1. Pain related problems
Some horses will put up with a lot of pain or discomfort before they complain and some will let you know immediately if they are feeling off. Here are a few pointers to help you recognize problems:
- Being difficult to catch - if your horse is normally easy to catch up and starts to become more difficult you need to find out why. It could be that he or she no longer enjoys being ridden - is this because of a badly fitting saddle? Or are you asking too much in your work sessions? Of course it may be that she is always like this for a few weeks in spring - that's fine! It's important to know your horse and to stop and think if their behaviour changes.
- Moving away or pulling faces when you groom, approach with a saddle or tack up. This may escalate to biting or kicking out when being brushed or saddled etc. There are things you can check for yourself - like whether the saddle fit is okay or not - see our saddle fitting advice in the Horse care.
- Just because your horse has always pulled faces when saddled, from the first day you had him, does not mean that this behaviour is okay! There is always a reason for everything so get your horse checked out.
- Being difficult to mount is another indicator of problems eg with the saddle or the back muscles.
- Sinking once the rider has mounted - being cold backed is often said to be the reason for this - yes, it is a resulting behaviour but the true reason for the 'cold back' needs to be addressed.
- Rushing - some people are pleased that their horses are 'keen' and zoom towards jumps, won't settle to canter calmly and so on. Sadly, the reasons behind such behaviours are often related to discomfort or pain. Once the issue has been resolved the horse will still jump etc - and better than he previously did!
- Bucking - yes, horses do sometimes buck out of sheer 'joie de vivre' but they also buck because something is hurting. The two types are very different!
- Rearing - usually something horses resort to if all their other signs of not being well have been ignored! It's like us shouting if no one will listen when we talk in a normal way.
- Refusing to move, throwing themselves on the floor - horses can resort to such behaviour because their pain-related problems have not been addressed. How would you feel if you were hurt and no one could be bothered to help you?
- Shortening of the normal strides - this can be difficult for a rider to pick up, especially if it happens gradually over a period of time.
- The horse cannot turn properly and shuffles around, instead of making definite moves with his legs and placing his hindlegs well under his body.
- Appearing stiff throughout his body.
- Taking longer than usual to warm up.
- Refusing to jump or trying to get the process over with as quickly as possible.
- Finding certain things difficult that used to be easy eg walking up a ramp into a lorry.
- While pain issues are behind the majority of so-called 'problem' horses there are some instances where bored or worried horses fill their time with activities that we regard as 'bad'. For instance, an anxious horse kept on its own may start to box walk - this is not the horse's fault, as horses should be kept with their own kind.
- Horses are meant to be out in fields, sharing time with their equine friends. If you keep your horse on its own you should think about other options - it is highly unnatural for a horse to live alone and you could be creating more problems for yourself. Is it possible for you to take on a companion horse or pony from one of the equine charities?
- Even if your horse lives with other horses, are you giving him adequate time out in the field to chill out and relax? It seems that many livery yards are imposing a 'zero turnout' or 'limited turnout' in the winter months, which is not ideal. If your yard operates such a policy, question it, if it is still a no then you have no alternative, you should perhaps think about changing your routine to help your horse.
- We are all busy but allowing time to hand graze your horse, or take him for longer rides, or arranging extra visits from you or another family member, will help to break up the day and alleviate the boredom for your horse. Always ensure he has plenty of hay to eat - or, if weight gain is a problem, try some of the toys available, or split his hay up and fix haynets in more than one place in the stable.
- Work is the biggest cure for boredom - so consider sharing your horse with a suitable person if you can't give your horse enough work.
When you do ride, teaching your horse new things, such as lateral movements, or trying new experiences, such as long-lining your horse, will help to keep him interested. While it's difficult during the week in winter for working owners to go on long rides, try to go for long hacks at weekend, assuming your horse is fit enough.
3. Perhaps there is a temperament issue
If you have established that there genuinely is no pain or discomfort issue and your horse is not bored or worried because he lives on his own, then perhaps his less than perfect behaviour is linked to his temperament. Horses' generally enjoy working and the harder they work the more they enjoy it, however some times this is just not enough and after much trying and working around things you can't deal with the horse, then perhaps finding him another, more suitable home, is the best thing you can do for him - and you!
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