Horse Behavior Problems

It is very common for horses to have behavior problems, or at least behaviour issues from the perspective of the people in contact with them. Most of these can be easily prevented with appropriate care but if if they do occur, the majority of them can be corrected. In addition to the general overview on this page, you can click on any of the following topics for more detailed information:


Types of Problems

Although there are many different types of problems, they can be grouped into three categories:

  • Disobedience - The horse simply doesn't do what you want. This may be a simple lack of education (after all, a horse is bigger than you, so why should it obey you if it has not been educated to do so) or may be fear (either natural or due to a bad experience) of what you are asking it do do.
  • Aggression - Horses may be agressive towards people, other horses or other animals. Such aggression may be the natural behavior of trying to establish dominance (e.g. of a dominant horse to less dominant horses) or competition for resources (e.g. food, water, mineral stone). It can be the result of fear or reluctance (e.g. a horse may become aggressive if you try to get it to do something it is afraid of or does not want to do) or it can be the result of the horse being put in a position which reminds it of a previous bad experience.
  • Destructive - Horses can be destructive to their environment (e.g. wood chewing) or themselves(e.g. cribbing)

Correcting a bad behavior is like treating an illness, one can either address the symptoms directly or one can try to first correct the underlying cause. Many horse trainers take the former approach as it is often the easier, quicker and cheaper solution. However, the ideal case is to determine the underlying cause of the problem and to address the underlying cause as well as the behavior itself.

As an example, if a horse does excessive wood chewing, one can simply paint the wood in its stall and paddock with a bad-tasting chemical (there are special products for this purpose, available through vets) to discourage it from chewing the wood. However, if the underlying cause  (e.g. lack of mental stimulation)  has not been addressed, although the specific problem (wood chewing) may be prevented, the underlying issue may then expressing itself in other ways (e.g. cribbing, aggression, box walking). In addition, the behavioral correction (painting the wood with a chemial) is less likely to be effective in itself (e.g. the horse may chew wood anyways or may find other wood to chew or may simply stop temporarily until the chemical fades) unless the underlying issue is identified and fixed. Consequently, addressing the entire issue, although more complex, is a more effective and reliable approach than simply addressing the bad behavior itself.

Possible Causes

There are many different possible causes of bad behaviors. Following are the most common, for consideration:

  • Physical Discomfort. Horses can be in a substantial amount of discomfort without showing it. However, in such cases they may resist activity in general, or may resist those specific activities which make them more uncomfortable. For example, a horse with an injured leg or back will resist riding and may resist any activity (such as being led or saddled) which it knows leads to riding. Likewise, a horse with laminitis will naturally resist walking, especially on hard or stony surfaces, due to the pain this causes. Similiarly, a poorly fiting saddle or even a correct saddle which has not been correctly placed can cause discomfort. If a horse resists an activity, especially an activity it previously performed without hesitation, one should stop and consider the possibility of injury or pain. This is particularly important since:
    • Insisting that the horse performs the activity may cause further injury.
    • Many illnesses (e.g. colic) become much more difficult and expensive to cure if they are not promptly treated. A behavioral change in many cases is the first indication of illness and consequently may be an early warning sign of a problem that requires immediate medical attention.
    • If a horse is forced to perform a painful activity, it may subsequently and permanently associate the activity with pain, resulting in the horse 'learning' a behavioral problem. For example, a horse which is ridden with a badly fitted saddle may decide that riding is painful (even when the saddle problem is corrected) and thereafter resist being ridden or become unpredictable when being ridden.
  • Lack of Education. With young or untrained horses, the behavioral problem may simply be due to a lack of education. For example, it is natural for a foal to resist having a hoof lifted and held as this is an unnatural activity for a horse. In such cases, the behavoral problem is really nothing more than the horse not having been taught the correct behavior. In such cases, gentle and gradual education can solve the issue.
  • Interrupted Education. Horses (like people) can forget things over time. Consequently, a horse can forget (or decide to ignore) its training if the training is not continued. For example, if a horse is not ridden for several years, it may need a refresher course to restore it to its previous level of training.
  • Mis-education. Mis-education of horses is far from common, certainly if the education is done by amatures, but often even when done by experienced professionals. One of the most common issues is the excessive use of pain (e.g. spurs, whips) or fear to train a horse. Such methods are common since one can train a horse in basic obedience faster (and thus cheaper) using pain than by gentle pursuasion. Gentle training typically requires more expertise, patience, commitment, time and money. Unfortunately, the quick approach can leave a horse with bad memories, which can result in behavioral issues either then or at a later date.
  • Conflicting Education and Signals. If one wants a horse to have consistent behavior, one must give it consistent treatment. In particular, a horse which is handled or ridden by multiple people can be confused by different treatments and have its training detoriate to the lowest common demonitator. For example, a horse which is ridden in western style one day and english style the next, or a horse which has a rider with a light rein hand one day and a different rider with a heavy rein hand the next, gets conflicting messages and consequently become unresponsive or difficult.
  • Environment, Stress and Boredom.  The way in which most of us keep horses is very different from their natural environment, which can lead to boredom (see Mental Stimulation for details) or stress, which can in turn lead to behavioral issues.
  • Change. Any changes (e.g. location, herd members, box location, box neighbors, owner, rider) can potentially disturb a horse, resulting in changes to its behavior. Aside from physical changes, one must remember that a horse is a social and herd creature, so changes to herd members (additions, deletions, deaths) can potentially greatly affect a horse, especially if such changes result in the horse being bullied.
  • Nutrition. The type and quantity of food can greatly affect a horse's behavior, for example making if docile (and lazy) or making it high-strung and difficult. See food and behavior for details.
  • Neglect, Abuse, Accidents. Unfortunately, a number of horses have been the victims of abuse or simple neglect, which can leave bad memories or mental scars. Even where bad experiences are simply accidents, they can have an experience on a horse's behavior (just as a person may be reluctant after a bad riding accident, so a horse may be reluctant to being ridden after suffering a riding accident to itself).

