Is My Horse Naughty or Nervous?

By Kelly Marks

Horse rearing. Is this horse being naughty or is he nervous?
U.A.E. Windsor International Horse Trials 2004 27th/30th May Cross Country John-Paul Sheffield and I Wonder

“Is My Horse Being Naughty?” An all To Common Question…

A common question I am asked, as if it is going to melt away all further difficulties with horses, is “How can you tell if my horse is genuinely frightened?” or “is my horse taking the mickey” or “is my horse just having me on?” or “is my horse being naughty” and so the questions go on about horse behaviour. 

The reason I find it hard to give a short answer to the “is my horse frightened or naughty?” question is because, for an awful lot of people, once they have established the horse is not frightened and they assume that therefore he’s being “naughty‟ and  they immediately feel punishing the horse is justified. Let’s think, for instance, if someone invited you round to their house for drinks, and you said “No, thanks”, and they established that it wasn’t because you were frightened.  Would they then be justified in labelling you an “awkward cow”? For screaming and shouting abuse at you, and perhaps hitting you as well?  Of course not.

Can you see there would be a better way for them to achieve the results they would like?

You may still want to know “how can I tell if a horse is frightened or not?”…

Well for one thing you can tell if a horse is frightened as you will feel his heart beating much faster than normal and when you’re working on horse behaviour this is a . useful skill to have with horses. With sufficient experience you can see the horses breathing and pulse rate go up even when you are standing some distance away. When you are riding you can feel his heart rate even through the saddle flaps. That is the time to just sit still and give the horse time to process what he is seeing. Be aware of how different their eyesight is to ours. From the side a horse will see things through one eye. They then have to move their head to try and take in what they are seeing with both eyes. Binocular versus monocular vision also helps them judge the distance more accurately.

Another general guideline to tell if a horse is frightened is that if you put more pressure on the horse. For example: hitting, pulling, pushing –  the horse’s body will become ever more tense and the more dramatically he’s likely to resist.

If Not Fear Then What’s Next?

So, if he’s not frightened what’s the next step? Does punishment and fear get results with horses? Sadly it can. If someone held a gun to your head or threatened you with violence in some way you are very likely to do what they say until you can find any alternative. If someone is strong and tough they may make bullying tactics work for them. However, sometimes there is payback.  Also sometimes you need to make a decision about the kind of human being you want to be.

 Though it’s interesting that people who are outstandingly successful with horses and have the build to take those options also choose not to; much preferring to work in cooperation with their horses. If our horse is frightened we have to help him overcome that fear. For example: with a horse that is frightened of loading in a trailer, trying to analyse exactly what the fear is and setting up small goals . These goals could include leading him over a wooden bridge, taking him under some tarpaulin, leaving the trailer in the field and putting his feeds on the ramp.

If we honestly believe our horse is not frightened, and people are often very bad at judging this, we have to think of a way to get him to want to do as we ask.

is this horse naughty or frightened?

Your Horse Is Not Your Rival

Now you may well say that as you feed, muck out, groom this horse in all weathers as well as paying enormous bills on his behalf you are entitled to exemplory horse behaviour.

Unfortunately, not only can’t money buy you love (according to the Beetles), but all your hard work (this will be familiar to parents as well) doesn’t necessarily mean your horse is going to show constant gratitude by thinking up ways to show his appreciation.

It’s very damaging to constantly have the attitude that the horse and ourselves are somehow on opposites sides. That the horse and you are engaged in some sort of battle and there is going to be a winner and a loser. The horse is being a horse – that’s what horses do. He has no secret agenda to “beat” you or “make a fool of you” (that’s your own neurosis coming up!). He just looks at that trailer, river, track and can think of no good reason to go down there. It’s up to you to persuade him differently… Not through punishment but thinking “how can I get my horse to want to do as I ask?”

