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Horse Behavior: Is it pain or a training issue?

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

So your horse is acting up or resistant to do what you are asking them. You try and try and then you take a step back and think, "Wait...are they in pain? Is this not a training issue??"

After my previous live event on Kissing Spine (read all about here, video included!), I had many contact me asking for help in figuring out if their horse's Kissing Spine was truly causing pain or if it was behavioral. For many of them, after I learned more about their horse's background, it became evident that their issues were more than likely stemming from poor training and a few other issues I will talk about below. However we still did not want to discount that the Kissing Spine because there could still be some underlying pain. But this is exactly the issue we as equestrians deal with, figuring out if a behavioral issue is pain related or training related and many times in the end it is a bit of both mixed together!


Now I took some time to think this conundrum over and made this Venn diagram below to help show what I feel causes behavioral issues due to pain and improper training. I know there are some things I missed and maybe you would put some issues in a different area! And I encourage you to comment below with any takes on these issues and if you would add some! But take a look and continue to where I go more in depth with each issue!

True Pain


Now before we dive into pain issues, if for any reason you have a gut feeling that your horse's behavioral issue is pain related, listen to that feeling! Call up your vet and let them do a thorough exam! Some of the common things your vet will do if nothing is glaringly obvious are a lameness test, blood work and possibly check for ulcers. Sometimes it takes vets a little bit of time to find the issue, but if it is a physical pain issue, they will find it!


Remember I am not a vet and I am giving you information I have learned and dealt with myself! Always consult with your vet if your horse has any of these issues! Now lets dive in!


Disease

Alright this does not need much explanation (I hope)! If your horse is sick of course they are going to be crabby, sluggish, and just overall off! Now some diseases can be tricky to diagnose or they take a while to really show like Lyme disease. But I will say this, if your horse was absolutely normal one day and then the next is an absolute stranger to you, there is a very very VERY high chance you have a horse that is sick! You need to call your vet immediately to get them checked out!


Skeletal

Horses with arthritis and kissing spine will more than likely not move forward as well as a horse without those issues. Their transitions will not be fluid, they will look stiff and may look lame. Those with a ton of pain can get aggressive: bite, buck, rear, bolt, etc. Again get your horse checked by your vet if you see these issues so you can get them the proper treatment.


Muscles

Just like humans, horses can get tight knotted muscles. And in colder months, all horses need a proper warm up to get their muscles loose. Sometimes if a horse has a really big knot in their muscle you can actually feel it! Now I am sure you have experienced tight sore muscles before and you know it is not fun trying to use it! An equine massage therapist, equine acupuncturist, and light therapy are your best friends in helping your horse's muscles relax and unknot so they can move better and feel overall happier!




Saddle Fit

Ahhh the number one issue that will affect every equestrian/horse owner at some point! So a misfit saddle can cause an avalanche of behavioral issues and pain! When a saddle does not fit correctly it can cause pinching on their back muscles and can prevent their shoulders from using their full range of motion. It can also put an uneven amount of pressure on their back. OUCH! The longer you use a misfit saddle the more likely your horse will develop tight muscles, arthritis, Kissing Spine, and loss of topline. All of this will result in negative behaviors like: issues saddling and mounting, bucking, bolting, refusal to move forward, and a general negative demeanor.


Wrong Bit

Oh bits! There are sooooo many different types and sizes! And some are just crazy expensive! However always make sure your bit fits correctly! If it is too small it could end up pinching your horse's sensitive mouth. If the bit is too big or thick it will slide around in their mouth, hit their teeth and be uncomfortable in general. Some behaviors you will see are tossing of the head, opening of the mouth, sucking their tongue, and grabbing the reins.

Now I am mostly into riding bitless, but I do use a snaffle here and there for more refinement. However, I whole heartedly agree with many of the top natural trainers that if you have an issue with your horse the answer is NEVER a stronger bit! That will make your issues a thousand times worse! You need to look deeper and find the root cause, which may be one of the other issues I am discussing here!


Hooves

The feet are what keeps your horse up so make sure they are healthy! They should be trimmed about every 6 to 8 weeks depending on the seasons and how fast they grow. And make sure you have a KNOWLEDGABLE farrier! There are many farrier's out there that do not understand hoof angles or how to properly shoe! If a horse's feet are not trimmed or shod correctly they will not move correctly, which will then result in pain in their legs and cause them to move differently! Over time if their feet are still not done correctly, you will see arthritis and other skeletal issues form.


Teeth

This is a big one! A horse with a healthy balanced mouth should be seen at least once a year by an equine dentist. Horse teeth do not stop growing like ours and can grow into sharp points! Those sharp points will then cause issues if you use a bit and be uncomfortable when they eat! I mean just imagine if your back teeth were sharp little points, it would be so hard to properly chew!


Now for those of you not quite sure if your horse really needs to see a dentist, I am going to tell you a story that will gross you out! You have been warned!


I worked at a therapeutic barn that got in a mini and a thoroughbred from this older lady who we thought took care of them pretty well. After maybe a few days both of them started to loose interest in food and life in general. We got a vet in and she was doing everything, looking all over the body but was not finding anything. UNTIL.... one of my fellow workers found a scab on the mini's jaw and showed the vet. Well the vet picked it and found out the mini had a rotten tooth that abscessed and broke her jaw!!! THE VET COULD PUT HER FINGER THROUGH THE SCAB HOLE INTO THE MINI'S MOUTH!!! ABSOLUTLY DISGUSTING!!! The thoroughbred had the exact same thing! Evidently the owner did not think getting their teeth done was a big issue! WELL I AM TELLING YOU NOW, THIS IS A BIG ISSUE! GET YOUR HORSE'S TEETH DONE AT LEAST ONCE A YEAR!



