Every equine and every human is unique in its behaviour and therefore there are a great many possible causes of behaviour problems. There are even more ways to solve problems than there are causes of behaviour. I believe that there is no "one size fits all" solution, and that each case must be evaluated on its unique contributing factors before embarking on a programme of training. Therefore, these case studies are not recommendations on how others should necessarily proceed with equine behaviour problems that appear to be similar. Nor are they the only way I could deal with such behavioural difficulties, they were the best solutions for the individuals involved in each case. However, they do give an idea of what is possible when using the science of behaviour and show that unwanted behaviour can be safely changed if we know what to do.
These cases are a small example of the many different types of behaviour difficulties that I encounter, but they represent the most common problems that equine owners face. The results achieved in the case studies below were mainly due to the commitment and determination of the owners involved and to the true nature of equines. By solving their own problems owners learnt to trust and have confidence in their animals, and their horses learnt to trust and follow the leadership and decisions of their human.
With all behavioural problems, pain and medical conditions must first be eliminated as a possible cause of the unwanted behaviour before proceeding with any training. This took place with all of the following case studies.
Whatever the problem, if you would like assistance with any aspect of equine behaviour training please take a look at the services page on this site and then contact me, so you can begin to get the help your and your horse deserve.
Harry was a five year old TB x Warmblood who lived with a pony companion and had access to his paddock 365 days a year. Harry had done very little with his previous owner apart from spending a lot of time in the field. He was started at four for use in a ridding school, but he was used very little at the school before his current owner bought him. Harry had his teeth and back checked and it was recommended that the fitting of his saddle was checked by a master saddler.
Harry's owner had been using Clicker Training for a while and was committed to the use of positive reinforcement. However, problems were beginning to arise with Harry demanding rewards. He was also becoming more impatient during training. Harry's owner was beginning to find it difficult to use Clicker Training because Harry seemed to get stuck with certain behaviours and the training was not progressing as she wanted. Harry was described as "nappy" on the road and had reared up on several occasions. His owner wanted to be able to use Clicker Training out on the road to help Harry with his ridden problems.
Harry's owner was an experienced rider, and was confident around him. She had spent a considerable amount of time and money learning about behaviour and in particular Clicker Training.
Possible causes of behaviour
- Lack of behaviour boundaries
- Lack of consistency in the application of Clicker Training
- Confusion over terminal and intermittent bridges had arisen
- Schedules of reinforcement were not being used correctly
- Harry was a quick learner who was often ahead of his owner
- Practical errors were occurring with the delivery of Clicker Training
- Lack of confidence and trust between equine and human
With this type of Clicker Training problem, quite rapid improvements could be made, as Harry already understood the connection between his behaviour, the click and the arrival of a reward. Often when using Clicker Training owners become focused on the power of the click and tend to forget that the rules of behaviour still apply. Body language, theirs and the horses is still a vital element of communication. Even when we are using Clicker Training the Principles of Horsemanship and the science of behaviour still apply and have to be used correctly to succeed.
The first changes were made to the practical elements of Clicker Training such as the size, type and variety of reward. Free rewards or treats outside Clicker Training lessons were removed or confined to being hidden in Harry's environment for mental stimulation. Free rewards from the owner can confuse the horse as to what behaviours are rewarded and when Clicker Training is a likely. The use of a bum bag for treats was introduced to provide a visual cue for Harry to know Clicker Training was available as this helps the horse to relax at other times and not expect Clicker Training all the time. This also helps to prevent mugging behaviour caused by pockets smelling of food.
The first lesson that a horse must learn in Clicker Training is that mugging behaviour does not work. This unfortunately requires the animal to try mugging to discover it is unsuccessful. (NB. Extra care must be taken with this lesson if the horse is food possessive, dominant or has a tendency to bite.) Harry still had to learn this lesson as he had not learnt it initially. This was followed by teaching Harry that Clicker Training was only a possibility when the bum bag was present. This is achieved by doing some Clicker Training and then removing the bag and returning to Harry to work with out food rewards or clicks. Another important element in the early development in Clicker Training is ensuring the animal learns patience and this is relatively simple to do, but had been missed out in this case. Most Clicker Trainers click and reward immediately for the first few months of training. This is scientifically correct but can lead to frustration and impatience later in training when trying to remove the click or reward. I teach patience from the first lesson and this seems to help prevent problems later on.
Following the practical changes, we examined the practical application of the science of behaviour including the correct use of variable schedules of reinforcement, behaviour getting worse before it changes, spontaneous recovery and extinction bursts, successive approximation as well as the use of terminal and intermittent bridges.
With these changes made, consistency could develop in the training, behaviours were established quickly and the click and rewards removed more rapidly than previously. A common problem in Clicker Training seems to be that trainers continue to use clicks and food rewards long after the behaviour is well established. The clicker is just a tool and its successful use requires its removal and the reduction of food rewards as soon as possible.
Harry was also introduced to obstacles and the use of an obstacle course to build confidence and ability to solve problem. There is a difference in the learning that takes place when you make an equine deal with something it fears or when you allow it to learn that it can deal with its fear.
The napping seemed to relate to a lack of experience on the road and in problem solving in general, as well as a lack of trust in his owner. Following the changes made in the delivery of Clicker Training, and with new boundaries and consistent communication, Harry's behaviour improved dramatically, with him becoming patient and confident. The relationship between Harry and his owner improved with increased trust and understanding. A couple of months after this initial session Harry was introduced to long reining and this combined with the obstacle course increased Harry's confidence to a point where he could be happily and safely ridden out.
One of the original requests of the owner was to be able to use Clicker Training while out riding to solve the problems they were experiencing. Having followed the training on the ground and improved the trust between them, as well as increasing Harry's problem solving abilities, the old behaviours that occurred on the road disappeared. However, a common problem with Clicker Training is that while riding the clicker is traditionally a terminal bridge, it ends the behaviour. While riding we are often trying to establish duration behaviours, such as walking nicely for longer periods. The problem occurs when the click marks some good behaviour and the horse stops in anticipation of the reward. This problem is overcome in two ways, firstly by teaching patience in the early stages of Clicker Training and secondly by using an intermediate bridge as a "well done keep going signal" as well as a terminal bridge. The use of correct intermediate and terminal bridges allowed the owner to use the clicker while riding when and if required. Harry's owner now describes him as a dream horse when riding out.
I always warn owners before starting with equine Clicker Training, "are you really sure you want a thinking, problem solving horse, who will be offering lots of different behaviours in a attempt to get rewards?" As horses become better at problem solving we humans have to work harder mentally and physically to keep up with them.
Henry was a Thoroughbred X, 15.3hh, 5 year old gelding, who was stabled during the night and was out at grass during the day.
Henry's did not like to load on a trailer and when and if he eventually did load, he rushed through and off the front ramp. He got extremely nervous with people behind him and began to panic when the front bar went up. He was extremely nervous of the ramp being lifted and on a previous occasion had tried to get out under the front bar, causing him some minor injuries. Despite this fear, Henry was a very willing horse. Henry clearly tried to do the right things and attempted to contain his fear for as long as possible.
Henry's owner was a 14 year old young lady and with her equine experienced mother for assistance. Despite her age Henry's owner was very competent and confident with him.
Previously Henry had done very little, having been left in a field and he also had to cope with an impatient owner. His new owner had taught Henry to be caught in the field. She had done some schooling and some jumping with him. However he would not have his wormer by syringe and needed to be sedated to be clipped. He also box walked.
Possible causes of behaviour
- Lack of experience and training as a youngster
- Nervous horse lacking in confidence
- Previous painful associations with the trailer
- Never been taught to solve problems
- Fear of being trapped or shut in
- Lack of general exposure
Solving the problem:
Due the ability of the owner and the willingness of Henry to try to do the right thing, training progressed more quickly than would normally be expected.
