Updated: Apr 25, 2022
“Behavior is communication”
When I say, behavior is communication I mean, that everything our horses is do, carries a message for us, humans, to help understand their needs and findings.
There is NO behavior we don’t want to see, there are no ‘problem horses’ or ‘difficult horses’, only horses that have been misunderstood or ignored for probably a long time.
Every behavior is an active message sent by a communicating individual.
In this case a horse.
There can be bad communication that can cause bad behavior. But behavior is not defining the individual.
The horses behavior is not manipulating, it’s not “on purpose”. It is simply and directly a reaction to the surrounding.
“Bad behavior” is not on purpose. It’s not mean or lazy or stubborn or treacherous.
If you see behavior that you don’t like in training and handling it’s 99% of the time your own making because you crossed the line of the horses comfort zone. He doesn’t know any better than to respond as he is doing.
If your horse bites you, you crossed a line.
If your horse bucks, you crossed a line.
If your horse rears or bolts, you crossed a line.
If your horse turns its hind quarters towards you, you crossed a line.
If you horse lays the ears in the back, you crossed a line.
If the white in the eye shows, you crossed a line.
If the lips are firmly pressed onto each other and the nose gets pointy, you crossed a line.
If your horse gets stubborn, lazy or zoned out and it just stands there not responding - you crossed a line so often that he decides to seek refuge in his own mind, shutting out the world and be done with it.
Steady and ongoing communication is as natural as movement for a horse. Actually, communication IS movement. If the horses does not move, he does not communicate. Or the other way around: we want movement so we want communication. But communication is a two way road. You have to actually listen to and respect the response of the counterpart.
If your horse doesn’t move as you want him to or acts out, it’s not him whos not listening, it’s you.
‘Behavior’ is a fluent conversation that becomes a dance - you communicate and move together trying to find rhythm, flow and harmony. One time you lead and one time you’ll be led. Allow yourself and your horse to say what needs to be said and to be decent and kind to listen to it.
What causes ‘bad behavior’
Where is this line? How do we know?
This is where communication becomes so important. The quality of listening and clear responding is our responsibility every single time we interact with a different species.
And with the listening and understanding comes the responsibility of fixing everything that can be fixed.
There are several issues that causes ‘unwanted behavior’:
Scarcity creates anxiety, not enough resources in regards of quantity, quality and spacial availability can cause a horse to act different. Food is the main driver of animals and can’t be ‘trained or bred away’. Horses need 24/7 acces to forage and enough space to share it equally.
Horses need to constantly move/wander around to stay healthy and happy. They also need the physical contact with a stable, trustworthy herd. Solitary confinement is not species appropriate for a social flight animal. Horses easily develop coping mechanism as cribbing, pawing, aggression or shut down to deal with this.
Discomfort and pain from problematic management
Unfitting management, as being stalled in boxes, to busy paddocks, unstable herds, not enough forage, unfitting diets and too much strain and load can cause pain and disease, often even not noticed by handlers and riders. Chronic illnesses like laminitis and ulcers are the most common reasons for drastic behavior changes.
Discomfort and pain from tack
Bad behavior does not only occur while being handled, but a lot of rider complain about their horses not doing their best in training or “acting out”. While psychologically this can be discussed broadly, about the horses choices and the kind of (aversive) training, it often starts right in the beginning with ill fitting tack like bits, bridles and saddles. There’s no reason for a horse to behave badly while being ridden unless its psychological or physiological discomfort and pain. Saddle fit Is a major issue here as it is often underestimated.
These four things are just a few examples and they can’t be trained away.
Remember: Behavior is communication.
What does the horse want to say if he’s acting out in the box or in the arena?
Look twice, think again.
Food anxiety, boredom and loneliness is quite obvious to fix. Its not always easy to find the right accommodation and we all have to make compromises when it comes to our ideals.
25/7 forage with enough resources and space is a must. As is turning out in groups for at least the day time, all year round.
Regular vet checks with complimentary disciplines, should be part of management, too.
