Understanding Horses Part 11: Diagnose the Problem Before Trying to Fix It

There are many people looking for answers for their horses' problems. I've been talking to more and more people, and they all think they have different problems, but generally, horse problems boil down to one of four things: ground manners, under saddle problems, medical problems, and problems stemming from accidently learning the wrong behavior.

We've discussed some of these things in earlier entries in this series, and it's important for horse owners to understand what their horses are trying to tell them.

Ground Manners

Generally horses with what owners call bad ground manners fall into one of five categories: too much energy, too little exercise, too much horse for the intended purpose, a lack of respect for people, and a refusal to accept restraint.

Too much energy This often means too much concentrate feed in the diet. A horse needs forage as his diet foundation. If he can't maintain his weight on good- quality hay and pasture, then he might need supplemental grain. But, he only needs as much as his body requires.

Not enough exercise. Most horses don't get enough. Think about this scenario: a horse is shut up in the stall with nothing to do, and the only time he gets out is when he interacts with his person. It's too much to ask for him to have good ground manners if that's the way he's managed.

Horses need regular exercise, and they need time outside with other horses just to let off steam and be horses.

Too high-powered a horse for the intended use This is something I see often. You don't want a horse that was a barrel racer for your kid's first horse. If you just want to trail ride, then buy a horse suitable for that. Don't buy a pretty horse, don't buy a horse you "fall in love with." Buy a suitable horse.

Lack of respect for people That means a horse that pushes you around, gets in your space, and steps on your feet. He's rude. You often see this.

I refer the owners of these horses back to basic ground manners and the horse learning to accept restraint, which I'll cover next.

For ground manners you need the right equipment and the right mindset. First, use a rope halter with only one string across the poll to give you a little "bite" when you tug on it. This will encourage the horse to yield to pressure. (See the July and August editions of The Horse.)

A refusal to accept restraint This is not the same as lack of respect for people. Horses need to stand still when you tell them to, and they need to stand tied. You should be able to tie every horse you own, and he should stand there like a good citizen until you come back for him. Most people don't leave horses tied up enough. Tie them with a rope halter and let them learn that if they pull back it isn't nice, and when they give to the pressure it is nice.

The horse that won't stand for the farrier does so because he won't stand tied. He doesn't have the patience to accept restraint. He hasn't been restrained long enough to know to accept that he has to stand there until he's allowed to leave, not until he decides to leave.

Under Saddle Problems

There are three main reasons you see horses with problems under saddle: too much energy and too little exercise (as discussed before), and a lack of basics.

Sometimes a horse is not far enough along in his training/schooling/education to do what is being asked of him. We're asking the kindergartner to do graduate work.

In other words, if every time you lay your leg on him for a canter departure he takes off in whatever lead too fast, he doesn't have the basics.

You can't expect horses to read your mind. You have to teach them what you want them to do.

Medical Problems

Is the horse misbehaving, lame, or does he have some medical problem? Sometimes it is hard to tell. The key to knowing the difference is to find a veterinarian with experience in your discipline.

If your veterinarian doesn't know what your horse does for a living, that's a problem. Veterinarians don't have trouble referring an eye problem to an ophthalmologist, so we shouldn't have a problem with sending a horse with a complicated lameness or medical problem to a vet with a specialty in that discipline.

Is this horse lame or does he have a behavior problem? You must realize that your veterinarian might have to refer you to another person who is more familiar with the movements and problems associated with your discipline. It doesn't make him or her a bad vet; in fact, it means they have your horse's best interest at heart.

Horses Learn by Accident

We as horse owners need to remember we're training our horses at all times, every time we interact with them.

Horses learn by accident. This means horses react. They don't think about it or contemplate. A situation arises and they react. If that reaction works for them, they will continue to react that way every time they are in that same situation.

It's important that horse owners realize the horse didn't react that way because he stayed up all night and thought of this--he just reacted.

I see this when I make farm calls. I go to do something to a horse and the horse flinches a little, and the owner leaps back. That scares the horse worse, and the horse confirms that "something bad is fixing to happen because my person is scared." These owners don't realize they are reinforcing this horse's fear.

A horse will keep trying things that are wrong--he likes to try out options to see what works for him. But when he does the right thing, reward him.

One of the biggest problems is when the horse is making baby efforts, and people don't recognize that and don't reward him. If he's not rewarded, he doesn't know that's what he's supposed to do.

Take-Home Message

Before you decide how to fix a "problem," make sure you know what the problem is. Does he refuse, or does he not understand? Are you working with a medical or mental problem? Is he resistant, or scared? Each of these is a totally different scenario and requires a different remedy.

You can't fix a lame horse with behavior training, and you can't make a horse with misbehavior sound with shoeing. Start back at the basics and make sure you reward your horse for doing the right things, and give him a chance to be a good horse by managing him properly.

By Andy Anderson, DVM, with Kimberly S. Herbert

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