Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Its easier to "train" when the horse isn't in pain...

I've posted here about how hoof problems can sometimes create problems in the rest of the horse's body, not just in the limbs.

One of the very common problems related to hoof "malfunction" (imbalance, uneven loading, incorrect landing, foot pain etc) is a horse who is stiff, unwilling to go forward or who finds specific movements (eg left rein circle) difficult.   This sort of behaviour can show up way before a clear lameness develops; in fact if the lameness is bilateral and low grade, it may not be identifiable till its become much more severe.

If you could see your horse had a cut his leg, for instance, you would have no difficulty understanding why he was reluctant to circle using that leg.  The problem with some of these hoof malfunctions though is that they don't necessarily jump out at you in the way that a superficial injury does.

Why is it worth knowing this?  Because many horse people - and particularly trainers - overlook the role that pain and discomfort play in shaping a horse's behaviour.
Jack, for instance, came to us because his owner had been told by a natural horsemanship trainer that he was "dangerous" and "psychotic".  
This assessment had been made because he bolted instead of circling nicely when put on a 40 foot line.  The trainer failed to solve this problem because her solution was to tie Jack to a tractor (yes, really) to deal with his "dominant attitude" instead of trying to resolve the many biomechanical issues which made circles on the right rein physically impossible for him at that time.

Here is a quote from a well known "natural horsemanship" website:

"If you have a defiant horse that just doesn’t want to go forward or tends to buck going into the canter, he’s probably lazy, stubborn and/or unmotivated"

Really?  Have you discounted shoulder pain, back pain and all the various hoof "malfunctions" which are so common?  Even in my limited experience, these are far more common reasons for horses refusing to go forwards or bucking than being "lazy" or "stubborn".
Does this look like a psychotic horse to you?

Now, before you all jump down my throat, there is nothing wrong with "natural horsemanship" when its done properly.  But in my book doing it "properly" means assessing honestly and fairly WHY the horse is resisting and never, ever underestimating genuine, but subtle, physical problems.

To misquote Captain Jack Sparrow, the real question is - what a horse can do and what a horse can't do.

16 comments:

Nicky said...

You have a very good point, it is too often easy to point the finger at laziness/naughtiness when in fact the horse maybe in pain. I do practice NH, although am really not a fan of the particular group you have quoted. That being said, in slight defense of the quote given, the section does also contain the caveat "If you’ve ruled out painful feet or joints as the reason your horse doesn’t want to jump..."

Nic Barker said...

Hi Nicky, I must have been looking at a different source from you but there was no mention of pain being a cause AT ALL in the page I quoted from(!).

I've heard similar on internet forums too - "my horse won't do x but I've had his feet and back checked" - but who by? Listen to the horse not the "expert" ;-)

Dare Gothic Clothing said...

Couldn't agree more Nic - Isha is the perfect example of this. I've owned her since she was just backed 4 year old and she was always safely exuberant and unfazed by new experiences - the personality change she went through over the past year when in pain was shocking, she was explosive, challenging and unpredictable to the point where I felt seriously out of my depth with her even to handle her from the ground - she is absolutely a different horse now - so relaxed, so happy to please and totally bombproof - close friends still can't believe the difference. I wish I had a video diary her change is so extreme. I feel terribly sad for many 'problem' horses who get sold on repeatedly by people who feel overhorsed and as a result will never have the root cause of their bad behavior identified, especially as in Jack's situation many owners seek help from trainers hoping to solve the problem and only get their doubts confirmed that the horse is 'simply dangerous'.

Nic Barker said...

LOL Fayley - Crazy Isha and Mad Jack - 2 of the biggest softies you could hope to meet :-)

Lucie said...

Soli has undergone a complete personality change to. He was bulshy, stubborn, rude and aggressive at times and in the year before he went lame, he was totally reluctant to go forward and some days he would point blank refuse to move.

It makes me sad to think that we all ('experts' included) put his bulshy behaviour down to him being a 'typical welsh' but actually it was because he was in a lot of discomfort :(

He is a completely different pony now, and a very happy one to :)

Nic Barker said...

Brilliant to hear Sol news, Lucie :-) I bet he will still rule the roost at the RRR though ;-)

Nicky said...

