by Stefanie Reinhold
Most of us have heard or read questions of horse owners like the one above or even experienced our horses' often unexpected 'out of character' behavior. Often the path of choice is one of training or - less often and sadly - punishment. However, many well known horse trainers estimate that roughly 90% of all behavior issues, especially when unexpected and from an otherwise willing and compliant horse, are indeed pain related. (See 'Remington' in testimonials.)Below examples of pain related behavior issues:
The 'bucking bronco' - The horse will buck when ridden, sometimes even when lunged or led with a saddle. Often this starts with crow hopping or throwing the head up while jumping around. Often goes hand in hand with 'cinchyness', unwillingness to get saddled, nipping or biting or kicking at the saddle (see below).
Cause: Causes are most likely to be found in the back or rib area. Skeletal problems like misaligned ribs or vertrebrae or even hairline fractures can be the cause. Underlying muscular problems can range from injuries and bruising to soreness nerve or muscle damage. Muscle spasms are also another possible cause. Another possible cause is ill fitting tack or screws protruding through the bottom of the saddle (this occurs more frequently than you might think!!), an unskilled rider with an unbalanced seat, front foot pain or hock pain.
Remedy: 1) call the vet, then call the vet !! 2) explore equine chiropractic and equine massage. 3) Examine tack and make changes, if needed.
Prevention: 1) Make sure your saddle is safe, sound, well fitting and comfortable for your horse. 2) Be sure to gymnasticize your horse sufficiently to strengthen his back in order to be able to carry a riders weight.
More naughty than nice...when saddled - The horse will bite at the saddle, pin his ears when you go for the girth, move away when you approach with the saddle, flinch and pin ears when you tighten the girth or 'nip air' in discontent. He will show general unease and discontent with the process of being saddled.
Cause: a) either a badly fitting saddle or bulking/pinching pad or b) pain when ridden, which translates into anxiety around being saddled (anticipating the pain of being ridden)
Remedy: 1) Thoroughly check your tack for proper fit. Engage a saddle fitting expert, if needed. I have personally experienced a number of Western saddles with portruding screws on the underside! Imagine yourself walking in shoes with protruding screws, it's the same thing. A bulking, pinching pad or blanket can also become a painful condition. Check for any white hair on your horses back to detect signs of painful rubbing or pinching. Remember: If the saddle does not fit, a pad will NOT fix it! A good saddle has to fit the horse WITHOUT pad. 2) If the tack is flawless, move on to find physical reasons for the discomfort. See 'bucking' Remedy/Prevention for more info.
Don't touch me - it hurts! - The horse nips/bites when you touch certain areas while grooming or putting on tack. Example: Every time you try to pull the bridle over the horses ears, he pulls the head away and if to no avail, bites or nips. The horse most likely has a painful condition of the ears or poll.
Cause: If the biting/nipping habit always occurs when you try to touch around a certain area, you must investigate further. Even a horse that is uncomfortable with you touching, for example, his belly, will let you do so once he trusts you, even though he might never love it. When your silent friend bites/nips when you touch him at the same spot, he is trying to tell you something: Don't touch me, it hurts.
Remedy: Investigate the body part for any obvious signs of wounds, strain, bruising, infected insect bites, etc. If you cannot find something that you can easily remedy yourself, please contact your vet.
Unwillingness to change gaits
He just doesn't want to take that right (left) lead, trot or canter... - The horse refuses to canter on the right (left) lead or might not want to canter/trot at all. Possibly the horse throws up the head when changing gaits or 'hops' to avoid to have to change the gait.
Cause: Causes can be anything from sceletal problems over muscle soreness, stiffness to arthritis, inflamed joints, problems with hoofs/shoes, saddle fit, teeth, etc.
Before doing anything to try and remedy, get your vet involved. Only after the vet determines that it's safe, engage an equine chiropractor, equine massage practitioner or your farrier/veterinary dentist for further investigation and remediation. If muscle soreness/stiffness is the cause, good results can often be observed after only one massage session. Muscle spasms and soft tissue restrictions can be extremely painful and cause this kind of behavior issue.
Prevention: If no underlying medical causes are the reason, proper exercise, bending, gymnasticizing and a regular wellness schedule including equine massage and swimming, whenever possible, will help prevent this sort of muscle spasm, stiffness and soreness that can lead to painful movement.
Conclusion: If your horse shows signs of ornery, noncooperative behavior, acts out of character, starts bucking, crow hopping, rearing, biting, kicking or becomes generally unmotivated and uncompliant, please give him the benefit of the doubt and look into possible pain issues before considering the behavior a training issue. Equine massage is a wonderful way to help keep your horse in shape and pain free.
(Other possible causes for behavior can be internal pain, nerve damage, digestive issues, problems with teeth, ears or eyes and a myriad of other possible causes, which need to be examined and determined by your vet before other steps are taken. )
If you would like to share a story regarding a horse with pain related behavior problems, please email me. Thank you.
Benefits of Equine Massage and Body Work
How to warm up your horse before exercise and competition
How to exercise your horse for strength and flexibility
Pain or trauma related horse behavior issues
Horse grooming 101
Horse grooming guidelines
*) Please note: Equine massage and bodywork is a non-invasive, gentle wellness modality aimed at enhancing performance in the healthy horse and never replaces proper veterinary care. If in doubt regarding the physical health of your horse please consult your veterinarian.