Benefit of the Doubt: What Your Horse’s Bad Behavior is Really Saying

Maybe you’ve been training hard for months, preparing for an upcoming show, or been taking advantage of the beautiful summer weather by spending a lot of time in the saddle with your favorite equine.  Your horse has been behaving great and you really feel like your riding has gone to the next level.  All of a sudden your horse decides to go on strike.   He’s lazy and dead to your legs.  Doesn’t want to pick up the correct lead to the right.  Decides that every time you turn to the left, he’s going to bulge his shoulder and fall in like a motorcycle.  Throws his head every time you ask him to go forward.  Decides that he wants to crow hop every time you ask him to canter.   Decides to avoid all contact with the bit or drag you around the ring.   Begins to make one direction around the ring 100 times more difficult than the other with a personal mission to cut all corners.   Decides he forgot how to turn left.  The more you try to correct and school, the more your horse protests.  You try even harder still and your horse is just not having it.   You get frustrated, your horse gets frustrated and all your progress comes to a halt, or even starts to go backward.  Horse: 1.  Rider: 0.   Next few days, same issue, and you’re ready to pull your hair out.  You’re both in a rut… he was so well behaved last week.  The peanut gallery is full of training advice and has advised you to get tough and aggressive with your horse and show him who’s boss.  To kick him, use a whip, try spurs, make him do it, use stronger aids, what method of horsemanship to apply, not to let him get away with it, to get after him, to punish him, correct him and before you know it, you’re either the center of a rodeo, or brushing the dirt off your clothes, following your flying dismount.

First thing is first… deep breath.  He/she are living breathing animals with moods, opinions, good days and bad.  Even though it may feel like it at times, it’s not your horse’s main goal in life to make your ride as miserable or difficult as possible.  The problem is that since horses can’t talk, they sometimes use misbehavior as a way of getting your attention that something is definitely wrong.  If something IS physically wrong with your horse, or there is an outside issue causing him discomfort, the last thing you want to do is spend a week disciplining and working them through a physical issue, and have them associate riding/training with stress and pain.  Now don’t get me wrong, it may take some training/schooling or even discipline to draw the conclusion that your horse’s issue is something you are experienced enough to resolve, and/or not just behavioral, especially if you continue to effectively school, but the issue continues to persist, or even get worse.

There are two steps to solving your problem before entering the “thunderdome” with your horse…

1. Give your horse the benefit of the doubt, and listen to see if you can’t hear what they are trying to communicate to you through their misbehavior.  Eliminate issues to make sure the source of the issue is behavioral/training related, and not physical.  (Don’t hesitate to call a vet and have a physical exam done.)

2. Knowing your limits and be honest with your experience as a trainer/rider and when you need to tap out, and seek professional help.  

Give Your Horse the Benefit of the Doubt and Listen to What his Behavior is Trying to Tell You.

Every horse can have a bad day, a lazy day, misbehave or try to take advantage of a weak rider.  The more familiar you are with a particular horse, the more you will get a feel for what a “normal” or “good” day is for that horse.  If there is something you need to be aware of, something the horse may try to get away with, and what they feel like and act like when they are at their best.  When your horse begins misbehaving, or beginning to develop a bad or unusual behavior or have a negative reaction to something that is not typically the “norm” quite possibly be that he’s actually trying to tell you something.  Especially if that behavior is extremely apparent, persistent, atypical of that particular horse and doesn’t seem to clear up after proper schooling.

Before you continue to frustrate yourself and stress your horse out through vigorous discipline sessions, and before it goes from bad to worse, you need to take a step back and listen to what your horse’s bad behavior is trying to express to you.

That something could very well be:

  1. “I don’t feel well today.”
  2. “My tack hurts and doesn’t fit right.”
  3. “I don’t understand what you are asking me to do.”

By taking this simple step back you are giving your horse the benefit of the doubt that there is an outside influence (and hopefully a simple solution) to why he may be misbehaving.  He may very well have a very reasonable or valid excuse that you will need to find through process of elimination.  Is he sick?  Is his tack pinching him?  Do his feet hurt?  Is the bit or even the rider causing the issue?  Lets explore many of the reasons and things your good horse could be telling you through his bad behavior.

