Safety & Welfare Information
One of the Society of Equine Behaviour Consultants’ main aims is to make accessible information which will help horse owners keep themselves and others safe (or as safe as you can be around horses!) and to help horse owners keep their horses comfortable and happy.
Most people love their horses and try their very best to look after them as best they can, but simply may not have the necessary knowledge, skill or experience to cope with every eventuality. A great many behaviour problems arise from underlying physical problems or well meaning but inappropriate management, resulting in undiagnosed injury and chronic health problems. It is very sad that many horses are subjected to all sorts of inappropriate ‘training’ or ‘re-schooling’ when their ‘misbehaviour’ is simply a sign of injury or disease.
Misbehaviour due to fear, pain or physical problems can be dangerous and may cause serious injury to the people involved with the horse or others e.g. should they lose control and the horse escape onto the public highway or other public spaces.
The list below gives some of the most common signs seen in ‘misbehaviour’ due to fear, pain and physical problems including those from uncomfortable tack.
SOME SIGNS ASSOCIATED WITH BEHAVIOUR PROBLEMS DUE TO FEAR, PAIN DISCOMFORT FROM TACK OR PHYSICAL PROBLEMS
Some subtle signs due to muscle guarding and other aspects of stress physiology, which may be transient and are easy to miss:
- Tight ‘chin’ tucked under top lip, long thin edged ‘drawn’ nostrils, lip line straight.
- Licking and chewing (in absence of food or massage draining lymphatic system) – due to dehydration and sensation of ‘dry mouth’ for same reasons as when people get anxious!
- Tight, tucked, clamped or kinked tail, tail held to or flinching to one side.
More obvious signs due to major tension and other aspects of stress physiology and pathology
- Muscle tremors, ‘shivering’, ‘quivering’, ‘shaking’, ‘flinching’, ‘twitching’.
- Sweating (in excess for activity) especially cold or patchy sweating.
- Hollowing of back, head up and muzzle out – rider may feel horse ‘collapse’, ‘shrink’ just before ‘explosion’.
- ‘Blocking’, ‘freezing’, ‘setting the neck’, ‘suddenly stiff’, ‘solid’ – extreme muscle guarding.
- Asymmetry where problem localised to only one side.
- Specific ‘triggers’ e.g. particular movements in horse, specific elements of work including particular styles of jumps or individual dressage movements or changes in balance in rider and topography (e.g. down or uphill).
- Consistency of ‘misbehaviour’ i.e. happening to same extent in same way each time.
- Sudden onset of ‘misbehaviour’ where no warning given.
- Sudden onset aggression towards all people, all horses and other animals.
- Stereotypic behaviour (‘stable vices’) either suddenly starting or increasing in frequency ( due to rising levels of natural painkillers) or a reaction to frustration or distress in genetically susceptible horses.
Other signs due to horses natural instinctive behaviour patterns
- Horse initially moving away from the source of the fear or pain when space is available to do so, including turning away and standing head down in the corner when tack is brought.
- Defensive aggression – kicking out with one hind leg at a time
- Bolting where the horse goes as fast as he can until he slips, falls, collides with something or is exhausted is nearly always a sign of genuine fear, pain or a physical problem.
- Most horses which rear to the point of falling over do so out of fear or due to pain or physical problems.
- Rushing due to difficulty reining back or turning in confined spaces.
- Rushing, flattening or crashing fences or slow careful ‘determined’ refusals. Horse may jump better cross-country that show-jumping.
- Continued ‘misbehaviour’ even when results in predictable unpleasant consequences.
- Any slip, trip or fall however minor may lead to physical problems and major behaviour problems a few days later even although the horse may have seemed fine at the time and performed well immediately afterwards.
- Unusual body shapes, e.g. ‘grass bellied’ or ‘herring gutted’ or appearing ‘overdeveloped’ in front and ‘underdeveloped’ at rear may be long term postural adaptations in response to discomfort from poorly fitting tack or physical problems.
- Repeatedly persistently knocking poles and reluctance to move onto different surfaces.
- A history of poor performance before the behavioural crisis or unexplained ‘lethargy’.
- Stilted, short, choppy strides, not taking maximum stride conformation and fitness allows and difficulty bending, feeling stiff despite correct schooling.
This is not an exhaustive list and you may wish to consult a Registered Equine Behaviour Consultant to clarify interpretation of any signs you may be noticing in particular circumstances.
If you notice any of these signs in association with any undesirable ‘challenging’ or problem behaviour, the Society of Equine Behaviour Consultants recommends you ask your Veterinary Surgeon to examine your horse (all over!) to look for any signs of physical problems which could be causing this. To find a Veterinary Surgeon in your area see www.rcvs.org.uk or contact BEVA www.beva.org.uk to find a horse practice in your area.
Your Vet may also refer you to a Veterinary Physiotherapist or suggest your horse may benefit from corrective shoeing from a Registered Farrier.
The Society of Equine Behaviour Consultants recommends you use Veterinary Physiotherapists (recognisable by the qualifications MCSP ACPAT Category A) to treat your horse and that you use Registered Farriers regularly to ensure your horse is comfortable with healthy well balanced feet, which is especially important if your horse is not shod. The ‘barefoot’ unshod horse with feet left in their ‘natural’ state is particularly at risk from uneven hoof wear and associated problems. See www.acpat.org and www.farrier-reg.gov.uk
The Society of Equine Behaviour Consultants recommends that you use a Veterinary Surgeon or Equine Dental Technician working with your Veterinary Surgeon to regularly check your horse’s health and teeth.
The Society of Equine Behaviour Consultants recommends that you use a Society of Master Saddlers Qualified Saddle Fitter to fit your tack on purchase and to regularly check your tack (including bits and bridles etc!) for safety and fit. See www.mastersaddlers.co.uk
The Society of Equine Behaviour Consultants recommends you use BHS Approved Establishments and BHS Registered Instructors for help with your riding. See www.bhs.org.uk
It is tempting for those on a tight budget or large commercial establishments to try to save money by not using such properly qualified professionals to help with their horse’s routine care, health and welfare, but an uncomfortable unhappy horse can be extremely dangerous, and sadly it can cost a great deal more not to, should physical problems be left undiagnosed and untreated and anyone be injured as a result of the problem behaviour. This also raises major welfare issues.
If you are concerned about the welfare of any horse, whether neglect or lack of appropriate intervention or inappropriate work, handling, riding or training, including inappropriate management of problem behaviour or inappropriate methods of behaviour modification, see www.rspca.org.uk, www.scottishspca.org www.bluecross.org.uk, www.worldhorsewelfare.org or www.bhs.org.uk.
If you and your horse have been involved in an accident, please report it to the British Horse Society (BHS) at www.horseaccidents.org.uk. This will help the BHS gather statistics to use to prepare advisory leaflets, liaise with other organisations interested in accident prevention and to support their educational campaigns to try to prevent similar accidents in the future.
Much of the challenging behaviour seen by Registered Equine Behaviour Consultants is a ‘cry for help’ from a horse in pain or distress and many horse behaviour problems can be relatively easily solved by finding the right professional to diagnose and treat the problem.
Sometimes a simple change in management, companions or daily routine is all that is required and some little tips on equine social behaviour and handling or riding technique can often be sufficient to resolve serious and potentially very dangerous handling and riding problems.