Bad Behavior, or Is Something Else Going On With Your Horse?

If your horse is acting naughty when handled or ridden, he might be trying to avoid pain somewhere in his body

“When you start calling your horse names, you’ve reached the end of your training tether.”

That’s what Kate Fenner, equine behavior consultant and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney’s School of Veterinary Science, in Australia, says about getting frustrated with your horse’s rowdy behavior while working with him under saddle or in hand. It’s time to stop and reassess.

Don’t just assume your horse is being naughty, she says—that’s a dangerous approach to his behavior problems. She and the rest of our sources estimate that more than two-thirds of equine behavior issues are outward expressions of pain or fear of pain.

Bucking, biting, rearing, girthiness, pulling back—these are all behaviors that help the horse communicate. The horse isn’t saying, “I want to get away with something.” He could be telling you, “I hurt.” Writing off this behavior as something impish to be tolerated could leave one or both of you injured. By taking a proactive approach—determining and managing the source of the pain—you can turn the behavior around, which ultimately is better for your horse’s welfare and performance.

Pain: An Effective Trainer

Horses react to pain in very individual ways. “A horse that bucks doesn’t necessarily have the same pain as other horses that buck,” says Sue Dyson, MA, Vet MB, PhD, DEO, Dipl. ECVSMR, FRCVS, independent consultant, formerly head of clinical orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, U.K. “Behaviors are largely not specific to the cause of pain.” (She adds that sacroiliac joint pain, in which horses often simultaneously buck and kick out, is an exception.)

Bad behavior is mainly a horse’s way of expressing that he’s experiencing some kind of pain, somewhere, in some situation. Our job is to figure out these details and fix them, says Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, FRCVS, Dipl. ACVSMR, McPhail Dressage Chair Emerita at Michigan State University (MSU) and president of Sport Horse Science, in Mason, Michigan.

Although we can perceive that horses are sending messages through their behavior, they’re not actually trying to communicate with us this way, says Fenner. What they’re doing is trying to find ways to avoid the pain or make it go away, she explains. It’s nothing against us, and it’s not rebellious or a way to test us, she says. It’s just that kicking, rearing, biting, and other such behaviors are part of the “shopping list of possible answers” horses have when faced with the challenge of getting rid of pain.

“The problem with pain is that it’s such a good trainer,” Fenner says. “Horses look like they’re being naughty because they’re trying to find ways to avoid the pain, and the horse learns very solid lessons from that.”

Painful Behavior Under Saddle

Does your horse buck when ridden? If so, pain is a highly likely cause says Dyson. She fits the many reasons for bucking-related pain into five categories:

Horses can also buck out of fear, she adds. While this isn’t physical pain, it’s still a source of mental discomfort that warrants consideration.

Rearing and kicking—less common in ridden horses than bucking—could be related to any of those same issues, she adds. Rearing, in particular, is a quickly learned response to any discomfort, says Fenner. In fact, it’s something people often teach their horses unwittingly by ignoring signs of pain. 

“Horses might react to pain by raising their heads, and the rider responds with pressure on the mouth, so then the horse feels like the only place he’s got to go is up,” she says.

High head carriage can be pain-­related behavior, Fenner says, even though many riders try to “train out” high-headedness, possibly overlooking pain. That can also be true for rein-pulling, says Machteld van Dierendonck, PhD, clinical ethologist at the Equine Behavior Clinic at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands. Horses with neck pain, sometimes stemming from too much forced flexion, tend to yank the rider’s hands with the reins, she says. If they can’t see where they’re going (and especially if that’s led to injury before) due to their behind-the-vertical head position, they might also pull the reins or shake their heads.

Painful Behavior on the Ground

Does your horse pull back when you tie him? Rear when you touch his head? Threaten when you cinch the girth? These behaviors are also likely related to pain, whether it’s memory of pain, an anticipation of pain, or current pain, our sources say.

“Even if you tie with breakable baling twine, it hurts when horses pull back on their halters,” Fenner says. “So at some point maybe they pulled back (while spooking, for example), and it hurt a lot, and then they broke free. Now they’ve got a learned behavior to get away from that pain, and they do it all the time because they’re anticipating it.”

Treating an injured or infected eye or ear can lead horses to associate pain with your hand being close to the face when applying ointment, leading to behavior issues such as rearing. Through shying away the horse reinforces his own behavior, explains van Dierendonck, distancing himself from the source of pain, and you inadvertently teach him to rear.

A girthy horse—one that threatens, bites, or kicks when you attach the girth—could have one of myriad pain-related issues, says Dyson. Tightening might hurt the skin, bones, or muscles around his girth region; he could be suffering from gastric ulcers; or he could be associating the girth with the upcoming ride that he expects to be painful. Many regions of the body, from head to foot, can cause pain in the ridden horse, she says. So if the horse reacts to the girth, the origin of the pain might be challenging to find.

Pain can affect your horse’s behavior in the stall or paddock, as well, says van Dierendonck. If you can’t catch him, he turns away, he bolts, or he acts aggressive toward you, he might be associating your arrival with upcoming pain under saddle.

Observable Indicators of Pain

One way to differentiate between pain and behavioral issues is to evaluate the horse’s other activities. “Does the horse show other unusual behaviors?” Dyson asks. “We need to be looking at the whole horse behavior.”