I Just Don’t Feel Well

You have bad days and good days, and so does your horse.  Sometimes your horse may be misbehaving because he’s just having an “off” day.  And he’s completely entitled to, just like anyone else.  Sometimes the best thing you can do is just end your ride on something positive, and start fresh tomorrow.  He may just need a moment to clear his head and relax and start fresh tomorrow.

Horses can get colds and be under the weather just like people.  They can get tick-borne illnesses that can cause inflammation, and affect their joints and overall sense of wellness.  If your horse is not acting like himself or being difficult or lazy, before you take a crop to his hind end and spurs to his side, think about taking his temperature just to make sure he’s not feeling bad.  It only takes a few minutes, and you can take it rectally with any decent thermometer.   Normal horse’s temperature can range from 99-101 degrees, but can even be a few degrees higher depending on the weather and if the horse had just been working.  The best thing to do is to check your horse’s temperature on a regular basis so you can get an idea of what a normal temperature range is for him when he’s in good health and so you can immediately recognize if the numbers are higher or lower.

Other times your horse’s misbehavior can be much deeper than that.   It can be an undetectable physical lameness issue.  Your horse doesn’t have to be limping to be “off”.  You may feel as if this issue has appeared almost, overnight… “They were fine yesterday!” But in so many cases, it’s most likely been building up for a few days, weeks or even long because our equine companions want so much to please us that they sometimes suffer in silence for a bit, before they start complaining about what hurts.  They may have been complaining (or trying to tell you!) about it in less obvious ways such as a reluctance to move forward, shorter gaits, bulging or any other type of behavior in which they are attempting to escape the pain of what hurts.

Additionally, like any other athlete in training, they are susceptible to fatigue, inflammation and soreness, such as his back, legs, feet or even his glutes, which builds up and can compound each time they are ridden, especially if they are not given adequate time to recover.  He can also have a wide variety of issues that are making him uncomfortable such as having his pelvis, ribs, or thoracic vertebrae out of alignment.  This can affect how through and evenly your horse moves, their transitions and quality of their gaits.  Having a chiropractor out to adjust and check your horse, especially if they are in full work, is a great way to keep your horse at his best, check for issues affecting his performance, as well as prevent future issues from forming.  Your horse does not have to be limping to have a lameness issue.  A simple inability to get the right lead at the canter, or crow hopping during the trot or canter and transitions can indicate that something hurts and is just not right.

Horse’s feet, how they wear, and the way your horse is shod can cause an endless array of issues with the way your horse performs.   Your horse may have seemingly beautiful and textbook perfect looking feet, but they may just be sore.  While your horse doesn’t really appear off, you will notice that at times they shove you off the driveway path and insist on walking on the soft grass instead of the “ouchy” stones because their feet are tender.  While they are in the arena, there is no way to escape the footing, so they may compensate by moving differently, on their toes or heels to avoid the tender impact, which can in turn make them back sore or create other issues because they are attempting to compensate and avoid the pain.

Bottom line is you have to listen to your horse, especially when their poor behavior or performance seems to have come up over night, after solid and consistent training.  Give him the benefit of the doubt that if they have a behavior or they are dropping in overall performance, that your horse is not trying to be disobedient, he’s only trying to get comfortable, avoid pain, and let you know he’s hurting.   The resolution to your issue may be a simple chiropractic adjustment, a new set of horse shoes, or even just a softer bit.

 

Now don’t get me wrong – sometimes a perfectly healthy horse can find an excuse to misbehave, and this action or reaction is definitely a behavioral issue, and not a physical one.  Sometimes they’re trying to take advantage of their rider and discipline is needed to work through the issue to teach your horse that it is not acceptable, but especially if the issue arises from a typically well behaved horse, or if the issue new or atypical of that particular horse, before you get into a solid schooling session and begin punishing or disciplining your horse for his behavior, go the extra mile to make 100% sure that the issue is definitely behavioral not physical.  Or you’re going to end up doing much more harm than good both mentally and physically to your horse.

