will only get worse as he ages if you don’t keep a handle on it. Find opportunities to keep him by himself—tied at the trailer alone, in a turn out pen by himself, riding by yourself, etc. This will help him gain independence and also make him more eager to be around you for company.
When you are handling him—riding or groundwork– his focus should be totally on you. If he looks around or is noncompliant, put him to work, take command, get inside his mind and draw his focus back to you. Start with this process while you are riding alone and then insist on the same level of obedience when you are with others. With a real needy or really herd-bound horse, I would have a zero-tolerance policy—focus stays on me at all times.

Examine your relationship with this horse. Chances are there are little things that you are doing that you may not even be aware of that are eroding your authority with him. He needs stronger leadership from you. Does he ever control your actions? Does he invade your space at times; eat grass while you are leading him; ignore your cues? Does he go exactly where you point him and maintain a steady speed that you dictate when you are riding? Has he trained you to feed him treats? If you examine it closely, you’ll probably find some holes in your authority that are not instilling confidence in your horse about your leadership ability.

I’ve said this many times before, there’s only one conversation to have with your horse and it goes like this: “Horse, this is your Captain speaking.” Everything else that follows is a direct order. The horse is your first mate and his job is to carry out your orders—not to ignore orders, suggest alternatives or argue about your decision. If he’s a good first mate he will be the apple of the Captain’s eye and have many privileges, but if he’s not, he’ll be fired and made to walk the plank. This is the kind of relationship your horse knows and seeks—acceptance into the herd of a strong and fair leader and banishment if he cannot abide by the rules. Once he accepts you as that strong and benevolent leader, then the other horses won’t matter so much to him.

I think that if you invest some time in groundwork so that you learn to control your horse’s nose, feet, shoulder and hip, and you gain control over his impulsive actions; you will no longer have the problems you describe. However, I am not disagreeing with your parents, as far as you getting another horse, because if you were my daughter, I would prefer that you have a well-trained, obedient and therefore safer horse that was ready for you to go out and enjoy and accomplish your personal competitive goals.

Julie

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.