Extreme Behaviour

Most of us are lucky when it comes to working through problems with horses. For the vast majority of us, a problem is something as benign as not standing quietly at the mounting block or won’t load into a trailer or won’t listen to us when separated from its friends or perhaps has a little buck going into the canter. I realize at the time that these types of issues can appear monumental, especially when the solution is not obvious and the behaviour drags on for eons. But in the overall scheme of what headaches we could have to deal with, these types of problems are in the minor league of problems.


There are a small number of horses in the world that exhibit such extreme behaviour that not only are they a danger to a rider, but they are a danger to themselves. I’m thinking of horses whose reaction is to bolt uncontrollable and crash into things or horses that rear vertically and flip over or that buck so big they lose their balance and fall over. I’m not talking about the occasional time a horse might do these things in a rare case of panic. Instead, I’m thinking of the horses that will react this way as their “go to” response when life gets a little challenging.


I’ve had a couple of experiences of this type of horse. Both would rear over backward. One was a Standardbred sent for training that wouldn’t go forward off a rider’s leg. If a rider applied their leg the horse would stop and flip over backward. It was a super quick response and there was little build up to it. The horse would be going along pretty well, but when asked for a little more forward the brakes would be slammed on and next thing you know you were looking at blue sky with a feeling of falling backward. It was a very extreme and life-threatening to both horse and rider. By the time I first saw the horse the owner estimated the horse had done it over 20 times to her and had accumulated many months of convalescence to recover from injuries, including a broken wither. Eventually, I was able to get a change by circumventing the rider’s leg with a squeaky toy. When I applied my leg to the horse I immediately followed it with a loud squeaking sound before the horse had a chance to stop. The squeaking toy interrupted the horse’s idea to stop and sent it forward, albeit with some worry. Eventually, I was able to do away with the toy and got a nice response from my leg. Some of you might recall I used a similar method when working with a horse called Satts, which I wrote about in previous articles.


The second horse was a foal only a few months old. I was teaching it to follow the feel of a lead rope. When a feel was applied to the rope the foal would instantly rear up and fall to the side. It didn’t need to be a strong feel; just a slight taking out of the slack was enough to trigger the response. The first couple of times caught me by surprise and scared me because the foal banged its head on the ground really hard. I feared the foal was going to kill itself. I was surprised how calmly the foal went about it. But again I was able to cure the problem by slapping my leg and stomping my feet really hard just as it was about to rear. By interrupting the thought I was able to solve the problem and the foal eventually learned to lead nicely


I expect you find those stories quite interesting. But what really interests me is how calm and calculating the horses appeared to be in their behaviours. The way they responded with their extreme exhibitions of defiance was like other horses might swish their tail. It was like their reaction was thought out ahead of time.


Most horses have a “go to” behaviour in certain situations such a pulling back when tied up or jumping forward when being asked to lift a foot or diving to the side as they are being asked to load into a trailer. But is rare that these behaviours are life threatening to a horse. They develop because when performed they give a horse a relief or reward from the thing that we are trying to get them to do. In a sense, we inadvertently teach these behaviours to a horse.


But how does a horse learn a “go to” response that clearly causes injury and threatens safety? Horses are comfort and safety seekers, so what causes a horse to deliberately repeat a behaviour that will cause injury (such as running into fences or rearing up and breaking its wither)?


I’ve been thinking about this for a while.


Clearly, such extreme behaviours are not a normal reaction to normal stresses in a horse’s life. For example, if a more dominant horse applies pressure to another horse to move out of the way, it would be a very rare incident for the subordinate to bolt in a panic and run over a cliff or head first into a tree. So I think it is fair to say that extreme behaviours stem from extreme emotions.


But for the horses I have been talking about in this article, extreme behaviours appear to exist in the absence of extreme emotions. My hypothesis on this is that some horses carry a high level of worry. Their cup of worry is almost constantly full. In time, they become used to having a cup of worry with anxiety levels close to the brim. This results in a form of emotional desensitization. By that I mean their emotions are highly charged, but the constant high level of worry they carry has dulled them to act like they are not carrying such huge amounts of worry. It’s like a person may not be aware of what a bad and unhappy job they are in until they experience a good and happy workplace.


