Horses can do many things that are annoying, frustrating, or downright dangerous. Take Finn, the young horse who likes to nip and bite when he gets bored, or Winter, the pony who would rather buck than trot with a rider. What about Sydney, the Thoroughbred gelding who slams on the brakes at every other jump, or Nell, the grey mare who fidgets and paws in the crossties?
How can we teach these horses to do the “right” thing? Why do they do this bad stuff anyway? Are they being spiteful… stubborn?
In this article, we’re going to take a close look at bad behaviors – what causes them, why they continue, and how we can teach our horses something different.
What is a “bad behavior”?
This may seem like a silly question, but most of the behaviors we call bad are really just out of context.
For example, pawing is fine if Nell is turned out in a snowy field and needs to move the snow so he can find a few blades of grass.
Bucking is perfectly ok if Winter the pony is racing across his pasture on a cool morning jumping and twisting with exuberance.
Even biting isn’t a problem when young Finn is out with his horse friends playing and “horsing around”.
And we want Sydney to stop at our 4’ fence when he trots up to the gate at feeding time, but later, we want him to sail right over that big wall in the middle of the arena when we’re on his back.
So it’s not that most bad behaviors are inherently “bad”, but instead the horse needs to learn when things like bucking, biting, or pawing are inappropriate. We need to teach the horse what to do in the different situations that we put them in.
Good training is all about effective communication. How can we show the horse what we want, for example, waiting patiently for a treat instead of grabbing at our pockets, going over the jump not around it, and stepping forward happily when we say “trot” instead of pinning their ears and letting both hind feet fly?
On a simple level, we just need to figure out how to show the horse what we want him to do, tell him he’s good and reward him when he does the right thing, and do our best to ignore all the bad stuff until it goes away.
But sometimes it’s not this simple. Behavior change can be easy or it can be quite hard. When we take a closer look, there can be a slew of factors that keep a bad behavior happening over and over. Since training is first about communication, let’s begin by considering how we communicate with our horses.
How We Communicate with Horses
There are many forms of communication that happen both consciously and unconsciously.
In classical conditioning, the horse becomes sensitized to people or things that cause him fear or pain. Naturally, he will try to avoid these things in the future.
On the other hand, horses desensitize to things that that do them no harm. Horses learn to connect sounds, sights, and smells with danger, rest, or food and will act accordingly. That’s why when the feed room door opens, the whole barn starts whinnying and moving around their stalls, anticipating a coming meal.
In operant conditioning, the horse learns that his actions can bring different, but predictable results. This is also one of the main frameworks of communication that we use with our horses, and our kids… and our coworkers…
In the context of working with a horse, operant conditioning is basically how we react to what the horse does. Our reactions will determine, in part, whether the horse continues a behavior or tries something else.
Since it is our main mode of communication, let’s go into more detail on how operant conditioning works. There are four main quadrants, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. Positive and negative are used here in a mathematical sense, not to indicate “good” or “bad”.
Reinforcements are how we react to behaviors from the horse that we like and that we want the horse to do again. We can “reinforce” a behavior by giving a reward, like praise, scratching, or a treat. We also reinforce a behavior when we remove any pressure we were using. Pressure can be the physical pull of a rope or rein, or the tapping of a whip. It can also be a stern look or a confrontational body posture.
Punishments are how we react to bad behaviors; a punishment will make the horse less likely to repeat a behavior. Punishment occurs when something bad happens to the horse, such as getting shocked after touching an electric fence, or receiving a sharp pull from a lead shank after trying to rush forward while being led. Punishment can also happen through good things going away after a bad behavior, like a treat being whisked away when the horse tries to grab it too aggressively.
Communication is only effective if the other party understands what is being communicated.
Try speaking to someone who doesn’t know your language. It’s difficult, but in time you can develop a sort of non-verbal communication as that other individual watches your body movements and gestures and perhaps finds a way to give meaning to a few specific words. This is not unlike what happens with our horses. Perhaps we are at an even lower starting point for communication with a horse as horses are not going to be able to read universal human body language (eye movements, facial tension, and hand gestures) as intuitively as another human.
Now that we understand basic communication, this brings us back to our discussion of bad behaviors. We’re going to examine what I believe are the three main causes of bad behavior.
The 3 Big Causes of Bad Behavior
In my experience as a trainer, this is number one. Horses get along with humans naturally, somehow they instinctively seem to want to please us. Domestication never could have happened if we weren’t compatible species.
Horse’s relationship to us is as a working and performance animal. We ask a lot of them physically, strapping on saddles or harnesses, putting bits in their mouths, and asking them to carry us around, to jump obstacles, and to contort their bodies into positions that require a high degree of strength and flexibility.
Horses can’t tell us when something hurts, they can only act on the discomfort. They may drop their back, shake their head, kick out, pin their ears, the list goes on…
Physical discomfort doesn’t just mean a medical problem either. Imagine you were trying to do the splits and could only get about half way there. There is nothing wrong with you, you’re just not flexible enough right now to do a full split. If someone were to come along and start forcing you into the position it would be painful and you’d put up quite a fight, maybe punching, kicking, anything to get them to stop causing that pain.
Almost any bad behavior can have a physical cause so it is often the best first place to begin searching for a solution.
The second source of bad behaviors is emotional distress. Emotion plays a huge roll in both behavior and learning. For any situation, the horse can respond in different ways depending on his emotional state. For example, consider the simple request of asking a horse to walk forward. A sleepy horse may not move at all, a calm attentive horse may step ahead easily, but a tense, nervous horse may leap forward from your slightest move.
It’s also not just the horse’s emotional state that matters. As a prey species, horses have adapted to read signs of tension and stress that may signal danger. They can pick up these signs not only from other horses, but also from us.
