Can Horses Be Naughty? - Suzanne Rogers

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I was asked recently whether I think that horses have the capacity to be naughty or if this is a label we give horses because we as humans think in those terms. My initial reaction was to write an article about this from the perspective of animal cognition: naughtiness implies that the animal understands what we want them to do but makes a conscious, deliberate decision not to do so, do horses have this capacity? However, taking a step back I realised that 'naughty' is a term that is overused for both animals and humans alike and this is where we should start.

We use the word naughty to describe some of the things an animal or child does that we don't like and infer that they are doing it 'on purpose' - that they know that they are doing something we do not want them to do. We often call children 'naughty' when more accurately they are frustrated, tired, find something funny that we don't, or are expressing an opinion that differs from ours. If we call a child or a horse naughty we conveniently don't have to look at ourselves to see if it is something that we are doing that is the underlying cause of their behaviour. Through the label of 'naughty', especially for horses, we convince ourselves that punishment is justified.

[Normal equine behaviour is always performed for what the horse considers a valid reason. That doesn't change to "naughtiness" just because we've added a human into the equation.]

For example, consider a child who doesn't want to have a bath. He/she is expressing an opinion. We as adults often don't want to do things and either we do them because we understand that we have to, or we simply don't do them. Rather than punish the child for getting frustrated that his opinion doesn't change anything, we change tack - we find a way to motivate the child to have a bath through making bath-time more fun, or we explain that we understand but that he/she must have a bath and afterwards they can do something nice, such as play.

However, we expect our horses to understand without explaining. For example, consider a horse that doesn't want to be caught. It is much easier to label them as 'naughty' rather than address the fact that he/she would rather stay in a field than go somewhere with you. The horse is expressing an opinion - we should listen rather than dismiss it, which might cause frustration and make the situation worse. I am not saying that you should let your horse do whatever he/she wants to do but rather we should work with him/her in the same way that we work with children at bath-time.

Another pertinent question is why should a horse do what we tell them to anyway? Horses have evolved to live in herds and social living requires a division of roles. Some horses are leaders of the group but those that follow would not do well to trust just any of the members of the herd, they do not all have equal knowledge of where the best resources are, for example. Therefore horses follow proven leaders, and we need to gain their trust through ethical and effective training before we can expect them to do what we ask them.

With horses, we are quick to use punishment to get what we want - such as hitting a horse with a whip to 'encourage' him to walk in from the field. Although using such methods we can train the horse that he 'must do as we say, or else.....'. Is this really the relationship we should be aiming for with our animals? A horse trained this way might be very obedient but will learn to suppress behaviour in the presence of their owner and never express an opinion but most of us want a partnership and this is not the way to go about it. Owners who listen to what their horses are telling them, and use a patient, flexible and compassionate approach to training their horse, have animals that express opinions, but who listen when an alternative is suggested and trust their owners.

In summary, the question to ask is not whether or not horses can be naughty but 'why is my horse doing this?' - then we have started on the path to a partnership with the horses in our lives.

First published in The Equine Independent. Reprinted with permission from Suzanne Rogers