The horse is not our opponent – he’ll be on the same side as us if we can get our message to him clearly and with respect. I’m sure most of us are guilty of transferring our personalities onto our horses in some way or another. One person may tell you the horse has “a sense of humour” and is “just having a joke”. Whereas another person may label the same horse “cunning”, “evil” or “dishonest”. Any psychologist will tell you that these labels says a great deal more about the human than the horse! Sadly, those really destructive labels can give you a negative attitude towards the horse that won’t be any help at all in finding the right way forward. We need to ask ourselves “How can I get this horse to want to do this?”

is this horse naught or frightened?

The Best Way To Build Trust With Your Horse

The best way to build trust with a horse is to learn how they communicate.  Learn to read horses’ body language and what their expressions and equine behaviours mean.  The best way to do this is to come on an Intelligent Horsemanship course.

In some circumstances a tried and tested way is by giving the horse two options, making one (what you want him to do) very easy and the other slightly uncomfortable in the form of work for him. For instance, with a nappy horse you may ask him to just go in small circles if he wants to hang round close to home but make it very easy and pleasant for him once he starts to go out on the ride. The Dually halter , used correctly, can be excellent for loading a reluctant horse into a trailer. It helps to clearly separating your “Yes” from your “No” and making what you want the horse to do an easy choice.

However… Always Remain Open Minded

It’s an injustice to the horse if we get so set on any “system” that we close our minds to possibly better alternatives for different horses at different times. When working with a horse we need to think “Am I making this situation better or am I making it worse?”. If you feel you are getting further away from your goals think of other ways to get the horse to understand the best way to go. 

While the best way to stop a training session with a horse is when their adrenalin is down if you’re on a downward trajectory ie. Things are clearly getting worse not better, change tack and so do something else to calm the horse then finish.  It’s time to think how you could make things so easy you couldn’t fail to get the kind of horse behaviour you desire.

Its Human Nature…

It’s human nature to do “more of the same”. If something doesn’t work with horses just apply more pressure – hit harder, push harder, pull harder… but we can do a much better job for ourselves and the horse if we set our thinking to how to work smarter.

My horse Pie (American Pie) reminded me of this in our early days.  We were on a ride and I decide we should go down a hill through some water and up the other side.

Pie obviously thought this was a bad idea.

I stopped and let him look at the water for a while and put some pressure on with my legs. Resistance starts and I stop before he goes backwards “into” the pressure which is the natural instinct of horses.

I didn’t have a giddy up rope to apply gentle flicking motion which can be very useful to encourage forward motion on a horse. So I picked a twig with some leaves on (actually often ideal to just “tickle” a horse on) and tickled him with that behind my leg. This immediately upset him. I felt his heart rate go up and he started to hunch himself up to buck. “It’s OK” I thought “No point in upsetting him”. I know what works in this case. I’ll just lead him. At that time I only rode him in a dually anyway so it was easy enough to work with pressure and release. Just easing him from side to side to bring him forward. Except he wasn’t coming forward.

I then on a whim picked some garlic leaves that were beside me, held them in front of Pie’s nose and before a second was up Pie was down the hill in the water, and ecstatically sniffing the garlic leaves!  

Forget the Yard Politics, They Never Helped Anybody

In cases like this it’s so nice to work on your own, with nobody shouting advice, no matter how well meaning. I know there are people that would insist if they saw you in the situation I was in that you must stay on him. “Show the horse whose boss”, “never use bribery with a horse then he’ll know he’s won” and so on. Maybe there are cases when they would have a point.

The reason I know I absolutely did the right thing on that occasion though, is that the next day when we came to the hill that went down into the river, Pie hesitated for less than half a second before going straight on down and in. Since then I’ve asked him to do increasingly daring things and each time he’s reacted with more and more confidence in me. I haven’t had to get off again (or use garlic leaves). So, have I got total trust? Who knows what other tests we might face in our time together? One thing’s for certain is it’s a big responsibility… and I know it’s up to me to keep on earning that trust …

Building trust with a horse.

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Copyright:  Intelligent Horsemanship

Note: This article must have bit written over 20 years ago when Pie was quite young!  The proof is in the pudding as they say (or should they say Pie?!) . Pie and I have gone on to have many adventures since. He also won Working Hunter Pony Championships with my niece, Daisy. Pie now at 28 years of age continues to be A Dream Pony  

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