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Dealing with horse behaviour problems after physical rehabilitation

Written by Debbie Busby MSc CEBC ABTC-CAB CCAB, Clinical Equine Behaviourist 

Help - you and your horse are not on the same page!

You’ve spent months diligently following vet and physio advice to rehabilitate your horse through a physical problem such as kissing spine, PSD or an acute bout of laminitis, and you’ve finally got the all clear to start work again.

But your plans of getting started on light hacking, or easy school work, are thwarted when your horse tells you in no uncertain terms that they don’t share your enthusiasm for summer rides or the forthcoming dressage season, and you’re met with what can be a surprisingly wide range of “no, that’s not for me” messages, from refusing to be caught, stepping away from the mounting block, or not wanting to leave the yard, to nipping, kicking, bucking, rearing or planting.

Why is this happening?

The most important question to ask next is, has the physical condition, and any related pain, really been fully resolved, or is your horse experiencing residual discomfort? Or, has soreness that was resolved, returned? If your vet can reliably assure you that recurrence is unlikely, then you may be looking at a behavioural issue. But, if pain isn’t a factor, why else might behaviour problems emerge at the time when you want to bring your horse back into work? There can be a number of possible reasons; some of these may be related to the physical rehab your horse has just come through, and some may be unrelated and have other causes and contributory factors.

A common reason for resistance when you try to restart the activities you were doing before your horse became ill or injured is that, before you noticed the signs that something was wrong, your horse was actually feeling sore or unwell in all the situations that you are now trying to reintroduce. The “pictures” that your horse is presented with now, whether that’s an old and familiar catch up – groom – tack up – ride routine, or tack that they haven’t had on in a while, or school work that they haven’t done for months, became associated with negative experiences some months previously when their physical condition was just developing and they first started to experience pain, and now those pictures are being re-presented, the same negative emotional experiences are recurring.

Alternatively, it might be that a single sudden event caused an injury, such as landing badly over a fence. The same negative “conditioned emotional response” (as this is referred to in psychological terms) that came on gradually in the above examples, can be experienced in this situation too. The mental snapshot that your horse perceived at that time can create feelings of fear or anxiety and a desire to avoid that same situation and its unpleasant associations.

As well as these pain memories, your horse may have developed negative associations with certain situations because of memories of arguments you and they may have had due to past behaviour, and this can contribute to a breakdown in your relationship, which you’ll need to work on and re-strengthen as you work through a behaviour programme and bring your horse back into work.

It’s important for us as riders and trainers to understand the importance of anticipation and predictability, because we are the ones who are in control of nearly all of the “what happens next” scenarios for our horses. If they have difficulty predicting “what happens next”, or if they know it’s not going to be good, we are setting ourselves and our horses up to struggle or fail, whereas if we set up predictable lives for our horses, with an aim, as much as possible, of “only good things”, we are setting up to succeed.

But, just because you’re experiencing a behaviour problem at the same time that your horse is coming back into work, that doesn’t have to mean that it relates to an unpleasant memory associated with injury or pain. It might be that after a few months of turnout, they don’t want to leave their field companions. Has their shape changed, and their saddle doesn’t fit well any more, creating discomfort? What other triggers, or stressors, might be having an effect on your horse that you need to be aware of and deal with?

 How can you help your horse to feel ok again?

Whether the behaviour problem does relate to pain memory, or a conditioned (automatic) fear response to something in their environment, or a new stress trigger that has presented itself, the procedure for helping your horse to feel ok about the post-rehab activities you would like to do with them will follow the same principles.

First, you must re-check for pain and seek vet or physiotherapist advice and treatment. If you are satisfied that pain is not a factor, then you need to:

  • identify the psychological stressor
  • remove the cause of the stress
  • prevent repetition of the behaviour that you are seeking to resolve
  • develop your horse’s feelings of safety, relaxation and resilience so that they can cope better with their management regime, daily routines and your chosen activities
  • commence gradual exposure therapy in relation to your horse’s specific stressors, using a structured programme of systematic desensitisation and counterconditioning.

Gradual exposure therapy

Gradual exposure therapy, a tried and tested process developed by psychologists, is a common treatment for problems involving stress, anxiety or fear.

When the behaviour problem is caused by how a horse feels about a stimulus (an object, a person or a situation), it isn’t enough to just teach them a different behaviour such as “stand calmly instead of swinging your hindquarters away from the mounting block”. It’s far more helpful, and long lasting, to change the way the horse feels about whatever it is that they are worrying about. This emotional change will have a positive effect on your horse’s perception of the stressor.

In applied animal behaviour, gradual exposure therapy is often referred to as systematic desensitisation and counterconditioning. They are different processes but they are often used at the same time, to help animals overcome fears and phobias.

As a very brief example, referring again to the mounting block example above:

  • Find the threshold for approaching the mounting block – how far away does your horse need to be, to show no anxiety?
  • From that place, commence gradual exposure – approach/retreat/repeat - this is the systematic desensitisation piece.
  • Make the gradually increasing proximity of the mounting block a nice experience – this is the counterconditioning part of the process, usually achieved by giving food, or pleasant scratches, stroking or massage. Both food and pleasant touch are what are known as “biologically important stimuli”, promoting pleasant mental and emotional experiences for the horse.

What to do if things aren’t getting better

Call a behaviourist when:

  • You have followed gradual exposure principles but you’re not seeing any improvement
  • Behaviour is getting worse not better
  • You and/or your horse are getting frustrated or confused

Refer back to your vet or physio:

  • If you experience any situations where your clinician has told you to do this
  • If there are observable signs of pain or discomfort – refer to published pain ethograms for this, they are “checklists” of signs that indicate that pain should be investigated
  • If a clinical behaviour rehabilitation programme is having little or no effect

Just as vets and physiotherapists are governed by professional organisations who set standards and oversee codes of conduct, so do properly qualified behaviourists. If you need to consult a behaviourist, look for one in the registers of these organisations, which you can find online:

  • Animal Behaviour and Training Council
  • Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors
  • Fellowship of Animal Behaviour Clinicians
  • CCAB Certification Ltd
  • International Association Of Animal Behavior Consultants

Written by Debbie Busby MSc CEBC ABTC-CAB CCAB, Clinical Equine Behaviourist 

Debbie provides educational webinars and advice to members of my Strength & Straightness Programme and is available for behaviour consultations in the UK and internationally. Find out more at Debbie’s website: Evolution Equine

Debbie is also our guest expert this month in my Strength & Straightness Programme, and when you join you will get access to 5 training modules on various aspects of Equine Behaviour from Debbie, in addition to my Exercise/Rehab/Strengthening Programme!! Door are open to New Members until Sunday 28th Jan!! JOIN HERE: S&S Programme


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