Napping and other equine behavioural problems might need a change of attitude - yours! by Ben Hart

Written by Thursday, 05 March 2015 18:39

A horse that is napping can be a challenge but according to equine trainer Ben Hart, the biggest challenge should be to the assumptions you make about your horse's behaviour. Read on, because it's time to put a different spin on the myths of training!

This is the type of email I get all the time and frankly it fills me with dread. I can see the complexity of the situation and the 101 questions I want to ask, yet the simple contradictions and beliefs that lead to myths of training and general popular assumptions about horse behaviour, mixed with the passion of a young lady clearly seeing the beauty in her horse and seeking to resist the influence of those older than herself who she doesn't quite believe, make for an interesting challenge.

'Hi there, I'm 14. I have been riding since I was 4, and my mum has been riding for years. We recently, after an 18 month break from riding and owning horses,  decided to buy a horse, 15.2h beautifully natured warm blood, which we later discovered was a thoroughbred. We've had him around a month and 3 weeks, and he has started to become very herd instinctive, neighing for his friends all the time, and we were told he was brilliant on roads/hacks. This was the case for a while, yet recently, he has been backing up in the roads, swinging his hind quarters into the road and being dangerous to both drivers in cars and myself.  In one case rearing and also spooking when previously he was brilliant on roads and practically bombproof. My mum wants him to go back to the previous owner, because she thinks he isn't safe for me to ride or her, but previous to all this unusual behaviour, before this all started to happen, he had the most beautiful character, and personality. I love him to bits and am determined to work with him to resolve his issues and work to make him a safe horse again. Me and my mum both believe in natural horsemanship and we use many of the Monty Roberts and Parelli techniques to get him to listen to us and respect our personal space etc. I don't know what has happened to him, but I wondered if you could give your insight and offer your opinion. One more thing you should know, we previously had him off a dealers yard, he was very underweight and underfed, so my mum believes that a reason for this behaviour is that he is starting to look better, and feel better in himself so he is starting to act up. As well, a friend of mine said that she thinks he's trying to 'test the boundaries with me' and trying to determine who is the dominant one and who is the leader. Even though my mum wants to find another horse, I know that my horse is a beautifully natured horse, and just needs to work out his issues. I really hope you can give your insight or maybe give me some advice to start working with him.     Thank you.'

This is the perfect example of the confusions and contradictions napping produces in so many people, especially if it's a new behaviour. I am not criticising this young lady, it is the equine industry and the way so many people view equine behaviour that’s the problem. Here is my chance to help a young person understand her horse and perhaps forever change her view of horse behaviour.

So, where to start? Well I guess the true nature of equines forms the basis of any behavioural understanding. Equines aren’t capable of deceit, they don’t do things just to take the mickey. Explaining why they can’t do this is another whole article or clinic but for now let’s just say that scientifically the brain function required to be deceitful has only been proved thus far in humans and non human primates. Equines are honest and their behaviour always has a reason, even if we can’t see the reason. This horse isn’t testing the boundaries to see what he can get away with or who is dominant, he is reacting to a situation.

It is really common for us humans to give behaviour emotionalised meanings, so in this case trying to avoid fearful situations becomes a domination attempt. As usual, we place our self importance centrally to the situation and give behaviour an emotion. When we look at it and suggest perhaps the horse is just trying to avoid traffic or unfamiliar situations our understanding of the animal’s motivations change. Of course then I am open to the counter attack of, “he used to be ok!” But why is it so strange to us that a horse’s behaviour changes? After all, we are the most “intelligent” species on the planet and we lose confidence, develop depression, become nervous, gain confidence or become brave - we change all the time so why wouldn’t a horse?

With a history on a dealers yard, where many horses with problems end up, plus the fact he was under-weight when purchased, means it is not surprising that this horse’s behaviour is changing. Of course with weight gain comes a change of shape, so I would firstly recommend that the saddle is checked by a professional saddle fitter to ensure changes in the animals body are not causing any problems because of ill-fitting tack. Pain is a major cause of napping behaviour, no horse wants to do stuff that hurts and the more tense they become, such as when leaving the herd or in fearful situations, the more the pain can effect behaviour.

It’s also, Interesting that we think the signs of his dependence on his friends for confidence, “neighing to his herd mates all the time,”  means for some reason his true personality is coming out. It takes time to settle in and a horse’s behaviour often changes in the first weeks and months as changes in herd dynamics, human relationships, diet and environment all play a role in his behaviour formation. This is key to the problem here, once he started this neighing behaviour then his behaviour on the road was always likely to change. Look out for these early changes in normal behaviour and listen to them. For more on this see my last article on spotting the signs of stress.

The use of these natural horsemanship methods to make him listen to the owners and respect their space, rings alarm bells with me. Does this mean that he had some difficulties with the requirements of domestication and so would get into the owners space, often a sign of nerves, so they thought they had to make him respect them or did they do some routine mixture of methods as a precaution, regardless of the horse’s personality. This could mean he just doesn’t have a basic level of experience and quality training that allows him to behave appropriately. If a horse does have the strong solid foundations of problem solving, confidence and trust and can’t perform the 11 required domesticated behaviours, other problems can come from this simple lack of education. However, we do know that he was beautifully natured, had a beautiful character and personality, which isn’t really the description of a pushy dominant horse but more that of a natural follower, kind and willing, So, maybe we could have a clash of training methods and personality here?