Behavioral From Training


Conflicting Training/Aids

When working with a horse it is best to use one cue at a time or else they will get confused and act out! If you lease your horse or have them in lessons, make sure the instructors/riders know what their cues are.

Along with this, is if you like to ride with a few different trainers/instructors, make sure their styles are similar and that they are not asking for the same thing using different cues!


Inexperienced Owner/Rider

For all of you new riders or horse owners, this is absolutely NOT to call you out or make you feel bad! We have all been there and at times are still there! I know after 20 plus years I still am there at times!

This is to say that if you are a new rider or owner (or even a pro!) you will at times not know how to fix an issue or let things slide since you love your horse so much! But when you let things slide or are unsure how to fix an issue it is easy for those things to just spiral out into a behavioral hurricane! And high spirited horses will easily take advantage of this and can become dangerous since they know they will get away with it and you wont do anything about it. If this is happening to you, please do reach out to a trainer or behaviorist like me to help you!


Left to Sit

I am sure you all know someone or have seen someone with a horse that they put in their backyard and do nothing with! And then of course they try to sell it and well this horse is a hot mess!

A horse that is left to sit especially young ones will be stubborn or hesitant to do work since they previously were enjoying a backyard vacation! Some might even be almost feral if the owner only fed them and brushed them here and there. Proper and consistent training is needed for all horses and especially these guys once you get them going!




Pain & Behavioral From Training


Mental Health

Forage, Freedom, and Friends are the three f’s required by law in the Animal Welfare Act to support horse’s mental and physical wellbeing. The Animal Welfare Act was signed on August 24th, 1966 and is the only federal law in the US that regulates the treatment of animals in various settings. All three if not met, to me, can cause mental pain and physical pain. Many times these areas can be lacking inadvertently through the way certain training programs are run.

Forage for horses means having available to them various hays and legumes for them to eat throughout the day. Horses are trickle eaters meaning they eat small amounts throughout the day and will pick through the forage to find the best pieces! This process of eating small amounts continuously throughout the day is vital to keeping their GI tracts working effectively! Without access to proper forage or enough forage, your horse can become distressed mentally and ulcers can form in their GI tract along with other issues like colic. Some training programs do not give enough forage to their horses and then they wonder why their horses are having such awful stomach issues!

Horses need freedom to roam around throughout the day! Wild horses will travel more than 20 miles a day! Our domestic horses may not go as far but they still need to be able to run around and play! Keeping horses stalled or in areas that are not big enough for them will cause many negative behavioral issues! Those big fancy show barns that love to keep their horses in are the ones where you will find some of the most distressed and depressed horses! And I have heard of some awful trainers out there that use stalling as punishment which is disgusting!!! Give your horses tons of space and keep them out 24/7! They are strong powerful animals! Not some fancy China your grandma gave you!

Finally horses are social animals just like us and are naturally supposed to be in herds! So give them some damn friends! When a horse is able to play, interact and eat with another horse, it lowers their anxiety and calms their system as a whole! Now sometimes some horses will become friend sick, in that they get anxiety from leaving their herd, but this can be fixed by working them slowly in increments away from their herd and not forcing them to get over it! The best trainers out there know, when horses are out in herds they are much easier to train and are overall happier and healthier!


Wrong Feed

Alright so I am circling back kind of to food from the Animal Welfare Act but more focused on grain! When a horse has an adequate amount of forage, little grain will be needed unless the horse is old, pregnant/nursing, or in more strenuous training. Many people do not know how much, what type, or if their horse even needs grain but nevertheless they go with whatever the barn or their trainer says to do.

Instead you should talk to your vet or a horse nutritionist to figure out the best grain and amount for your horse! Each grain is made up of different ratios of fat, carbs, and vitamins. When you give too little or the wrong ratio a horse will have low energy, be crabby, and not do well in training. If a horse has too much they can become hyper, unfocused, and it can cause health issues!


Wrong Training Technique

Okay so yes this could just go under the behavioral from training side, but there are still trainers out there that use pain as a way to force the horse to do something! Yup disgustingly horrendous and absolutely illegal!

On the flip side, you could have a good trainer that does not use awful techniques but that does not understand how much your horse can physically do and unknowingly by accident cause physical pain. Every horse has a different personality, will need different techniques, and will have limits to what they can do mentally and physically.



Phew! I have covered all the areas I could think of! And remember that your horse could be dealing with an issue on the pain side and one on the training side! Just take the time to dissect the issue and find out what the root causes are!


Again I welcome you to comment below your thoughts! And I hope maybe this will help you a smidge in figuring out if your horse's issue is due to pain or training!


P.S. If you do find out your horse has physical pain, check out Photonic Health! It is light therapy for animals! And use code HCCloveslight for $25 off orders of $200 or more!


P.S.S. If you are still struggling to figure out if your horse's issue is due to pain or training, come talk to me! Join the free monthly Let's Talk Horse Group, every first Thursday of the month at 5:30pm. Or contact me to work with me one on one!


Best,


Ashley




Citations:


Animal Welfare Act.


https://thehorse.com/17736/pain-behavioral-or-both/






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