Every horse and pony displays little quirks and reactions that we construct into a personality. We call some horses ‘cheeky’, some ‘pushy’ and some ‘stubborn’, but have you considered that these labels are actually our way of trying to understand horses in human terms? So, when our horses demonstrate what we term 'unwanted behaviour', are they really being naughty, trying it on, thinking they've got the better of us, or is this an example of miscommunication between horse and human handler? Fundamentally, we need to ask ourselves whether or not horses are even capable of deliberately misbehaving…
Equine behaviourist, Beth Gibbons says that there is no such thing as a ‘naughty’ horse or pony, and they cannot ‘deliberately plot and deceitfully plan to get the better of their owners’. Unfortunately though, as humans, we find it difficult to avoid interpreting horse behaviour in our own terms, and very often take what they do very personally! However, describing their behaviour from our own human perspective is unhelpful and leads to a breakdown in communication.
You must have heard the term, 'it's not all about you!', Well in a similar way we must remember to separate ourselves from our horse’s behaviour because it is never about them deliberately setting out to to disobey or upset us but because they are reacting to a situation according to their own equine instincts. It takes quite a bit of effort, but if we stop labelling their behaviour in human terms and avoid taking their actions personally, we can really improve our relationships with our horses.
I’d love to know what you all think of this topic, have you thought of it this way before? Are you, like many equestrians, guilty of thinking your horse misbehaves deliberately and taking it personally? Or do you hold the strong opinion that horses DO understand and that they can be much more complex than we think?
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There will never be a horse like Mr. Ed, the talking equine TV star. But scientists have discovered that the animals can learn to use another human tool for communicating: pointing to symbols. They join a short list of other species, including some primates, dolphins, and pigeons, with this talent. Scientists taught 23 riding horses of various breeds to look at a display board with three icons, representing wearing or not wearing a blanket. Horses could choose between a “no change” symbol or symbols for “blanket on” or “blanket off.” Previously, their owners made this decision for them. Horses are adept at learning and following signals people give them, and it took these equines an average of 10 days to learn to approach and touch the board and to understand the meaning of the symbols. All 23 horses learned the entire task within 14 days. They were then tested in various weather conditions to see whether they could use the board to tell their trainers about their blanket preferences. The scientists report online in Applied Animal Behaviour Science that the horses did not touch the symbols randomly, but made their choices based on the weather. If it was wet... READ MORE
Even in this modern age, certain cultural and societal stereotypes surrounding gender still haunt us all. One of the most popular notions is that men are rational, unemotional, straight forward beings that cannot understand the depth of feeling women experience. Women on the other hand are highly emotional and prone to more irrational behaviour. Does this sound familiar? Now girls, how many of you recoil in horror at being seen as less rational and capable of logical thought than your boyfriend, husband or brother?
Unfortunately, the equestrian world is not unscathed by this stereotype that still floats around despite it being 2016, it seems we have extended our ideas about gender in the human world and transferred them onto our horses, which ultimately perpetuates the myth of the ‘touchy’ female whose far too emotional to be as chilled out as the more relaxed man. Mares are considered moody and temperamental, whereas geldings are generally considered much more laid back and a bit of a breeze compared to their ill-tempered, unpredictable or “evil” counterparts. We are all guilty of buying into this idea and we ignore the possibility that “moodiness” in mares is possibly just a form of communication as opposed to an aggressive attitude problem.
Simone De Beauvoir, a well-known French feminist examined how women are “imprisoned within the limits of their own nature”, as they are described within a set structure of ideas that originated hundreds of thousands of years ago. Mares are being similarly imprisoned within an idea of “moodiness” that won’t seem to shake. Horses embody features that can be aligned with the societal and cultural perceptions of a human woman. In art, literature and theory women have been linked closely with the earth and the elements, due to the cyclical natures of their bodies which alludes to movements of time and season changes. Horses are also tied to the natural world, living off and within the land originally and then helping us to build and shape our world through their loyal servitude. All horses are sensitive creatures, exquisitely adjusted with their intuition and gut instinct, dually in touch with their physical body and emotions.
