Does pain related behaviour become a habit when the pain has gone?
In our Horse and Hound recommended book ‘Understanding Horse Performance: Brain, Pain or Training?’, there is this sentence by guest contributor, scientist and author David Marlin: “Domesticated horses clearly exhibit many behaviours during their management that suggest that they are experiencing pain, or that they have previously experienced pain associated with a particular situation and are anticipating the onset of pain.” He also says “…what one person or horse experiences as not being painful may be moderately painful or even severely painful or unbearable to another. The emotional component of pain also indicates that the response to a painful stimulus can be influenced by previous experience. If a horse has experienced repeated pain in response to say being mounted, his perception of pain may be significantly greater than that of a horse who has not previously experienced pain during mounting.”
Often a simple piece of training will remove any residual behaviour after the pain has gone, but remember that the horse can only communicate his pain or discomfort through his behaviour. So if your saddle was too tight and you get the saddler out, and get a new saddle but your horse is still putting his ears back what conclusion should you draw?
The chances are he is still in pain, so make sure you get an ACPAT chartered physio out to look at your horse. If you have had his back treated and you are confident that he is not in pain but he is still putting his ears back, then you could try some simple training techniques to change his response.
When we ride a horse, our body is in such close contact with his that he feels our every movement, and tries to synchronise with it. Although it does not seem so, we are built on the same plan as the horse, and all our body parts (except the collarbone) have a corresponding part in his body. What we do with each part of us invites the horse to do the same. If we are stiff in the lumbar region, so is he, and takes shorter, stiffer steps; when we let go, he relaxes and swings along. We turn our body, looking “with our eyes on our chest” where we want to go; so does he. We stop, imagining ourselves rooted to a spot; so does he. We change the inclination of our pelvis at a canter, and he changes legs. We rise to the trot slower than his rhythm, and he changes the rhythm of his trot to synchronise with ours. We put a constant pressure on the reins, and he pushes back with an equal pressure, making his body rigid and inflexible.
Why we are not taught from the beginning to ride with synchrony in mind I really don’t know, because it’s what horses understand and enjoy best. Instead we are taught “the aids”, together with a rather militaristic misapprehension that these are orders that the horse has a moral duty to obey. But these helps, as the Duke of Newcastle charmingly called them, also rely on synchrony. The horse pushes himself forward with his back feet, so when we want him to move, we too push with our back feet. If we wish him to place a back foot sideways underneath him instead of stepping straight forward, we move our corresponding foot sideways in the same direction, touching his side; but we had better be sure we do so when his foot is in the air, before he steps on it, or he will correctly conclude that we are idiots for asking the impossible. We need to be able to feel his movement and synchronise with it before we can be so presumptuous as to try to ask him to synchronise with the changes we make:
changes of gait, speed, rhythm, direction and balance, changes of where one foot lands or the inclination of his sacro-iliac joint. When we feel his moving body and allow ourselves to flow with it, we reach that mystical state of being centaurs that is close to a horse’s heart. He does not want to be alone: he wants to be part of a flow, and is willing to make adjustments to stay with that unifying flow.
It is what has kept him alive for 55 million years, after all.
With thanks to our guest blogger Lucy Rees, you can book tickets to Lucy’s UK tour here.