Unbalanced Behavior

Q:I've worked with numerous young horses, but I have never encountered an issue quite like the one I'm experiencing with my 5-year-old Andalusian gelding. I'm hoping you can give me some pointers for intervening during his "temper tantrums" without escalating the situation.

I've owned Duke for three years. He was a great baby to start under saddle--eager to please and curious, a quick learner. He has always been on the anxious side, and is bottom-ranked in any herd, but he does display some stallionlike tendencies and characteristics that make me suspect he might be proud-cut.

Several months ago he started having "tantrums." While this is not unexpected from an adolescent, he is beginning to escalate these situations to a dangerous degree. Just the other day he began pawing in the trailer, which turned into striking, which then turned into sticking both front legs out the window (the drop-down window was lowered, but a grate remained--he put his legs, up to the knee, between the bars while the rig was moving). He had been hauled often, including a couple days before, with minimal pawing and some general impatience. From how the situation unfolded, I'm convinced there was no bee sting or other actual trauma that set him off. It is pure luck that he did not sustain serious injury.

This is one example--he's displayed a similar streak in other situations as well. Typically, under saddle he is brave and quiet, but recently he has begun balking increasingly at mundane things. We deflect and move on with our work, but occasionally he'll fixate and the reaction will escalate until he's worked himself into a legitimate panic--trembling head to toe, eyes bulging, lathered with sweat. He's even done this in the stall after spotting something (or nothing apparent) out the window. I can think of no common thread linking what (if, indeed, anything) sets him off.

When he gets on these tangents he seems to have no regard for his own safety, mine, or the farrier's. I worry that this will continue to the point that he will injure himself seriously. With the risk of anthropomorphizing, to gauge his expression while in the throes of one of these outbursts, he looks petulant up to the point that he gets on a roll--and then I believe he's actually worked himself up to legitimate, overwhelming fear.

I feel I've been very slow, consistent, and positive in his training, careful not to overwhelm and deliberately creating situations in which he can succeed. When we encounter these tantrums under saddle my usual tack is to "work through it" and continue with quiet, simple requests until his attention comes back. It can literally take hours to find a "good note" on which to end. Changing the situation (moving to a different arena, etc.) will sometimes defuse him if he's just getting started.

Negative correction definitely is not indicated--it makes things dramatically worse. And when it occurs in the barn or the trailer, I'm at a loss.

When not in this mode, he's a quiet, soft, willing young horse and overall I'd say he's progressing very well. He is worked four or five times per week in dressage as well as light jumping, cavaletti work, and hacking. He's been to a couple shows so far as well as hauled out for lessons (which he's handled well thus far, although he was en route to one during the recent trailer episode). He gets only a handful of grain once daily in a stall and otherwise lives outside with another gelding 24/7 on very sparse pasture.

Do you have recommendations for how I can better handle these outbursts? Any pointers on how to intervene before he gets to the fear stage? Are there any specific physical issues I should try to rule out? Is there any hope it might be a matter of age and that he'll "grow out of it"?
--Rachel, via e-mail

A: I'm glad that you ask about the possibility of physical issues, because as I read your question I was wondering if these "outbursts" or "tantrums," as they seem, actually represent a true behavioral problem or a physical problem.

For example, I would recommend exploring inner ear conditions that might cause dizziness or visual perception, and/or balance problems that might cause startle or ill-at-ease with movement of the trailer or sudden movements of the head. Especially your description of the events in the trailer with the pawing and striking and scrambling without regard for safety remind me of that sort of honest physical problem that can turn a great horse into a disaster.

These problems can be difficult to diagnose, but you might start with a neurology examination. Your situation reminds me of a horse I worked with that had a very similar problem. He was a very well-schooled horse that had traveled and competed for years without issue and started having explosive events when trailered.

The scrambling and panic and disregard for safety could be induced reliably with motion in a trailer or, as we found out, even with the beginning motion of a treadmill. The horse was willing to load on a trailer or the treadmill over and over, and he was fine and compliant until the motion started, when he would appear to lose his balance. The scrambling occurred in the same manner each time. While trying to figure out what type of motion set this off, the horse did get hurt in the trailer. After that he was unable to be transported without very heavy sedation.

Unfortunately, a team of clinicians at our referral hospital, with MRI and excellent radiographic imaging capacity, were unable to diagnose the cause of the balance problems.

You mentioned the farrier's safety. By coincidence, this horse I am remembering also had difficulty balancing when not standing on all four feet. So with the farrier, when a hind leg was lifted, the horse drifted and scrambled and panicked. So while most of the team of clinicians saw this as a physical rather than a "misbehavior" problem, we were unable to diagnose the root cause and treat it. It's my understanding that in many cases a cause for this type of episode can be found and treated, so my very first recommendation would be to see a good veterinary neurologist.

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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