Henry's behaviour was shaped, starting from walking over plastic on the ground to gain trust and teach problem solving. The use of the obstacle was to build confidence and his problem solving ability, but this can only happen if the trainer recognises there is a difference in the learning that takes place when an equine is made to deal with something it fears and when it is allowed to learn that it can deal with its fear. After accepting the plastic sheet, Henry was asked to approach the back of the trailer using positive reinforcement as a form of counter conditioning. Through small careful steps Henry was systematically desensitised to the ramp and the trailer with each new step only being undertaken once Henry was happy and comfortable with the previous step.
This method proceeded to Henry standing on the trailer for increasing lengths of time. Once comfortable and happy to stand on the trailer putting up front and back bars was shaped one at a time until Henry was confident to be shut in. Once Henry was comfortable the front ramp was lifted again by systematic desensitisation until it could be shut and then it was lowered and raised 50 times. The same procedure was followed for the rear ramp. Within two and half hours, including breaks for Henry, he was able to stand quietly while the trailer ramps were shut. He continued to eat his hay throughout the training and as is always important, he finished the session calmer than he started.
The speed of the transformation was due to the skill of his teenage handler, who did all the work and the trust and bravery of Henry. The same procedure was followed over the following days to ensure Henry remained confident to load and any previous bad experiences had diminished.
The aim of all training, but especially when dealing with problems, is to ensure the safety of the horse and the trainer and that the horse finishes the session calm and relaxed. Safety and calmness in this case relied on the use of shaping plans that slowly built up Henry's tolerance of the trailer and systematic desensitization to insure Henry was relaxed at each step before progressing. This shaping of behaviour allowed the comfort zones to be slowly but safely stretched. Being able to create and use shaping plans correctly, is in my mind, one of the single most important aspects of equine training.
Millie was a Thoroughbred X, 6 year old mare who had been with her current owner for two years. Millie lived with four other horses and as a herd they had access to shelter but lived out 24/7.
Millie's problem was very obvious and very dangerous. If she found herself in a challenging situation when out on a hack she suffered from complete fear. Her reaction to problems was to bronc wildly and once she had unseated her rider she would either bolt for home or stand still and freeze.
Previously Millie had limited training and experience of humans. She had the minimum of handling up to the age of 18 months old, with a farmer leaving her turned out with a herd of horses. Millie had virtually no handling after that, up until she was four. She arrived with the new owner wearing a broken head collar and having been herded on to the trailer.
Her new owner had equine experience as a child and had got back into horses three years earlier. She was very keen to help Millie and understand her horse's behaviour. When Millie initially arrived it took two weeks to get her head collar on. She escaped twice while being lead, hated being tied up and was always tense and nervous. Millie had been sent away to receive some training and this had made some improvement in her behaviour. However, the trust had gone between horse and rider and the dangers of Millie's behaviour now meant that she was not being ridden out or taken anywhere.
Possible causes of behaviour
- Lack of training and experience as a youngster
- Lack of confidence and problem solving skill
- Lack of trust between horse and owner
- Owner confidence very low
Solving the Problem:
Pain is always the first possible area to be considered when dealing with problems and after an initial examination it was recommended that Millie was checked by a vet to establish if she was experiencing pain. Some physiotherapy followed that veterinary check.
Millie might have been six years old but she only really had two years experience and not all of that had been good. Essentially, Millie was a feral horse when she arrived with her new owner. In these situations it is best to forget the physical age of the horse and think about their age in relation to the amount of training they have experienced. In this case Millie was really about one and half years old. It was not surprising that Millie was unable to deal with problems out riding when she was terrified by a sheet of plastic on the floor of the sand school. She was also unable to accept the long lines on her body. When working with problem behaviours we have to find out just how small the comfort zones are, and what the animal will tolerate before we can write a shaping plan or begin training.
