A little over two years ago, we
acquired a lovely Irish Draught mare, Colleen, from neighbors who were
retiring and selling their place. This mare had been their family
pleasure horse for many years. After their kids outgrew her, Colleen
became a trusted loaner horse shared and passed among families here in
our little valley. The plan was that she would come to our farm at
first, and would be loaned out as needed. Our veterinarian joined in the
plan, agreeing to donate her services. Colleen had a couple of major
physical deficiencies, but her heart made up for it. She could and would
do just about anything for anyone.
Over the first winter, Colleen got
no work at all. In early spring, we started with light trail work and
longeing. From the first time we worked with her, Colleen behaved
completely out of character from the mare we had known for so long. She
was cranky and uncooperative--anything we asked her to do was an effort,
and periodically she would throw her head, wring her tail, and snort.
We couldn't see anything wrong with
the tack, or anything obviously out of order. We had the vet go over
Colleen very thoroughly and watch us try to work her. She agreed that
Colleen's behavior and attitude were quite different, but couldn't
explain it. She advised us to continue working patiently with Colleen
and to keep her advised.
We started a more organized training
program with her, but one thing led to another, and Colleen just got
less and less workable. We tried many new and old methods, but the more
we did, the worse she got. She started to look like she just hated
people--pinning her ears and going to the back of the stall. Even at
feeding time, she looked unhappy. We became concerned that she might
hurt someone, and decided she was not fit to be loaned out.
Fortunately, our vet never quite
gave up looking for a physical cause of Colleen's behavior. A few weeks
ago, she brought out a veterinarian who is an equine dentistry expert.
He corrected some tooth problems and helped us fit a bridle with a
special bit. He said it would help Colleen somewhat, but he wasn't sure
that poor dental health was causing all of her behavior problems.
A few days later we saw a sudden,
huge change in Colleen's attitude. Without changing anything else,
Colleen is back to her old self again. As difficult as it is to believe,
we are now concluding that perhaps all of Colleen's trouble started with
tooth discomfort, maybe triggered by our new tack.
Our question is this: In reading
your articles, it seems that for many behavior changes in horses, the
first thing you look for is a physical reason. How do you know where to
look? When do you start treating it as a training or psychological
problem? After this experience with Colleen, none of us will be able to
trust our judgment. It would take a book to describe all the
psychological explanations that were offered by very well-meaning
trainers and experienced horsemen who got involved in this community
How does a veterinary behaviorist know for sure something is or is not a
Barbara and Guy
Before I answer your questions, let me say that your experience warms my
heart in many ways. Your story sums up the core challenge of solving
almost any behavioral problem--in man or beast.
How do you sort out primary and
secondary physical from primary and secondary psychological issues? Your
story speaks to the patience, teamwork, and honesty it often takes to
find and correct an underlying physical problem. Two years is a long
time. I can imagine how the special arrangement among friends both
complicated and helped the situation. Hats off to you for remaining
clear-headed and riding it out. Hats off also to your veterinarian, who
kept considering possible sources of discomfort for her non-verbal
patient. Hats off to the veterinary dentist, who corrected the mouth and
honestly advised you. And hats off to Colleen. She obviously held true
to her basic underlying character of a willing, compliant horse. Even
after two years and all of the unsuccessful interventions, it sounds as
if her behavior almost immediately returned to normal. Occasionally a
horse retains some of the behavior changes, seemingly having learned how
to control human behavior. So what a good outcome! And what a good
Now your questions. Yes, I think a very
large percentage of horse behavior problems have one or more physical
problems as the major root cause. Just as with your experience, too many
times I have seen horses schooled, and sometimes even severely
disciplined, when the initial cause of a problem was actually physical.
So, until you are convinced otherwise, it's wise to keep looking.
Where do you look for possible physical
causes of behavior changes in a horse?
A behavior specialist will in many cases
follow the same thought process you did in telling your story. They will
systematically consider a detailed history and presentation of the
problem, trying to map out the time and sequence of behavioral changes.
Was it sudden or gradual? How does the horse act with other horses,
various people, or various jobs?
An important series of questions
addresses what seems to provoke the behavior and what the behavior
achieves for the horse. Could the behavior be a reaction to, or a way to
avoid, honest physical discomfort? Or does it look like a way to get out
of work? This is not simple to sort out, but experience and some special
tools can help.
It is useful to observe the horse in a
variety of situations--with and without people, with other animals and
alone. Perhaps one of the most useful tools is video. Fairly long
samples that can be viewed in fast-forward, real time, or frame-by-frame
enable evaluation of behavior patterns and possible physical discomfort,
or any relevant signs of learned behavior. With experience in looking at
similar video samples of normal horses in these situations, a behavior
specialist develops a critical eye for normal and problem behavior, and
what provokes and ameliorates events.
For example, is that horse just kicking
at a fly, is he kicking at you, or is he uncomfortable in the abdomen?
Any suggestion of physical discomfort should be further evaluated and
addressed by the appropriate veterinary specialists.
So, when can you decide it is primarily
a psychological or behavioral problem?
In rare cases, a history of the onset
can be fairly convincing that a problem started out as purely
behavioral. For example, a horse gets a bee sting in the wash rack
(aversive experience), then refuses to enter the wash rack (learned
aversion). It has to be almost a no-brainer type of experience like
that. Otherwise, only when a primarily behavioral intervention
completely fixes the problem for a long time am I comfortable concluding
that a purely psychological issue caused a behavior change such as