The better your horse feels, the happier he’s going to be and the more willing he’s going to be to work for you – so please, before you discipline and go to various lengths to work your horse out of a persistent issue or behavior problem not common for your horse, listen to your horse and ask yourself “Why is he behaving this way and is it normal?” and “What may be causing it?”  Then take the time to explore and eliminate the possibilities that could make it a physical issue instead of a behavioral one.  There is nothing that will send your progress backwards than punishing a horse who is uncomfortable or in pain, and only trying to avoid hurting.  The last thing you want your horse to associate riding/work with is pain or discomfort.  This also includes inexperienced riders unintentionally causing pain or discomfort to their horse.  Once you’ve eliminated physical causes or issues, then move forward with the necessary behavioral corrections.

 

My Tack Doesn’t Fit 

I never knew how well a saddle should fit and how expensive it can be to properly fit tack to your horse, until I added dressage to my list of equine disciplines.   In my early years I was taught how saddles should “sort-of” fit.  When I was 13 years old working tack ups at a local lesson barn, we had about 12 different saddles, all of which needed to be used to tack up over 30+ horses and ponies that varied in height, shape, size and tree width.   Back then, I was taught simply to look for wither and shoulder clearance and if the saddle was not level, to just throw a foam riser under the back to even it out.   Getting a saddle “re-flocked” was not even something I knew was a “thing”.  If a horse at this barn was prone to saddle issues, he had a note under his name on the wall to make sure we threw a foam pad or “back saver” as we called them back then, under the saddle for added relief.  There were some saddles that only fit certain horses, so my night always consisted of a saddle 3 card monty swapping them out between horses to get as many as I can, fitting the best that I could between mounts and riders.  Even most riders had one  jumper saddle, in one of two tree sizes, it either fit your horse or it didn’t.  Other riders would bring their own saddles from home to use, regardless if it fit the lesson horse they were riding that day or not.  I cringe at the thought of it all.  Nothing made more sense to me the day a saddle fitter had explained that your horse’s saddle should be a balanced, and well fit extension of your horse’s back.  If the curves of the saddle were fighting to find their contact and pressure points, and to distribute weight through the different shapes and curves of a horse’s withers, shoulders and back, you were going to end up with a whole mess of issues.

Many riders still carry that old school mentality of “it’s a saddle” or that if “it kind of fits, or looks like it fits, it will do.”   Or because tack can be very expensive, they have the mentality of, “this is what we got, and Lightening is just going to have to deal with it.  Just throw on an extra saddle pad and it will be fine…”  Unfortunately, saddle fit couldn’t be more critical to your horse’s movement, as well as his good, and bad behavior…

If your horse is misbehaving or not performing well, you need to truly assess the way that the saddle, bridle and even other accessories like boots fit him.  My horse will be the first one to kick out or buck on the lunge line at an ill-fitting or loose boot.  If the saddle restricts his movement, pinches, causes pain, or is not shaped or sit on his back well enough to appropriately distribute the weight and movement of the rider, you are going to end up with an uncomfortable, poor performing horse.  Not only that, a bad saddle fit or balance can also impact the rider’s position and effectiveness by throwing them forward or back, which can also cause soreness and back issues, creating a very valid excuse for a protest.

If you have a horse misbehaving, (especially if you’re using a different saddle or bit) before you discipline him you must make sure that it’s not your saddle or bit that is causing the issue.  You don’t need to spend $5000+ on a custom made saddle, but you definitely do need to go the extra mile to ensure the saddle is not causing any discomfort both with and without a rider in the tack.

Bridles, especially bits, as well as other tack needs to fit properly as well to ensure the safety and comfort of your horse.  Bits are not a “one size fits all…”  They have different sizes, shapes, joints, uses, materials and levels of severity.  Horses even have different preferences to the type of bits they prefer.  Before you start pulling on your horse’s face make sure you are not using a bit or even a bridle that is causing your horse distress.

 

“I don’t understand what you want from me by the way you are asking” and #2. Knowing your limits as a trainer/rider and when you need to tap out, and seek professional help.  

