Your Horses Behavioral Changes & Physical Causes

Your Horses Behavioral Changes & Physical Causes

Article by Shawna Karrasch

Your Horses Behavioral Changes & Physical Causes – Sports – Equestrian

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Jane McClaren commented:Hello, I have for the first time in my riding life (50 years) an under motivated horse. He is sweet, kind beyond imagination, but doesn’t like to be schooled/ridden. A hack is sometimes OK, but he might tend towards distraction and consequently become fixated on something else, then fear follows, and, well you know. We have found his attitude might be caused by physical discomfort, such as ulcers. In early January I put him on a months treatment of Ulcer Guard. Dramatic changes followed. He was happy and forward. Now in early April the old signs are coming back, particularly when grooming him around his gut he is agitated, and snarly. Here’s my take on all this. Shawna has the answers to motivate your horse, no doubt about it. I’ve used clicker training and it works, and now I am reminded to get it out again. It takes a lot of time and patience. Two keys to good horsemanship. But, I wonder Shawna and all your followers, are you finding ulcers more often than not? I will do the above suggestions, small steps, lots of reward, and I particularly like: doing something after that the horse clearly enjoys. Jesse and I love hanging out together. I sit in a chair and he grazes. Sometimes he comes close so I can scratch his poll, he seems to like that too. I agree with Shawna, spending time with our horses, doing something they enjoy too, something other than being on their backs and asking and asking, this is precious and award-filled time to spend.Hi Jane,As always, you bring up some great points!! I was responding to your comment on a previous post when I realized I should turn it into new blog post. As I followed my train of thought I realized I didn’t want people to miss your comment since you touch on some important topics. I am hoping others will chime in with their thoughts and observations.First point, I want to to remind everyone to always check for physical causes when you are seeing a behavioral change, or any issue, with your horses. This is very important. It is always my first thought when I am trying to figure out what is going on with my horses. I will discuss the behavior with my veterinarian. It may be that the behavior change is the first alert to a physical issue. Pain is their bodies way of telling our horses to avoid certain activities so they have a chance to heal. The resulting behavior change can communicate this pain or discomfort to us if we are paying attention. As their stewards we are responsible for recognizing possible problems since they cannot verbalize what is bothering them. Also, keep in mind, for survival reasons they are hard wired to mask the pain so they would not appear vulnerable to predators, if they were living the wild. Once we have ruled out any physical discomfort, injury, illness or even nutritional needs, then I move onto dealing with it behaviorally.However, in some cases the behavioral change starts because of pain or discomfort but the behavior may continue after the initial, physical cause has been addressed. The unpleasant association (reinforcement history) still remains. For instance, let’s say your horse has a sore back and each time you get in the saddle the pain becomes worse. This may manifest in a behavioral issue with mounting. He may not show any other overt symptoms. So, you talk to your vet and report the changes you have noticed in your horse. Together you determine there is an issue with his back, you come up with a plan for recovery and he is given time to heal. After some time your horse seems to feel better and doesn’t show any signs of soreness. However, when you try to mount, you are seeing the same unpleasant mounting issue. He remembers that the mounting process resulted in pain and he is anticipating the same old pain. Double check to be sure there isn’t another underlying issue. If all checks out it is time to address this behaviorally to rebuild a good association (reinforcement history). Mounting/sore back is an example that I see often but it can happen with a whole slew of physical ailments. The main point I want to make here is that we need to always rule out a physical cause for a change in behavior. Especially before we move onto a training plan to address a new, problematic behavior.Now your question about ulcersI would love to hear from others on their experience about this subject. I have only had one horse that has taken me down similar road. He came in and he was a real curmudgeon on the outside, until you got to know him. Then he was pretty sweet. He had been a high level show horse and he had some issues with jumping. The first day I groomed him I thought “How do they get him groomed everyday!?” He was fidgety, sometimes he would groan and, as you said Jane, he was snarky. But this seemed to be his behavior with a lot of things, not just grooming. He was progressing along nicely with training and his personality was getting sweeter but he still had the grumpy grooming attitude. I called the vet and we decided to give him a thorough exam including scoping his stomach. Ulcers was on our list of concerns. It turned out he had a lot of scarring from previous ulcers. It seems it had been a previous, chronic condition but he was healing. This probably explains his cranky grooming behavior and he had to relearn a new set of rules since he was getting better. He continued to jump, travel and learn but he never had ulcers again.nor stopped at a fence again!! That is my only experience with ulcers. I know there can be different causes for ulcers and I am certainly no expert. In my limited understanding stress can contribute to the condition. I find the positive reinforcement/clicker training reduces stress in training as well as with new situations. Traveling and competing can become a joy instead of a worry if we create a good association. We can also re-train a new, better association if, as you pointed out, we take the time and practice patience.Let’s face it, as an industry, there is a great deal of focus on the horses physical well being. I mean, just look through any horse magazine or website, a large majority of the ads are addressing physical needs. It is all about the best supplements, medications, feed, tack, blankets, boots, pest control, grooming products, footing, bedding, barns, fencing, trailers, the list goes on and on. These are all important considerations. Next you see a lot of articles geared for the rider. How to get more control, how to get a better half pass, sliding stop, jumping, rider position, flying changes, shoulder in, safe stops, trailer loading, how to be more effective with your aids, this is another list that goes on and on. Again, this also important information. After all the better we are at teaching and executing these things the safer and more enjoyable our horses are to ride. However, relatively speaking, very little is aimed at the horse’s mental well-being or on what would help the horse to be happier for his sake, not ours. There is a tendency to focus on their physical well being or what we need them to do for us. Their psychological well being seems to fall by the wayside. I am a big believer in balance. All work and no play can indeed make Jack a dull boy, or a grouchy, sour boy. It is not enough to say they get turned out or live outside, or in a dry, well-bedded stall. I think it is important to spend time with our horses that they value and

Shawna is a former Sea World animal trainer (whales, dolphins, sea lions) who took these techniques and introduced them to the equestrian world. After 10 years at Sea World (1984-1994) Shawna began working with 2 time Olympic gold medalist Beezie Madden and her husband John Madden. Shawna started her business On Target Training as a tool to teach people how to apply these proven techniques to their horses.

“A degree in psychology is not required to train animals. It is, however, helpful. All of the work we do as animal trainers (with horses too) is based in psychology. Whether we are aware of it or not. The more you understand about these proven priciples the better you are as a trainer. That is the focus of my training is helping people to gain a better understanding of behavioral psychology and the benefits of positive reinforcement in regards to horse training. I chose to make the move to horses partly due to the lack of positive reinforcement being used with horses. I recognized that horses were not trained the same as the marine mammals. I also saw that the training we implemented at Sea World would be a huge asset to the horse world. A lot of horse people, including professionals, don’t know much about the proven principles of behavioral psychology. So I see a bigger need in helping horse folk to further understand the principles that govern the relationships we build with our horses.. It is really fun to see the light come on!!”

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