That means observing the horse, quietly, sometimes several minutes at a time, she says. Because horses are prey animals, they tend to keep many signs of pain hidden (to not seem weak to a predator). You might think your horse’s bucking is his only problem but, if you take time to watch him, you might discover much more.

Dyson’s team developed an ethogram—a behavior catalog—of 24 behaviors to watch for in ridden horses because they could indicate pain. An open mouth, a swishing tail, an intense stare, and spontaneous gait changes are among the problems a careful observer might spot, she says. For unridden horses, people can observe behaviors with the help of a mobile app designed by van Dierendonck and colleagues at Utrecht.

Working It Up

Because pain-related behavior is nonspecific to the source of pain, it’s a puzzle for treating veterinarians, Dyson says. The first step in solving that puzzle is getting a comprehensive history by asking horse owners plenty of detailed questions. “Have they changed any tack? Have they changed the way they tack up the horse? What kind of girth do they use? Is the horse difficult about picking up hind limbs? Does he buck on the longe? How does he buck—with an extended back or with the back flexed? Does he buck and spin? Does he do isolated bucks or repeated bucks? All these things influence my decision about how to pursue this further,” she says.

Also consider management factors, from feeding to stabling, that might ­contribute to gastric ulcer syndrome.

The next step is conducting a comprehensive, nose-to-tail clinical exam, Dyson says, with particular focus on the back musculature and any pain or tension there, and assessing the horse’s willingness to move his back. She recommends carefully checking the girth region, especially the lower area around the sternum. She also checks for pain in the ribs and looks for a “jumper’s bump,” a subluxation at the sacroiliac joint, then palpates each limb. After, she checks for lameness or other pain-related gait abnormalities, first in-hand, then on the longe, then in a surcingle on the longe, and then in a saddle without a rider, gradually increasing tightness of the tack. If she can’t see the horse ridden (because he’s too dangerous), she can add a weighted surcingle to mimic a lightweight rider, to see if she can get the horse to display the unwanted behavior and analyze what’s setting it off.

Diagnostic anesthesia (nerve blocks) is “the most important diagnostic tool” for determining the source of pain, says Dyson. Usually she finds lameness (especially while ridden) or problems with the canter caused by pain. Depending on what she sees, she might use radiography (X rays) or ultrasound to identify the cause. Rarely, she says, the veterinarian might need to use more advanced techniques such as MRI, computed tomography (CT) scans, and/or scintigraphy (bone scans), to assess the horse. Your veterinarian might recommend endoscopy if he or she suspects gastric ulcers are to blame.

Treatment depends on the diagnosis and can range from a simple course of corticosteroids for hypersensitivity around the girth area to surgical treatments to resolve joint issues.

If tack is the culprit—and it often is, says Clayton—it needs to be fixed before it goes back on the horse. “Whatever the veterinarian does, if you put the same badly fitting saddle or bridle on, the behavior will continue,” she says. Have your tack assessed by a professional, and get it reassessed every few months as the horse recovers and his back muscles evolve.

Reconditioning the Behavior

You’re not out of the woods just because your horse’s body has healed and his tack fits. Even if the pain is resolved, the behaviors can remain, our sources say. Your job now is to apply smart, science-based training techniques to recondition his behavior.

“You have to retrain from the beginning,” Fenner says. “If he pulls back on the halter, tie with a blocker (releasable tie) so he learns it doesn’t hurt. If he got hurt in a trailer and won’t load, retrain with one foot on, one foot off, two feet on, two feet off, using light pressure-release-reward (releasing and rewarding when the horse steps forward), known as combined ­reinforcement.”

Horses that react to being tacked need to make positive associations with tack again, says van Dierendonck. Walk toward the horse with a saddle, and keep walking past so he stops predicting pain with your approach. Eventually put a saddle pad on and, when he’s calm, give him treats. Go in small steps, putting the saddle on and giving treats, attaching the girth loosely and giving treats, tightening the girth slowly and giving treats.

Ridden behavior can resolve quickly once you remove the pain, Dyson says, but riders must be “confident and positive in their approach” and might seek professional help.

Retraining requires patience, with short sessions over days or weeks, our sources say. And timing is critical. “Don’t give a piece of carrot or release the pressure when the horse is not showing the onset of the desired behavior,” van Dierendonck says. And don’t release pressure to “give the horse a break” when training him to trailer load. Badly timed reinforcement gives the wrong message to horses, who will believe they’re rewarded for the very behavior we want to stop.

While most horses can be reconditioned, some—especially those that display high-risk rodeo-type bucks—remain “completely unpredictable and, therefore, dangerous to ride,” Dyson says. In those cases it’s better to retire the horse than put riders at risk of injury.

Take-Home Message

Pain is the most common reason horses show unwanted behaviors such as bucking, rearing, biting, kicking, and pulling back. Ignoring the pain and assuming the horse is purposefully being mischievous shows a lack of responsibility toward these animals, Dyson says.

“There’s a tradition of blaming the horse as being ‘naughty’ rather than asking, ‘Why is the horse doing this, and what can I do to improve things for him?’” she says.

Cognitively, horses try responses to challenges in their environment and use what works, without notions of right and wrong, says Fenner. Better then to get your tack evaluated and your horse thoroughly assessed for pain and its source. After therapeutic interventions and tack adjustments, take your time to carefully retrain his behavior, getting professional advice as needed.