These two issues essentially go hand in hand so we’ll talk about them together.   While you may be a competent and talented equestrian, or even a trainer, not everyone is a George Morris, Steffen Peters, or Anne Kursinski.  If you think you know everything about horses, riding and training, you’re most likely competing at an olympic level by now, and even the top riders in the world still have trainers.   Knowing your limits and the depth of your own experience and ability to train and school your horse, is extremely important.  Your horse may be misbehaving because he simply does not know what you are asking for, the way you are asking for it.

Every horse is different.  They have different needs, respond to different aids, and understand a multitude of different things.  Some horses respond well to riders with quiet hands and light seats, while some need riders with a strong core and a solid leg.  Some horses need their riders to ride the connection using their inside leg, while other horses need an outside rein to get the correct canter lead.  So many different riders and trainers with different horses with different levels and styles of training, not every horse is a perfect match for even the best of riders.  While you may be a great rider, you may not have mastered the ability to train.

There is so much that goes into the connection between a horse and rider, so many styles and preferences that sometimes the disconnect and cause for misbehavior in your horse is either yourself, (how you are riding and using your aids – correctly or incorrectly) and what your horse knows, and how they have been taught.  Your horse may not understand something because you ask differently or because you are asking him wrong.  There may be another issue that you are unaware of with your position, seat, leg or hands that is preventing your horse from performing, or confusing your horse as to what you want exactly.   So many people learning to ride will immediately pull back on the reins of a horse that is going too fast, but in many cases, that will only make your horse get leverage on the bit and go faster.    Others try to pull their horse in the direction they want them to go, but a well trained horse actually moves away from pressure and is actually “pushed” into the direction you want them to go.

Before you get frustrated or discipline your horse for the wrong action, reaction or response, you need to make sure that you, the rider, is not actually the one causing the problem or confusion in your horse.  If you cause an unwanted reaction or behavior in your horse, and then punish them for doing it, because it’s not what you want- they are definitely not going to learn anything.  I’ve seen many riders get on their horses and “bully” and push or muscle them with ineffective tactics and aggressive corrections (whips, spurs, kicks)… I used to call this “rodeo their horse” where at first the horse’s head goes up, his eyes bulge out and they become really stressed searching for a relief until they get lucky and do something the rider thinks is acceptable, in which they just give in – and it’s called “schooling” but nothing correct or productive actually comes out of it other than a tired, stressed horse.   But it’s the rider’s own bad or inexperienced riding habits that caused the horse’s confusion and misbehavior in the first place.  I could have kicked, whipped, and spurred my horse into going faster, but all I needed was a trainer to tell me to stop gripping with my knees and take the emergency brake off.

So many riders and even trainers won’t accept their limits or admit that there’s a horse they can’t handle or train, or an issue they can’t get through.  This usually makes the matter worse.  You’ve got to know your limits and know when to seek the help of a professional more knowledgable than yourself to help you with the issue at hand.  It may be your own riding style or habits creating the issues and preventing you from moving forward.

The top trainers in the world are students for life.  They go to clinics, take lessons and learn new methods for teaching and training.  If you are struggling with your horse before you blame and punish him for his misbehavior, get another set of eyes on you or another person in the saddle to make sure that it’s not you causing the issues you’re inadvertently trying to punish or correct your horse for.   It doesn’t matter if you can ride 200 different horses correctly, it is completely possible #201 doesn’t understand the way you use your hands or respond the way the others did as you apply your leg aids.  It’s also possible that the previous 200 horses had different levels of training and were obvious to a noisy hand or heavy seat, or even just that the horses you have ridden prior had a higher level of training and better understood your aids.  Your new horse may be a 3 year old, off-the-track, and not understand the concept of steering, have working brakes, or how to accept the aids in the same way a horse that has been showing for years does.  Be kind to your horse and work with the right trainer to make sure that before you demand that your horse is going correctly (and punish him for not doing so), that you are definitely riding correctly, and that your horse clearly understands what you are asking.  You can be a very correct rider and ask a green horse to do something, knowing that you are asking correctly, and they may still be confused at what you want.  They’re not misbehaving, you just need to take a step back in their training and work on it.

