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Misinterpreted Behavior in Horses
 By Winniefield Park   •   26th Mar 2019   •   255 views   •   0 comments


A while ago, my mother shared an article that discussed the differences between desensitization and learned helplessness. Desensitization is training a horse to accept a specific stimulus such as a loud noise or strange sight, by gradually increasing the exposure until the horse is used to it. So you might gradually work with your horse to get it used to having a bath by splashing its hooves with water and work up its legs and onto its body until it accepts having water sprayed all over it. But learned helplessness is when “individuals learn that they have no control over unpleasant or harmful conditions, that their actions are futile and that they are helpless”1. This means you restrain your horse in a way that prevents it from reacting or fighting back, and it must accept what is happening to it.

Horses in these situations ‘shut down’ and it’s not just the ‘freeze’ of the fight, flight, freeze fear response. A horse that ‘freezes’ may suddenly see an escape and react. Learned helplessness makes a horse give up completely, and it will not react, whether it sees and opportunity or not. Unfortunately, there are training methods that tap into learned helplessness, and the result is horses that become unsound in both body and mind. But, what many people will see is a horse that is calm and accepting of its work, without seeing the body soreness and mental fatigue the horse may be suffering from.

Unfortunately, it’s not hard to misinterpret what we see. When we have a little knowledge, but we end up like the person who only has a hammer and so sees everything as a nail.

Switching Tails
Your horse uses its tail for tasks such as whisking away flies and balancing, and it uses it to convey how it feels. A horse that flips its tail while being ridden may be showing resistance. This is why in some show rings, it's not uncommon to see horses with tails that lay perfectly flat because they’ve been injected with a substance that prevents it from moving at all. But, a horse that flips its tail while being ridden may not be showing resistance, it might be re-balancing itself, or even swishing away flies. A tail swish can also be an expression of pain. A tail swish can be a sign of concentration. Tail flips and swishes can be misinterpreted easily.

Balkiness
If you’ve ridden a balky horse, you’ll know the frustration it can lead to, and that balkiness can quickly turn into a dangerous situation. It’s easy to attribute this behaviour to stubbornness. But, balkiness can be caused by body, leg or hoof pain, poor saddle fit, the learned helplessness I mentioned above, insecurity caused by leaving its buddies, not understanding what’s being asked of it, fear or many other situations. A horse that is balky is probably not just stubborn.

Hot
You might feel that a horse that is hot or ‘go-y’ is the opposite of a horse being balky. But, the same reasons that make a horse balk can make them appear hot. Or, maybe a change of diet is in order.

Licking and Chewing
Some horse training methods suggest that licking and chewing is a sign of submission, and that the horse is accepting what it’s being taught. Watch a trainer working in a round pen, and you might find they are satisfied with the horse’s progress because when they allow the horse to stop moving, it licks and chews to apparently show it’s processing the information and submitting to the training. But, studies have proven this assumption inaccurate. Licking and chewing don’t necessarily mean the horse is thinking through its lessons or being particularly submissive. Licking and chewing “simply reflects a change in autonomic nervous system tone that results in salivation that stimulates licking, chewing, and sometimes a big swallow”.



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1https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/63515/
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