So what else? Well, we do have to take a look at the conflicting human behaviour: the naturally protective, and rightly so, behaviour of mum, labelling him and his behaviour as bad, the confusion of the young lady loving her horse, fearful mum will get rid of him, nervous of being hurt yet slightly believing she should be teaching him she is the boss. The nature of this horse from what we can tell is to try and do the right thing and having spent a month or so being ok the most common thing to change is the human. We ask more, we expect more. I have no idea what work has been done to develop trust and confidence between horse and rider or how soon it was before they rode him out on the road. Up to a point, it appears the horse trusted the human to keep him safe and then something changed. Perhaps a small, unexpected spook, perhaps a half surprised side step, raised a question mark in this young rider’s head. Often small changes begin to grow into major problems, especially when, as in the case of napping, the horse is “pushed” through it and made to go on. This change quickly develops into nervousness and lack of trust and for the natural follower or nervous horse this is a real problem.

The behaviours he is showing are natural equine problem solving behaviours and the fact they are pretty extreme, indicates how much of a problem this horse perceives he has to solve. He is having to react this way because he doesn’t have the confidence in himself or his human to cope/deal with the situations he finds himself in. It would take much less energy, be less fearful and dangerous to the horse just to continue to deal with the traffic. This behaviour is based on fear and nervousness.

So what to be done about it? Well, as you can see, for a start I would really need to ask a lot more questions to begin to even be sure we had the correct diagnosis which is the reason I like to do a four hour home visit. Every horse, human and environment are unique and so it takes me an hour of detective work to eliminate all the possibilities. After all, if you start off with a wrong diagnosis, the treatment will inevitably be wrong too.

Napping is often about rebuilding the confidence in the individuals and in each other, while teaching the horse a better way of solving problems, such as standing still. It’s ultimately about teaching them to be calm and relaxed and that they can deal with everything the road presents.

So, here are the steps I would recommend. They could take about 2-3 months work to ensure safety and a great foundation that will not only help the napping but will transform the horse and the relationship between horse and rider forever.

Step 1. Stop riding on the road. It’s too dangerous at this stage and it is making the situation worse.

Step 2. Get agreement from mother and daughter that they are willing to take the time it takes to safely change the behaviour.

Step 3. Take the pressure off. Have a week of quality time do things that are easy and they can do to enjoy each other.

Step 4. Ensure pain and ill fitting tack are not influencing the behaviour.

Step 5. Start a comprehensive training program, following a shaping plan to improve problem solving, increase confidence and trust.

Step 6. Ensure the shaping plan is followed and steps aren’t jumped in a hurry to get back out on the road hacking.

Step 7. In hand, long line, and ride the shaping plan over obstacles.

Step 8. Follow an advanced obstacle shaping plan to prepare for traffic and moving obstacles to totally build confidence.

Step 9. Follow a shaping plan for safely riding on roads, gradually reintroducing road and traffic exposure in very small safe steps.

Step 10. Enjoy the journey, it is where the relationship and learning develop best.


As this young lady says   “I know that my horse is a beautifully natured horse,” given a chance aren’t they all?

Ben Hart.

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  • Comment Link Fern Taylor-Wrighton Thursday, 17 November 2016 18:20 posted by Fern Taylor-Wrighton

    Major thing to consider - feed. I think the most common problem is when people buy a horse and feed it up and then wonder why it is different to how it was with the old owner. It the horse was underweight and is now not, it is likely that it is being fed too much concentrate. They need to go back to fibre based diet, feeds of something like alfa oil, linseed and sugar beet and maybe a cup of balancer. Plenty of protein without blowing the brain. When I look at what is the recommended feed levels on the bags of feed, I just can't believe that anyone would feed that much. We wonder why our horses behave badly, we are pumping animals that are made to just eat grass full of sugar and grains they don't need!

  • Comment Link Alison Talbot Friday, 15 April 2016 10:22 posted by Alison Talbot

    I've just acquired a Sec D mare who when we went to view her wouldn't even be lead in hand at the property. She also wouldn't lunge. Lots of people have passed her up but we bought her, brought her home and let her settle in. I took her out for a short walk with our homebred and she was very nervous but walked behind and by the side. Then I asked her to lead the way and she planted. Lots of talking and stroking then after a few mins of me assuring her everything would be ok she walked on in front but still nervous. We then made the homebred go ahead a couple of hundred yards and then me and my new pony trotted up the lane to her. I'm going to be doing this regularily to get to know her and her get to trust and know me and I am positive she will be ridden out confidently around the village sooner rather than later. I love working with young/unbroken/unhandled/nervous horses and fortunately seem to instill something into them.

  • Comment Link Cheryl Jenn Thursday, 25 February 2016 16:14 posted by Cheryl Jenn

    I totally agree to it being a lack of confidence in actually the horse and the rider. I would also recommend to her very quietly desensitizing this horse to many things using the same language each time in talking her horse through it. Those words will trigger cooperation in the horse when they become fearful next time. In time the horse will trust your judgement.

  • Comment Link Denie Mountain Monday, 14 December 2015 10:36 posted by Denie Mountain

    wonderfully written.. just little bits of this creeping in.. entirely my lack of confidence. so a plan for me to follow. thank you.