Can’t afford a trainer?  Ok, so I know they can be expensive… but a few lessons or training rides here or there can be critical to the progress you make with your horse and his happiness.  You may be able to bargain with many generous trainers out there – offer to clean tack, groom, saddle up or cool out their horses, braid and bathe for a show, even clean stalls and do chores around the farm in exchange for a few hours of help, a lesson, or even a training ride or two to help you sort out the problem.  You may even find a vet or two willing to take a look at your horse in exchange for your help, depending on your experience and if you are qualified and capable.

 

My horse and his tack is physically ok and he’s still misbehaving.

Ok sure.  Horses are like children…  toddlers or teenagers if you will.  They’re always better behaved for someone else, and the second you give them the opportunity to take advantage of you, they will.  Sometimes they complain about going to school or doing their homework, and sometimes they’re going to try to get out of it.  You’ll have days where they goof off in class, don’t feel like working, have a severe attention deficit disorder, or are just in a cranky, lazy, or hormonal mood.  They may have extra energy due to excess sugar consumption, or may be a little dehydrated due to the hot summer heat.  Every horse can and will have days like this, but there are other reasons your horse MAY be misbehaving…

No routine.  

Most horses are best when they are in a solid work routine and know what is expected of them each day.   Being worked and handled consistently helps to get them used to their surroundings, the ring and it’s scary corners and jumps, as well as repetition which is essential for horse training.  If you’re only riding your horse once a week, or every few weeks, unless he’s a well trained or seasoned schoolmaster, you have to anticipate a little spunk, unpredictability, or misbehavior.  Nothing he won’t work out out of with a solid consistent work schedule.

Not fit.

This is a big deal and a really common thing I see when many riders or inexperienced trainers are working with their horses… they make demands and requests of their horse that the horse is simply not physically capable of delivering.  Despite what you may think, it takes a considerable amount of fitness for a horse to canter, and even more fitness to do it with a rider on top.  I’ve seen other riders get on their horse who hasn’t been kept in shape and will constantly ask the horse to come round and stay on the bit, and punish their horse for not performing well because they don’t have the endurance to maintain it as long as the rider would like.  If your horse hasn’t been jumping in awhile, raising the fences to 3’6″ and practicing courses for a show next week isn’t fair if he’s out of shape.  Dressage can be especially demanding on a horse.  It takes months if not years of strength to build up a horse’s topline, back, shoulders and neck to be able to use his hind end and carry himself, round and connected.  It takes even longer for a horse to develop the strength for upper level movements that they don’t even allow horses of a certain age to compete at certain levels for fear of over-facing them.  A dressage schoolmaster may know how to piaffe, canter piroutte or passage, but requesting these movements from them when they are not strong enough to deliver will not only cause your horse to protest, but even injure your horse.  It’s unfair to ask your out of shape horse to perform exercises or movements above their fitness level.  If they misbehave because of it, they’re reminding you they are not fit, or don’t remember what you want.  Be fair to your horse and very aware of his fitness level.

Still Growing.

This one goes along with your horse’s fitness ability.  Young horses are not strong enough to meet the every day demands of riding.  They need to be built up to it overtime just like any other athlete.  Just because you have just broken your 3 year old under saddle and he can walk, trot, canter, doesn’t mean he’s physically able to do it often or for long periods of time.  Not only that, young horses need time to learn how to use their bodies correctly.  If your horse is misbehaving, he may be struggling to meet your expectations just yet.  Misbehaving is his way of telling you he needs you to take it a little easier on him right now.  Slow down and give him a chance to catch up.

Horses, depending on their breed and size can still continue grow until the age of 5-8.   Their bones go through growth spurts where they will be awkward and uncomfortable and unsure how to balance ever since their back legs shot up past their front.  A lot of times you’ll see a see-saw growth in horses where one week the front end is higher and then the next week it’s the back.  Bone growth and plate fusion in horses can change the way they move, cause discomfort and inflammation and be challenging to a young horse.  If your young horse is misbehaving he may be struggling to use his body correctly and just need time or rather, time-off, a few weeks or a month, just to get through his awkward growth spurt.

