Why is My Horse So Grumpy?

Why is My Horse So Grumpy?

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

Q. Why does my 2-year-old pin her ears all the time (i.e., if you touch her, mount her, walk in her stall), but she doesn't kick or bite and seems to like attention?

A. There can be many reasons, but the ears back means that she is uncomfortable, and depending upon the ear position and the situation, it often means the horse is about to do something aggressive about the discomfort. It can be either behavioral, in the sense that the horse is unsure or uncomfortable with people or the situation, or it can be physical discomfort, as if the horse was saying "please don't mess with me now when I don't feel well."

Ear pinning specifically around people can either be that the horse has not yet learned to trust people or be the result of a history of mishandling. Horses with a history of bad experiences associated with people approaching them--either hard work, or physical abuse--might retain this behavior for a long time.

Sometimes, it is hard to figure which of these--or both--are contributing. Sometimes it can be a combination of the two. Fear of people or situations, either because of inexperience or because of past bad experiences in association with people or situations, should diminish as a history of good experiences builds up. If it is mostly physical discomfort, it will not be just specific to people or situations, so you will notice your horse pinning her ears to other horses, the dog, etc. Increased "bother" of any type will more or less bring on the pinning. In our clinic we take a long videotape of the horse in its stall, and see how it responds to all types of situations to try to figure out what is at issue. If it seems physical, viewing by an experienced behavior clinician can often guide the veterinarian where to look for the pain.

So my recommendation is to discuss this with your veterinarian, who might want to consult an equine behavior specialist. Together they can look for some of the common physical problems that can cause chronic, low-level physical discomfort and lead to crabby horse behavior like you describe--things like gastric ulcers, low-level laminitis, musculoskeletal pain, teeth or mouth pain, and many more.

In a 2-year-old such as your horse, it is often just that they have not come to completely trust people yet. As you walk into the stall, touch her, or mount her, she might still be having trouble controlling the natural instinct to escape from predators. If it is just this, the insecurity and the ear movement should subside with continued gentle handling, good experience, and maturity. It can often help to work with such a horse alongside a quiet companion horse who's an "old hand" at dealing with people and scary situations. Horses take signals from one another, so your horse could take some general social comfort from an "old pro" as well as some specific signals that there's no need to fight or run.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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