Five tricky behaviours sorted

Five tricky behaviours sorted

Does your horse have an uncanny knack of showing you up at inopportune moments? You’re not alone - most riders have been left a little red-faced by their horse’s antics. Equine behaviourist Justine Harrison offers her advice on dealing with these unwanted behaviours and what may be at their root.

What’s he trying to tell you?

Whether your horse has misbehaved on a busy yard or refused point-blank to enter the competition arena when he’s been plaited and polished to perfection, he’s bound to have acted up occasionally. Understandably, it’s easy to take these antics personally, but equine behaviour expert Justine Harrison explains that your horse isn’t out to humiliate you. ‘He’s communicating in the only way he can, through behaviour and body language,’ she explains. ‘Instead of viewing unwanted behaviour as a failure on your part, try to see it as useful information. You can then unravel its root cause and take steps to put things right.’ Here are Justine’s practical tips for dealing with five embarrassing behaviours:

1. Pushing and shoving

Bargy behaviour may be down to a confidence crisis, rather than your horse’s desire to take the lead. ‘A horse will often barge because he is frightened,’ Justine explains. ‘Or he may not understand what he is being asked to do. To combat this, try some simple in-hand training to improve his basic handling skills.

‘In a quiet environment, ask him to “walk on” using the lightest pressure on the lead rope to ask him to walk forwards,’ she says. ‘The instant he moves, release the pressure and praise him. Do the same for halt. Remember to give clear, consistent aids whenever you handle him and reward your horse immediately if he does the right thing.’ With leading skills established, some management changes may also be necessary. ‘If he barges out of the stable, he may be frustrated after being kept in for so long and keen to get to the field,’ says Justine. ‘‘Solve this problem by reducing stabling time, giving him access to adlib hay and plenty to occupy him if he is indoors.’

Case study: How Ashlee and Diego overcame bargy behaviour

When Ashlee Crook bought her Welsh/Thoroughbred gelding, Diego, last year, she knew that his ground manners needed some work. ‘I couldn’t handle him without wearing a riding hat, as he twice nearly knocked me out with his head,’ she explains. ‘He was very bargy in the stable and had no respect for my personal space - he would happily push me out of the way.’

Ashlee started daily in-hand exercises with Diego, using positive reinforcement and praise to teach him basic handling techniques. ‘I would reward him the second he gave me the slightest indication that he was moving away from pressure on his flank,’ she says. ‘He also got a treat when he would stand calmly without moving his head erratically. It took just a few minutes a day, but within three weeks I saw a marked improvement.

‘I still reinforce these lessons, even if I’m just mucking him out or picking up his feet, but Diego’s manners now seem to be nicely established. Instead of pushing back at him and starting an argument, this gentle training method has worked as a bonding exercise - and I no longer need head protection when handling him!’

2. Rushing

Instead of a calm and stylish showjumping round, your horse starts careering at the fences and clattering the poles. What’s going wrong? ‘Before thinking about retraining, it’s important to rule out pain as a cause of ridden behaviour problems,’ says Justine. ‘Ask an expert to check his back, his teeth, the suitability of his bit and his saddle fit.’ Once any physical issues have been ruled out, you’ll then need to investigate the psychological reasons behind your horse’s habit of rushing his fences.

And how are you feeling? Many riders put themselves under pressure to jump when they’re secretly terrified. ‘Work on staying relaxed and positive, as your horse will quickly pick up on any anxiety you are feeling,’ Justine advises. You may need to go back to square one to rebuild his confidence. ‘Work over trotting poles before progressing to small jumps, maintaining a calm, rhythmic canter and increasing the fence height gradually.’ If you need extra help in building your own confidence, you might also want to consider consulting an expert who can help both you and your horse work on acing those jumps.

3. Putting the brakes on

Plans for an enjoyable hack can come skidding to a halt if your horse digs in his heels and refuses to leave the yard. This can come across as being deliberately awkward, especially if you’re in a hurry or in front of a crowd. Justine explains that this reluctance, or ‘napping’, is frequently down to nerves. Horses have different temperaments, just like their owners.

For example, a horse who doesn’t want to leave other horses may prefer company, while one that can’t be persuaded into an unfamiliar arena may be fearful of the unknown.

‘Find a calm and sensible hacking companion that your horse gets on with,’ she says. ‘Ride out together for short distances at first, building up to longer hacks as your horse gets braver. You can then try a ‘leapfrog’ game to teach him to go happily in front or behind. Take turns to ride past each other before waiting for the follower to catch up, praising your horse when he does as asked.’

If you suspect your horse is bored, rather than nervous, company is also a good way of providing encouragement, along with lots of praise and a varied route to keep his interest. Perseverance should pay off, but deep-­seated fears and habits can be difficult to overcome. You may need the help of a qualified behaviourist to solve an established napping habit.

4. Banging and kicking

Relentless stable door banging can make your horse unpopular at the yard and may well cause him leg damage. Justine explains that this can start as ‘displacement behaviour’ - a normal action performed in the wrong context in an attempt to escape a stressful situation.

‘It may happen by chance to begin with,’ she says. ‘If a horse becomes anxious or frustrated he could paw the floor or hit the door with his leg. Someone may then come along and inadvertently reward him with hay, turnout or attention. In this way a horse might then connect cause and effect, picking up the bad habit.

‘To prevent this behaviour from taking root, try to avoid stressful situations for your horse,’ Justine advises. ‘If he’s already picked up this behaviour, keep a diary of exactly when it takes place to help identify patterns and pinpoint what triggers it. For example, if he bangs the door before feedtime, alter his routine and give him something to keep him occupied. A change of environment can also help, as can providing a selection of toys and forages, or a friend nearby so he doesn’t feel socially isolated.’

Case study: How Claire prevented Erik from banging about

By giving her Warmblood gelding, Erik, treats at random times, Claire Harrison admits that she prompted him to kick up a fuss at feedtime. ‘He started banging his door in anticipation of his dinner,’ she explains. ‘He could see that the treats came from the same place and soon realised that food was involved.’

Claire’s solution was to eliminate the issue of anticipation by pre-empting it. ‘Because I run the yard he is on, I could change the routine for all the horses,’ she says. ‘We now put their feed in their stables before they come in from the field, so they don’t get worked up before dinner appears. They all have round-the-clock adlib hay, too, so they’re never without something to eat. Despite feeding them that extra bit of forage, the horses look the slimmest and fittest they ever have - they’re not gorging on hay and nor are they so desperate to finish their food.

‘I still give Erik treats, but I now make sure that it’s a reward for doing something,’ Claire adds. ‘The banging has stopped and all the horses seem more settled.’

5. Pulling at the reins

Creating an impression of harmony is tricky if your horse has a habit of jerking his head and neck forwards. It’s uncomfortable and frustrating to have the reins continually pulled from your hands, so it’s not surprising that you can find yourself tensing up in anticipation.

‘Rein snatching is often an indicator that your horse is in pain or trying to avoid the bit,’ Justine explains. ‘It’s another case of ruling out physical causes and keeping note of when and where it happens. You might discover that your horse pulls the reins after a certain period of ridden time, or if he’s anxious in new surroundings.

‘Keep your hands low and the contact soft to make sure you’re not restricting him,’ she adds. ‘Give him a long rein in a new environment, so he can take everything in, and try to relax so he doesn't pick up on your nerves and become anxious too.’