Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why has my quiet horse suddenly began rearing and striking and bolting?

We desperately need help. We own a 7 year old, 15.3hh, Heavy Cob. He's been my young sister's riding horse for the last two years. We got him from a woman who allowed him to do what ever he pleased. We knew this when we took him on but were sure we could fix his behavior. In the beginning, we put his odd moments down to babyish behaviour as his was only five. Now he is seven and his behaviour has changed dramatically. It started on the ground when he would bolt when we led him to the field. It then progressed to his ridden work: he started bolting and rearing. In the last week his behaviour has become more aggressive: he rears and strikes at his handler. We cannot catch him in the field as he will turn on you. Why has a nice placid cob become so nasty? We have always disciplined him when he has shown bad behaviour and praised for good. Now he will turn on you when you discipline him. He is going to be vetted but he is a very fit and healthy horse so I don't think it would be anything medical.

I'm glad you plan on having a vet see this horse, and that's something that needs to be done ASAP. Although he seems fit and healthy, he may have health problems you haven't noticed. Blindness, pain and dental problems can all cause bad behavior. Those conditions may be subtle and something you could miss. A thorough vet exam can help rule out and physical causes of bad behavior or recommend treatment if any are discovered.

After he has been vetted and either cleared of any health problems or treated for health problems that exist, you need to get him to a trainer. His behavior is escalating and someone is likely to get hurt if you continue as you have. He sounds like a spoiled young horse who has learned he can intimidate people, and however you are disciplining him, it is not working. Rearing and striking are two of the most dangerous behaviors a horse can display - they can get you badly hurt or killed.

I would talk to local trainers, explain his history and current behavior, talk about how you have disciplined him and how he reacts, and then send him to someone who has experience with problem horses and is willing to work with him. He sounds like he will need a trainer who is firm and consistent without being overly harsh. He's going to need a trainer who is attentive and able to keep up with him.

Once the trainer has worked with him and seen improvement in his behavior, you, your sister and anyone else who plans to handle this horse need to take lessons with the trainer to learn how to properly handle him and discipline him.

If this horse is a stallion, I also suggest getting him gelded. Unless you have experience handling stallions, the proper facilities to house a stallion and plans to promote him, you don't need to own a stallion. Stallions take time, attention and consistency and are best left to people who have experience with them.

Good luck with your horse. Please get professional help ASAP so no one gets hurt by this horse.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Question: How do I get a degree in equine behavior?

I am in my last year of an undergraduate and have found animal behavior studies very interesting, and I would possible like to pursue this for my MA and PhD. But I am having a hard time finding information on animal behavior with horses. In one of my searches I came across your website and I am wondering if you could help. Do you know of any universities in Canada, specifically Alberta, that offer similar masters and Ph.D degrees like what you have?

I'm often asked how I got my degree and where others can go to get a degree in equine behavior.  I don't know of any schools that offer a Masters or Doctorate of Equine Behavior.  You'll actually be getting your degree through another department, likely Animal Science, Equine Science or Veterinary Medicine.  You'll want to pick a school that has an ethology section, an equine section with a professor/advisor who is interested in behavior or a behavior section.  My degree is in Animal Science, obtained through the ethology section.  I chose to focus my research on equines.  My Masters' thesis was on imprint training and my doctoral dissertation was on clicker training.  I took classes in ethology and immunology, in agriculture education and in learning (through the psychology department).  The combination of my research, class work and previous experience working with my own horses and for various trainers gave me the background to become an equine behaviorist.

Before traveling down this road, I advise you to consider what you what to do with your degree and training. If you would like to work in academia, teaching classes and doing continued research on equine behavior, then you'll want to go to a university that has a strong research program and publishers papers in scientific journals (Applied Animal Behaviour Science,  Equine Veterinary Journal, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, etc.) and one that presents data to scientific conferences.  You might look at Pubmed (www.pubmed.com) for research that interests you and contact the person doing the research.  

If you would like to become a veterinary behaviorist, one who treats animals for physical as well as behavioral issues, you'll need to go to veterinary school and take behavior classes.  If you want to become a practicing behaviorist (one who takes on clients and works on behavioral issues), you need to know that it is a tough job to get started in and does not pay well.  

