Pain, Behavioral, or Both?

Often, a horse’s behavior problems are rooted in either pain or incomplete training. Here’s what to consider.

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Your horse has decided he no longer wants to pick up his feet for cleaning. Or that she can’t take her right lead anymore, or make it through a jumping course without stopping at a few fences. Or maybe it’s something as simple as objecting to having the girth tightened, which has never been a problem before. Whatever the case might be, your horse is misbehaving.

But before you blame your trusty steed, consider the root of the problem. Is he really just being naughty, or could pain be the catalyst behind his problems?

At the 2016 Western Veterinary Conference, Gemma Pearson, BVMS, Cert. AVP (EM), MRCVS, explained how practitioners can determine the difference between problems rooted in pain or behavior—or whether it’s a combination of the two. Pearson is a senior clinical training scholar in equine practice at the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, in Scotland.

Ethology 101

Pearson stressed that for a horse to be a “happy athlete,” his ethological—how horses evolved to live in the wild—needs must be met. These include:

  • Being herd animals. As such, a happy horse should have access to other horses and be allowed to interact with them;
  • Spending their days foraging. To satisfy this need, your horse should also have the ability to forage for most of the day, be it in a pasture, through a muzzle, or via a slow-feeder or haynet; and
  • Traveling many miles per day, so a happy horse must be able to move freely;

Behavioral issues are common in horses whose ethological needs aren’t met. So it’s important that you ensure your horse is well-equipped to be a happy athlete before asking him to work.

Check for Pain

Once you’re sure your horse’s ethological needs are met and your training takes into account how horses learn, be sure he’s not in pain. Even if it seems unlikely or you’ve seen no indicators, always give him the benefit of the doubt and have a veterinarian confirm there’s nothing causing him discomfort.

Pearson recommended practitioners begin with a lameness exam, including jogging in a straight line on a hard surface, longeing on hard and soft surfaces, and watching the horse work under saddle. She also suggested veterinarians use further diagnostics, such as nerve blocks or a bone scan (nuclear scintigraphy), to pinpoint the problem if they observe any signs of unsoundness or unevenness.

Back pain or discomfort is a common cause of performance problems and can manifest as anything from lameness to a shortened stride to refusing fences. If the practitioner identifies back pain, Pearson said a certified physiotherapist or sports medicine clinician can help bring the horse back to function.

“Physiotherapists have the ability to increase range of motion of a joint and resolve underlying muscle tension that is causing pain,” she explained.

She also recommended veterinarians consider whether a horse has gastric ulcers. While these can certainly cause performance problems, Pearson said it’s important to use gastroscopy—an endoscopic exam of the stomach—to confirm the presence of ulcers, which she said can be overdiagnosed based solely on clinical signs.

Additionally, veterinarians can check horses’ serum amyloid A levels. Pearson said this test can reveal ongoing inflammation somewhere in the horse’s body, but she cautioned that it can’t necessarily pinpoint the problem.

Pearson also recommended a dental exam, as dental problems can cause a range of painful issues that result in decreased performance or other unwanted behaviors.

Finally, if the practitioner can’t find any signs of pain, Pearson recommended doing a “Bute trial,” to see if a few weeks of a high dose (sometimes up to 4 grams per day, she said) of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone could relieve pain somewhere in the body and, thus, improve the horse’s behavioral issues. She cautioned, however, that while this can be useful for identifying subtle, chronic pain, just because a horse doesn’t respond to the trial doesn’t mean he isn’t painful. Additionally, this type of test might not be suitable for horses with some medical conditions, such as liver problems, and Bute can have some adverse side effects, such as colitis or gastric ulcers; thus, it’s crucial not to conduct a Bute trial without your veterinarian’s oversight.

Pearson also noted some specific scenarios that often wind up having pain-based origins. “Beware of the old horse that becomes naughty for the farrier or the small ponies that have their feet lifted too high,” she said. In both cases, horses often become uncooperative due to pain. Having the farrier adjust his hoof hold or providing the older, stiff horse with some pain-relieving medications can help reduce the incidence of undesirable behaviors.

Additionally, she noted that horses diagnosed as headshakers are generally dealing with pain when they perform this unwanted behavior. In these cases, work with your veterinarian to try to find a solution; keep in mind, however, that headshaking can be challenging or even impossible to eliminate.

What If it’s Not Pain-Related?

Even if the veterinarian isn’t able to identify a source of pain, don’t jump to the conclusion that your horse is out to annoy you. Instead, take a good look at his training.

“Often when we perceive there are no underlying sources of pain, the underlying cause of the horse’s unwanted actions is then assumed to be the horse’s behavior, as if they are making a conscious decision to misbehave,” Pearson said. “Instead, we should shift our focus to deficits in the horse’s training.”

She stressed that, most frequently, those holes come from inconsistencies or issues with how the horse is trained and ridden. Thus, it’s important to include yourself and the rest of the horse’s handlers in the evaluation.

Horses need clarity in training—ensure your cues are clear, concise, and have only one meaning. Pearson also explained that horses learn via pressure application and release.

“Think about an irritating fly landing on the horse’s side—pressure the horse is motivated to remove,” Pearson explained. “By swishing their tail the fly is removed. The horse quickly learns what behavior (swishing the tail) removes the irritating pressure from the fly.”

The same principles apply to humans training horses. If a trainer is teaching a horse to move forward, for example, he or she can apply leg pressure until the horse takes a step. At that point, the trainer must release the pressure because the horse has complied with what was asked of him. Eventually, the horse will learn that the trainer’s leg pressure will stop when he moves forward. This principle can be used in all facets of horse training and mimics the way horses evolved to learn.

Common training errors that could result in unwanted behaviors include:

  • Using contradicting aids at the same time (i.e., kicking with your legs while pulling on the reins);
  • Teaching the horse more than one response per cue. Rather, keep your signals clear, concise, and independent of one another;
  • Not training self-carriage (the horse’s ability to maintain his own speed and direction; you shouldn’t have to nag to keep him trotting or moving in a straight line);
  • Not releasing pressure. Always release pressure as soon as the horse gives you the response you’re looking for; and
  • Using too much pressure. Remember that horses can feel a fly land on their skin; chances are, they’ll quickly learn to respond to gentle pressure.

“Equine veterinarians are, of course, not trainers,” Pearson said, “However, observing a horse that presents with unwanted behaviors while being ridden can often give clues that poor training is contributing to the problem.”

She noted that learning-theory-based training principles can not only help owners get to the bottom of their equine behavior problems, but also help veterinarians stay safer on the job.

Could it Be Both?

“Often unwanted behaviors develop in response to pain,” Pearson explained. “However, as the behavior is repeatedly practiced a habit may form. In this scenario, the behavior may persist even when the pain has resolved.”

For example, a horse that’s become reluctant about lifting his hind leg due to arthritis might continue refusing to pick the hoof up even after you’ve treated and eliminated the pain. He might not be in pain anymore, but he’s formed a habit of not lifting his leg.

In these cases, Pearson said, the horse might require retraining after correcting the physical problem. She advised contacting a qualified behaviorist or trainer for assistance in challenging or potentially dangerous cases.

Take-Home Message

No, your horse isn’t out to make your life miserable. Chances are, his behavior problems are rooted in either pain or incomplete training. Work with your veterinarian and/or a behavior specialist to determine why your horse is exhibiting unwanted behaviors and to find solutions to the issues.


Written by:

Erica Larson, former news editor for The Horse, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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