Behaviour problems: Welfare problems
By Dr Clive Dalton
What is a horse?
Horses are large and can do a lot of damage to humans. It's surprising that horses don't realise this and apply their physical advantage more often. New Zealand ACC statistics confirm the high accident rate caused by horses!
Horses bite, kick with both front and back feet, and crush, and they can combine these for simultaneous delivery! They also have good memories of their handlers and events and this is a major problem in trying to correct problems, as a handler may fix a problem and the horse will have learned to behave with him/her.
But there is no guarantee that the cure will be applied to other people or be long-term and a smart horse will wait for the right opportunity to get its own back. The main question is whether the problem can be corrected, and how reliable the "cure" will be in relation to the experience, age and size of the owner/rider/driver.
- Horses show many forms of aggression from mild to very severe.
- There are many causes of aggression, both genetic and environmental. The latter is more important as genetically aggressive horses usually end up as pet food.
- Aggression is a normal part of stallion behaviour around mares, but they can be very tractable outside the mating season and are regularly ridden and raced. Some famous thoroughbred stallions have been man-killers but were kept for the high racing success of their progeny - only accepting being handled by certain individuals.
- Even after you have found a "cure", the question will remain of whether you can trust the horse after that?
- Try and work out how the horse learned the habit as you may be able to use this to evaluate your chances of coming up with a "lasting" and reliable cure. It may not be.
- Go back to building a strong bond with the animal and always be alert to the things that trigger the aggression.
- Have a short, sharp reprimand ready as soon as you see the action about to happen so the horse is surprised and associates the shock with its action. A delay in the action will not work as the horse will not associate it with the action.
- An example is a horse that bites when you tighten the girth. A sharp blow with the elbow as it's teeth come round is usually very effective if the problem is mild.
- If the risks of failure and human safety are too great, consider euthanasia.
This is a common problem for confined horses in stables and small paddocks and it can lead to:
- Self mutilation.
- Standing weaving in stall or paddock.
- Stall walking or fence walking in the paddock.
- Stall digging or digging holes in the paddock.
- Kicking the back wall of the stall.
- Eating the bedding - especially when it is soiled.
- Chewing gates and fences - often made of chemically-treated timber.
- Crib biting, cribbing or wind sucking.
- Cutting down feed to prevent obesity or reducing high-protein pasture to prevent founder of the foot adds to boredom.
- Feed hay to keep the horse busy as hay has low nutritional value.
- Make the horse work to get its hay by putting it in a raised hay rack.
- Provide toys in the box, e.g. hang beach balls from the ceiling.
- Let the horse see other horses next door. They should be in sight, smell and sound of each other.
- Give regular exercise and lunging is the easiest way.
3. Sexual problems in stallions
- Stud stallions live a most un-natural life being the theoretical Alpha male of his stud of mares, but only having contact with them for very short periods when they need mating. He is not even allowed to go visit the mares to identify those on heat as this is done by a teaser stallion that he would like to kill.
- After a couple of mounts he returns to his physical isolation, and its not surprising that boredom and breeding problems can result.
- These are such a major problem that specialist equine behaviour veterinarians travel the world to help solve stallion libido and infertility problems that cost millions of dollars.
- The causes of the problems have been surprising from major issues to very minor ones. It may have been an unfortunate early mating experience, the stud groom's behaviour, the place where the mating takes place, injury to the stallion when mounting, the smell of the place or the people, and many more.
- Allow the stallion to have as near a natural life as possible in close contact with other horses that do not threaten his status.
- Provide plenty of exercise.
- Provide plenty of visual contact with other horses (not stallions).
- Provide "a paddock friend" if the stallion is run outside. Or if boxed all the time, provide some form of activity like a hanging ball. In one case a hen living in the stallion's box was shown to be effective company for him!
4. Horses hard to catch
- Not being able to go up to a horse and put a halter on it is very frustrating. It can waste hours of time if you have to chase the animal, try to block it in a corner of the paddock with the risk of being kicked, or run it into a yard.
- The horse often becomes more cunning with time, and other horses can learn the habit from it.
- It often starts with the horse having a bad experience once it was caught- and remembering it. If the habit is well entrenched, then it's sometimes not worth trying to try to correct it.
- Form a good bond with the horse during its initial schooling so it always associates you with security.
- Get the horse to want to come to you – because of the mutual bond which it wants reinforced.
- If it's an older horse, then try to rebuild the bond by lunging the horse in a round yard using the Monty Roberts principles. Donkeys have been used in times of war for transport and food. Owners stress the very special bond that can be built between donkey and caregiver and is much different between man and horse.
- Use feed to catch the horse - but this can have problems the day you forget the feed!