So I am proposing that the mechanism for the extreme and calculated behaviours I have been describing is that it is not that the horses don’t actually experience extreme emotional turmoil, it’s just that their constant high level of anxiety has dulled the way they express it. When something that seems innocuous tips them over the edge into an extreme response, we are surprised because their outside appearance indicated little anxiety. But their cup of worry was always close to overflowing and it only takes a little bit more to trigger the extreme behaviour. The trigger is often very specific for some reason I don’t quite understand. By that I mean an extreme behaviour is triggered by one specific stressor (eg tight reins or touch of the whip), but not by other stressors.


Thank goodness these types of horses are rare and I am sure it takes a certain type of genetic makeup to combine with a specific life experience to create these horses. I don’t know if my theory is even close to being correct and perhaps who have some better ideas, but it is fascinating to contemplate what how life-threatening extreme behaviours evolve into default behaviours for some horses.


But I will add one last thought that may be relevant to this topic. I believe there are a small number of horses that should never be asked to be riding horses. Their minds make them unsuitable and few if any people could make them safe or happy. It would seem unfair to train them for a job they are not fit to perform.


The Biggest Training Challenge - Herd Instinct

I believe that separation anxiety is by far the most common and troublesome problem people face with their horses. It may show up in different ways with different horses such as bucking in some or failure to trailer load in others or even a lack of straightness or fidgetiness at the mounting block. There is no limit to how separation anxiety may be expressed by different horses.


We often think of horses as being highly food motivated, and this is true. But in general gluttony does not even get a look in when it comes to what is most important to a horse, that is safety. Horses get their sense of safety from living with other horses – the so-called “safety in numbers” theory prevails here. For most horses, the herd effect is so important that they will leave food to go with the herd. Most people who study horse behaviour use food as a reward and incentive to perform, but I think it would be a fascinating study to substitute food with companionship and test which one was the more effective drive. I am pretty confident that with few exceptions, companionship would be the decisive winner.


I have known a horse that when its paddock mate was taken away it run up and down a fence line for hours and hours until it bled from the soles of its hooves and still kept running, not stopping to eat or drink. I’ve seen horses run through several barbwire fences, shredding its legs and chest, to pal up to another horse.  I have heard of a horse that jumped out of a moving stock trailer when it saw horses in a paddock by the side of a road. It is unlikely that any horse would have done these things just for a few mouthfuls of grass or a bucket full of grain. That’s because food is not as important as companionship to most horses. Horses don’t feel the absence of food is a risk to their survival. They like food, maybe even love food, but they don’t view a lack of food as a near-death experience. However, the herd instinct is so strong and so important in horses that the absence of a herd evokes very strong survival instincts. Horses are wired in such a way that a lack of companionship is a life-threatening experience.


Of course, training and experience can shape a horse’s outlook on the need to be part of a herd. If done well, we can teach a horse that its safety is not at risk just because it is alone in the paddock or we take it on a trail by itself. But because the herd instinct is an innate need in a horse that is genetically programmed I don’t believe we can ever eradicate it from a horse, no matter how well we approach the training. We may be able to ameliorate the symptoms but never extinguish the desire.


One reason I say this comes from my own experience with horses that don’t get along very well in a herd. On several occasions, I have had good success of transforming the relationship of two horses that did not get along at all into something close to being friends or at the very least tolerant of each other. This has come about by putting both horses in a trailer, taking them somewhere unfamiliar, letting them out to rest for 10 or 20 minutes, then loading them back into the trailer and taking them home. At first, one worries they will kill each other in the trailer, but after going to a new place and coming home again the relationship has turned from foes to friends. My explanation for this is that the horses have shared a traumatic event and their only security came from being together. This would only be possible because it is their nature to feel safe in the company of another horse. I view it as being akin to two strangers being stuck in an elevator for an hour. By the time they are rescued they are good friends who exchange telephone numbers and promise to stay in touch.


I am guessing that most of you reading this are in agreement that companionship is a hugely important instinct in a horse’s life. I am also guessing that many recognize the importance that it plays in your relationship and the work you do with your horse. But I suspect a lot of you are wondering when I will get to the part that tells you how to fix separation anxiety when it gets in the way of doing stuff with your horse. Well, the short answer is for you to fill in the gap that the absence of other horses has created. The long answer is in almost every post I have written and every video I have made. It’s a big picture approach to getting a grasp of a horse’s thoughts that should be in everything we do with a horse.


But this post is not about how to fix separation anxiety. It’s intended to help you appreciate the role of the herd instinct in a horse’s life. It should be a large part of all that you think about when it comes to housing your horse, training your horse, doctoring your horse, catching your horse, presenting yourself to your horse and so and so on.


