A recent survey among equestrians found that 98% struggle with problematic behaviours in horses they handled or rode. Given the physical size and strength of the horse, injuries occur around horses regularly, with 81% of riders having been injured in the past and 21% injured seriously enough to require hospitalisation or surgery.

The reasons for problematic behaviours to develop and occur are many. Pain is a frequent contributor to changes in behaviour and should be the first priority for an owner or handler to address. Sudden changes in behaviour, in particular, are most likely to be linked to pain. Getting the appropriate veterinary care, dental care, physiotherapy, checking of saddle and bridle fit or other care and treatment to address pain is crucial in minimizing the further development or occurrence of problem behaviours.

Differences in genetic makeup predispose individual horses to behave differently to others, and this can influence behaviours in many ways. For example, studies have shown some horses to be genetically more predisposed to persist with a behaviour or response than others. This can make it easier, or more difficult, to address problem behaviours in those individuals with that genetic predisposition.

Detailed background

On investigating a problem behaviour in a horse, possibly the most important aspect of addressing problem behaviours is to take a detailed background or history, examining all aspects of the horse’s management, care and training throughout its known history. Identification of the cause of a problem is always easiest when the origins of the behaviour (the first few instances of the behaviour) being performed can be analysed.

Management, both current and past, obviously influence the behaviour of all horses on a day-to-day basis, including the diet, stabling, social contact with other horses, level of exercise, amount of stimulation possible (things to do during the 24-hour period, particularly if the horse is stabled) and type of training or activities, for which the horse is being used. During training, the methods and standard of training used will influence the development of behaviours, whether desired or undesired. The role of an understanding of equine psychology is becoming increasingly recognised as vital to ensure that the training methods used align with the horse’s natural learning and physical abilities, both to achieve best outcomes from training approaches, and also to reduce the injury rate, and safety of riders, owners, veterinary surgeons and other professionals working with horses.

Loading horses

In our previous article, we discussed habituation (getting used to things), classical conditioning (developing associations between two things that happen at the same time or in quick succession) and operant conditioning (where a horse learns to associate it’s behaviour with the consequences of that behaviour). One of the most commonly reported problematic behaviours is difficulties associated with loading horses onto trailers. As with most problems, the causes can be multifactorial, including a lack of familiarity or fear of the trailer, being asked to walk into a dark space (horses’ eyes adapt more slowly when moving from light to dark than human eyes), and in most cases, the initial response (fear, avoidance) results in a temporary escape from, or reduction of pressure, as the horse backs away, or pulls the lead rope through the owner’s hand. If the horse simultaneously manages to increase the distance between itself and the trailer, the behaviour will have been rewarded on both counts (reduction of pressure, increased distance from the ‘scary’ place).

Applying increased coercion, where fear is a factor, is not a sustainable solution in most cases as the problem is likely to recur. On introducing a horse to a new or unfamiliar environment for the first time, it is important to introduce the new situation slowly, particularly where movement from light into dark may be an issue. Making sure that the interior of the trailer is bright enough for the horse to see it will help eliminate hesitation for that reason (not able to see into where it is being led).

A recent study in the Netherlands showed that when horses are frightened, and the heart rate increases, allowing them to stand and look at the frightening object results in the heart rate coming back to normal after approximately 13 seconds.

Patience in allowing a horse to look at the novel situation the first few times it is introduced will pay dividends in terms of eliminating the fear of that situation and reducing resistance in the horse when approaching that scenario the next time.