From this perspective, to limit your mare, labelling her as simply “moody” is an extension of the human belief that the female species is emotionally unpredictable, unable to keep feelings and actions in check, therefore perpetuating the myth that to be emotional is a negative. And the male attribute of being rational is positive in comparison. But what if we remove this idea and see mares for what they are, instead of assuming that they are just being disobedient?
We should take a fresh approach to our mares, instead of hanging on to these preconceived ideas, let’s try and understand the flat ears or the little kick when we tighten the girth, the frustrated buck when we ask for a movement or change of pace. Like stallions, mares are entire and the hormonal changes that occur throughout the year makes a difference to their overall temperament. Now Ladies, I’m sure we can understand the monthly sore back and short fuse, so when your mare displays signs of irritation, we should question whether she’s just showing signs of being in season. Often mares experience back pain during this time, which makes the simplest of tasks, such as tacking up, a bit more challenging. Surely we should have thought of this? We should try and treat our mares with sympathy rather that labelling them “moody”. Perhaps we can start to deconstruct or at least think about different ways to approach fixated ideas about gendered stereotypes in the future, and empathise with our mares instead of perpetuate the idea of the “moody” female.
Have you had positive or negative experiences with mares? Do you agree with the idea that mares are viewed in a certain way and this may have something to do with our human stereotypes? Or do you think it’s all a load of tripe? Whatever your opinion, I’d love to know!
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This year’s Rio Olympics has been brilliant to watch. I've been cosied up on the sofa, glued to the TV, delighting in our Great British Olympians riding to success in Dressage, Show jumping and Cross-country. However, there have been negative whispers about the Dressage in particular, and the ‘unnecessary’ use of double bridles and the ‘distressing’ application of certain nosebands which apparently cause our horses pain. They claim the arched necks and foamy mouths of the competing horses are signs of cruelty not harmony. But are these criticisms valid or just more over-inflated rant from misguided animal welfare activists?
Recently, researchers at the University of Sydney have claimed that certain equipment most commonly used in Dressage; double bridles and crank nosebands especially, actually prevent horses from conveying signals of stress, removing the horse’s rights to perform natural behaviours, such as yawning, licking, chewing and potentially swallowing. In Dressage, the competitor is marked down if the horse opens its mouth, which essentially displays discomfort and a lack of sympathy and skill on the rider’s part. Through the use of the restrictive crank noseband, the horse’s mouth is practically bound shut, and so the rider seems more skilled than they actually are… This can’t be right… can it?
Paul McGreevy, professor of animal behaviour and animal welfare science at the University of Sydney along with a team of researchers conducted a study to ascertain whether or not the use of restrictive and commonplace riding equipment was harming our horses. Even with the 2 finger gap between the crank noseband and the nose, the horses in the study showed signs of stress; and this is WITHOUT rein tension. They measured stress levels using eye temperature and heart rate, and in all cases as the tightness of the nosebands increased, so did the heart rates and temperatures, which are recognised signals of pain and stress. In high level training and competition like the Olympics, the use of the crank noseband is commonplace and is often tightened beyond the advised 2 finger gap. The tighter the noseband, the tighter the connection between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth, giving the rider more effective control. The evident discomfort through the use of the crank noseband is intensified with the addition of the double bridle, which serves as a further mechanism for heightened tension and control.