Equines have not evolved to have a great problem solving ability. Evolution has equipped them to "run" away from anything they find fearful and to avoid anything that might be dangerous. If they cannot escape, then using fight behaviour may be their only option for survival. In the wild, equine problem solving revolves around their normal behaviours such as, running, kicking, rearing, bucking, biting and any variable or multiples of these behaviours. In domestication they have to apply these same problem solving behaviours to the situations that they find themselves in. Domestication is really the process of limiting the use of these natural problem solving behaviours and teaching the equine more appropriate responses to the problems they may encounter. It is important to remember that problem behaviours are rarely a problem for the horse; they are only a problem for us humans.
Millie's training had to start all over again, with the emphasis on teaching her a calm relaxed new way of solving problems, while building trust between her and her owner. Shaping plans were created to allow her to learn standing still as a way of solving problems. Standing still when faced with a problem is not a naturally occurring evolutionary tactic. However, in domestication it is vital. The shaping plans involved the use of counter conditioning and systematic desensitisation to introduce Millie to having all areas of her body touched, right up to her happy acceptance of the long lines.
Other shaping plans involved allowing Millie to learn how to deal with different obstacles such as plastic sheets, bunting and water etc. The use of the obstacle course is to build confidence and problem solving ability, but this can only happen if the trainer recognises there is a difference in the learning that takes place when an equine is made to deal with something it fears and when it is allowed to learn that it can deal with its fear. Millie had to learn how to deal with problems so when out riding she could give her owner a chance to guide and direct her through difficult situations and so that she was relaxed enough to listen to her riders directions.
The shaping plans led Millie through dealing with obstacles and problems while being led in the school, in the yard and the field. Then the training progressed to being long lined over the obstacles in the school, yard and field. The next step was to ride Millie through and over the obstacle course in the school, yard and field. Doing difficult and challenging tasks successfully together builds trust in the relationship between horse and human.
Once she was happy with all this training, Millie was led in hand on the road to familiarise her to the most common routes and situations she was likely to encounter. From here short rides began to take place gradually increasing in the distance and duration.
During the four months of training, Millie's owner had to learn to long line, which she did on another older very experienced calm horse. A great deal of importance was placed on the owner's ability to use small steps and to stick to a written shaping plan. Millie was never forced to do things but her comfort zones were gently stretched. Millie's owner also had to learn that there was not going to be a relaxed hack for quite some time, she treated all her rides as a training session until Millie was confident and calm in all the possible situations she encountered. After all this training Millie and her owner were able to relax more and begin to just go for a hack.
Often the ability to deal with very difficult problems is just down to the trainer's readiness to take the time required to do the correct training thoroughly, and the ability to use good clear shaping plans to break large behaviours down in to small manageable steps.
Sky was an 8 year old Warmblood x TB who lived out as much as possible with two other horses. She was in the middle of the herd rank order.
When Sky got worried by a situation she reared up and would strike out or buck. She reared a great deal, especially when led to the stable or if led in a direction that she did not want to go in. However she did lead well to the field. In the stable she would become aggressive and bite the stable walls, kick the door and lunge at both the owner and her stable mates. She was difficult for the farrier; this had improved, although she did still put her weight on the owner when her feet were picked out. She liked to mouth the owner's coat. Sky was unsettled in the herd and generally very tense and difficult to handle.
Sky's owner was in her mid twenties and had trained as a BHS A.I. She was a sensitive lady who wanted to have a happy horse and enjoy their relationship. A previous riding accident damaged her back severely, resulting in surgery and the fusion of several vertebrae. In her current home Sky had not been ridden for a year, she was just taken in and out to the field. The owner had been brave enough to lean over Sky's back and felt that everything was fine. One of the other horses suffered from separation anxiety when Sky was removed from the herd.
Sky had a relatively unknown history. She was purchased by an equine professional and sent away for dressage training then sold to the current owner due to a lack of time. Sky had bolted with a nervous rider.
Possible causes of behaviour
- The owner had a number of fears and phobias that prevented her from relaxing around Sky.
- Her owner naturally, had a fear of her back being re-injured.
- There appeared to be rank order problems
- The owner had developed a negative image of the relationship and felt Sky didn't like her.
