Seven Deadly Sins

No matter a horse's talent, if he consistently engages in difficult, damaging, or dangerous behavior, he risks being found guilty of being a "problem horse." He then will serve time wearing uncomfortable devices designed to break or hinder an unacceptable behavior, being handed corporal punishment by a frustrated handler, or being given capital punishment via a trip to auction and on to the slaughterhouse.

Some equine behaviors are misdemeanors, which means they are inconvenient or annoying--such as a mare fleeing the scene, making the handler spend a fruitless half-hour trying to catch her for training sessions. Other behavior problems are more alarming, such as shying in traffic or on a narrow mountain trail. Then there are those felonious behaviors that are downright dangerous, such as kicking or biting the handler or another horse, which could earn one party a doctor or veterinary bill and possibly land the owner in court.

Can a handler rehabilitate a horse that "goes bad?" Will a reformed horse retain his righteous ways, or will he return to his life of crime?

Attitude Adjustment

The first step on the road to reformation begins not with the horse, but with the handler.

We humans need to always keep in mind that Mother Nature programmed horses to act one way (to graze and move around all day, to flee or fight when scared, to find a place in the pecking order) and humans ask horses to act another way (to make do with quick, concentrated meals, to spend large blocks of time in small areas of confinement, to suppress instinctual reactions). Some unwanted behaviors arise because the horse is simply acting like a horse among his human and equine companions, or because human actions inadvertently caused consistent, undesirable reactions. Many equine behaviors that cause trouble for the handler are physiological or intuitive equine responses to frustrating, scary, painful, or unnatural situations. Sometimes these reactions lead to stereotypies--repetitive behaviors that serve no purpose (i.e., cribbing, weaving).

As such, unwanted behaviors shouldn't be thought of as vices. "There is no intent from the horse to be 'bad,' nor is the horse acting abnormally," emphasizes Suzanne Millman, PhD, assistant professor of applied animal behavior at the Ontario Veterinary College of the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. "In fact, stereotypic behavior may be a 'normal' response for a horse that has been placed in an 'abnormal' environment in which its evolved responses are inadequate."

Consequently, when dealing with undesirable behavior, the best place to start is with the question: Why? Notes Karin D. Bump, PhD, professor of equine studies at Cazenovia College in New York and a certified animal scientist through the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists, "Failing to assess why the behavior exists almost always means that designing a way to eliminate the behavior will not be successful and could potentially lead to even more misbehaviors."

If the behavior is new since you've had the horse, try to figure out what's changed. If you acquire the behavior when you acquire the horse, determining the cause could be a little more difficult: The root problem could be gone, but the behavior is ingrained and remains. Ill-fitting equipment, soreness, concentrate diets, insufficient exercise/turn-out, and handler error merit investigation. If the cause is indeterminable, the best you can do is to try to modify the horse's behavior and learn to work around or live with the behavior.

Here's a closer look the most common undesirable behaviors.

Hard to Catch

The problem--These horses dodge handlers coming to fetch them out of their paddocks or pastures, seeming to delight in the maximum amount of your time and energy wasted in chasing them down. Why can't they just sit still and let you catch them?

Causes--Reports Crystal S. Taylor, director of riding and intercollegiate dressage team coach at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., "Poor horsemanship skills are a major reason for this problem. Some horses may not enjoy their work and have no desire to come in when being caught. Some have had bad experiences in their past--poor training and abuse. Other horses are just less trusting." For others, running away is a game.

Cures--"Reward with constant positive reinforcement (i.e., grain) to change their attitudes," Taylor says. "Change their work so they enjoy it. Approach the horse casually: Sometimes not looking them in the eye helps. Wander around their pasture or paddock until they become curious about you."

Train the horse to come--and want to come--when summoned, says Laurie Sain, who trains/competes her two Arabians in dressage, Western pleasure, and reining, and who is president and founder of Virtual Horseman Inc. (www.virtualhorseman.
com), a website for teaching people to train horses. First, Sain says, teach the horse to stand while on a longe line; he's not to move when you walk around him. Once he's learned that, step back three or four feet, let him think about that, then give him the signal to come--a verbal command, finger snapping, whistling, whatever works for you. Reel him in and reward with pats and praise. Repeat. Eventually, from three or four feet away, you'll give the command to come, and the horse is going to run over to be petted. Limit the exercise to five repetitions per session.

Continue this training, gradually moving as far back as the longe line allows. When the horse consistently responds, try the exercise at liberty in a small corral or round pen.

