Naughty or struggling? Can you tell the difference?

Our horses rarely wake up in the morning, and think “today I will be really naughty…today I will only canter on the left lead not the right lead.” This is a common issue that many of us face, and our perception of the problem is one of the key factors in helping to solve this issue.

When we train horses, we train them to accept and understand the aids that move us from trot into canter. When they are learning this can be difficult for them, as they have to work out the connection between our aids and our desired outcome. It is our job to give these aids clearly and consistently, with much praise for the correct response, so that our horses learn what we are asking for. Without praise, they won’t understand that they have done as we have asked. Praise can be verbal, or can be through the release of the aid.

When faced with a horse which will canter on the left, but not the right lead, we become frustrated. To us, in our logical human brains, we feel that the horse must be being “naughty” as we know full well that he understands and can carry out the action from trot to canter. However, it only takes some weakness, or stiffness in his body, to cause him to struggle with the transition on this rein. This imbalance in the body can be harder to pinpoint than a more obvious lameness, but it is up to us to work it out.

Horses can only communicate their pain, or distress through their actions, they have no other language. In general, they are incredibly stoic creatures who will try their very best despite the limitations of their bodies, or our, sometimes vague, aids. If your horse cannot do something that you ask of him, it is not a personal insult! He is simply trying to communicate with you, in the only manner that he knows how, and it is up to us to listen.

There are many exercises that you can do on the ground before you get anywhere near riding that will help you to listen to what he is trying to say to you. Can he bend his neck equally to both sides? There are many excellent resources available showing you how to do simple carrot stretches (beware of your fingers!). When turned in a tight circle do his hind legs step under to the same degree on both reins? Does he track up evenly when walked and trotted in-hand? Any difference on the left and right side in-hand will be likely to provide you with the key to why he is struggling with ridden work.

So, the next time you are feeling frustrated by apparent naughtiness in your horse’s behaviour, take a moment to stop. Take a moment to listen to your horse, and think about what he is trying to say. Our horses are always talking to us, when we take the time to listen, we might hear what they are trying to say.

Brain, pain or training

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.
To learn more about the relationship between brain, pain and training take a look at our book and DVD “Understanding Horse Performance, Brain, Pain or Training” by Sue Palmer