The severe physical reaction proven in Paul McGreevy’s study, creates a bleak picture of horses’ silently suffering in the name of sport and the desired aesthetic. However, on the other side of the coin, McGreevy’s study only focused on horses that were unconditioned to wearing such high-brow equipment, so their stress levels would of course be higher because they aren’t used to wearing such restrictive nosebands. Competition horses are conditioned and trained to accept the use of double bridles and crank nosebands, as they are mandatory in Dressage at Olympic level. The FEI, the international governing body of all equestrian sports demands that the welfare of our horses should be paramount at all times, specifically saying that ‘tack must be designed and fitted to avoid risk of pain or injury’. This new research however has put the FEI code of conduct into question, suggesting that the welfare of the animal is foregone to increase competitive performance. However, there is actually no hard evidence to suggest that crank nosebands induce real injury, or long term damage, yes it seems they are far more uncomfortable than any of us perhaps realised, a bit like wearing really tight new shoes without socks, and you’re forced to walk despite your growing blisters, plastering a smile on your face so as to not show your discomfort!
I’d love to know how you guys feel about this topic, have you used a crank noseband or seen negative effects of this practice yourself? Perhaps you don’t think it’s all that bad, and people are making mountains out of molehills?
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Yes, we love them, but let's admit it, there are times when horses just drive us crazy! Here are a few of the cheeky ways in which my four-legged friends manage to wind me up... well, I am only human, after all!
• Deciding they’re in charge the moment we enter a show ring… Sadly, I have an endless list of the number of times that this has happened to me. Generally, throughout the warm up all is going well: they’re listening to my aids, popping over practice fences and working perfectly on the bit as if they’re Valegro. However, as soon as we enter the ring, all this flies completely out the window, and they act as if they've never, ever, in their life seen a show jump filler or heard a judge sound their car horn before. For some reason, the moment they set a centimetre of a hoof inside that ring, they turn into one of Thelwell's Shetland Ponies… and I’m sure they all swap tips with each other, because once one starts being naughty in the ring, the others join in too…
• Knocking over a full water bucket… A trick that all my horses have mastered to a tee. And it is always a FULL bucket, never an empty one. And it's always when I'm in a rush. Yes, that morning has to be the morning when they decide to turn their stable into a paddling pool, and even better, if it’s one that I've literally just finished mucking out.
• Pulling rugs off their stable door… For some reason, my horses find it hilariously funny to pull rugs, saddle cloths, or my jacket off their stable door or fence, even if I've only placed it there for a few seconds. And if I'm not quick enough, just for good measure they like to stand on it too! Well you'd think I'd learn but let's face it, horses are much easier to train than humans are.
• Slobbering all over me… Whilst I like to think this is a sign of affection, horses seem to have a nasty habit of slobbering or clearing their nostrils all over me on that ONE day I decide to wear my non-horsey clothes to the yard. Worst of all is when I don’t even notice that they’ve done it, until unfortunately I'm at the place I got all dressed up for…NOT the best look.
• Rolling in mud right after a bath… Dare I say it, the most annoying habit of all. This seems to be something universal to any horse or pony I have ever met – the moment they are allowed back in their field after a bath, they actually go out of their way to find the muddiest patch available and roll in it. Then when they get back up they always turn to look at me as if to say, “ha ha ha,loser!”. Maybe I should try rolling around in the mud right after a shower - I could be missing something!
Does your horse have any cheeky habits that drive you round the bend?
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Recently I read an interesting article about horses and their fear. It highlighted how important it is to always see our man-made world through the eyes of our horse. It really resonated with me. Horses are so frequently misunderstood.
Fight & Flight
We all know horses have a 'fight or flight' fear mechanism and usually they display the latter. To know how to deal with their fear correctly, it's very important that we understand why they are fearful.
The number one thing a horse fears, is the fear of being attacked by a predator. As a prey animal, horses live their entire lives on high alert. Horses are "hypervigilant" and hugely intelligent. Aside from the elephant, they have the greatest memories of all animals.
The 5 Triggers
There is considered to be five things which trigger a horse's fear:
It's important to recognise if your horse is displaying key signs of fear. These include:
- Widening of the eyes
- Flared nostrils
- Pricked ears
- A raised head carriage
- Stiffened neck
It's through this identification that we can then decide how best we are going to manage (and try to diffuse) their fear in a safe way.
