A horse has feelings too

All behaviors in horses happen for a reason. For a good reason, I might add. The reason is never that ‘the horse is being silly, strong, moody or difficult.’

A big proportion of problem behavior in horses is related to fear or pain. Horse won’t load in the trailer or is napping, horse won’t hack out alone, or won’t tolerate the hose pipe, clippers or fly spray. Most of these issues have an underlying fear that’s guiding the horse.

To resolve such a situation, you might start being strong with your horse and the situation escalates fast – you resort to huge pressure, maybe even bring out the whip…Because a horse has got to know who is the boss, right?! Wrong.

Dominance theory has been debunked in horses a long while ago, you absolutely don’t need to be your horses boss for things to work out smoothly for you two. You can do the research on your own time – google phrases such as ‘leadership in horses’ or ‘ dominance in horses’ and make sure the studies you read are from this century.

Always learning

It’s true that not all ‘bad behavior’ is due to fear or pain. Some of it has been learned – take for an example a horse that is difficult to catch. The horse finds something about being with you unpleasant. Be that an uncomfortable saddle while you are riding, or simply just being away from the herd. The horse has learned that being caught leads to unpleasant experiences and therefore has learned to avoid it.

The horse is always learning – ALWAYS! Not just during the lesson when you have your learning head on, but in every single interaction and in ever single moment. Everything the horse does is reinforced – either positively or negatively. This type of learning happens all the time, even when the horse is just chilling with his herd.

Imagine it’s a sunny day. The horse moves to the shade, it feels cooler and more pleasant. Moving to the shade became reinforced because the horse felt pleasant after moving into the shade. A reinforced behavior is likely to occur again, so next time your horse knows that moving from the sun into the shade is pleasant and this behavior will become more frequent. With this example you can think whether this was positive reinforcement – addition of cooler air, or negative reinforcement – removal of heat? Who knows – both are likely correct!

Thinking about it from another point of view – let’s take the electric fencing as an example. Horse touches the fence and as an immediate result gets a zap. This falls under the quadrant of positive punishment, not because there is anything positive about it, but according to the quadrants we think the word positive as in addition of something.

The behavior is less likely to occur again because it got reinforced by a positive punishment – in this case an electric shock. Because the fencing is consistent and the painful reinforcer, eg the electric shock, delivered fast, the horse usually learns this in just one or two tries. In layman’s terms; Don’t touch the fence because it bloody hurts!

Why is my horse doing this?

If you are faced with a difficult situation with your horse, it’s always a good idea to take a break. The horse won’t learn it has won or it won’t feel like the king and never let you handle it again. Take a break and analyze what’s happening and try to see it from the horses point of view. Often in difficult situations with horses the handlers are nervous, anxious or even angry and that never aids things in the right direction.

When things are not going well, my advice to you is to take a break, walk away, take a few deep breaths and think about it. What is happening, why and how can you help your horse succeed in the task you have assigned for it?

Last but not least, I want to leave you with a thought;

Love your horse first and the sport second.

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Pia Saari is the founder and owner of Country Quest Portugal. Throughout her life she has gathered extensive experience with horses in many different ways. She has worked with horses professionally in riding schools, livery yards and racing stables. She has worked in horse rescue and helped numerous horses recover from severe physical and mental negligence. She has studied equine ethology and psychology, learning theory and many other subjects relating to horses. Country Quest Portugal has a mission and a vision to make the world a better place for horses - sharing knowledge by an online course is a very important part of this mission. The course is priced low to make it accessible for everyone who wants to learn how to better care for their horses.