He’s Immature. 

If your horse is misbehaving, he may just need to grow up.  Literally… or rather, mentally.  Young horses have less experience and even less of an attention span.  They are more excitable, unpredictable and reactive in general and there is a definite growth in maturity that happens as your horse develops that allows them to handle and process more and in a more productive way.  They have what I like to call a “meter” which is the time limit they have set inside their own heads as to how long they can be in a training session and be productive before their meter runs out and your time of them behaving has run out.  Some horses, even older ones have very short time limits.  I know it’s exciting to get a new or young horse working and under saddle, especially if they are performing well, or you’re enjoying the ride, you want to keep riding them longer… but if you ask them to work too far past their attention span, or too far past their “meter expiration” you run the risk of being extremely counterproductive when your horse begins to tell you that he’s done for the day.  You can also stress young horses out this way and make training and riding a stressful experience for them.  You may think your horse is misbehaving, and you will try to school him longer – but really your horse is trying to tell you that he’s learned all he can handle for the day and that it’s time for a break.  Short sessions, simple lessons, small goals and quit while you are ahead.  The only way to feed the meter is to let your horse relax, and start fresh the next day.

He’s Bored.

Just like any human can and does get bored at their own day job (unless your job is riding horses!), you have to be compassionate that your horse’s misbehavior is due to the fact that he’s bored at his job too.  So working an hour a day sounds awesome to us but it’s tough on them.  If you spent 5 days a week jogging in circles with someone pulling on your face, pounding on your back or kicking at your ribs, you’d probably be over it to.  Walk, trot, circle, canter.  Change direction.  Walk, trot, circle, canter.  ZZZzzzZZzzz.  Your horse may be misbehaving because he’s lost interest in his work, he can do it with his eyes shut.   It’s your job to keep him interested and to get him excited about his job.  Cavaletti poles, a trail ride, some cross country schooling, even a hunter pace.  Spend a day working with your horse in hand.  Introduce him to some small fences.  Believe it or not, some horses really do enjoy their work – jumping, dressage, eventing, cow cutting or team penning…  horse shows and Western speed competitions.  Even getting new jumps or rearranging the course in your outdoor arena can make things new and interesting for your equine.  Some horses excel and are happier in certain disciplines over others.  A brave horse may love cross country, but another horse who is insecure or hot over fences may find more peace in the dressage arena.  Cross train.  Try different things.  Show your horse new things.  Bring excitement and change into your horse’s daily life so they don’t get stuck in a boredom rut.

He Just May Not Like Your Style or Discipline. 

Don’t take it personally.  You have your preferences of horses you love and love to ride for many reasons, and your horse has those same preferences in who they like, how they want to be ridden and in what discipline of riding.  Personally, I’ve always said if my horse could choose his main discipline, he’d choose to be a hunter.  His personality is laid back, steady, and consistent, and he really enjoys jumping.  Other horses were born to event or show jump, while some are the happiest and loving life out on the trails.

Some horses are really particular about the type of rider in the saddle.  If you are a rider who is heavy handed, a horse who prefers a rider who’s light in the bridle may not be happy with the constant contact.  A horse who is used to being ridden balanced and forward may struggle to find  harmony with a new rider who doesn’t have the strength to stay balanced.  You may have a ridding habit that your particular horse is just not tolerant to.  Not all horse and rider combinations click, no matter how hard you try.  My mother owned an Appaloosa who hated men.  No reason… the horse had never had an incident or issue, and had no problem being groomed, or handled by men. She was safe enough to be ridden by a three year old, but if you put a man in the saddle, he found himself on the ground before he could get both feet in the stirrups.

