I was wondering if you could help me. For a friend, I look after a 15.3-hand mare who is six years old. The horse had a fairly bad start in life as she was first abandoned in a stable, then in a field. She has luxating patellas in both hind legs and gets distressed if left for long periods in a stable as her legs continually lock up. For this reason, she is field-kept almost all the time.

She was well broken in and accepts a rider and bit; however, if asked to ride out on her own, she plants herself and refuses to move, no matter what we try. She has even started doing this when riding out with one companion. For the last three years, she has been well cared for and hasn't been mistreated, yet she still refuses to hack out alone. I accept that she is showing normal herd behavior, but is there any way we can convince her to go out for a ride with one companion? She will go willingly if she has two companions. Please help me as I am unsure of what to do, and I do not wish to cause her to become unridable.

Helen

Because of the patella issues, I have asked a colleague, Nancy Diehl, VMD, MS, to answer your question. Dr. Diehl was an equine veterinary practitioner for several years, and she is now on the faculty at Pennsylvania State University. She does research and teaches horse behavior in the university's Equine Sciences program. She is especially qualified to answer your question. This is her reply.

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

When we hear of a horse performing an undesirable behavior, we usually look first to rule out any physical constraints that could reasonably cause or exacerbate the problem. Regarding your mare in particular, you give a history of locking patellas. This is not generally a painful condition; however, it is worth considering that this may be part of the problem. Any time a horse has a long-standing condition associated with the stifle, it raises in my mind a concern for chronic, low-grade lameness. Horses with mild lameness might do fine if they are highly motivated, as in group play or other stimulating situations. However, going for a ride solo or with one companion might not be as motivating for this mare, the lameness could bother her more, and thus show up as an unwillingness to go forward. It might be worthwhile to be sure your veterinarian has done a physical exam on her with that in mind.

This "balking" behavior that you see in your mare as you try to ride her away from her herdmates in the field is often called "herd bound" or "barn sour." This behavior is a common concern among horse owners and is not an easy problem to solve. When your mare balks as you try to ride her away from her field, presumably she is resisting leaving her herdmates. This is not inconsistent with the organization of free-running horses into herds or harem groups. Given what we know about horses' natural behavior, we still need to consider other possibilities for why she might have started acting in this manner.

Once a horse learns that a certain behavior will be positively reinforced, it is normal for her to repeat the behavior for the same positive reinforcement. So presumably your mare learned that balking results in not having to exercise or not having to leave her herdmates. In addition, we often see that the mistakes made by handlers are often errors of omission--the failure to anticipate the horse's behavior and act quickly and decidedly to enforce compliance with a given handling or training request. Inconsistent handling, as in classical intermittent punishment or reward theory, might then have a reinforcing effect on her doing things that appear to us as misbehaviors.

With this mare, you might as well set your goal to be able to ride her alone, away from the field, even though I realize you would like to at least ride out with one companion. The end result should be the same.

In the retraining process, you might first wish to start with work on the ground. You can lead or longe her, with rewards such as food treats as she complies and moves progressive distances away from her herdmates in the field. This can then be accomplished while you are riding, with food rewards for compliance with riding at each progressively farther distance away. Besides food being a reward, remember that it seems as if with your mare, allowing her to return to the field is also a reward. So you can take advantage of this--when she is walking forward and at your requested pace away from the field, then go ahead and turn her and let her return. But this is your choice when to turn, not hers, and it is done only when she is first responding correctly to your aids to go away. You should do this repeatedly, and ask her to make the turn back at varying points or distances away so she does not begin to anticipate your cues.

In addition, you will benefit from making her work while you are riding her. You don't want her to just laze along on a loose rein. Have her up on the bit and collected, then stop, back, move off your leg, bend at the neck, etc. Some might call this "counter-conditioning," giving her something to do that is opposite or different from the particular behavior--i.e., balking--that you are trying to eliminate.

You would then spend the last part of your ride, after you return to her field, turning her around and walking away again. You would repeat this just as you did at the beginning of the ride. She should learn that she will get the ultimate reward of returning to her herdmates in the field, but she will not be able to anticipate when that will be.

Why go through all these exercises? Remember, although ultimately your goal is to go on a nice trail ride, what your mare needs to learn first is to comply with your request to simply walk forward. She will learn to comply when you give her many opportunities for positive reinforcement as I have described.

A few tips that might help, particularly if she repeats the balking even when you are well away from her herdmates in the field, involve making solitary riding in itself a rewarding proposition. As you ride her alone and she complies with going at your requested pace or direction, there is nothing wrong with stopping and offering your horse a food reward. Similarly, you can specifically arrange to ride toward another farm with horses, or have some friends meet you with their horses at varying points along the trail or route. At that point you could couple up and ride together or just have a visit and separate again.

For those horses which are especially difficult, perhaps giving the appearance of more stress in this situation such as sweating and prancing, one might even have to go back to more baby steps in the process. This might involve making very small separations from the herdmates a part of daily management routine. For example, you might need to do all her feeding while separated, couple feeding and grooming together in a location separated from the herd, and use more in-hand or ground work at progressive distances from the rest of the herd.

As you can see--and I am sure you already know--there is no fast way to change your mare's behavior, although there is every reason to think that you can! Horses are natural herd animals, and depending upon the individual horse's personality, the make-up of the home herd, and past learning experiences the horse might have had, your task could be a little harder or even a little easier than others have with different horses.

Good luck!

About the Author

Nancy Diehl, VMD, MS

Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

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