- The comfort zones of Sky and her owner had shrunk considerably.
- Her owner did whatever Sky wanted, in order to avoid Sky's unwanted behaviour.
- The owner was afraid she did not have enough knowledge to solve problems she faced.
- Sky had learnt to solve the problems she faced by rearing up and striking out.
- The owner lacked confidence and felt some peer pressure to get on and ride.
- Sky was quite a nervous and fearful horse.
Solving the problem:
This type of situation is very difficult to solve as there are so many contributing facts involved in the creation of the problem. When owners lack confidence or have developed fears around their horse's behaviour, it is not good enough to tell them, "you need to have more confidence," or "you need to be braver." I meet many horse owners that have lost their confidence and have been told by others to be more confident. This advice might be true but it seldom helps. If someone has a fear of spiders, telling them to be braver and just pick it up is unlikely to remove their fear. Confidence has to be built and the two elements required to grow confidence are, action and time.
To overcome nervousness an owner has to want to change their behaviour, and I mean, really want to change. Luckily for Sky her owner had reached this point, she wanted to change and she wanted to enjoy Sky. She was willing to work on herself and to persist through the required training.
Visualisation was a key element in the beginning to remove the owners fear. Two five minute sessions a day, seeing a new happy safe relationship with Sky were required to start the process off. From this new image Sky's owner progressed to developing her positive self-talk, by observing the language and thoughts that she used around Sky. By removing negative images and language and replacing them with positive new ones she was able to feel more empathy with Sky.
To deal with the limiting, shrunken comfort zones we had to find out why the owner was so keen to do everything Sky wanted and why she felt guilty about restricting Sky's behaviour. After a little soul searching and discussion it became clear that Sky's owner felt restricted by her life and family role. She transferred this frustration to Sky by giving her as much freedom as possible. Sky's owner was subconsciously trying to give her horse the freedom she desired for herself. Possibly because she believed that you do not restrict those that you love, she demonstrated her "love" by giving as much freedom as possible to Sky. Fortunately for them, horses do not think like humans, and in domestication, they do need leadership, direction and consistency.
Providing structure and leadership through consistent behaviour allows the nervous horse to relax. If the horse's character is not a confident one it will be more relaxed when it does not have to make difficult decisions and being more relaxed makes them easier to handle.
Sky was a high energy horse with small comfort zones. She needed to learn to work through difficult situations, learn different ways to solve problems other than rearing and she needed to learn how to remain calm.
We started Sky working with "scary" obstacles to allow her to learn how to deal with difficult situations and to teach her how to solve problems. These exercises also develop trust in the relationship. We did some work approaching a line of bunting. To begin with Sky was nervous, but with slow expansion of the comfort zones, using the positive reinforcement of scratches and good timing along side systematic desensitization, Sky was able to touch the bunting, which took all her courage to achieve. We also worked with her feet, she was shaped with negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement to stand relaxed on three feet without resting her weight on her owner.
With her owner now understanding Sky's behaviour and the importance of her own role as leader and decision maker the relationship transformed. Sky's owner now worked through Sky's reluctance to be led anywhere other than her field. This involved her being more persistent than Sky but not escalating pressure to a point where Sky felt the need to rear or buck. Acceptable boundaries for behaviour were set and maintained.
As well as all this, Sky's owner began to work on areas of her life, where she lacked confidence, she changed how her family treated her, gained more freedom and tackled her other fears and phobias one by one.
Piece by piece Sky's old unwanted behaviours were removed and her owner developed confidence not only in her relationship with Sky but in other areas of her life too.
After 6 months of consistency and dedication both sky and her owner are now happy and out riding together, trusting each other and are more relaxed about the problems they meet. The rearing and bucking has disappeared and Sky has learnt the boundaries of behaviour required by her owner.
The symptoms of a nervous owner often show up in the behaviour of the horse. The training plan must shape the owners behaviour and confidence as much as it does the horses. The time it takes to change the situation depends on the owner's determination and readiness too stretch their own comfort zones.