Working with a trainer to either find a horse that matches your riding style and skill level, or to help you adjust and learn to correct the mistakes or to find the best preferences and use of aids that your horse responds best to.  Granted the better rider you are, the more mounts you will have the ability to click and build a partnership with, but even then, someone’s style of riding may bring out the best in a particular horse over someone else.  A timid horse would do well with a brave rider, but run out of his fences with a timid rider who gets nervous when jumping.  Some horses need a particular type of rider confidence level or ability to respect them and behave.  If your horse is misbehaving, he may be expressing that he doesn’t feel you are the best fit for him – or that you still have a lot of work to do with your trainer to improve your communication and partnership.  Talk to your trainer.  They should be honest and open about how well you and your horse suit each other.  Sometimes its hard to face the fact that your beloved horse is not the best match for you, your experience level, confidence level, or suitable for the discipline you are interested in pursuing.  What is most important is that regardless of what horse you are riding both you and your horse should be happy and safe.  Unfortunately sometimes that means swapping out your horse for a more suitable or reliable mount with more experience or willingness/patience to help you grow and learn as rider.

He’s Burnt Out.

Our final reason your horse may be misbehaving (and it’s not his fault) is that he may just be burnt out.  After months of vigorous 5-6 day work weeks in summer weather, grueling training for shows or competitions, or even just an overuse in riding lessons, especially by riders who don’t know how to ride correctly, your horse may start to misbehave because he wants you to know that he needs a break.  He’s overworked, tired, stressed and just needs a few days, a week, a month or even a season to step away from his job and to just enjoy what he loves doing most, which is being a horse.  Eating, sleeping, sunbathing, rolling in mud, running in the pasture, relaxing and playing with his friends.

Every horse can use a vacation now and then to rest, heal, rest and clear their heads and relieve themselves of built up anxiety or stress work has built up in side them.  This lets them find relief from inflammation and soreness that the work has created, it helps them to forget which corner of the ring is their favorite corner to misbehave… aka “the scary corner” and which corner of the ring they like to bulge or break at the canter.  Breaks help some horses to perform better and come back to training refreshed, interested and ready to work.  If you find things are not going as planned in your horse’s progress giving your horse some much deserved time off to unwind and enjoy himself or in other words, “hitting your horse’s reset button,” and allowing him some time off to “be a horse” could be the one small step back he needs to move forward in a positive way.

But my horse is still misbehaving…  

We won’t leave this one out.  YES, sometimes everything can be right in your horse’s life and they still find a reason to misbehave and take advantage of you.  After you’ve given your horse the benefit of the doubt and eliminated/ruled out outside or unseen influences or factors on your horse’s misbehavior, your horse may just need some good old fashion schooling or discipline… a session, a week, a month or three or even a year with a qualified trainer or training rider to build a solid under-saddle foundation, and an understanding with your horse of what is expected and how to behave.

 

Reining it all in.

At the end of the day, listen to what your horse’s bad behavior is telling you and read between the lines.  He may just be saying, “I know you can’t make me listen, so I’m not going to…” or he could be genuinely trying to communicate any discomfort he feels.  Don’t be so quick to punish and correct, before you are certain that your horse’s misbehavior is not due to his health, physical condition, tack, level of training, fitness, boredom/stress level, or rider’s bad habits.  When you punish a horse for avoiding pain, misbehaving because he’s confused or not feeling well, you create a sour horse who will not enjoy working.  It takes moments to check your horse’s temperature, back or feet for soreness, to double check the way your tack is fitting and that it’s not causing issues, or to ask a trainer for a second opinion.

Always be conscientious of your horse’s fitness levels, stress levels, growth spurts and mental health and recognize when his meter is up for the day and when a couple days of vacation would really do him some good. Be honest with yourself about your horse’s ability and needs, as well as your own and make sure that his behavior is not due to incompatibility generating miscommunication.  Don’t be afraid to work closely with a trainer to eliminate rider mistakes and bad habits creating larger issues in your horse and that you are both a good fit together and for the discipline you are riding or competing in.  Developing a great horse/rider partnership takes time and hard work, but riding should be safe, positive, stress-free and enjoyable for you and your horse.

Show your horse you care and take the time to really “listen” to what his  misbehavior is trying to express, especially if it’s a new and persistent issue that doesn’t improve or an issue not typical of your horse’s every day disposition.  And be thankful, not frustrated for his efforts in communication… he’s reaching out to you and letting you know he is upset and needs your help.  If he was always good, the poor guy would suffer in silence and you’d never know anything was wrong at all!