“It’s been my observation that riders often assume that grumpy behavior during tacking up is normal for horses,” Sue Dyson, VetMB, PhD, a researcher and independent consultant based in Suffolk, U.K., told colleagues at the 2021 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 4-8 in Nashville, Tennessee. “However, it’s also been my observation that grumpy behavior often resolves following successful management for musculoskeletal pain.”
During her presentation, “How to Recognize Signs of Abnormal Equine Behavior During Tacking-Up and Mounting and to Understand Their Potential Clinical Significance,” Dyson identified an opportunity. Observations made during this simple preride routine give veterinarians a chance to recognize changes in attitude and demeanor that might reveal saddle fit, lameness, and other health-related problems that need to be addressed.
As an example, Dyson cited a study at the University of California, Davis, of 37 horses with girth aversion behavior. Within this group researchers subsequently identified a dozen horses as having gastric ulcers. When they were treated with omeprazole, their “girthy” misbehaviors soon disappeared. Perhaps more telling, nearly all the horses in the study were diagnosed with some type of physical ailment.
Grumpy is not normal, Dyson assured her audience. Yet owners and riders often become habituated to the cues horses use to show their discomfort and anxiety. They are more likely to seek veterinary help when horses become truly aggressive—such as biting or kicking—while ignoring more subtle signs.
Dyson described normal behaviors during tacking up and mounting as follows:
- Engaged facial expression;
- Relaxed, quiet demeanor;
- No signs of agitation or anxiety;
- No abnormal body postures; and
- No fidgeting or movements that would indicate pain.
In 2020 Dyson conducted a study in which she and her team observed nearly 200 horses while being tacked, mounted, and ridden. Riders first completed a questionnaire to record typical behaviors while the horse was observed without any intervention. All the horses were said to be performing comfortably under saddle. However, one-third of riders answered “yes” to questions identifying troublesome behaviors during tacking up and mounting.
One researcher then watched while riders approached their horses with tack, placed the saddle, tightened the girth, bridled, and mounted. The observer evaluated the horses for changes in facial expressions and abnormal behaviors, such as:
- Reluctance to open the mouth for the bit;
- Raising or lowing the head to avoid bridling;
- Elevating the head above normal resting position at any stage;
- Lowering the head below normal resting position at any stage;
- Head-tossing or -bobbing;
- Repeatedly chomping or audibly mouthing the bit;
- Evading noseband tightening;
- Laying ears back behind the vertical;
- Staring intently;
- Eye-rolling (showing white sclera);
- Turning the head toward the girth region;
- Kicking; and
Significantly, the observer identified changes in behavior and demeanor in 66% of the horses, with the behaviors lasting for at least 25%, and up to 50%, of the tacking-up period.
The college riding program horses they observed were statistically more likely to have higher rates of abnormal behavior during tacking up, Dyson noted. And this concerned her. Twelve percent of the animals used in the study were school horses. “Students exposed to this behavior may learn to think it’s normal,” she said.
Poor saddle fit also correlated with abnormal behavior scores, with 78% of the saddles in use having the potential to compromise performance. Saddle tree points that were too tight and pommels that were too low were common problems.
Dyson said it’s important for veterinarians to observe horses at rest—prior to tacking up—to determine normal posture and behavior. She also suggested using a checklist to record behaviors, since behaviors happen quickly during tacking and mounting.
Client education is also essential, said Dyson. Study participants learned that odd, aggressive, or repetitive behaviors are signs of stress, anxiety, and pain. A grumpy mount is almost always a horse in need of medical attention.