Many horses, like young children, have mischievous streaks. But equine behaviorists say that horses aren’t inherently “bad”—they are a sum of all their positive and negative life experiences. Naughty horses are a product of the handling they receive. Rough or abusive behaviors are obvious—but sometimes what a hander perceives as a positive interaction unintentionally rewards the horse for a behavior the handler is trying to eliminate.
Carissa Wickens, PhD, uses cinchiness as an example. When a horse pins its ears or bares its teeth at the cinch, riders often stop tightening the girth. Stopping rewards the horse for the exact action the rider wants to eliminate.
“The release of pressure unintentionally reinforces the bad behavior,” said the assistant professor and state extension horse specialist at the University of Florida.
Wickens emphasized the importance of working with a veterinarian and the horse’s health care team to rule out lameness, injury or other physical problems when “bad” behaviors arise out of the blue. Even after the pain is gone and when a new saddle is purchased, the horse might still exhibit the undesired actions.
“That’s when the behavior has become a learned behavior,” Wickens said. “It’s okay to ask for help if you can’t manage a naughty horse’s behavior. Reach out to an experienced friend or a trusted trainer for advice.”
At the 2017 American Association of Equine Practitioners Symposium, Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, CHBC, presented findings from her research paper “Understanding and Implementing Principles of Learning in the Equine Veterinary Practices.”
The paper stated that, “Fear and anxiety are the root cause of behavior problems…Anxiety often begins with normal wariness about an unfamiliar object or situation. If the horse then also experiences stress or pain, it will learn to anticipate the object or situation as a potential threat, and also learn to fear anything associated with it, a process called fear conditioning.”
Taking the time to step back and evaluate the bigger picture rather than reacting with an immediate consequence for a “naughty” behavior gives handlers a better understanding of what’s causing the undesirable behavior.