Author: Brittany Jones
When out on rides, most equestrians like myself will find that certain scenarios produce specific emotions in our partners. It’s important to understand horse behavior and to know how to prevent unwanted behaviors to guarantee a smooth performance from our animals every time.
If you aren’t able to manage behaviors in your horse, you will find that they progress slower and will have a much more difficult time reaching your riding goals. In this article, I will share the most common problems that may occur while riding and the different ways that you can manage and prevent them.
Have Ground Help
As someone who trains young horses, I cannot say enough how important it is to have another set of eyes on you and your horse (whether it is your trainer or a friend) to help figure out what is going wrong and what is going right. As much as we all love to try to feel what our horse is doing, and we hopefully can begin to feel everything properly, it never hurts to have someone confirm what you are feeling. Plus, they might have some tricks to help problems that you may face so that you don’t have to experiment with fixes on your own.
Fix Yourself First
An unbalanced rider cannot have a balanced horse. Horses can feel just about every ounce of pressure that you put on them. If you find your horse is having a problem, like coming off the rail when you don’t want it to or dropping their shoulder around a corner, figure out if you are doing something to cause the problem. You may be leaning your own shoulder inward which is causing your horse to fall on the inside shoulder. Maybe you are bending your horse’s head to the rail which is causing his shoulder to push to the inside resulting in him coming off of the rail. It is much easier to evaluate and fix yourself first and then see how this will almost automatically fix your horse’s behavior.
Do Your Homework
No matter what it is that you are trying to accomplish in a riding session, you will always do better if you set yourself up for success by avoiding certain problems.
- Check the fit of your tack. If you are not using appropriately fitting tack, you will cause pain in your horse that may cause them to act out by bucking or rearing. This sometimes happens over time and it is important to constantly check to make sure everything is still fitting properly. Sometimes you may only have the option of using one saddle, but you need to ride many different shaped horses. It is much cheaper to buy a couple of pads that help with different problem areas (like the Kavallerie Middle Riser Pad, Front Riser Pad, or the Rear Riser Pad). You may also have a horse who has sensitive skin and needs protection (like a bit guard or a curb chain guard) in order to keep their mind focused on your riding and not the pinching feeling on their skin.
- Do not over face yourself. You should always have goals that are easy to accomplish and that will be beneficial to both you and your horse. This will significantly help with your horse’s behavior. If you put yourself in a situation that is too scary or challenging for you and your horse, you may cause problems that can stick with your horse forever. For example, if you try to jump something that is too high or too scary for your horse you could cause a refusing problem that will continue into later riding sessions.
- Make sure you and your horse are prepared. If your horse has too much energy, lunge it. If you are going to do advanced exercises, warm-up properly. Do not put you or your horse in a situation that will set you both up for failure. If you know your horse has too much energy, but you get on anyways and they take off with you, you may cause a life-long bolting problem.
- Understand your horse’s health problems and limitations. Horses will often act out when they are in pain. Make sure you understand your horse’s behavior and listen to what they are trying to tell you. Are they kicking out before cantering? They could be saying they have ulcers and adding leg pressure for the upward transition hurts. They could also be kicking out because they feel pain in their back or hind end which is causing problems with moving forward into the canter.
In most cases when a horse is unwilling to do something it is because they are in pain, have tack fit problems, or they are not ready to face the challenge you have given them. It is very important to understand what your horse is telling you and keep yourself out of these situations.
Fight or Flight
Most riders know that horses are prey animals in the wild. This means that their brains work in a way that causes them to think they need to either fight or flee in threatening situations.
Now you may be thinking, “what does this have to do with my riding? I never put my horse in a situation where they may be attacked.” This may be how it seems to you, however, horses often see things in a very different way. You may notice your horse jump when they hear a twig snap, or they may refuse to go into the other side of the arena when there appears to be nothing there.
Due to their nature, horses are almost always on the lookout for danger. Something that seems completely harmless to you (like a jacket hanging on the rail) can take up all of the attention of your horse.
This is very important to keep in mind while riding and training your horse. You will almost never be able to keep a horse’s attention if they are focused on a potential threat. This could lead to a very frustrating ride or it could cause your horse to bolt and get one or both of you hurt.
There are many ways of going about scary situations for your horse to keep you both safe.
- You can completely avoid the problem if you know there is not going to be a good way of getting through to your horse that day. Maybe it is freezing outside and your horse is already on edge. Then, there is a tarp flapping in the wind next to the outdoor arena and your horse does not even want to walk in. The best idea here would be to find another place to ride that is not threatening. You may need to just focus on lunging in the arena or calmly walking around.
- You can gradually get your horse used to the problem and find a way to work through it. For example, you may be at a show and your horse is afraid of the judge’s stand. In this scenario, it would be best to hand walk your horse past the stand to show him that it is okay. Give him a lot of praise when he walks up to it and sniffs it or stands calmly. Then, when you are warming up, stay on the other side of the arena while you get your horse focused. Once you feel your horse is listening to you, gradually work your way closer to the problem. If you notice your horse starts to get nervous again, stay that same distance away and do not move closer until your horse is calm again. In most cases, the horse will go right past the problem area without even realizing it if this process is done correctly.
Give and Take
Horses work off of a giving and taking of pressure. They will move away from added pressure and will feel rewarded when pressure is taken away. It is important to realize that horses often need a pretty immediate reward in order to realize what they did is the correct thing.
When you are working with green horses, it is vital to reward (by taking away pressure) as quickly as you can to solidify what the appropriate behavior is. If you are working on getting your horse into a proper headset you will push the horse forward into the bridle while having pressure on the reins. Most horses will hit this pressure and put their head up. If you do not release the pressure here they will usually then try to put their head down. You must then immediately soften your reins to tell them that that was the correct response, no matter how slight their reaction is.
If you show that every time they do what you are asking them to do you will immediately take the pressure away, they will usually pick up on things pretty quickly. As you move forward with the training, you will then make the release of pressure less dramatic.
Reward, Reward, Reward
It is important to reward trying, even if it is not the exact correct answer to your question. Sometimes you are not asking the question correctly, and sometimes there are multiple answers. Reward trying, and then give an extra big reward when it is truly correct. Only add negative pressure when the horse is doing the completely wrong thing. If you ask a horse to slow the canter and they break to the trot, that is fine. They understood to slow down, even if it was too much.
It is also important to always end on a good note. Horses will often remember the last thing that happened in a session because it is what leads to the end of working. If your horse stops at a jump, and you decide to end there, your horse will realize stopping at jumps gets him out of work. If you stop at a jump, come right back around, get over it, and then praise him immensely and immediately stop work, he will realize if he makes it over the jump he will be praised and will get to stop.
You should get to know your horse and his behaviors well to know what his best rewards may be. Sometimes it’s a “good boy,” sometimes it’s a nice loose rein, and sometimes it’s a cookie.
I hope these tips help you to understand horse behavior and find ways to fix any behavior problems you may be having. Don't forget to follow me on my social media pages linked below for more!