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Tracy Courtney

Characteristics of the "Problem" Horse

We use the word "problem" when referring to horses, to mean a broad range of varied actions & circumstances. There are countless examples that can be listed to indicate what we consider to be problem behaviour & social media sites are bombarded daily with people asking other people for help solving various "problems" being experienced.


In looking for solutions for what we consider "problem" behaviour, where do our first "instincts" & advice from others always lead? The advice invariably leads to using force & gadgets. The overwhelming responses will insist that it's necessary to use a rope halter as opposed to a web halter if a horse refuses to go through a gate for example, & "to make the horse do it". For buddy sour horses, advice such as bringing another horse along on a trail ride will be given. For hard to catch horses, advice such as using grain or treats will be given. For horses that trip & stumble, advice on sending them over poles will be given. For horses that are difficult to bit or worm, advice such as placing honey on the bit or hiding the wormer inside a carrot will be given. For horses that are cribbers & weavers, advice on new gadgets & environmental changes will be given. For horses that are considered hot, hard-keepers, suffer from colic & recurring ulcers, advice on the latest & supposedly greatest dietary additives will be given. Can all of these "problems" be prevented & cured without drugs & gadgets? Absolutely, they can!


For interest, I'll ask you to stop reading at this point & take some time to consider your own circumstances. Try to recall of the "problems" you've personally experienced with horses, all the ways you tried to solve the problems & all of the advice you received from others...


Now that you've taken some time to recall & these things are in the forefront of your mind, how many of the problems were solved permanently? How many of them were solved minimally or for a short period of time before returning? Try not to associate the emotions connected to these events, just look at them as though you are watching a movie. By reviewing these movies as an outsider looking in, not associating with the emotions will allow you to view the events in much greater detail. Having these memories & visuals in the forefront of your mind will also allow for instant ah ha, or lightbulb moments of understanding that wouldn't be available & would otherwise require extended periods of time to comprehend.


What do all of these seemingly instinctual & advice solutions have in common? To begin, there are countless, & they are complex. Too many to try to sift through, comprehend & then figure out how to apply them effectively in so many possible situations. They always involve making the horse do something that they don't want to do. When force doesn't accomplish what we want, we turn to bigger halters, bits, whips, spurs, tie-downs, sedatives, lunging & round pens.


Where is the first direction we all look to for answers to our "problems"? We want to understand why these things are happening, so we can try to remove the cause of the problems. we look to the immediate environment. Can it be a sound, a sight, a movement, a smell, our tack or our posture? When we can't pinpoint immediate factors, we often begin to wonder or state that it must be due to pain or have been caused by another human, before we got the horse. This often leads to assumptions of mistreatment, neglect or abuse. If we have the horse vetted & an injury or ulcers are found, then we conclude that this must be the source of our problems. We think that if we are able to treat or manage the pain, then our problems will be solved, but are they? It's rare that healing injuries or ulcers will solve all the problems. So, from a logical standpoint, can we really conclude that these were the source of our problems? Can we see a pattern emerging here?


Let's use the example of a horse that is adamant about not taking a bit. This horse will also be nearly impossible to worm (knowing what's going to happen before it does). Is there a connection here? We have been taught to always dissect things into separate events, with separate causes & therefore needing separate solutions. We will wonder if someone has done something bad to this horse previously & while this is always a possibility, it is not the root source of the problem. Even if the vet has found some teeth issues that need to be addressed, other than an extreme issue like a wolf tooth located in the middle of the bar, this will not be the root cause of the issue either. Our focus on causes & solutions are always external & that's why the solutions seem to be so complex, require multiple inventive or a problem-solving mindset & lead to behaviour extensions that we consider separate events.


I always say, "horses are simple, it's people who are complex". What we fail to realize is that we are the one's who choose to make our interactions with horses so complex. When we focus on external factors, then we are unable to see the internal causes that offer the simple solutions. If we can set aside all the minutia, we will realize the simple answer & solution to this seemingly complex problem is nothing more than how the horse feels. Read that again.


We are so focused on what the horse is or isn't doing, we can't understand that it has nothing to do with the physical aspects of the behaviour. The physical is only a byproduct of the mental & emotional root source. Because we have been conditioned by the crowd to only consider the physical attributes of the behaviour, this leads us to try to find physical solutions that will morph into complex rituals. We will try to hide the wormer in different flavours, other foods & different gadgets for example. We will stand on boxes to reach our horse's head, try to teach them to lower their head, put honey on the bit, give treats with the bit, use clicker or target training, hide the bridle behind our back on approach, tie the horse's mouth shut to stop the playing & placing the tongue over it, purchase different sizes, shapes & flavours of bits & any other number of complex solutions to solve the multiple problems which will extend from the initial bitting problem.


So, if the root source of the problem isn't complex, doesn't require complex solutions & can solve or prevent all of these multiple "problems" at once, does this sound too simple to be true? If you answered yes to this question, then you are too invested in the complex social conditioning. What does it mean to move beyond the physical aspects of behaviour? This simply means that we have to stop looking at what our horse is or isn't doing for us because this will never be the root of the problems being expressed. This is the drill sergeant, control freak & narcissistic way of looking at behaviour. We need to begin to shift our focus on how our horse is feeling instead. Just like humans, horses create emotional attachments to people places & things & these feelings will dictate their perceptions, as it does with us. Humans have a great deal of difficulty stepping out of their comfort zones to face the unknown & change. What makes a horse any different?


The only difference between the simple or complex understanding & application of solutions is our personal choice of perceptions. If we choose to view behaviour as defiant & spiteful, our negative choice of perceptions will lead to complex problem solving. If we choose to view behaviour as emotional expression, this is where simplicity is found.


Going back to the horse that refuses the bit. What's the simple solution that will solve this & all of the other behaviour extensions? It's an emotionally based fear of the horse having to step out of their comfort zone & all of the baggage that's carried along with it, for fear of the unknown, fear of change & a human who isn't listening. Simply put, the horse is afraid of having their mouth handled in any way. That's it!


This whole list of issues can be solved in only a few minutes by showing the horse how to become comfortable with having the outside & then the inside of its mouth handled without worry. Taking the time now to patiently build the horse's confidence will solve the worming, head raising, head tossing, standing on a box, spending money on multiple bits, tying the mouth shut, trying to explode & escape from you, becoming hard to catch because they're anticipating being ridden & the list goes on. 


Returning to the title of this article, what are the characteristics of the "problem" horse? Where many would cite lengthy lists of physical attributes, I define a "problem" horse as follows; A horse having a human who is more interested in goals & timelines than how their horse is feeling. A human who is not willing to step out of their comfort zone & let go of the social programming. A human that still believes their agenda is more important, that force, gadgets, lunging & round pens are effective communication techniques with horses. A human who still believes behaviour is caused by external factors & refuses to accept that horses are a mirror reflection of their own personal perceptions & choices. And a human who is not prepared to stop following the crowd & start listening to their own horse, who already has all of the answers they will ever need.

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