"The big challenge is going from the small corral to the big pasture where he's a quarter-acre away," Sain warns, "and he just looks at you and goes back to grazing: He has no experience coming to you at that distance." Walk closer so the horse makes the association to come when he's asked.

Regularly reinforce the positive experience of coming to you by frequently spending an extra five or 10 minutes patting or scratching the horse, offering him treats, or brushing him before putting him to work. Sometimes simply summon, reward, and release him.


The problem--A cribber bites onto a convenient horizontal surface, usually the top of a stall door, window sill, fence, or other board, arches his neck, and sucks in air with a distinctive grunting sound. This repetitive behavior often results in excessive wear of the incisor teeth and quite a bit of damage to the surface the horse bites. It's one of the more difficult behaviors for many owners to understand.

Causes--Boredom, excess confinement, insufficient exercise, concentrate diets, early weaning, learned behavior, and genetic predisposition are all thought to contribute to cribbing. Additionally, it's believed that cribbing releases endorphins, producing a temporary euphoria, thus encouraging the "addictive" behavior.

"Weaning age and weaning methods are significant factors," Millman states. "If you wean them young and feed them a high-concentrate diet when they are young, they often start showing cribbing about 15 months of age. Concentrates affect the gut pH and the gut microflora; that may cause (pain and) the oral behaviors to occur." Eating grain can thus cause the horse to feel stressed and anxious, creating the desire to crib, release the endorphins, and thus feel more relaxed.

Boredom can be a contributor to cribbing, but to a lesser extent than diet, age of weaning, and gastric ulcers. "Too much confinement, not enough exercise," notes Daniel J. Burba, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, professor of equine surgery at Louisiana State University. "But even horses that are in active training develop cribbing, probably due to lack of environmental stimulation. The lifestyle of the (stalled) horse is not 'complex' enough to be stimulating."

Cures--Barbara S. Simpson, PhD, DVM, Dipl. ACVB, of the Veterinary Behavior Clinic in Southern Pines, N.C., identifies several factors that could help reduce cribbing incidence (in "Behavior Problems In Horses: Cribbing And Wood Chewing," from Veterinary Medicine, November, 1998). They include:

  • Frequent turn-out;
  • Decreased stall confinement;
  • Increased exercise;
  • Increased dietary fiber (hay, straw bedding, grazing);
  • Reduction/elimination of sweet feed;
  • Avoidance of an exclusive diet of pelleted rations;
  • Increased visual and tactile contact with other horses or companion animals;
  • Painting horizontal surfaces with an unpalatable substance;
  • Installing electrified wire on horizontal wood surfaces;
  • Eliminating horizontal stall surfaces;
  • Use of cribbing muzzles or cribbing collars;
  • Not rewarding the behavior by feeding the horse when the behavior is displayed;
  • Surgery to cut specific ventral muscles; and/or
  • Remote punishment (shock collar) occurring within one second of the start of the cribbing bout.

Foraging balls (such as the Equi-Ball) should be added to the list. "The horse noses the ball, and a few pellets of food drops out," Millman notes. "That works pretty well." This keeps the horse interested and occupied, decreasing the boredom that often contributes to stereotypies.

The best thing, though, is to increase grass hay forage or bed the horse on straw, says Millman, recognizing that the horse will be eating some of his bedding.

Millman discourages the use of cribbing collars or surgery: "They address the symptoms, but it's a significant ethical issue if you're not also addressing underlining causation." Studies have found that while cribbing collars kept horses from cribbing while worn, after their removal, cribbing frequency sharply increased. Success rates for surgical treatments vary from 0-70%, according to various studies, and cribbing often recurs.

Simpson urges caution when using electronic shock collars. "They must be used in a safe and humane way, which means that the remote punishment needs to be timely (within one second of the start of the behavior) and appropriate (not too strong a shock)," says Simpson. "The punishment also needs to be consistent: The behavior needs to be punished each time or almost each time it occurs for it to work. Unfortunately, many people cannot follow these important guidelines, in which case shock collars can be ineffective or even cruel. Some people use the shock in inappropriate or excessive ways. For these reasons, I have real concerns about their use."

Cribbing can be difficult to correct. "Generally, the longer the horse has had the stereotypy, the more hard-wired it is, and the harder it's going to be to stop that behavior," Millman warns. "You'll find some horses, especially older performance horses, out in a lush field with a lot of opportunity to graze, and they still go up to the fence and start cribbing. You can break the association of a stressful situation, but they go back to cribbing (possibly because cribbing causes endorphin release)."


