Reading the signals… (June 2016)

There are times when it is easy to determine that our horses are in pain; lameness (in most cases, there are some occasions where it is biomechanical), flinching from pressure, avoidant responses such as dipping the back when groomed, tacked up or mounted, and physically resistant behaviour in what is normally a co-operative horse. However, there are many instances where the signals are more subtle, and for many of our horses, these subtle signals are ignored.

For the more docile stoic horses, (and this is true of individuals within many species of mammals), the subtle signals will be repeated time and time again, gradually escalating in severity until they are heeded. However, for some breeds, notably the Arab, Thoroughbred and Warmblood types, if the subtle signs are ignored, the horse will escalate the severity of behaviour quite suddenly, and in future cases simply leave out the subtle signals and go for the full on pain-induced behaviour which got attention the previous time, even when the actual pain felt is far less intense.

These horses can then be branded as ‘bad characters’ when, in evolutionary terms, they are simply demonstrating an evolved predisposition to communicate a potential problem clearly from the outset, having learnt that previous communication had not been effective. In fact, it is our lack of understanding of the subtle signals demonstrated in the first instance, which causes the issues.

So what are the subtle signals? Well, they can be varied for each horse, but as a guide it is wise to look for facial signals, such as nose wrinkling, a staring eye rather than a soft eye, ears positioned backwards without the presence of a specific source of interest behind the horse, and tight mouth. Body signals can include a swishing tail, skin twitching when touched, sharp movements, foot stamping, and avoidance movements away from you or the tack for example.

These subtle signals are often ignored, or the horse is restrained further to prevent the signals listed being given. Escalation of pain-induced behaviours can then result in biting or kicking when saddled or girthed, resistance going forwards to bucking, napping and rearing when ridden. The first time this happens, the conscientious owner may then have the horse checked out by vet or therapist for an underlying reason. However, be warned that the horse will have already learnt that next time something hurts, they must bite, kick, buck, nap or rear in response.

If you recognise this situation in your horse, then perhaps you are now thinking that you will never get your horse to stop the biting, kicking, bucking, napping or rearing – well, it is possible to reteach them using positive reinforcement and by recognising all subtle signals they offer. Luckily, these horses with the intelligence and sensitivity to escalate their behaviours so suddenly are actually quite trainable again once the pain has been removed, as long as you take the time and use a lot of positive encouragement.

We use a lot of negative reinforcement to train our horses. For example, we apply leg pressure to send them forwards and stop kicking when they respond – the removal of the leg pressure equates to the removal of something negative in the horse’s mind, which reinforces the horse to move away from the leg pressure each time. However, by using positive praise, food treats and regular breaks in work (with verbal praise, scratches at the withers and food treats), we can rebuild our horse’s trust in us and they will start to offer the more subtle signals again – one such case, was a pony who had a history of back pain resulting in a lot of air biting which escalated into biting the owner when saddled and girthed. Once the back pain had resolved, the pony was initially only tacked up when fed, and no ridden exercise took place, allowing the pony time to re-associate the saddle with a pleasurable experience. Once this had been successful, and the pony was happy when the saddle was brought in, ridden work commenced but the pony was always given a few carrots to eat as he was girthed up, to maintain the positive association. When the pony did start to get sore again, the owner noticed he wrinkled his nose and nudged the owner as she brought the saddle in – this time the owner recognised the signals and responded accordingly….