Identifying the Cause of Bad Behaviour

Not only are there many different causes of bad behavior, but any given behavior can have a number of different causes. For example, a horse may resist have its hooves trimmed due to a lack of education or from fear due to a previous bad experience. Consequently, for a given behavior, one needs to determine which of the possible causes is the actual problem. Methods for determining the cause include:

  • Watching the Horse. Observe the horse when it exhibits the behavior, for clues about the possible cause. For example, if a horse appears calm but does not lift its hoof when requested, then it may simply not be educated to do so. Alternatively, if it appears fearful when asked to lift its hoof, this suggests a previous bad experience. It is often best to observe from a distance, so instead of trying to lift the hoof yourself and observe the horse, you may be able to see more if you stand a few yards (meters) away and watch while someone else tries to lift the hoof.
  • Determine When and Where. Does the bad behavior always occur consistently or does it occur only sometimes. For example, if a horse lifts its hoof for its owner but not for a stranger, this suggests a trust issue rather than an education issue. If a horse lifts its hoof when asked on pasture but refuses for the farrier, this suggests the memory of a bad experience (e.g. previously burned by an incorrect hot shoeing) which may have a specific trigger (e.g. sight of the farrier or the sound of the shoe heating oven). One may need to experiment with different people, locations and circumstances in order to understand when and where the problem occurs as well as when and where it doesn't occur.
  • History of the Horse. The history of the horse can provide a clue. Has the horse always had the problem (possibly education issue) or has the problem only been since a given point (possibly a bad experience)? Was there any change in the circumstances of the horse (e.g. pasture access, box size, physical location, owner, riders, nutrition, accident, etc.) at the time or prior to the behavioral issue appearing? Knowing when a problem appearing and what may have changed around that point in time can be an indication of possible causes. Even if the exact cause may not be identified, the category of cause (e.g. bad experience or unsuitable physical environment) may be determined.
  • Environment and Treatment. If the cause of a behavior is difficult to identify, one can examine the environment of the horse and the way it is treated for possible causes. For example, if it's environment lacks stimulation this could be a cause of boredom related behaviours (e.g. cribbing), if it is stressful (perhaps due to difficult relations with other herd members) this could explain stress related behaviors (e.g. box walking). See 'Possible Causes" abovefor futher discussion.
  • General Tendencies. The horse's race, age and individual characteristics can also be a consideration.
    • Race. There are certain behavioral tendencies associated with different horse races. For example, hot bloods typically require a lot of exercise and if deprived of this can more easily develop boredom related behaviors. Knowing the behavioral tendencies of your horse's race (ideally before you buy the horse) can be helpful in predicting and dealing with associated behavioral tendencies.
    • Age. Certain behaviors are partly dependent on the horse's age (see best horse age).
    • Individuality. Just like people, horses have their own individual traits. For example, one can find large stables where all but one horse is fine with the stable conditions and one develops a behavioral issue. The fact that this one horse develops an issues doesn't mean that the stable conditions are fine (after all, any stable is unnatural in terms of a horse's natural environment), but rather it may simply mean that this one horse is more sensitive to some particular stable issue.