Do I Need A Behaviourist (And What Should I Expect)?

When people encounter problems with their horses, they tend to go through a range of responses - some immediately call the vet as they suspect, or want to rule out, pain as a reason for the behaviour. Others might change the horse's diet or start adding a supplement to their feed; others might turn to a specific training or horsemanship method, get the saddle checked, turn to a herbalist or aromatherapist and so on. With so many professionals in the horse industry there is no shortage of people to turn to - and this brings both positive and negative effects for horses.

A high percentage of behaviour problems are rooted in pain. For example, a horse reacting to their owner bringing out the saddle and 'dancing around' when being tacked up might have current pain issues associated with the saddle or riding, or might have had such pain in the past. Although there may be no current pain, the horse has learnt and remembered a negative association between the saddle and pain and is behaving accordingly. Thankfully most people in this situation would call the vet out although it is very concerning how common it is for owners to fail to do this and call out another specialist instead. Any professional working with horses should work under vet referral and insist that pain is first ruled out as the cause of the problem but some do not. When pain is the cause and is treated, sometimes the unwanted behaviour goes away but sometimes the horse needs help to re-learn that the saddle is OK.

[There is always a reason for every behaviour. High spirits in the field is fine, but if a horse is persistently bucking under saddle then you should be trying to find out "why?"]

Many trainers and owners see the adoption of a method of 'horsemanship' as a way of solving a myriad of equine behaviour problems. However, although training might help in some situations it often doesn't address the cause of a problem but rather addresses the symptom. For example, let's consider a horse who bucks when ridden. The owner first rules out pain, by having vet and saddle checks, and then might turn to another professional - there are so many options:
  • the instructor, depending on what method they advocate, might suggest schooling
  • a natural horsemanship proponent might advise that the horse needs more groundwork in an attempt to improve the relationship between horse and owner on the ground before resuming riding
  • a clicker trainer might suggest the use of reward-based training to improve the relationship and ridden work and to establish a positive association with the saddle
  • a herbalist might suggest a calming supplement
All these approaches might be effective to a greater or lesser degree. However, the one thing they have in common is applying a tool to tackle how the problem manifests, not necessarily the cause of the problem. As such only looking at a problem through a restricted lens might overlook important issues and could make the problem worse or put horse and owner in a dangerous situation.

[Even a simple behaviour, such as yawning, can be performed for different reasons - it can indicate calm relaxation but may alternatively be a sign of stress if, for example, repeatedly associated with a particular situation. ]

Behaviourists, however, take a wider perspective. Only by addressing the root cause can we solve the problem effectively and safely and ensure that we won't just get another symptom emerging. Also it wouldn't be ethical to train a horse to put up with pain or fear (even if you use reward-based training) without tackling underlying pain or fear; and it wouldn't be ethical to focus on training the horse if the rest of their life is so 'unhappy' through poor management practices that they aren't in a position to learn. Many riding instructors, back-specialists, trainers, nutritionists and other professionals would consider the management/whole picture but sadly most do not.

Finding the cause - the process
In a consultation the behaviourist first takes a full history - they ask lots of questions and some might seem irrelevant at the time but the behaviourist will be building up a picture of the owner and horse including their partnership, the owner's experience, attitudes and aspirations, the horse's background and previous experience that might be relevant to consider later, the management regime, what has been done to solve the problem so far, any welfare issues that need to be discussed, anything that highlights the need to involve another professional such as a vet or nutritionist. The behaviourist will then provide his/her assessment of the main elements of the problem and start to talk through the approaches to solve it. There is likely to also be an element of observing the horse and environment and perhaps on training or handling, although this is often in a later session depending on the problem. The behaviourist will work with the owner to put together a behaviour modification programme - it is no use imposing a plan on an owner when they don't have the time or inclination to carry out the recommendations. It is vital that the behaviourist acknowledges this and ensures that their suggestions are practical and supported by the owner. Consultations aren't like TV programmes - with an aggressive horse, or one that bucks when riding, the behaviourist is unlikely to suggest that the horse is put in the situation where they will show that behaviour during a consultation as this would not be safe. It is also unnecessary if the behaviourist is skilled at questioning.

