Study Identifies Causes for Misbehavior in Pony Club Mounts

Study Identifies Causes for Misbehavior in Pony Club Mounts

The team found an increased risk of misbehavior with horses that were actively competing; fat; fed daily supplementary roughage, grain, or concentrates; kept in pens with more than 50% ground cover of grass; and exercised five days or less monthly.


Poorly behaved or nappy horses are no laughing matter, and in some cases, the causes of the delinquency remains unknown. But a team of Australia-based researchers recently completed a study that identified some risk factors for bad behavior in a population of Pony Club horses.

"Misbehavior, defined as unwelcome behavior exhibited by a horse when being handles or ridden, is important not only because it reduces rider enjoyment, but because it is a serious threat to rider safety--especially children--and contributes to horse wastage in the form of sale, retirement, or euthanasia," explained Petra Buckley, BVSc, DipVetClinStud, MVetClinStud, MACVSc, PhD, from the School of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales.

To better understand factors that contribute to misbehavior, Buckley and colleagues collected information from 84 Pony Club horses belonging to 41 families between June 2000 and July 2001. Owners were asked to keep daily records of housing, exercise, nutrition, healthcare, disease status, and any instances of horse misbehavior. All horses were examined by a veterinarian monthly.

Misbehavior occurred in 50 out of 84 horses at least once over the year-long study. More than half of this owner-recorded misbehavior was considered dangerous with the potential for injury to horse and/or rider. The team associated an increased risk of misbehavior with horses that were:

  • Actively competing (compared to horses that were ridden recreationally or schooled);
  • Fat or obese;
  • Fed daily supplementary roughage, grain, and/or concentrates;
  • Housed on paddocks with more than 50% ground cover of green grass; and
  • Exercised five days per month or less (about one day a week or less).

Potential explanations for misbehavior reported during competition, the team noted, included the inherent mental and physical challenges competing horses are subjected to. These challenges are often compounded by rider tension and high levels of expectation, resulting in rider frustration if not met, and the possibility of a horse-rider mismatch, they said.

"This is the first time that horse management has been implicated in misbehavior," said Buckley. "We suspect that fat horses have excess energy to expend, and this may express in misbehavior."

Regular exercise sessions improve the horses' metabolic state and represent opportunities to advance horse and rider education, commented Buckley.

"It is exciting to be able to make such simple recommendations about reducing the risk of misbehavior as exercising horses at least three times per week, maintaining a healthy body-condition score, and being mindful about feeding supplements to horses that are not regularly exercised," she relayed.

"Interestingly, and contrary to common belief, an association between lameness or back pain and misbehavior could not be demonstrated, but this needs further investigation," Buckley concluded.

The study, "Misbehavior in Pony Club horses: incidence and risk factors," will appear in an upcoming issue of the Equine Veterinary Journal and can be viewed in its entirety online.

About the Author

Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc

Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she's worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

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