We usually only consider our horse’s need to be part of a herd when it gets in the way of our training and when it doesn’t we don’t give it much thought. But it would be a failure on our part to be good horse people because the herd instinct is present in almost every decision and choice a horse makes. It doesn’t get turned on and off at moment of most inconvenience. It’s always there whether lurking under the surface or as conspicuous as a burlesque drag queen.

It's The Relationship That Makes It Work

It is the lot of clinicians and trainers that the number of male clients is a tiny fraction of female clients. It seems that women are more likely to be drawn to whatever it is that horses offer than men are. In my experience, while the wives are obsessed with riding, brushing, feeding, tack, talking about and loving their horse, their male halves are often equally devoted to their cars, motorbikes, fishing, and sports.  I have never been one of those men. The fascination with sports and cars has eluded me most of my life. I don’t know what that says about me, but whatever you think it means, you’re wrong!


I have thought a lot on the reasons why I like horses so much. I realize it is not just because I like riding or I like training. I like everything about them. I don’t even mind trimming their feet or making up their feeds.  I just like them. I like the smell. I like hanging out. I like watching them play. When I try to distill my reasons for my love of horses that explains why cars and bikes don’t have the same fascination I’m left to conclude it is because I can have a relationship with a horse, but I can’t with a car or a fishing rod. The payback for the hard work that horses sometimes are is the joy I receive from the relationship. It’s the same for with most aspects of my life. The greatest joy comes from my relationship with the people I love and care about, the dogs, the cats and even our chickens and ducks.


Sometimes people lose sight of the importance of their relationship with their horse. We all know the quality of our relationship is fundamental to getting along with a horse, but this often gets foggy during the training process. We have an intellectual appreciation that things go best when our horse is emotionally comfortable and happy to work with us, listen to us and offer a try when things are not totally clear. We absolutely know this. But when our horse is not doing as we would like and appears to be plotting against us we focus on fixing the disobedience and lose track of the direction our attempt to deal with the problem is taking our relationship. We look at what we need to do to address the behaviour but don’t take enough time to consider if that is good or bad for our relationship.


This is a big problem in the training world - really big problem.


When things are not going according to plan we have a propensity to fixate on fixing those things and this is often at the expense of the good relationship we could have with our horse. We think we are helping our horse by fixing stuff, as if the disobedience or confusion is the thing that is getting in the way of our relationship. But most often it is not. In fact, most times it is the opposite. It is the desire to train on our horse and get the obedience established that becomes the obstacle to the kind of relationship we would like to have. Almost always we don’t know we do it and if we did we probably wouldn’t do it. But we become so tunnel-vision about correcting the stop or the go buttons or the lack of straightness or the rushing or the trailer loading, that we bury in the back of our mind how our solution to these problems impact on our relationship with our horse. We see the behaviour as the problem, not what we do about it.


This is often exacerbated by our inability to become emotionally detached when our horse doesn’t get onboard with our idea. Our frustration and sometimes even anger interferes with our judgment, feel and timing and often leads to bad decisions made in an instant that we would otherwise not make if we took the time to consider our options.


It’s easily forgotten that our frustration is no more troubling to us than our horse’s frustration is to them. The difference is that we are doing it to the horse. The horse is not doing it to us. We forced our horse into our world and into the position that caused the trouble, not the other way around. So we don’t have the right to let our horse feel the brunt of our emotions. Keep them buried and out of the way of the relationship.


I am not suggesting that training obedience is not an important part of getting along with a horse. But too often I notice that it takes priority and the quality of our relationship with our horse takes a back seat. We are happy if we get along well, but if not at least our horse is doing what we want – and that’s the important part for most of us. This is a problem because if we don’t get along well with our horse, everything we do will result in either some degree of argument or a heartbreaking sense of futility for the horse.


So I urge people to really consider that when things are chronically not going well with a horse day after week after month that they go back to basics and build the relationship. That should be the priority. I don’t mean to pamper and baby them, because that does nothing to aid a relationship. But be clear and go back to basics where things are less combative. Get things where your horse no longer dreads seeing you arrive with a halter over your arm. Start from there and go slowly fixing each step where your horse’s emotions begin to sour.


There is no higher achievement than to have a good relationship with your horse. If you don’t have that, then you don’t have much no matter how many ribbons and medals you have. Fix the relationship and then build on that to get where you want to go.