Helping Your Horse Through Fear
If you horse is displaying signs of fear, the most important thing is to keep him moving.
"When a horse is experiencing fear the best thing to do is give him a job".
Whether that be on the ground or on his back, make sure you get his legs moving, especially his hind quarters. This will prevent the flight mechanism taking full control, and stop you last being seen heading for the hills!
Always let your horse face their demons. Allowing a horse to spin away from what scares them will only encourage him to flight thereafter.
Patting and talking, with gentle pressure on his mouth and sides, will also help reassure him.
Do you have any tips for dealing with horses' fear? If so, please share them with us!
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Leading equine trainer, Ben Hart, teaches people how to think, rather than what to think, giving owners the opportunity to develop their own abilities and their own unique equine relationships. Here he gives an interesting insight into spotting the signs of stress in horses.
Early recognition of stress in our horses helps not only as a guide to improving their welfare but can also allow us to avoid potentially dangerous situations.
Stress is a term which is actually coined from structural engineering when talking about the loads and pressure that can be withstood by certain building materials before they break. So when we talk about stress in ourselves or our horses we are by inference talking about the build up of pressure, physical or mental, and how much pressure it takes before something snaps. This pressure can be placed on us by the environment or factors in the environment and it can be physical, like a lack of sleep or a lion chasing us, or it can be mental like a the pressure felt proceeding a big event or meeting a work deadline.
Stress is of course useful to humans, at least in the correct levels. It is designed to create motivation for food foraging, preparation for the flight or fight response, defence of our loved ones, property and possessions. Essentially, it is a set of coping strategies that allows us to deal with the difficulties of survival. Much of our human stress is now only mental, where perceived threats and environmental stress caused by people's behaviour (ours and other peoples) are seen by our bodies as real and are dealt with the same the same way as physical threats.
Through the fight/flight mechanism the correct level of stress serves similar functions in horses, causing them to search out food, avoid difficult or dangerous situations, act defensively and of course be successful in the acquisition of mates.
So how does excess stress show up in our horses?
The stress chemicals that are released in times of conflict, fear, pain or confusion are designed to prepare the horse for fight or flight, therefore any behaviour which is designed for use in the flight or fight response can be indicators of stress in horses. Whether the stress the horse experiences could be considered “good or bad” depends on the length of exposure to the stressor, whether there is an opportunity to release or escape from the stress and the individual nature and experiences of the horse involved. One horse with a fearful nature may from previous experience, find trailer loading very stressful, where as another experienced and more confident animal may only experience a very mild stress during loading.
If you consider a human in a stressed state, you see somebody who is generally more agitated, is likely to fidget and be unable to sit peacefully or quietly for any length of time. They are often less tolerant, more snappy with other people or argumentative. They also will deal with conflict or problems either by avoiding them all altogether or by having excessive arguments and fights with those people around them. These two fight or flight responses as can be seen in equines in the same way.
As the balance begins to tip from normal, useful stress levels, to increasingly higher levels we see our horses begin to exhibit unusual or out of character behaviours, usually related to movement of some form. As creatures of movement, they are flight animals after all, the stress chemicals are produced to predominately create preparation to engage the flight response. This preparation for flight starts to show up as movement, the animal becomes a “coiled spring.” When this natural response to stress is prevented either by lead rope, reins, stable confinement or paddock fencing this desire for movement is redirected into other behaviours.
This movement may be an out of character behaviour such as a normally very willing horse not wanting to be caught. Maybe a normally relaxed horse starts to put his ears back and fidgets even threatening to kick while his tack is being fitted. In contrast, under prolonged bouts of chronic stress, the horse that is normally active and alert may become dull and depressed.
Changes in behaviour are vital clues that have to be seen and recognised as potential indications that something may be wrong. The key is in knowing your horse well enough to spot early changes in behaviour before they escalate.