If we come to ride or interact with a horse feeling frustrated, angry, or scared, the horse will react differently than if we can remain calm and focused.
We can’t control a horse’s emotions, but we can work at controlling our own.
We can be more aware of when and how we ask for things so as not to over pressure a horse who is already feeling anxious. This means that a horse like Nell, our crosstie fidgeter, may be able to learn to stand quietly in her home barn with her friend in the stall next to her, but will have a much harder time standing by the trailer at a busy horse show.
Since good communication is so important in our relationship with our horses, what happens when that communication is not so clear? What about when we aren’t consistent in our release of pressure or we give rewards randomly, not paying attention to the behavior that precedes the reward?
If we aren’t aware of how learning happens or if we make no effort to be consistent, miscommunication can quickly cause behavior problems. Let’s look at the example of Sydney – the gelding who refuses most jumps he is pointed at. If Sydney’s rider carries a crop and gives him a good smack after each refusal, he should know that he is being punished for not jumping and will jump better in the future, right? Not necessarily.
After a refusal, it takes Sydney’s rider a few moments to regain their balance, sit up, and then smack him. Instead of connecting the punishment with refusing the jump, Sydney connects it to the space in front of the jump and next time will not only stop but will also quickly dart to the side to avoid that dangerous place where punishment occurs.
Miscommunication could also happen with Finn, the nippy youngster. Nipping and biting are natural investigative and play initiation behaviors for young horses. If Finn’s biting is met with a half-hearted slap on the neck he will likely never understand that his biting behavior is not appreciated, but instead may think that he was successful in initiating the attention and play of his human companion.
Often these three causes, physical problems, emotional distress, and miscommunication, can occur together, all playing a role in causing and continuing the unwanted behavior.
Take the example of Winter the bucking pony. His kicking and bucking response was very strong the instant he was touched with a whip. At some point in his life he had likely been in a situation where he was under emotional stress, scared and not wanting to go forward. His handler at the time used a whip to coerce him into moving, smacking him hard. The pain from the smack along with his already heightened emotional state triggered an instinctual fight behavior of kicking out. For a moment, it stopped the whip and through the principle of negative reinforcement Winter learned in that moment that kicking out is effective in stopping a whip.
Now to understand how this becomes habit, let’s look at a few more principles of learning.
How does learning happen?
On the surface, learning happens as a result of the basic communication frameworks we discussed earlier – especially through reinforcements and punishments.
The brain is of course what controls our learning, so let’s consider what happens in the brain.
When a horse does something new, neurons in the brain fire and a neural pathway is created. The more the horse continues to repeat that same behavior the stronger that neural pathway will become. When in a new situation, the horse will first try responses or behaviors that worked in the past and have had the most repetition, because those behaviors have the strongest neural pathways.
Also, behaviors that have a strong emotional connection, especially those connected to fear, will require fewer repetitions to create strong neural pathways.
This is why we need to be so careful not to push a horse to the point where they feel no other option but to offer a fight or flight behavior. Once they try it and it works, they are much more likely to use it again.
We need to create options for good behavior and then allow repetition for these behaviors so the horse can develop the good neural pathways.
How do we change behavior?
The most desirable way to change a bad behavior is to simply ignore the bad stuff, wait for a glimmer of the right behavior and then make sure any pressure is released, and reward and praise that right behavior.
A simple concept, but one that takes discipline to implement, as our tendency is often to focus on what is going wrong instead of keeping our mental picture on the right choice.
As bad or unwanted behavior is no longer reinforced, and a new brain pathway is created for the right behavior, the old behavior eventually just goes away.
But here are a few cases where this plan doesn’t go as smoothly as it sounds.
- If the old behavior is still reinforcing in some way. If a horse is pulling for grass and always manages to grab a mouthful before we’re able to get his head back up, then even though the pressure to bring his head back up is acting as a punishment, the reward of that mouthful of sweet grass is probably enough for the horse to continue pulling.
Some behaviors are self-reinforcing as they help the horse release stress. Pawing is thought to be one of these self-reinforcing behaviors. To better understand this concept, think nail biting in humans. People who chew their nails feel better as it reduces their stress, and they don’t need an external reward to continue.
- If the horse is in a situation where he is not able to find other options for how to behave in that situation, he will likely continue or increase the bad behavior. For example, if a horse is in a state of emotional stress with someone trying to load him on a trailer he probably will not suddenly drop his head and walk on quietly.
We need to help the horse by making the right choice easier to find, through changing our approach and trying something different ourselves.
One of the worst methods we can use is to constantly punish any behavior that is offered as that leaves no room for a “correct choice”. If the option isn’t there, we need to give them the option.
- If we don’t know what we want. Sometimes we get so focused on just stopping the unwanted behavior that we give no attention to what we actually want the horse to do. The key to behavior change is to stay focused on the desired outcome, and look for any steps towards that outcome, rewarding them appropriately.
How do we know what to do when?
What is the best way to change behavior? To teach something new?
I don’t believe there is one right answer that will fit this question. However, if we remember to stay focused on what we want, to reward even the slightest moves in that direction, and to consider the situation while remaining emotionally neutral ourselves we can be successful.
Changing behavior is not about using only one method, such as only positive reinforcement or only a rigid set of exercises, it is about observing the horse, considering the situation, and ultimately experimenting.
We need to expand our knowledge of learning and communication, plus build a toolbox of techniques, but we also have the responsibility to seek to understand our unique situation and relationship with our horse.
With this approach, we can change our horse’s behavior and do it in a way that feels good for both of us.
Now I’d love to hear from you! What is one behavior your horse does that you’d like to change and what do you want your horse to do instead?
See you in the comments,