Over the last few months, my horse
has changed from a steady, reliable, and willing friend to a miserable
grouch. He's an 11-year-old Thoroughbred gelding that I have owned and
used just for pleasure since he was seven years old, and I knew him for
a couple of years before I bought him. He used to be the kind of horse
that seemed happy to see you whether you were feeding him or getting him
out for work. He used to be great with everything from the farrier to
Now, no matter what you try to do
with him, he seems to be saying, "Don't even try to do that."
He pins his ears and swishes his tail whenever anyone approaches, and
seems unhappy most of the time. We've had the veterinarian out to check
him, and he says there is absolutely nothing wrong with this horse. This
all started last year soon after I moved him from a nearby training
stable to our home farm. My friends think he is just spoiled with too
much attention and feed here at home.
His former trainer has visited him
here to have a look at him. She agrees that he is a completely different
horse, no longer the sweet and willing character she knew. She really
thinks there is more to it than just too much attention--she thinks that
something might be bothering him physically. Of course, she doesn't have
a clue what it might be.
I realize that neither you nor
anyone else can say much without seeing a horse in person, but can you
comment in general on horses like this, and what might be going on? I
know you probably don't believe in animal communicators and psychics,
and neither do we. But is there some way to evaluate whether equine
behavior such as this is mainly physical or psychological? He does seem
to be getting worse, and I find I don't enjoy working with him.
Your situation with your gelding is one
of the most frustrating scenarios for horse owners and veterinarians,
and it seems fairly common. My bias after years of experience is that a
significant percentage of horse behavior problems are (at least
initially) unrecognized subtle physical problems, or have a significant
physical component that can benefit from veterinary care. But such
problems are, in many cases, very difficult to recognize or diagnose.
It is easy to say that the horse is
perfectly fine physically and conclude that the problem is purely
management-related or behavioral. Then the secondary behavior problems
quickly build, further complicating the interpretation of the problem
behavior. Then the subtle physical root cause goes undiagnosed even by
the best veterinary evaluations.
Before I go any further, let me say that
it's reassuring to me to know you will not be relying upon a horse
communicator or psychic to sort out this problem. It's also nice that
you realize that in long-distance behavior consultations, it is very
tough to say much specifically about the animal in question. So as you
suggest, I'll try to answer your question by describing how a
professional might go about differentiating "spoiled" behavior
from simple misbehavior to avoid work due to honest physical discomfort.
What exactly is the horse doing, or not
doing? A good first step is to carefully define the problem. This
involves describing, in writing, exactly what the horse is doing or not
doing. We call this operationally defining the behavior problem in terms
of situations and behavioral responses. It helps to be as specific,
precise, and analytical as possible in the definition. As you said in
your question, "pinning his ears as people approach," rather
than relying on a summary term such as "being
anti-social"--that could mean different things to different people,
or that might attribute motivation, function, or thought. Detail the
situations--stimuli, potential rewards, outcomes, frequencies,
durations, associated events, etc. Then also make a similar detailed
list of what and when the horse does well.
What does the behavior achieve? Although
this does not appear to be the case with your gelding's problem
behavior, sometimes the form of the behavior can give clues about
whether or not it is psychogenic or physical. For example, if the
behavior is more dramatic, unusual, or intense than necessary to achieve
a perceived goal, then the cause is probably physical. Keep looking for
a physical problem.
A law of learning is efficiency in
behavior. Animals don't usually do more than necessary to avoid aversive
conditions or work. So, should a horse start throwing himself on the
ground at the cross ties during saddling, or throwing himself on the
floor of a trailer, longing into a wall, looking colicky, or bashing his
head against a solid object, this is likely more than simple work
avoidance, girth discomfort, or trailer aversion. And the discomfort is
probably pretty intense.
Similarly, wide variations in intensity
or form are more typical of a physical problem than a simple learned
behavior. When the behavior occurs--its timing--can sometimes give a
clear indication of a physical problem. Say a horse is out grazing
comfortably, and suddenly explodes into a severe episode of spinning,
bucking, and squealing as if stung by a bee. This is probably not a
psychogenic root problem.
How did the problem behavior develop?
Make a written history of how the problem behavior developed and begin
charting your horse's daily behavior, both good and bad, on a calendar.
