Finding the Problem

When you have an undesirable behaviour in the horse, such as refusing jumps, napping etc it can be so difficult to find the cause.

Once a horse has had their saddles, feet, legs, backs, teeth checked for ill fit or injury, very often the unwanted behaviour is labelled as a ‘behavioural problem’ and has very negative connotations. All to often I see aggressive reactions to the unwanted behaviour, which often compounds the problem.

Once you’ve identified that there’s no physical cause for a behaviour then it’s a matter of understanding the horse’s mental state. Horses react to the current situation, they don’t plan in advance to cause trouble or refuse to comply with their rider. An interesting article went round social media last week which explained this well – take a look here.

So if you have a behaviour, such as napping or rearing, and you’ve found the underlying cause to be an injury or poorly fitting saddle; you’ve fixed the physical cause, but your horse still naps, then it is caused by their mental state and in order to correct the behaviour you need to get inside their head and do it slowly.

I’ve just started working with a horse who started refusing or grinding to a halt before a fence and cat leaping it. After some weeks of troublesome jumping, a small injury was diagnosed and he was subsequently rested and then brought back into work. However, his behaviour whilst jumping continued.

Unfortunately, he can’t speak English and tell us the problem, but we can listen and respond to his body language. I believe that the horse had pain association with jumping, because of the injury, and then because he was cat leaping he wasn’t comfortable jumping, regardless of the fact his injury had healed. Whilst he had his injury, he’d have had a physical limitation when jumping, and if faced with jumps beyond this ability (even if they were within his usual ability) he would have lost confidence in both himself and his rider. This creates a vicious cycle of him not wanting to jump, despite the fact he has been given a clean bill of health.

Because he hasn’t wanted to jump, he’s become rather backwards thinking on the flat, so the first thing I did when I rode him was get him thinking forwards. I’ve given him very light hands, to support him as necessary, but in no way acting as a handbrake. Every transition has prioritised over him responding to the aids, and going forwards, even if his head isn’t in the ideal position. I want him to move his body as required in order to do the requested movement so that he realises that it doesn’t hurt and that he can do it. We can tweak movements in the future to improve his way of going.

This week, to help his jumping, we used canter poles to encourage the canter to stay forwards, and then once he was taking me into the poles, we added a jump to the end of the poles. The jump wasn’t too small that he would trip over it, nor was it too big to be outside his comfort zone. The poles kept the canter forwards, regulated his stride and positioned the horse in the correct place to take off. This would give the horse some positive experiences over the jump, so rebuilding his confidence and ensuring he didn’t have any twinges from jumping awkwardly. As the horse became bolder, I lengthened the poles so that he wasn’t quite so close to the jump on take off. Starting with the poles closer than ideal and lengthening the distances slowly stopped the horse even thinking about chipping in before the jump.

Once he was confident in cantering three poles to a jump with no strides between, I removed the third pole, so that the two poles set up his canter, and he just had to keep the momentum going for one stride before the jump. We repeated this work off both reins, until I felt he’d done enough. He needed a certain amount of repetition to build good associations with jumping, but not so many that he became tired and be more likely to falter.

Next time, the plan is to build a simple related distance. There will be two poles on the approach to the first jump, as we’ve already done, which will put him in a good canter and give him a good jump over the first element. Then he has to maintain that canter for two strides before the second jump. Then we’ll increase it to three strides between the two jumps, then four and so on. The purpose of this is so that he learns to jump the single fence without poles to help, but by setting him up at the beginning with poles we can ensure he isn’t likely to fail or back off the jump. Again, the jumps won’t be big, but I may make them uprights instead of cross poles to give him something else to think about. Not having them high means that as well as not having any pain association from jumping awkwardly, his injured leg will get stronger and hopefully he’ll stop anticipating any pain from that site. Then we’ll continue along this theme with other grid work type exercises until he doesn’t have negative associations with jumping, and is confident in his own ability again.

With any “behavioural” problem I think it’s best to identify the triggers for the behaviour and then work on calmly and quietly giving your horse a few positive experiences so that the habit is broken, and they begin to build trust in their rider and themselves in that situation, then you can adjust the situation; for example if your horse naps at a particular spot out hacking on their own, ride, long line or lead past the spot in company until they have had some good experiences there, before perhaps riding first past that spot in a group instead of following their friend, and then venture there on your own. Strip back the environment/activity and provide emotional support from your horse from others, people on the ground, anything, and then as the event becomes calmer and stress-free, take away their support slowly as they become more confident and less reactive to that set of triggers.

Napping, Separation Anxiety and Managing Them

Horses are all unique personalities and some of them are really sent to try us!

Let’s start with napping. Why do horses nap? I think understanding the root of the problem is key to overcoming it. Horses are herd animals, so when they are worried or scared, their natural instinct is to return to the herd. It’s our job as riders and carers to create an environment where the horse feels safe and confident, so doesn’t want to return to his herd. 

I do believe that some horses learn that napping is a good way of getting out of work, and is a vice rather than a wary horse.