You might check out the Animal Behavior Society, International Society of Applied Ethologists, Equine Science Society, and Equine Nutrition and Physiology Society.  I don't know anyone in your area specifically to refer you to.

Good luck!


Monday, October 18, 2010

The Question: How do I teach my horse to let me handle her feet?

I have a foundered mare.  We need to have her feet trimmed and treated, but she will not let us handle them.  I have started a program where I am attempting to reward her for picking up her feet by giving her a bite of feed every time I get the slightest response.  But progress is minimal.  She is not touchy or afraid; she's strong and stubborn.  In all other ways, she's easy to deal with.  You will tell me she is in pain, and she is.  But she was this way before she foundered.  The founder has just compounded the problem. She is getting durmosedan to help her deal with the pain.  I need to know if my proposed plan will work. Currently you can get her foot off the ground with some coaxing, but she won't let you bend her leg and will yank it away after a few seconds.  Am I rewarding her for bad behavior or is any response acceptable at this point?  

Horses who don't pick up their feet when asked are one of my pet peeves.  It is something every horse needs to be taught when they're young as it is impossible to properly care for a horse whose feet you cannot handle.

Unfortunately, we now have to deal with a mare who is in pain and needs to learn a lesson that's going to cause her more pain.  Until you can get her retrained, you need to talk to your vet about sedating your mare in order to get her feet trimmed.  Also talk to your vet about your mare's pain level.  Depending on how badly foundered she is and how she tolerates pain, she simply may be in too much pain to lift her feet.  If that's the case, you may have to make some tough decisions.

If she's not in too much pain, then start working with her.  I think you need to take a few steps backward on your plan for now.  First, is food a good reward for this mare?  Some horses aren't interested enough in food to work hard for a food reward.  If food isn't a good reward, find out what is.  For some, it is praise (petting, soft/nice words).  For some it is being left alone.  Find what works for your mare.

Then look at how you approach this.  You said you can pick her foot up, but only wish a lot of work and coaxing.  For now, focus on picking her foot up - not on holding it up.  Run your hand down her leg, and if you have to lean into her shoulder, and as soon as she even acts like she's going to pick her foot up stop what you are doing and reward her.  You'll know when she's thinking about picking her foot up because she'll tense and shift her weight.  Reward her with whatever works for her, and then ask again.  If she happens to pick her foot up at this stage, don't hold it up - just let go of it (gently) and reward.  The goal here is to get to the point that you run your hand down her leg and she makes an attempt to pick her foot up right away.  When she's doing that on both sides, move on to the next step.

The next step is rewarding her when she actually picks her foot up.  Don't hold onto her foot or do anything with it at this point, just get her to the point where you run your hand down her leg and she picks up her foot.

These two steps may go quickly, or they may take many repetitions over several days.  You cannot rush this, though.  So if you get impatient, walk away and come back when you can be calm and patient.

Once she's picking up both feet reliably, then it is time to ask her to bend her leg.  You've mentioned that that is an issue, so at first ask only for the slightest bend.  If she's resistant, hold onto her foot.  If she gives, then set her foot down and reward her.  Over time, ask for more bend to her leg.   Once she'll pick up both front feet and bend her leg to where you need, you'll ask her to hold her foot up for a second or two.  And again, slowly increase the time you ask her to hold her foot up. 

Rewarding her is important as is slowly increasing what you are asking for.  However you have to get the basis down - picking her foot up at all - before you can move on to anything.  I bet if you can get her to where she picks up her foot as soon as you ask, everything else will flow more smoothly. 

Since she's foundered and hurts, once you get her picking up her foot and holding it up, remember to only ask her to hold it up a very short amount of time.  Your farrier is going to have to be patient and be willing to give her a lot of breaks.  AND once she's picking her feet up and holding them up, make sure she always has a good farrier experience.  If the farrier is hasty, asks too much or is unkind with her, she may revert.

Good luck!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Question: I've moved my horse home from the boarding barn, and now he's restless and nervous. What's going on?

