By Will Clinging
I recently worked with a very big six-year-old Warmblood gelding with a mild rearing problem. When I take on any horse there is a period of getting to know what I am dealing with in terms of personality, sensitivity, confidence, past training, possible underlying physical issues, fears, etc. There is a fair amount of research to do before I can take an effective path to changing the behaviour. I am going to tell you about this horse not because I want to write about a horse that rears, but rather because he was an interesting study as far as behaviour goes.
In addressing any behaviour patterns there are many intangible things that we do not always take into consideration. Some trainers when dealing with problems look only at the obvious indicators like poor manners, possible unsoundness, badly fitting equipment, and the demonstration of the problem like rearing. In my experience these things are certainly important to note and are contributing factors, but there are many more. I have written about many of them before and I hate to sound like a broken record especially for those of us old enough to remember what a record is; however, I will cover them briefly as they are contributing factors: Self confidence, self-esteem, the ability to process information, decision making abilities, trust in one’s self, trust in others, respect of one’s self and of others, acceptance of authority, acceptance of responsibility, ambition, sensitivity, and basic intelligence, are all important to be aware of. You may ask “how can you be aware of things like self-esteem and decision making abilities?” It is more about understanding a general frame of mind than isolating personality traits.
For example, a confident horse will likely have good self-esteem, be more trusting, be more responsible, and eventually more predictable. A horse that lacks confidence will have lower self-esteem; be less able to make good decisions because of a lack of trust in himself, which leads to a lack of trust in others; and may not accept enough responsibility for himself but will often accept too much authority from others. These are very general patterns but they are not too difficult to find if we spend some time studying the horse we are dealing with.
A horse must accept three key responsibilities in order to become more reliable: to pay attention, to think, and to make informed decisions. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
I am trying to help you see your horse differently and accept that not all behaviour problems are training problems. However, we can usually deal with behaviour issues through specialized handling. This is different from “training;” this is a concept rather than a technique.
On that note I will get back to the rearing horse. Once I established a pattern for his behaviour the approach I took to help him became easier to find.
This is what I believe was his pattern: He was a kind horse that did not like to be wrong. Because of his large stride and incredible power he was not balanced. This frustrated him and led to anxiety, which made him start to over-respond to pressure. I call it “overachiever syndrome.” This overachieving led him to anticipate what was coming next which made him more reactive still. Because he was intelligent, he would second guess what was expected of him and try too hard to do it. He had a tendency to not pay attention to me because he was too busy trying to guess what I was going to ask of him.
This really was a fundamental unwillingness to accept responsibility for himself or his actions. This had developed because of a mild unwillingness to accept authority. He would not take the time to think about what he needed to do, so he would rely on his instincts rather than his intelligence to resolve his confusion. This is ultimately what led to the rearing.
Once I had that sorted out I found the right approach to help him change this pattern. When trying to develop a plan I always start in the same place. I needed to develop his attention span and encourage him to think about what he was doing, what I was asking, and to make up his own mind about how to respond to a basic form of pressure. These were three basic responsibilities he had to accept if he was to change his behaviour. It was not about fixing a horse that rears in the training sense; it was about changing the fundamental factors that led to the way he dealt with stress, which led to a pattern of behaviour developing. Change the factors and change the behaviour.
I was able to change the factors and he went home not a fixed horse but a horse that had accepted the responsibility to pay attention, to think, and to make more informed decisions. He still made many mistakes but he was not frustrated by them; he worked through them and found success in basic improvement. He became more willing to take correction from me without taking offense to it. For the most part, he stopped anticipating and became more deliberate in his responses to pressure.
This in itself was a big deal because it makes a horse more predictable and ultimately more reliable.
Most training issues are not as cut-and-dry as we think. Take the time to evaluate not just what is going wrong but what pattern your horse is stuck in. Put yourself in your horse’s position before you try to fix something that is possibly only one of many contributing factors.
Main article photo: Poor behaviour patterns are often due to a number of different factors, including self-esteem, acceptance of responsibility, and trust. ChristinaHandleyStock.com