Saddle Fit 4 Life says:
“Bad, unwilling, stubborn, stupid, naughty” etc. There’s no shortage of words people have used to describe horses, especially ones labelled as difficult. Oftentimes you hear it used to define unwanted behavior, behavior that is actually a reaction to pain, and the horse attempting to communicate their discomfort to the rider in whatever way they can. From bucking and rearing, to girthiness and ‘refusing’ to bend or engage in a certain direction, all the way to increased anxiety and spookiness, saddle fit can and does impact multiple facets of equine health. A large part of our education is to educate people on how to identify symptoms of pain and how they relate to possible saddle fit issues in their own horses, helping to build stronger bonds with horse and rider as well as a more educated and compassionate equestrian.
It's not uncommon to see horses react with pinned ears, whale eye, head tossing or otherwise when you approach with a saddle. While many riders assume it's because the horse doesn't like to work, doesn't like being ridden, or is just difficult, when you shift your perspective and see the saddle as the horse would - as something that may cause pain, you begin to understand the response.
These reactions should never be ignored, as they are you very first warning sign that something is wrong.
If you continue saddling your horse up, the horse will likely experience a more explosive response. Bucking, rearing, kicking, head-tossing, tripping, leaning into/ignoring aids, and so much more.
It is your job as the owner/rider to identify these signs and investigate what might be causing it. If a fitter comes out and tells you "nothing is wrong" but the response continues, call another fitter. Utilize those in your circle of influence for your horse, and if you don't have a circle of influence, now is the time to begin building one.
Every person and piece within that circle is an integral part of proper equine care, and includes rider, farrier, bodyworker, vet, nutrition, turnout and tack at the very basic.
People tend to typically treat bucking, biting, girthiness and other difficulties from the horse as bad behavior, as opposed to the physical inability of the horse to actually perform what is asked, due to pain (and oftentimes confusion).
Proper saddle fitting follows a repeatable process and helps to identify saddle-related lameness and injury, well beyond simply looking at whether or not the saddle remains atop the horse. With more than 80 different points that are taken into consideration, along with lunged and ridden assessment, as well as rider measurements, and full report, any saddle fitting that is over is under 30 minutes or done by simply grasping the saddle and giving it a shake is not doing yourself or your horse any favors.
There is A LOT of hidden damage that saddles can cause, well beyond direct injury beneath where the saddle sits, but also saddle-related issues that can be seen from the mouth all the way to the hind end.
Every single horse, from school ponies to Olympic athletes, deserves to be comfortable and protected from avoidable pain and injuries. Who needs saddle fitting? Any horse that uses a saddle.
A rider or owner should understand how and why a saddle is fit, and saddle fitters should embrace each opportunity to educate their clients.
Saddle fit assessment shouldn't be complicated or confusing, and at the most basic, easy to understand by the most novice of equestrians. Too often we see riders whose saddle was "just fit" but they cannot explain how, or to what parameters even.
Our goal is to change that, and arm every single horse person with basic knowledge on how to at the very least check their saddles.
Not everyone should be a saddle fitter, but everyone should know how to identify a poorly fitted saddle.”
A properly fitting saddle is no unnecessary luxury. It's a basic 'must' when a horse is in training under the saddle. That counts for all disciplines and all levels of professionalism or recreation.
Do not underestimate the importance of a good saddle fit.
For a good fitting saddle you can hire the services of a professional saddle fitter or educate yourself as much as you can to at least realise if the saddle causes discomfort. That starts with reading horse body language, analytical and sceptical self awareness and learning about anatomy and saddle fitting with online or local courses.
Saddle Fit 4 Life offers valuable, high quality courses on their website.
Who is Saddle Fit 4 Life?
The Saddlefit 4 Life Academy was developed to combat misinformation and often conflicting information surrounding saddle fitting, resulting in discomfort and injuries to both horse and rider. Our evidence-based education focuses on the anatomical and biomechanical requirements of each individual horse and rider, and a fitting methodology that promotes healthy posture and movement, with a heavy focus on rider fit.www.Saddlefit4LifeAcademy.com"
To note: I do recommend Saddle Fit 4 Life because I find their mission very valuable. I do not gain any financial advantage of naming them here or on my social media platforms. I simply want to spread information to increase the quality of equine life.
If you want to learn more about their mission join us on our Instagram Live on my platform (horse.conversations) on April 27th 2022 at 10AM EST/4PM CEST