The problem--Many of us have seen one of these horses that resents the girth, tightening his torso and pinning his ears as the girth tightens or perhaps even biting at the air or at the person tightening the girth.

Causes--Getting cinched up too hard, too fast, too tight; ill-fitting equipment; or a sore back can make a horse resent having a girth tightened.

Cures--Make sure the horse isn't sore. "Visually and with your fingers, check everywhere the saddle goes," suggests Sain. "Press down to see if the muscles are sore in the back. Look particularly underneath where the girth goes. Is there any swelling, any little sores, anything that might be sensitive? Is your horse just sensitive there?"

Be sure blankets, pads, and girth covers are clean and free of dirt, grass, burrs, and other debris, Sain says. "Check for little pieces of metal or nylon thread sticking out on Western saddles along the padding."

Make sure the saddle doesn't pinch, and fits the horse properly. "If you don't know how to fit the saddle, get somebody to help you," says Sain. "Chip in with four or five friends and buy a saddle fit pad (usually sold in endurance catalogs; it measures the withers and back). Check your saddle's fit every six months, because as the horse grows, changes, or gets more fit, his back and saddle fit are going to change."

Cinch up the girth in stages. "Never cinch a horse up tight at first," says 1991 American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Professional Horseman of the Year and champion reining competitor/trainer Clark Bradley. "Just enough to keep the saddle on, then lead him out. Before you get on, tighten the cinch a little bit more."

Encourage the horse to relax. Explains Thom Trout, champion rider, former coach of the U.S. Virgin Islands Olympic Team and current head trainer of the Essex Equestrian Center in West Orange, N.J., "Use a soft girth cover or fleece-covered girth, put the girth on very slowly, and stretch the horse's front legs one at a time by lifting them forward from the front. This will help convince your horse that he is not bound up and to relax, allowing you to continue to tighten the girth."

Despite your efforts, you might not eliminate cinchiness, warns Bradley, who is also an AQHA show committee chairman and member of the board of directors, former president of the National Reining Horse Association and Ohio Quarter Horse Association, and riding instructor for the University of Findlay equestrian studies program. "Some horses remain cinchy, some improve, some horses are cinchy the first time you saddle them as colts," he says. "If that's the way they are, that's the way they are. If you try to punish them, you'll probably open up a can of worms."

Head and Ear Shyness

The problem--No matter how gentle or sneaky you might try to be, you just can't do much of anything to these horses' heads or ears. They might flinch back and toss their heads, or just capitalize on their ability to hold their heads well out of reach at the slightest movement toward their heads and ears.

Causes--Overly sensitive ears, fear, distrust, abuse around ears or head, physical problem/injury, poor training, and/or insufficient handling as a youngster can lead to ear and head shyness.

Abuse and pain are common factors. "If someone had roughly grabbed your ears, either to put something over them, clip the hair out of them, or twist them so you would stand still, you, too, would probably think twice before you let someone near your ears again," Bump points out. "Young horses are more susceptible to learning this misbehavior, but older horses can develop it if something causes them fear or pain. Horses also develop head shy behavior when they have been hit on the face or the side of the face for biting."

Don't discount a physical problem: Ear warts, ear mites, fungus, or a head or ear injury could be plaguing a horse, causing ducking and shyness. "If you are confident your horse has never been mistreated, have your vet examine your horse for a possible physical reason," Trout advises. "If the vet finds something, then it must be treated successfully before you can begin your training."

Cures--Modifying head and ear shyness takes time and patience, states Trout. "Your horse is worried that something is going to hurt, so start by touching and petting an area of the head that they're comfortable with, slowly moving to the more uncomfortable areas. As they relax, reward them with a treat and a soft hand." Rub a small towel on the horse's neck, working your way toward the face, Taylor suggests.

Cherie van Putten, a breeder of Friesian sport horses and former apprentice at the University of Vermont's Morgan Horse Farm, cautions handlers to always work calmly and to avoid quick motions around the horse, especially the face. "Teach him to lower his head by pressing down or pinching the poll. If you can't reach the poll, start as far up the neck as you can. Lowering of the head is naturally calming to the horse. After he lowers his head well, start scratching his forehead, rubbing his face and ears while the head is lowered. Spend a lot of time on the ears, moving them around like you will when putting a bridle on. Then put his face in an unbuckled halter without buckling it. Once he accepts that, put it on and buckle it. Then, let the headstall out several holes and place it on him. Let it out so it's easier to get his ears through."

