I was doing a day of teaching on horse behaviour for the vet students at Liverpool University the other day and one of them asked this very excellent question: what do you say to people who just think their horse is taking the proverbial (insert noun of your choice here)?

The first thing to do is picture the scene. The horse has just done the very opposite of the thing the handler/ rider asked. Perhaps they threw their head up in the air rather than bringing it down low for the worming syringe. Or perhaps they swung around and pulled away from the trailer rather than walking calmly up the ramp. Maybe they napped rather than walking happily out of the yard away from the other horses. Or, horror of horrors, they barged out of the stable and over the top of the vet at vaccination time.

The truth of the matter is, the horse doesn’t do any of these things simply to annoy their handler, or gain the upper hand, they don’t do them because they are ‘dominant’ nor do they do them so they can have a quiet snigger with the other horses down the back of the hay shed later.

Sometimes anthropomorphism can be valid, when the evidence supports it, however in this context it is not appropriate to be placing human characteristics upon the horse. Let’s face it, horses are not plotting to overthrow the human race. They don’t want to rub our noses in it and ‘get us back’ for all the hard times we’ve given them.

So why might the horse be behaving as he or she does in these examples?

Throwing the head up in the air to escape the hideous tasting wormer, trying to run away from the dark rattly cavern that is the trailer, refusing to walk away from the safety of the herd and finally, taking the only way out in order to avoid the painful injection.

These are all,  quite simply, escape or avoidance responses, triggered by stimuli that predict the threat of pain or discomfort or potential injury. These stimuli act on the fight or flight response, which is a reflex response over which we mammals have no conscious control.

Bottom line? The horse is fearful. No matter how confident they might appear in their behaviour, the root cause of the behaviour is fear.

So why does being firm, confident, dominant or even bullying work so well in these situations, so that they seemingly submit, as if confirming that they were just sensing your weakness and having you on to begin with?

Think of it as a set of scales. On the one side is the thing you are attempting to do to the horse. The weight of it is a direct measure of how unpleasant the horse finds it. On the other side of the scales you have the pressure that you have to use in order to get the horse to perform the required task. How much it weighs down the scales is a direct measure of how unpleasant the horse finds it. In order for the horse to ‘submit’, the unpleasantness from the pressure must outweigh the unpleasantness of the task. As you can see, the horse is caught between a rock and a hard place.

If a horse has had prior experience of escalating pressure, they may capitulate quite quickly when they see that you are going to go down that road with them. All it might take is a change in your posture for them to change their behaviour… All because at some point in the past, someone has done that and followed it up with a level of pressure that they found highly aversive. The threat in itself is now sufficiently frightening for them to ‘behave’ in its presence. This is why a hesitant person might struggle with a horse whereas a more experienced trainer might step in and say ‘look, there’s no problem here, you’re the problem…. He’s just chancing his arm with you ‘.

This is one of the reasons why, when novice owners send their horses away to certain types of professional riders to have their ‘problems’ ironed out, they can come home again and seem ok for a short while then gradually deteriorate again, often ending up more ‘challenging’ than they ever were in the first place. They call the professional out again, he or she hops on the horse and says ‘look, no problem for me, it must be you ‘.

It is true that horses respond to nervousness in handlers by becoming more nervous themselves. However, this is no reason to teach people that they have to ‘bully’ horses in order to get results.

So what is the alternative? Once we know that the horse that is ‘taking the….’ is in fact fearful and experiencing conflict, we can start to address that emotion. We take the aversive task and we break it down into small steps, we associate it with positive experiences, and we can do this gently, without resorting to brute force and ignorance.

For example, we use appetitives (food, scratches) to teach the horse to touch a target with their nose for a duration of twenty seconds. This is long enough for the vet to calmly and simply vaccinate the horse and, taught with care and patience, this technique can be effective for even the most needle shy horse. We can use a similar technique for worming, loading and dealing with separation anxiety.

These are all training issues. We need owners to take responsibility for that and kindly and effectively prepare their horses for these kinds of scenarios.

In real life, I appreciate that, just occasionally, there are times when aversive restraint methods have to be used because there is no alternative and the treatment required is essential and urgent. However, the vet should always inform the owner afterwards that this is a fear issue, and that the behaviour can be effectively modified with careful retraining. This training should be begun immediately in order to avoid the likelihood of the problem appearing again in an emergency situation.

So next time someone tells you your horse is just taking the….,  you can tell them not to be so silly, from the horse’s point of view there is a very good reason for not wanting to do whatever it is, generally for reasons to do with survival, and instead of bullying them in to it, you’re going to teach them that actually it’s not so unpleasant after all. It’s amazing how even just twenty minutes of retraining spread out over several sessions can make an enormous long term difference to behaviour. Time and patience now will truly save time in the long run. More importantly, a calm horse is generally much safer to be around than one that is in fight or flight mode.