physical vs. psychological issues in horses
Q. A little over two years ago, we acquired a lovely Irish Draught mare, Colleen, from neighbors who were retiring and selling their place. This mare had been their family pleasure horse for many years. After their kids outgrew her, Colleen became a trusted loaner horse shared and passed among families here in our little valley. The plan was that she would come to our farm at first, and she would be loaned out as needed. Our veterinarian joined in the plan, agreeing to donate her services. Colleen had a couple of major physical deficiencies, but her heart made up for it. She could and would do just about anything for anyone.

Over the first winter, Colleen got no work at all. In early spring we started with light trail work and longeing. From the first time we worked with her, Colleen behaved completely out of character from the mare we had known for so long. She was cranky and uncooperative—anything we asked her to do was an effort, and periodically she would throw her head, wring her tail, and snort.

We couldn’t see anything wrong with the tack or anything obviously out of order. We had the vet go over Colleen very thoroughly and watch us try to work her. The vet agreed that Colleen’s behavior and attitude were quite different but couldn’t explain it. She advised us to continue working patiently with Colleen and to keep her advised.

We started a more organized training program with her, but one thing led to another, and Colleen just got less and less workable. We tried many new and old methods, but the more we did, the worse she got. She started to look like she just hated people—pinning her ears and going to the back of the stall. Even at feeding time, she looked unhappy. We became concerned that she might hurt someone and decided she was not fit to be loaned out.

Fortunately, our vet never quite gave up looking for a physical cause of Colleen’s behavior. A few weeks ago, she brought out a veterinarian who is an equine dentistry expert. He corrected some tooth problems and helped us fit a bridle with a special bit. He said it would help Colleen somewhat, but he wasn’t sure that poor dental health was causing all of her behavior problems.

A few days later we saw a sudden, huge change in Colleen’s attitude. Without changing anything else, Colleen is back to her old self again. As difficult as it is to believe, we are now concluding that perhaps all of Colleen’s trouble started with tooth discomfort, maybe triggered by our new tack.

Our question is this: In reading your articles, we find that for many behavior changes in horses, the first thing you look for is a physical reason. How do you know where to look? When do you start treating it as a training or psychological problem? After this experience with Colleen, none of us will be able to trust our judgment. It would take a book to describe all the psychological explanations that were offered by very well-meaning trainers and experienced horsemen who got involved in this community effort.

How does a veterinary behaviorist know for sure something is or is not a psychological problem?

—Barbara and Guy

A. Before I answer your questions, let me say that your experience warms my heart in many ways. Your story sums up the core challenge of solving almost any behavioral problem—in man or beast.

How do you sort out primary and secondary physical issues from primary and secondary psychological issues?

Your story speaks to the patience, teamwork, and honesty it often takes to find and correct an underlying physical problem. Two years is a long time. I can imagine how the special arrangement among friends both complicated and helped the situation. Hats off to you for remaining clear-headed and riding it out. Hats off also to your veterinarian, who kept considering possible sources of discomfort for her non-verbal patient. Hats off to the veterinary dentist, who corrected the mouth and honestly advised you. And hats off to Colleen; she obviously held true to her basic underlying character of a willing, compliant horse. Even after two years and all of the unsuccessful interventions, it sounds as if her behavior almost immediately returned to normal. Occasionally, a horse retains some of the behavior changes, seemingly having learned how to control human behavior. So what a good outcome! And what a good lesson!

Now your questions. Yes, I think a very large percentage of horse behavior problems have one or more physical problems as the major root cause. Just as with your experience, too many times I have seen horses schooled, and sometimes even severely disciplined, when the initial cause of a problem was actually physical. So, until you are convinced otherwise, it’s wise to keep looking.

Where do you look for possible physical causes of behavior changes in a horse?

A behavior specialist will, in many cases, follow the same thought process you did in telling your story. They will systematically consider a detailed history and presentation of the problem, trying to map out the time and sequence of behavioral changes. Was it sudden or gradual? How does the horse act with other horses, various people, or various jobs?

An important series of questions addresses what seems to provoke the behavior and what the behavior achieves for the horse. Could the behavior be a reaction to, or a way to avoid, honest physical discomfort? Or does it look like a way to get out of work? This is not simple to sort out, but experience and some special tools can help.

It is useful to observe the horse in a variety of situations—with and without people, with other animals, and alone. Perhaps one of the most useful tools is video. Fairly long samples that can be viewed in fast-forward, real time, or frame-by-frame enable evaluation of behavior patterns, possible physical discomfort, or any relevant signs of learned behavior. With experience in looking at similar video samples of normal horses in these situations, a behavior specialist develops a critical eye for normal and problem behavior and what provokes and ameliorates events.

For example, is that horse just kicking at a fly, is he kicking at you, or is he uncomfortable in the abdomen? Any suggestion of physical discomfort should be further evaluated and addressed by the appropriate veterinary specialists.

So, when can you decide the problems are primarily physical vs. psychological issues in horses?

In rare cases, a history of the onset can be fairly convincing that a problem started out as purely behavioral. For example, a horse in the wash rack gets a bee sting (aversive experience), then refuses to enter the wash rack (learned aversion). It has to be almost a no-brainer type of experience like that. Otherwise, only when a primarily behavioral intervention completely fixes the problem for a long time am I comfortable concluding that a purely psychological issue caused a behavior change such as Colleen’s.