Listening to your horse is definitely the way forward. Max is such a lovely boy he doesn't show his pain in an agressive way at all, so it can be difficult to hear or see when he is uncomfortable. But I can feel him struggle to bring his right hind under him and flex when on the right rein. Being barefoot behind has really helped him and my vet has been really supportive and is helping him for me. She is 100% sure he will be fine. He is my forever horse, so I want to be 100% sure that he is comfortable now, rather than causing him damage that will affect his latter years.

Val said...

I think it is regularly underestimated how difficult it is to tell what motivates a horse to behave badly. A buck can be very bad for the rider, but for the horse may be a way to regain balance, especially if the horse is having biomechanical troubles, an ill-fitting saddle, or a pinching, stiff rider, not to mention hoof problems. I, too, learned this the hard way when a misfit saddle was causing my horse to walk like a tranquilized turtle. I hurts me to think that he was still trying to meet my requests even though he was in real discomfort and I am forever grateful to my teacher for seeing the problem. How many horses do this for their owners or are given no choice with less compassionate handling?

Wiola said...

So very true...which is also the reason I emailed about P. and I am so happy for A. to have the place for him. Sometimes horses work "well" even with low grade pain and many riders (and instructors) will think "let's not fix what's not broken". However, the horse will always try to communicate things are not as rosy as one might think. It's reading these signs that seems to be the problem. If the horse fidgets upon mounting or snatches on the rein or has difficulty accepting the contact - it's not just because he/she lacks submission...
I've taught people in the past who just don't want to know. And that's sad.
Thankfully, there are some fab horse owners out there who will do anything to solve the issue at the root of it.

Barbara said...

Anybody who wants to can jump down my throat. NH is more about marketing crap than training horses. Just sneak out back before the 'show' and watch them wear those demo horses out.
ANYWAY - I was lucky enough to have trainers who convinced me that, unless truly nuts, most horses will do whatever is easiest. They don't indulge in a lot of complex thought about how to confound the human. If you get them to a jump on the half step, running out is easier than jumping. If circling hurts, going in a straight line is easier than turning. If we make doing the 'right' thing the easiest and simplest they will do it. Unexpected resistance involves some thought and investigation, not a bigger whip.

cptrayes said...

Ace bucked me off on Thursday last week. He appeared to be perfectly sound, but lazy going up a steep him. I wondered whether his toes might be sore (he isn't coping with grass well), so, stupidly, I sent him on to "test" him out as to whether it was laziness or not. He quickly made it clear how much pain I had caused him and decked me. I took him off the grass in his diet and his perfect gentleman character reappeared the next day.

How often are "dangerous" and "lazy" horses actually in pain? Good question Nic.

C

Nic Barker said...

Wiola - agree about the fab owners - and I think the horses I have down here have some of the best owners around :-)

Val - I've been there too, and had a horse who put up with a LOT (badly fitting saddle, sore feet, inappropriate bit) without ever damaging anyone - the saintly Ghost. It never ceases to amaze me how forgiving they are.

Barbara - preaching to the choir - think we are all with you on this ;-)

Cristina said...

Even if a horse is challenging or being dominant, I don't get how attaching it to a tractor is a solution!!! Poor Jack

clairesgarden said...

why do you hate nh?

amandap said...

I agree very strongly that pain and especially in the hoof is often over looked and horses described with various uncomplematary words and terms. This imo is endemic in ALL persuations of Horsemanship. Natural Horsemanship to me is what Rockley and others, who listen to and learn from the horse, practice but I am aware I am in a minority with this view.

There is human orientated NH just as there is human orientated BHS etc. etc. Criticising a label is pointless imo.

Nic Barker said...

Claire, not sure who your comment is addressed to - don't think anybody has said they "hate" natural horsemanship!

I think AmandaP is right - this crops up in many areas of equine training, not just within natural horsemanship, but perhaps its more ironic when it occurs under the label "NH" because that is often touted as a "better" way.

There are brilliant traditional trainers who listen to the horse, brilliant classical trainers who listen to the horse and brilliant NH trainers who listen to the horse. And rubbish ones ditto, in every discipline...