"Think baby steps, not leaps and bounds," advises Bump. "Use calm, consistent pressure and work to habituate the animal to the action, but know when to stop."

Never hit a horse in the face or the ears, whether he's ear/head shy or not. A well-timed smack on the lips of a biter is a different case; more on that later.

Despite proper efforts, eliminating head and ear shyness might not be totally accomplished. "You might simply have to learn how to live with it," Bump says. "We had a wonderful school horse that was a real gem--with everything but being bridled. Not everyone could bridle him and that was fine; we knew who could and they knew the system, so it worked for all of us."

Overly Fearful/Shy

The problem--These are the horses often labeled as "quivering bundes of nerves," "wound too tight," or those who "see ghosts and monsters in every falling leaf." You might or might not recognize the trigger, but you know the horse appears to be overreacting to whatever scares him.

Causes--Predisposition, bad experiences, poor training, lack of trust in the rider, and playing are times a horse might be fearful or seem shy.

Cures--Give bored, playful horses something new to do, Sain advises. "Change the gait. Start training them with something different. Ride in a different place."

There are a couple of approaches for handling nervous, scared horses:

Systematic desensitization means you gradually expose the horse to various kinds of noises and distractions. By helping him through scary situations, your horse learns to trust and have confidence in you.

"Working in a round pen, walk the horse around the ring behind a helper who is waving bags, ropes, rattling cans, etc. as you walk the horse behind the helper," van Putten advises. "Let him snort and blow and take a step or two back. Let the helper face him and close the distance. Pretty soon, he follows calmly." Later, ride the horse with the same distractions.

Van Putten also suggests hand-walking the horse on trails after he has been worked to cool him out. "The horse is more relaxed after a workout, so he should be calmer and easier to handle," he says. "Plus, he just spent 30 minutes or so in training where you were the 'boss mare,' and that relationship translates into trust on the trails."

Positive reinforcement can help. When encountering objects that provoke fear, reward the horse for responding to your command, even if it's just a slight response.

Allow the horse a minute or two to study and mentally process the scary object, then ask him to move forward. "Just change your weight a little bit and give him a little squeeze," she says "The minute that horse responds to your forward signal--shifting his weight from his hindquarters to his forequarters, lifting a foot off the ground, taking one step forward--immediately stop asking him to go forward." Release and reward with pats and praise. Permit another visual inspection, then repeat the forward request, taking care to always release after you receive a response. "Eventually they go right up to the object, they see that it's nothing, and the issue is over."


The problem--Kicking can range from a relatively mild expression of discontent or a targeted attack; either way it can be extremely dangerous to the kicker, other horses, handlers, and buildings/equipment.

Causes--Frustration from over-training or their environment (confinement in a stall), insufficient exercise, boredom, competition for feed, fear, territorial protection, hormonal imbalance, and desire for attention can cause kicking. This vice can develop into a stereotypy with repetitive wall striking.

"Horses will kick when they feel that their safety is threatened or when being pressured too soon or too quickly," explains Sheryl Jordan Traverso, a Certified Riding Instructor with the American Riding Instructor's Association and with the Certified Horsemanship Association, equestrian center director at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa in Farmington, Pa. "A high-stress environment will put horses on edge; they feel more jittery and jumpy. In addition, if a person approaches a horse with overly assertive or aggressive body posture, the horse may kick out in defense or fear. A horse may also kick to protect his space."

"Some horses kick because it is more inherent in some than others," says Burba. "Pecking order is a fact of life for horses, and it is hard to control kicking in a herd situation. But when humans are present, establishing human control is important."


Herd pressures--Avoid herd feeding, especially concentrates, advises Burba. "This is when battles often break out. Avoid housing or grouping horses in small areas or where there are small corners in fencing. This magnifies the ability of the dominant horses to corner the less dominant and potentially kick them, reinforces the kicking in dominant horses, makes the others more fearful of being kicked, and causes self-defensive kicking, possibly establishing the habit."

Stalls--Build stalls with solid partitions (walls) between horses that are at least eight feet tall. "The less some horses see other horses during feeding, the less likelihood of kicking the wall," Burba says. Move incompatible horses to more distant stalls.