While out riding an increased pace of forward movement may indicate your horse’s level of stress is increasing, as can holding the head higher as if looking for predators or exaggerated head movement. Reluctance to move forward and a slowing of pace can all indicate changing levels of stress.
Stabled horses may show signs of stereotypic behaviour such as, box walking, weaving, and walking, repeatedly backing away from and walking up to the stable door, head tossing and more general signs of an aggressive nature such as pinning their ears back and threatening to bite and kick.
If we do not listen to the signs of stress they will continue to escalate into behaviour such as, jogging or trotting at a walking pace, napping behaviour, rearing, bucking or bolting. On the ground we may see them escalate to these similar flight responses and also more of the fight responses of actual kicking and biting.
One of the major causes of stress in equines is conflict.
Equines are not good at dealing with the conflict between two decisions; these may be choices that the horse has to make between different environmental situations. This conflict can be things such as wanting to be with people and receive attention due to previous good experience, but due to current bad handling be very nervous of approaching their human. Another example could be when picking up a foot, not wanting to kick a human but being in pain and wanting to put your foot down again. If the choice is between two negative consequences such as jumping a fence which is uncomfortable or painful because of the riders position or poor use of hands and not jumping the fence which would receive a smack from the riders whip, or where the horse wants to run away from a scary stimulus, but the riders legs and the bit prevents escape then having to choose between these similar negative situations causes the horse to become stressed. They want to run away but they can't. This conflict can then spill over into flight or fight behaviour.
One way to avoid stress is to allow the horse to deal with the confines and challenges of domestication. This can only be done through good training practices, a shaping plan which prepares your horse for all manner of necessities of domestication from farrier and vet to riding and loading.
Most importantly, susceptibility to stress can be reduced by building his problem-solving capacity and confidence.
Equines that have been correctly exposed to the obstacles and conditions they might face during their lives through the process of long lining and training on the ground will have a much healthier engagement of the stress mechanism and therefore will be more relaxed, calm and confident.
Most of our unwanted behaviours in our equines are a natural response to dealing with the problems they are faced with.
So, next time your horse is doing something you don’t want him to, look for signs of unhelpful stress and if you spot any it is very important to avoid further escalation of the stress response by listening to your horse, rather than trying to override his fears and forcing him forward and making him deal with stressful situations. Forcing the issue will increase stress and it is likely that the horse’s behaviour will escalate as he tries to solve the problem he perceives using his natural flight behaviour such as bolting, rearing, spinning and napping.
In our next article we will look more specifically at the causes and treatments for napping and how we can pick up the signs of stress under saddle.
Ben Hart is a leading equine trainer who specialises in training horses, donkeys, mules and their human owners. Starting with a background in agriculture and a family history working with heavy horses, as well as the UK and Europe Ben has worked with equines all over the world. From mustangs and race horses in California, stock horses in Australia and working equines in Cambodia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Mexico. Ben’s use of the science of equine behaviour rather than a one method approach have been successful with traumatised animals at the UK’s leading equine charities and his ability to work with Human behaviour has been utilised by world leading animal welfare organisations such as, WSPA, The Blue Cross, The Brooke and The Donkey Sanctuary. Ben uses his understanding of behaviour to enhance the communication between humans and animals. By teaching people, how to think, rather than what to think, Ben gives any owner or trainer the opportunity to develop their own abilities and to develop their own unique equine relationships. Ben’s delivery of training is unique, ensuring outstanding training experience that is enjoyable and life changing.
Ben uses his knowledge of behaviour and animal welfare to provide Principle Centred Training and facilitation services for animal welfare organisations and businesses. Participatory approaches are used in all aspects of his work and the empowerment of individuals and communities to promote and encourage animal welfare are at the centre of all his working practices.
Ben is also the author of several books on equine behaviour and clicker training as well as creating a unique series of individual equine training plans.
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