I have owned horses my entire life but I recently purchased a 17 year old gelding.  He is in very good health aside from a little bit of arthritis which I am giving him Adequan monthly and he has remain very sound.  Do to all the changes in the economy, the gas prices are killing me, so I was forced to bring him home from the stable.  He now has a big 14 x 14 stall and his own two acre lot.  However, he is not quite as thrilled as I thought he would be.  I am now being told that he has always been at a show barn with lots of horses and lots of activity.  He is a nervous wreck.  It’s been two days and he is pacing back and forth in his stall nearly constantly.  If I tie him, he stands very quiet and relaxed, or if I ride him or lead him out to eat some grass he’s great.  As soon as I put him back in the stall he starts pacing from one corner to the next. 

It’s been my experience that if a horse is nervous, whether you tie them or not, they will fidget (pawing or moving back and forth).  I can’t understand why he relaxes when he is tied?  Also, as long as he is eating he’s fine.  I finally went to bed on Sunday night and figured if he’s going to pace there is nothing I can do about it.  When I got up this morning, I looked out the window and he was standing fine.  As soon as I opened the door to go feed him he started again.  At 17 yrs old, will he adjust?  I have no idea what to do.  I’m hoping once I get him on the grass free choice he will be outside and do better.  But he has not been on grass for nearly two years so I need to be careful and slowly increase his turnout time.  Lord knows all I need is for him to colic.  Please let me know what you think.  He is normally a very quiet and cooperative horse.  He’s an excellent show horse and so quiet that my 3 yr old niece can ride him, but not now.  I would appreciate any advice you can give me.

Congrats on your new horse!  Bringing home a new horse and getting to know him is always exciting, although sometimes it can be challenging.

Pacing or stall-walking it a stereptypy - a repetitive behavior that's done for no apparent reason.  Horses perform stereotypies in responses to stress.  It helps them cope with the stress, and even once the source of stress is removed, most horses continue performing stereotypies.

You didn't mention whether or not your horse paced in his stall in the boarding barn - that may be because he wasn't stalled, you didn't see him there, or because he didn't pace before. I would guess that he did pace before but perhaps you never saw it.  If so, this is part of your horse's character now, and you will have little chance of stopping it.  If he does better once out on pasture, then I would leave him there (or set things up where he can go to his stall or pasture on his own terms).  Some horses who stall-walk will be perfectly fine out in pasture.

If you know that he did not pace before you brought him home, then moving him may have caused enough stress to cause him to pace.  If he had lived at the previous farm for a long time, moving someplace completely new can be stressful.  He also may be reacting to being alone.  Horses are herd animals and do best when they have other horses living with them.  They need the comfort, social interactions and security that a herd provides.  When you are working with him, tie him up or are outside while he grazes, he may feel enough security from your presence to alleviate his stress.  Bringing in another horse, even a miniature horse, may give him the herdmate he needs and help him stop pacing.

Another possibility is that his pacing is related to feeding time.  You mention that he's fine in the morning until he sees you, and then he starts pacing.  if he's only pacing around dinner time or when he sees you come out, then he may be anxious about being fed.  Horses who have been on a irregular feeding schedule or were once neglected and horses who are lower in the herd hierarchy (and thus may have to fight for their food) feel stress and may pace to relieve that stress.  Keeping him on a regular feeding schedule, making sure he has a safe place to eat where no other horse can get his food, and leaving him alone while he eats may help him overcome his stress and stop pacing.

Pacing can be frustrating, and horses who pace can tear up their stall floor.  Try some of the management changes listed above and see if that helps your horse.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Question: What do I do with a food aggressive horse?

I have a 13 year old gelding that was on the bottom of the pecking order for most of his life. He is docile most of the time, but he exhibits strong food agression even though he is in a private stall and being fed well. 

Food aggression can be a difficult thing to deal with in horses.  It is often caused by insecurity.  We often see it with neglected horses who were not regularly fed:  once they start getting grain they don't want to let anyone near their food.  We also see it in horses who are group fed and have to fight other horses for their food.  Since you say your horse is the bottom of the pecking order, I would say his issues come from insecurity and probably from having to fight to get his food earlier in life.

I haven't found a 100% successful way to cure food aggression.  For neglected horses, sometimes once they are on a regular feeding program, over time their food aggression with slowly decrease and eventually go away.  For horses who are fed in a group situation, separating them from the group to feed them may help lessen their food aggression.

