Stubborn or Fearful?

Q: Recently, I was working with a group of veterinary students and a patient. It was a colt that had experienced minimal handling or training for leading before arriving at the hospital. On the way to his stall, he needed to be weighed. When the animal hesitated to move forward onto the scale's platform, the student handlers' inclination was to add pressure from behind. Some of the students were fairly new to horses.

I said the colt appeared to be unsure of the footing transition and, perhaps, needed a few seconds to check it out before stepping forward without pressure. I explained that while pushing and pulling and trying to shoo a horse from behind is a very common approach used to get trained horses to go forward, it is not always the most effective. And with untrained animals, it is most often counterproductive. I went on to explain that the most probable reason for this pony's hesitation was uncertainty and mild fear. Making things behind him more aversive was likely just adding to his fear and confusion. Even if by chance he went forward, it would be in a state of fear, which could then become associated with the specific situation (the scale, the crowd), and that anxiety might generalize to similar novel situations.

When he didn't move on after all that, I suggested that we use some grain enticement. It might be enough to distract him from his mild fear and get him to willingly put a foot onto the platform to learn that it was okay. If the grain worked, then associations made with the scale or with future novel situations in general likely would be positive rather than negative.

While we were waiting for someone to get the grain, I took a call, and while I was distracted, a gathering crowd of willing assistants tried throwing their arms up to spook the colt forward and tried to physically push him toward the platform while the handler on the head pulled and held tension on the lead shank. Meanwhile, others emitted the usual kisses and clucks of encouragement. As the crowd surrounded the colt, he simply froze, planting himself so that he would not move forward, backward, or turn; he became the proverbial mule. By the time the grain arrived, he was fearful and confused and had no interest in feed. I had to hang up fast and physically intervene when a well-meaning staff member passing by gestured toward slapping him on the butt.

At that point a trusting student confronted me with a great question, "How do you distinguish fear from just plain stubbornness?"

A: Many years ago I learned the most efficient way for me to get horses to willingly comply in the midst of a situation such as the one outlined above, then to have the horse get better and better with every new situation, and to end up trusting and working with you in any situation. I do this by letting the horse first check things out, then using only positive encouragement and reward for progress. In the common scenarios--for example, loading a horse into a trailer or getting him to walk over a water hose--the animal needs only a little time to relax and check things out, then he almost always will go forward on his own. If that doesn't work, then an enticement to distract him from the uncertainty is likely to work.

When a horse seems unsure, the sooner you switch to that approach, before the horse gets confused or scared of your aggressive tactics, the faster things begin to go well. And one thing that is for sure, but difficult to appreciate at first, is that it almost always takes less time, even the first time, to use patience and enticement and reward than to use force, pestering, or other aversive techniques. The biggest payoff, though, is the future of the horse and his or her handlers.

When you have someone shooing, pushing, and pulling, it can be very difficult to transition to this all-carrot approach. As horse people, many of us have come to think of horses in these situations as just plain stubborn, stupid, or somehow trying to get away with something. The implication often is that these animals have all sorts of complex and ill intentions, rather than just fear or confusion about what we want. When I'm offering help in these situations, my best advice has been to switch the focus from what the horse is thinking and what the horse is not doing to what you might do to better facilitate and reward the behavior you want from the horse.

So instead of, "Why is this stupid horse so stubborn?" you might ask, "What am I missing in this situation that might be causing this horse to be uncertain or confused, and what can I change to overcome his hesitation?"

If we attribute the problem to the animal's ill motives or poor mental abilities, we can't do much about it, so we get frustrated. And frustration leads to anger and aggression. If we start thinking instead about how we can change the situation to reduce his uncertainty and fear or increase the reward for complying with our request, then we become empowered.

I know once people understand that concept and make the switch in their thinking, they typically become very good in these situations. They come up with all sorts of effective ideas. They become the highly valued "go-to" people.

Not the best example, perhaps, but one that always comes to mind concerns a stallion that came to us with a lot of learned, difficult behavior, including loading and unloading issues that we had worked on a bit, but really had not completely fixed. He had reached the point where with a calm approach you could get him loaded smoothly in and out. But the butt bar and closing up the back terrified him, and he would fly off at the slightest mismove or noise. Once the back gate was secure, he was fine again. So if right after he loaded you could hold his focus forward with some alfalfa or grain while you quietly held a reassuring hand on his butt, you could fasten up the back quietly. But if he got frightened and flew off the back, it would take a long time to get him calmed down and willing to reload.

The day the horse was leaving our facility, a holiday weekend Friday, the rig arrived more than five hours late. One stallion handler and I waited after hours to be sure the horse loaded safely. When they arrived, we sent the truckers to the restroom and explained that we would load the horse by ourselves. The stallion went right on, but just as I was clipping the butt bar, one of the truckers rushed in to help with the gate. The horse flew off, and he stumbled backward in a fright.

I suggested the horse load in the morning. The stallion handler, who had for months worked to get this horse over several unsafe habits, really wanted to see him off safely, and before sunset, so to speak. I explained that he could leave, and I'd load the horse early in the morning. I had actually done it alone a couple times in training attempts. But this loyal co-worker insisted we try again while he was there to help.

Grain and alfalfa were of no use now. I asked the stallion handler if he had any ideas what might entice the stallion back onto the trailer and hold his forward focus while I fastened the gate. He gazed over to the paddock and said, "Yeah, I do know exactly what would hold this horse's forward focus." You guessed it--he could handle the horse if I would hold the estrous mare in one hand and with the other hand manage a side door with just enough crack to draw the stallion into the trailer and hold his focus. Then, when the signal was given that the moment was right, I would go around and close the gate. Before starting, I also firmly instructed the truckers to remain seated on the wall.

A few minutes later as the rig pulled out, my co-worker grinned with a cheeky pride. He couldn't believe what we had done--a behaviorist and stallion handler dipped so low as to give that stallion what he wanted, just to get him loaded on a trailer, and in front of two haulers from New Jersey.

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.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners