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.