You don't mention how long your horse has been stalled for feeding.  If you've only recently begun that, then I would give it time.  Some horses, though, never get over the issues that create food aggression.

With any food-aggressive horse, you need to give him a safe place to eat:  a stall of his own, preferably with no one next to him.  Leave him alone to eat - don't clean his stall, groom him, hang out with him, etc. while he's eating.   If he has a tendency to bite or kick at you when feeding, set his stall up so you can dump his feed into the bucket without entering the stall.

Good luck - and I hope some time in a safe environment will help your horse become less food aggressive.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Question: Why is my horse now scared of the farrier?

I have a 15 year old, Thoroughbred gelding, Simon, who up until recently has never shown any behavior issues.  I have always worked very hard on making sure his manners on the ground and when riding are impeccable.  In August of 2007, I got a new farrier when my previous farrier stopped trimming my horse.  The new farrier attempted to hot shoe my horse on the cross ties the first time he shod him.  Simon reared and struck at the farrier. I was away at school at the time so I came back for the next shoeing. Simon was scared, but as soon as I was around, he calmed down. After 4 times of working with him, he was back to normal and able to be shod on the cross ties without me.  I moved Simon to a new barn in September and my previous farrier is now shoeing him again. The first time he tried to shoe him, he was able to trim him, but as soon as he tried to put the shoes on, Simon reared and struck at him and ran to his pasture. The barn owner took him and lunged him and brought him back. He then reared and stuck his legs through the bars in the stall where they were trying to take out the one nail they got in.  I rested him for a week and tried again today. He was horrible for me as well and I ended up having to call the vet to have him sedated. I am truly at a loss. My horse is amazing and has never done anything like this and I am not sure where to even begin to fix this. Any advice that you could offer me would be fabulous. Thank you so much. 

It is so confusing when a formerly quiet and good horse suddenly has a breakdown like this.  I doubt he's "just being bad" or anything. It is likely he's reacting either out of fear or out of pain.  Pain is the easier one to eliminate, so I would have your veterinarian examine him.  He's going to need to look for subtle signs of discomfort, do flexion tests, and check him out for arthritis or other pain.  I would be especially concerned about pain since you said he's fine until the farrier starts to put a nail in.

If he's arthritic or has some other source of pain, your vet can prescribe medication and treatment.  However the next few times your farrier shoes your horse, he still may react out of fear he'll feel pain.

If your horse is reacting out of fear, you'll have to work through his issues.  If your horse wasn't used to hot-shoeing, he may have been scared the first time the farrier tried to hot-shoe him.  If he was used to hot-shoeing, the farrier may have accidentally quicked him or set a nail wrong the first time, causing him pain, and causing him to continue acting out.  

How does he behave in the cross-ties when he's not being shod?  If he's nervous about being cross-tied, then you are going to need to work on that first. I would start by cross-tieing him for short periods of grooming or something else he enjoys.  You may start with just a few minutes, making sure you can take him out of the cross-ties while he's still relaxed.  Over time, you can work your way up to longer periods.

If he's ok with the cross-ties other than when he's being shod, then you are going to need to work with your farrier.  You might want to talk to him about paying him to come out a few times just to handle your horse.  Pick up his feet, clean his feet out, rub on him, etc. and put him away while he's still relaxed.  

When it is time to shoe him again, you need to talk to your farrier about paying him extra just to have him go extra-slow with your horse.  Before the farrier gets there, I would longe him and make sure he's blown off any excess energy. Make sure he's paying attention to you. You might try holding him instead of cross-tieing him, too, as some horses just don't care for the cross-ties.  Do not stand in front of him, though, in case he does rear or strike. Keep yourself and your farrier safe.

If his behavior does not improve and he doesn't need shoes, I would try having the farrier pull his shoes and just trim him for a few visits to get him more comfortable with the farrier.  Then once he's comfortable again, you might try having shoes put back on him.

I really do suspect pain as a trigger for his behavior, though, and I would recommend getting him checked out by a veterinarian soon.  

Good luck to both you and Simon!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Question: Why are my horses eating the bark off my trees?