Considering all 24 hours in the horse's day
The approach behaviourists use places some emphasis on the everyday life of a horse. The way we keep and manage our horses is important for their physical and mental well-being and affects how well they will be able to learn, remember and cope with what we ask of them. Horses are social animals with the physiology to graze for 16-18 hours a day, moving and eating gradually. When they are kept in stables, these needs are not met and this 'frustration of goals' can manifest in problems such as stereotypical behaviours (crib-biting, box walking etc.), and rebound behaviours (leaping around when turned out after a period of confinement). Ideally horses would live out with constant access to a shelter/barn. However, this is not possible for many horse owners and so the challenge then lies in trying to meet the horse's needs given the constraints of restricted grazing or the typical livery yard. Suggestions for enrichment of stables and fields are widely available on the internet and this EBTA article about enrichment. It never ceases to amaze me how many behaviour problems dissolve when the management is addressed so that the horse leads a more natural life and even if extensive training programmes are needed then the horse is in a much better position to start them once happy with the environment in which he/she is kept.

[Stables are necessary for many horses/owners but there is still a lot that can be done to help meet the horses' ethological needs. Here windows have been installed to facilitate social encounters - but there is still plenty of space so a horse can avoid unwanted attention. ]

Getting to the bottom of the problem
So, what about problems that remain after the management has been improved? Next, behaviourists consider all the possible reasons for the development of the problem behaviour and suggest approaches to solve it. There are five main elements to this process:
  • Is the behaviour normal? Considering whether the behaviour is normal, normal but out of context or abnormal helps to understand the cause of the problem. Many behaviours are normal for horses but are unwanted. For example, eating a small amount of bark is normal for a horse (horses' diets would naturally contain 10% trees and bushes) but if your horse is eating your prize apple trees then this is unwanted behaviour. The behaviour might be normal but out of context - to eat a small amount of bark/wood is normal but for a horse to eat his/her way through a stable door is not! Or the behaviour might be abnormal - eating non-nutritious substances such as plastic or sand (known as pica) is abnormal. It is important to understand which category the behaviour falls into before considering how to modify, provide an alternative outlet or prevent it and behaviourists use their extensive knowledge of equine behaviour to diagnose the problem.
  • What learning is involved? There are many different ways that horses learn and behaviourists have a full understanding of this, which is important when considering how to train them to do something different. If the behaviour has become 'automatic' (classically conditioned) then it will need to be tackled in a different way to if the horse is still learning about an object or experience. If the animal has developed a phobia of something requires a different solution to if the horse is just anxious about something.
  • What is the relevant physiology? An understanding of physiology is important. For example, the chemicals involved in the biology of aggression mean that movement can make it worse, thus it is important to do slow or stationary work with horses with aggressive tendencies. There is certain physiology associated with stereotypical horses that make these behaviours 'addictive' and possibly requiring drugs as well as behavioural therapy and many sexual behaviours have physiological aspects that must be considered in order to provide an appropriate plan of action.
  • Is the welfare of the horse compromised? Safety of the owner and the horse and the animal's welfare is of paramount importance. If a horse is suffering through management or training regimes the behaviourist will work with the owner to address this as a priority.
  • What is the nature of the owner-horse relationship? Behaviourists have counselling training and skills as often part of the problem lies with the owner's perception of the problem, confidence in themselves, their own fears, concerns and expectations. The human element needs to be taken into account.
These five elements are put together to construct a plan of action for the owner, with help and support from the behaviourist, to work through with their horse to address the problems. This is likely to involve management changes, handling and training practice, and of course input from vets or other professionals as appropriate to ensure that the cause of the behaviour is addressed.