Again, try to operationally define behaviors and avoid relying on global
summary statements. This detailed diary, along with performance and
health records, will no doubt help with the detective work. Both
physical and psychological behavior problems can develop slowly, as in
the case of your horse. But in general, when it comes on very quickly,
or changes back and forth very quickly, we think more about physical
pain than misbehavior.
What does the horse do when he's alone?
Another very valuable step in figuring out the root cause of a behavior
is to view the horse in the absence of people, either by real-time or
videotaped surveillance when no one is around the barn. If this horse's
problem involves simple attention-getting behavior, then the horse
should immediately appear normal and comfortable when you leave. If
physical discomfort is the cause of his undesirable behavior, he might
improve when you leave, but you will likely see some signs of discomfort
in his stall. They might be the same you have described--occasional tail
swishing or pinning of the ears.
Also, if you watch a surveillance video
carefully, you will often get some clues from the horse's behavior as to
a source of his discomfort. Actually, subtle signs of pain and
discomfort are sometimes more easily detected and localized when there
is no handler present--when the horse is just alone in a stall or
relaxing at pasture.
The professional version of this type of
video evaluation includes systematic and quantitative evaluation of a
horse's eating, drinking, resting, and elimination postures. The
evaluator will note frequencies and durations of each behavior, and the
horse's overall 24-hour time budget is compared to normal reference
values of equine activity. With experience, a behavior clinician almost
always finds that viewing such videotaped samples (with both fast
forward and real time evaluation) is helpful in identifying potential
sites of discomfort.
If a problem behavior is observed only
when people or other horses are around, it might be tempting to conclude
that it is purely behavioral or social. And that's probably true in some
cases. But in many cases, the main problem is still physical, but is
exacerbated by activity or threat of work. In other words, left alone he
can bear the discomfort, but with disturbance or activity, he can't.
How does the behavior change during the
course of a workout? While there are always exceptions, in general
horses which have developed behaviors to simply avoid work often act up
at the outset, but then do better as the session proceeds. These horses
tend to give in, settle down, and get going well once they
"realize" resistance is not going to change your plans. On the
other hand, with honest physical pain, performance might improve a
little once you get going, but then often deteriorates systematically
Get the best, most thorough veterinary
exams available. If you are serious about getting to the bottom of a
problem and have the resources, let your veterinarian know that you are
willing to be referred to the appropriate veterinary diagnostic
specialists or would like to be referred to a veterinary teaching
hospital to work with a team who can identify and treat any contributing
physical problems. Be sure to let your veterinarian know that you are
willing to pay for the time it takes to sort out the problem or to guide
you to the right facility.
Some veterinarians feel uncomfortable
charging the client for their advice and time when it comes to behavior.
But in getting to the bottom of problem behaviors, a patient
veterinarian can often contribute a lot.
Perhaps you could try a new environment
or management plan as a diagnostic tool. Sometimes a lot can be learned
diagnostically by just sending the horse to a new environment. This
might especially be true in the case of your gelding, where the question
is raised about the problem developing soon after a change in
management. It might be instructive to move him back if possible, or
move him to another trusted facility. There have been cases of behavior
problems in association with unusual annoyances. One extreme example is
stray electricity, particularly near water.
You mentioned in your letter that your
friends have suggested "too much attention and feed." You
might want to try reducing or eliminating grain in the diet. Sometimes
diet alone seems to predispose horses to the ear pinning scenario. Some
horses that are fed grain can become what is called "food
aggressive." They can also become what owners call
"territorial" around feed buckets or in areas where they are
fed grain. In extreme forms, the horse might charge you to get the
bucket or even turn and kick it out of your hands. Such horses might go
on the offense to attack herd mates in an effort to control access to
highly palatable meal opportunities.
In conclusion, while it is often not
easy to sort out psychogenic vs. physical causes of problem behavior, it
is usually worth trying. If you can, get help from a veterinarian, a
veterinary behavior specialist, or a multi-disciplinary veterinary team
who can together evaluate the horse from top to bottom. With this
integrated team working on your horse, you will be more likely to
achieve satisfactory results.
We owe it to animals such as yours who
were once very willing and compliant to err on the side of looking long
and hard for physical causes of discomfort rather than jumping quickly
to conclusions that their recent problem behavior only needs stricter