Watch which wall and with which leg a horse kicks while he's being fed, says Trout. "Then change the feed tub to a different place in the stall where he can't reach that wall with the leg he likes to kick with. Many times a horse has a favorite leg he likes to kick with, and this very often breaks up his routine."

Another idea is to install horizontal boards at rump height, preventing the horse from getting within striking distance of the wall.

Devices--Apply a kick-shoe, suggests Bradley. "It's round and is worn around the pastern. When they kick the wall, the shoe bangs the pastern."

Boredom or confinement--"Bored horses can build up energy, especially if stalled and fed a concentrate diet," Burba warns. "They get frustrated from not being able to get out and exercise." Provide more turn-out and exercise.

Training fears or pressures--Says Traverso, "Know when not to push a training issue and work at a pace that the horse can mentally handle. Go back to foundational groundwork and establish communication that is mutually understandable to both."

Another consideration is for the rider to exercise care around other horses. Instructs van Putten, "When the horse is starting to be ridden with other horses, give him plenty of room. Work in the ring with just one other horse. Start at a walk and let that other horse walk up behind him. When his ears go back, send him forward at a canter or brisk trot. By doing that, you are saving him from a situation he perceived as threatening." Practice this at different gaits and with more external distractions. "Pretty soon he realizes this is a situation that the rider will take care of," she explains.

Adds Bradley, "Give him something else to do to make him focus on you instead of worrying about the other horse. Do some bending of the head, stops, etc. Stop him, back him up, pull him around, do something else."

Health issues--Says Trout, "A horse with an old injury can be sensitive and protective about that particular leg or area of his body for a long time. Move around him, slowly placing your hand on him near the sensitive area, and slowly move your hand on to that area. This could take weeks or months to convince him that you will not cause him pain or worry.

"If you have a mare that is nasty and kicks, she could have a hormonal imbalance. Seek veterinary counsel," he recommends.


The problem--Whether it's a playful nip or an aggressive attack, biting is no joke and shouldn't be taken lightly. You'll handle different kinds of biters differently depending on the cause.

Causes--Play, curiosity, pain, defensiveness, protectiveness, frustration, and being fed treats by hand can cause biting. Look for underlying causes such as girth tightening, sensitivity to grooming, etc.

Cures--A truly aggressive biter (as opposed to a nipper) can be dangerous. "Seek help from a professional trainer," Sain advises, "because that situation is too dangerous to deal with unless you really know what you're doing."

For dealing with nippers:

* Eliminate pain situations.

* Brush sensitive horses less vigorously, van Putten suggests.

* Switch to a soft girth or girth cover on your existing girth as well as a girth with elastic on both ends. Says Trout, "Although the horse might initially still reach around to bite, use a small stick to gently push his nose back so that he is looking straight ahead as you slowly tighten your girth. Have a friend stand at your horse's head, holding him straight and petting him to draw attention away from the girth."

* Teach treat-seekers a signal that the goodies are gone. "My horses know the treats come out on a flat hand, and when I offer a flat hand with no treats, the treats are gone, and they don't bug me anymore," Sain says. "The trick is you can never give that signal, then five minutes later give them another treat, as it sends a mixed message. Wait at least an hour or so."

* Provide consistent, appropriate reinforcement. "Intermittent reinforcement isn't effective," Sain states. "They really need consistency and to know where the line is drawn."

Deliver an immediate--ideally within two seconds--swift and forceful smack to the lips (not the head or neck), Bump says. Practice by hitting your own arm, or that of a volunteer, to gain a sense of pressure and timing; these are important keys to eliminating the behavior, she says. "A light whack can be misconstrued by the horse as some form of positive attention and a smack delivered late can cause the horse to associate the discomfort with you rather than their own action of biting. After a smack, stay with the horse and provide some calming reassurance such as rubbing the head so that the horse does not develop a head-shy response."

Attitude Revisited

For maximum success in reforming "bad" behavior, address underlying causes. Is there something wrong with the handler/horse relationship, something uncomfortable in the environment, a physical issue, or perhaps poor training? Notes Traverso, "Many problems come from the humans making unnatural demands of the horse without taking the time to earn trust and not allowing the horse time to become comfortable with an environment we may force upon them."

Listen to your horse. "Every once in a while, go out and watch them for an hour in their environment," Sain advises. "How do they interact with their environment? If they hear something, are they interested, curious, ready to bolt? Do they run behind you? Do they run away from you? What is their interaction with the world? They tell us all the time what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable. We just have to listen."

About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

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