The Law Of Diminishing Anxiety

I want to very briefly talk about the Law Of Diminishing Anxiety.


I should say to begin with that it is only a law because I say it is in my own mind. I may be the only person on the blue planet in the solar system known as the Milky Way who considers this a law to practice horsemanship by.


In any case, the law states that “the closer in proximity a horse’s thought and feet are, the less anxiety a horse experiences.”


Of course, the corollary of this law would be that the further in proximity a horse’s thought and feet are, the great the anxiety.


This law is closely related in concept to the Cup Of Worry video that I posted last week and if you have not viewed it I strongly suggest you do so in order to get a better understanding of what I am talking about.


The thing that the law of diminishing anxiety adds to our understanding of working with a horse with worry is that in order to make ensure the trouble does not overflow into an extreme behaviour that becomes unmanageable we have to ensure we don’t let the horse’s mind and its feet get too far apart. That is, where a horse wants to be or wants to do is not so far removed from where we want it to be or we want it to do, that the response is more than we can handle.


This has a couple of practical implications for how we should consider when approaching our training.


Sometimes when there is a clash of opinion between our horse and us we see it as a challenge to our position as the senior partner and make a firm stand that what we want is how it is going to go. We might soften our pressure or we might wait longer, but that it is the limit of our compromise. That’s where the line is drawn as far as we are concerned. However, I believe that when our horse carries some trouble inside we should see getting to the other side of the trouble as a negotiation rather than a battle of wills. The idea of negotiating is to keep the horse’s needs and our needs close enough to avoid tipping the horse’s behaviour into the unmanageable end of the spectrum where any attempt by us to help is futile.


It is not unreasonable to compromise a little and allow the thought and the feet to come closer together that we can have a conversation with our horse that will enable us to quell some of the anxiety and make progress.


Let me offer an everyday example that many people face. Let’s say you are out on a trail ride with some friends and your friends decide to canter ahead. Your horse wants to go with the other horses, but you want him to stay back and stand for awhile while you fiddle with something. The senior partner in you may decide that your horse needs to stand still and you work hard to force that on him by strong use of the reins and perhaps legs. But Ross’ Law Of Diminishing Anxiety determines that as the other horse’s get further away, so does your horse’s thoughts. This creates greater anxiety the further away they get. However, if your horse is allowed to travel a little in the direction of the other horses (that is, in the direction it his thinking) the Law Of Diminishing Anxiety states the anxiety should be ameliorated to some degree than if your horse is not allowed to move. So you might allow him to walk or even trot, but direct his movement and his thought with some bending work so that he doesn’t just take off cantering. That way you can placate his anxiety enough to enable his thought to come back to you enough that he is able to converse with you and reduce his need to canter down the trail.


One more example. Say you are riding along and your horse is frightened by something moving in a bush. Your horse’s thought is to escape and move away from the bush. But again the rider in you tells the horse to not be so stupid and you try to ride forward towards the bush. As your horse moves closer to the bush it is getting further away from its idea to flee from the bush. The Law Of Diminishing Anxiety suggests that increasing the gap between where a horse wants to be and where we are making it go will cause great anxiety and trouble. Therefore, instead of trying to force our horse to walk directly up to the bush we might consider asking the horse to walk a wide arc around the bush to prevent a flight response that would get in the way of helping our horse. With each pass f the bush the arc might get smaller and smaller until our horse can walk right by with very little worry.


The second component that assists in avoiding disaster when working through the Law Of Diminishing Anxiety is the idea of breaking the training into small chunks. By that I mean the level of anxiety is better managed if we ask for small steps in improvement rather giant changes in one go. If the steps are small enough the gap between a horse’s thoughts and its feet never get too wide. I lot of wrecks occur when people feel their horse is going well and they get greedy and ask too much. This is often a mistake because before a person realizes it the gap between the feet and the thought is big enough to cause enough anxiety that results in a horse’s meltdown. It is better to let the learning occur in thin layers to avoid too big a separation between the thought and the feet resulting in a meltdown.


As I said earlier, this concept is directly related to our understanding of the cup of worry that a horse may carry. The less worry in our horse’s cup the more we can help him. In the process of trying to empty our horse’s cup of worry, I urge you to consider the Law of Diminishing Anxiety and how you can use that as a practical approach in developing a relaxed, calm horse with soft focus.

A Horse's Cup Of Worry

This video describes how a horse's worry creates behavioural and training problems and discusses a strategy to deal with them.