Working out the reason for napping will help you deal with the situation correctly. If you think your horse is napping because he lacks confidence, then avoid putting him in that situation before you’ve built his confidence. If he naps when you hack alone; then hack out in small groups, buildup to leading the hack, get him familiar with the routes, and then choose a quiet day to go solo when your horse feels confident. When he then pauses on hacks, worried by something then a calm, reassuring voice will help boost his confidence.

One horse I ride naps, but it’s a vice. I know it is because he is confident on hacks and very relaxed out and about. To avoid him rearing on the driveway I now lead him through the electric gates (how the other half live) and climb on the wall to mount, and walk off immediately. Touch wood, so far this approach is working. The horse doesn’t nap at all and is perfectly confident on hacks, until he thinks we’re going the wrong way. If he thinks that home is to the left then he’ll drift left and when ridden straight on he will try and have a little rear. I find a few stern words or a growl soon puts him in his place. Once he walks in my direction he gets a pat. To overcome this, I never take him on the same route twice and try to mash up the routes so that he can’t predict what’s coming next. When he doesn’t know where we’re going he’s a total gent. It’s so frustrating!

Some horses are quite clingy to their companions – human or equine. I’ve not worked out the root causes, but I believe that for some it is to do with their early life. Matt has terrible separation anxiety issues and he always has. Personally I think he had a stressful weaning. Not by fault of his breeders, but perhaps he just wasn’t mature enough to leave his dam just then. For some horses it could be a confidence issue, or perhaps they’ve been abandoned in the past. Or even purely their nature. Age can also have an impact on how clingy a horse is; after all if they’re being introduced to lots of new stimuli in a short space of time then they will seek reassurance from another equine.

With a horse who has separation anxiety it can be difficult to find the right management balance. You don’t want to pander to their needs, because one day you might be in a position when they have to leave their friend. Yet separation is stressful for them, so it’s not fair to unduly stress them out.

Living in a bigger herd can reduce specific attachments for horses, so that would be the first approach for me. Matt is definitely happier in Wales in a big herd than with just Otis for a field companion. Also, if the horses left in the field are happy they won’t call to the horse you’ve brought in, so he won’t get distracted and upset. 

When horses get attached to each other it’s really easy to fall into the easiest routine; that is, catch them together, ride within sight of each other, and have adjacent stables. This doesn’t solve the problem though. 

Going back to Matt; while he was in Reading he was quite attached to Otis so to prevent him getting too attached I would take Otis’s breakfast to the field. Catch Matt and leave Otis eating; this meant Otis was quiet so wouldn’t distract Matt by calling. On the yard, I had everything ready so I quickly groomed and tacked up, barely leaving him for more than a couple of minutes. After all, if he’s upset because he isn’t with his friend then having me there is some form of reassurance, and minimising the hanging around time keeps his mind on the job so it doesn’t wander back to the field. We would ride, and he was fine to ride because since a youngster he’s always hacked and schooled solo as well as in company so he understands he is working with his rider, not the nearest equine companion. Then I would take his breakfast to the field with him; swap with Otis and go and ride him. If Matt is fretting to get back to the field then he won’t eat his breakfast on the yard, and being in the field without Otis (but with neighbours) is a bit stressful for him, so having a hard feed is a useful distraction. That meant that Matt was usually quiet and fairly happy in the field on his own. I found this was the least stressful way of managing clingy behaviour because Matt soon learnt that when he was in on his own it was for me-time, and I would make sure he was alright. And he learnt that Otis wouldn’t be babysitting him all the time, which makes travelling and competitions easier. 

On a similar note, Matt gets a bit stressed hanging around at shows on his own, so we just unload him and he’s usually much happier tied to the trailer with a haynet or grazing. I don’t like leaving horses like this though, so someone always stays with him to supervise him. Again, this is a safety management technique and to keep him mentally happy. If he travels with another horse he’s quite happy standing on the trailer.

In terms of riding a clingy horse, I think it’s important to have very consistent boundaries. If you’re schooling with his field friend, practice riding past each other without reactions from either horse. Don’t bring your horse back to walk and halt near his friend, he should be focused on you and you alone. If they do drift towards their friend then quietly closing the leg, using a firm voice, and positively riding past before a small reward should soon teach them the correct behaviour. When you do want to stop riding an exercise, make a point of circling away from his friend and bringing back to walk and halt on his own before patting him. That should help stop the desire to race back to his friends and increase his respect for your aids. 

It’s not easy having a horse who is very attached to others, or who doesn’t like being left alone, but building a strong relationship with them and making sure that you are there to provide reassurance in the absence of equines should help reduce the stress in your horse and slowly he should become confident in being away from others, which will reflect in his behaviour when ridden and on the ground. Minimise the time spent alone initially until the horse becomes happy, and keep him in a familiar environment, with the same routine, and then slowly you can increase the demands on the horse and push his boundaries so that he remains confident without other horses, and has faith in your ability to keep him safe, will will stop any nappy behaviour under saddle.