- Make coming into the yard or stable a positive experience for the horse - generally to an attractive feed.
- This is a terrifying and dangerous experience for both human and horse and can lead to very bad injuries.
- Horses are a panic species and use speed to get away from predators and threats so the cause is often a fright or fear of the unfamiliar.
- Get the horse checked by a veterinarian to see if there are any physical problems such as pain that could trigger the action.
- Try to find out why and how the horse developed the habit - it was most likely some bad experience in its early schooling and a poor bond with the owner.
- If you can find the cause - condition the horse to the threat so it builds up the trust that it will be safe with you. But then you will have to check that the horse will apply the same trust with other humans.
- Anticipate the trigger to the action so you can be ahead of the horse's thinking to stop the action.
- The horse may not have been "mouthed" correctly when initially broken in and has learned not to respond the bit. It may even be able to get its tongue over the bit. Check that the correct tack is being used and everything is the correct fit.
6. Bucking and rearing
- Again these vices can lead to terrible accidents to both humans and horses.
- Horses buck to free themselves from threats and predators - seeing their riders in this light.
- They rear again to get rid of their threat or predator or in reaction to a sudden fright or novelty item that they are not familiar with.
- Try to find out how and when the problem started as it may indicate how to fix it.
- Get the horse checked by a vet to see if it has any physical problems.
- Check all the tack to see everything fits well and is correctly adjusted.
- Re-socialise the horse with the trainer and proceed with schooling to see if this solves the problem.
- Then check if its new manners apply to other riders. This is often seen with children's ponies that don't buck off adults but will start their tricks again when the kids remount.
- The horse even after re-training may not be trustworthy and should be disposed of before they cause serious human injury.
7. Refusal to go on a float or truck
- This problem arises with a horse that either has never been loaded on to a horse float before, or that goes quite happily on to certain vehicles but not on to others.
- The horse sees the float or truck as a dark hole full of lurking predators.
- It can be dangerous for both humans and horse because as frustration builds and the horse becomes more stressed, it is much more likely to kick someone.
- Panic and noise is generated and when the whips come out, the horse becomes more determined not to go into the vehicle.
- Horses should be trained to go on to a range of different vehicles from being foals.
- If it is your own float, put the horse's feed inside so it gets used to going in.
- Then try and borrow a different float to test the horse.
- Use a double-horse float and put a horse in there to attract it in.
- Get it to follow another familiar horse moving into a double float.
- Blindfold it and lead it into the float.
- Make sure the ramp has good foot grips.
- It's better to put a rope around the rear of the horse to push it in than drag it from its halter. Keep well clear of its back feet.
- Try to avoid hitting the horse unless you see it will bring positive results. If the horse thinks it has won the battle - it will be all the worse next time.
- You may need to get veterinary help to tranquilise the horse to load it.
8. Problems of the horse in work
Work or harness horses show a range of problems such as:Refusing the collar.
- Failing to take the load and pull forward.
- Failing to push backwards.
- Failing to stop when going backwards.
- Taking little notice of the bit or the reins.
- Getting its tongue over the bit.
- In double harness, one horse learns to stop pulling.
- Try to find out what caused the problem in the first case.
- This may not be possible if the horse was purchased as an older animal.
- Be aware of the circumstances that trigger the behaviour and try to preempt it.
- The horse may be well entrenched in its behaviour and is too much of a danger to people by keeping it and trying to break the habit.
- A horse with a hard mouth has developed this by poor initial schooling and apart from using a severe bit, not much can be done. Get a specialist to check it's mouth.
- Refusing the collar. Make sure the horse comes up against a solid object with its rear end when it backs to avoid the collar.
- Pulling forward and backing problems can lead to great danger for the human driver. The horse usually has developed the habit because of fear and panic. Check all the harness for correct fitting and blinkers may help. Use an assistant to hold the horse's head until it gains confidence to be directed by the driver.
- The problem may be too entrenched to be effectively cured so disposal of the horse should be considered before some human gets seriously injured.
- In double harness the horse that stops pulling can usually be fixed by a sharp reprimand but it will keep trying to get away with it thinking that you have stopped taking notice!
Horse welfare problems
- Feral horses and their mustering and slaughter to reduce numbers and prevent environmental damage.
- Transport of horses to slaughter premises in unsuitable vehicles.
- Slaughter of surplus horses and exporting their meat for human consumption.
- Starvation - horses grazing horse-sick paddocks with no feed.
- Horses used in rodeos - for calf roping, barrel racing and buck jumping.
- Horses used in circuses.
- The whipping of horses in flat and harness racing.
- Injury to sport horses in show jumping and cross-country events.
- The shoeing of horses which some people see as unnatural and stressful.