We have a herd of seven horses of various breeds.  We live on approximately one hundred wooded acres.  We partially cleared approximately ten acres for horses leaving it heavily wooded.  We supplement with year round hay and they receive grain each day that is prepared by a livestock/equine nutrition expert that is a family member.  They are in good condition.  We use them primarily for trail riding and my daughter gives some riding lessons in the summer.  She went to college for equine management and training.  None of our contacts have seen this behavior either.  These horses have been eating the bark off the trees.  They have completely killed an area of three acres.  The stripped these trees up to approximately twenty feet.  They loosen the bark and peel it up until it breaks.  I'm stumped.  Any suggestions?

It can be very frustrating to deal with behaviors that not only seem to have no cause but also are so damaging to your property!  It sounds like your horses are displaying a form of the stereotypy wood-chewing.  A stereotypy is a repeatitive behavior with no apparent cause.  However when you start to look at stereotypic behaviors, we see that they often have a cause.  In the case of wood-chewing, some behaviorists theorize that the horses are missing nutrients.  Other times, the horses are frustrated and that causes stress that comes out in the form of stereotypies.  Since your property is heavily wooded, I'm going to guess there's not a lot of available grass.  If you are supplementing with square bales instead of round bales or if your round bales are not good quality, your horses may be frustrated because they don't have forage available 24/7.  Horses are made to eat throughout the day, and when they can't sometimes they turn to wood-chewing to deal with their frustration.

I have a wood-chewer, and he does much better when he has constant access to either grass or hay (in the form of a round bale), and when he's in a stall he also does better if he has a mineral block to chew on.  You might try those two things and see if they help.  Unfortunately, sometimes once horses start chewing wood, they are reluctant to stop - even once you've given them alternatives.  At that point, you either have to let them kill off your trees or restrict their access to the trees by wrapping tree trunks in chicken wire or covering the tree trunks in something like "Chew Stop" or a similar product.

The Question: How do I help my new horse settle into our home?

We recently bought a 16 yr old Arab. She has been on the same ranch for 5 years and has never left. We will be bringing her to our home soon. What should I do to make her adjustment to a new home easier? 

Congrats on your new horse! Bringing a new one home is always exciting - and maybe just a little nerve-wracking. You want your horse's first experiences with you to be good ones, and that includes her experience moving into a new home. The good news is that horses are very adaptable! Most move into new homes with little, if any, problems. I've moved horses cross-country with no issues at all.
There are a few things you can do to make her transition as smooth as possible. First, find out what her schedule is like in her current home and how she's housed. Try to keep her on a similar schedule and in similar housing at first. For instance, if she's used to being fed grain twice a day and kept in a stall at night, try to do that at home and slowly ease her into a new schedule.
Also find out how she is with other horses. If she's very timid, you might want to put her in with a less dominant horse so she won't get picked on. However if she's a very dominant mare, you might not want to pair her up with an equally dominant horse or a battle could ensue.
Find out what she's used to eating and how much. If you will be switching to a different feed, ask the sellers if you can buy some of their feed to take home with your mare. Then gradually switch her over to your feed. The first few feedings, feed her normal feed. Then replace a quarter of her normal ration with your food and gradually increase the amount of your feed in her ration until she's eating only your feed.
When bringing a new horse home, it is always a good idea to quarantine them from other horses for about two weeks. You can keep her where she can see other horses but cannot touch them. This protects the resident horses from diseases the new horse might bring with her.
After quarantine is over, gradually introduce your mare to her new herd. You can start by putting her in a paddock next to the pasture where she can meet the horses over the fence. Then put her in the paddock with one other horse and once the two of them are getting along, you can introduce her to the herd. Do this after everyone has eaten and when there is plenty of daylight available. Keep an eye on her and make sure she does ok with everyone.
Good luck with your new horse - I'm sure she'll settle in quickly with just a little help from you!
The Equine Behaviorist

Welcome to the Equine Behaviorist Q & A Blog

In the past, I've posted the questions I receive via email and my answers on my webpage.  However having to edit the HTML and make all the updates gets time consuming and consequently I don't make as many updates as I should.  So I decided to enter the 21st century and start a behavior blog.

I'll use this blog to post questions I receive and my answers.  I get dozens of behavior questions per month, so I cannot answer all of them.  I'm going to do my best to try to update the blog once a week, though, so keep an eye.  Hopefully we can learn more about horse behavior together!