Development and Resolution of Behavioural Problems with the Ridden Horse

Development and Resolution of Behavioural Problems with the Ridden Horse

PD McGreevy
Faculty of Veterinary Science (B19), University of Sydney
NSW 2006  Australia


The ideals of equestrian technique combine art and science. Therefore students of equitation encounter measurable variables such as rhythm, tempo and impulsion alongside more ethereal ones such as outline and harmony. This mixture accounts for many of the idiosyncrasies of equestrianism including the subjective scoring of performance in dressage tests, the elusiveness of perfection even at an elite level of competition and the difficulty of expressing equestrian technique in empirical terms (Roberts, 1992).

This chapter will describe and offer examples of the unwelcome behavioural responses horses produce under saddle. Two broad sections are then proposed to allow the reader to consider unwelcome behavioural responses caused directly by humans as distinct from those attributable more to the horse than the rider. Ultimately the responsibility for problems in the ridden horse lies with humans since we have undertaken the domestication and exploitation of equids. Therefore it is accepted that the dichotomy is not absolute. The chapter closes with a consideration of ways in which undesirable behaviours that have been learned can be modified.

Unwelcome Behavioural Responses in the Ridden Horse

Horses can demonstrate various unwelcome behaviours, often in combination.

Inappropriate obstacle avoidance. It is appropriate for horses to avoid hazards that may jeopardise their safety. However, innate self-preservation responses are sometimes shown by ridden horses to the inconvenience of their riders. Examples include:

  • Refusal of fences, ditches and water jumps (avoidance of ground hazards)
  • Refusal to enter starting stalls (avoidance of lateral confinement)

Hyper-reactivity responses. While the responses described above usually help ensure the safety of riders, other innate self-preservation action patterns, especially those that keep horses safe from predators, are sometimes triggered too readily or are performed with speed that riders are unable to predict. These are chiefly flight responses motivated by a need to get away from the stimulus, rejoin a group of conspecifics or return to the home range. Depending on the human observer, such horses are variously described as sharp, keen, fizzy or flighty (Mills, 1998). Examples include:

  • Shying (leaping laterally from olfactory or visual stimuli)
  • Bolting (galloping from perceived threat with no response to rein pressure)
  • Jogging (unresponsive to signal to walk)
  • Pulling (undesirable speed often accompanied by persistent extension of neck to pull rein through rider’s hand)

Agonistic responses to conflict. When faced with discomfort or a threat most horses move away. If they cannot escape from such a stimulus, horses enter behavioural conflict and increase the kinetic effort in a bid to relieve the pressure. Some horses develop seemingly irrational phobias by becoming sensitised to associated stimuli and anticipating the escalation of bit or leg pressure that riders use to make them “behave”. Examples of agonistic responses to conflict include:

  • Rearing and bucking (responses used to fight conspecifics and dislodge predators)
  • Baulking, bolting home and refusing fences (when motivation to return to home range or group is greater than motivation to move forward)
  • Rushing fences (inappropriate speed while approaching fences and jumping believed to represent a perverse attempt to reduce the aversiveness of the stimuli by running towards the obstacle)
  • Falling out through the shoulder (failure to turn appropriately on command)

Evidence of pain and irritation. When a horse fails to respond as requested by the rider, it is important that somatic causes of the problem are eliminated before more aversive stimuli are applied in a bid to increase the animal’s motivation to relieve the pressure. Occasionally horses may learn to relieve the pressures caused by riders by removing the riders themselves, for example by bucking or even rubbing the rider against a fixed object. More commonly horses learn to reduce the discomfort of the bit by manipulating it in their mouths. Examples of responses that arise from pain and irritation include:

  • “Cold-back”syndrome (responses to being saddled and especially girthed that vary from aggression to recumbency during girthing and mounting)
  • Evasions of the bit (manipulation of the bit to lie in relatively insensitive parts of mouth)
  • Rolling under saddle (a comfort behaviour to dislodge dorsal irritants [including riders])
  • Grunting and groaning (expiratory noise associated with tenesmus and abdominal guarding)

Evidence of poor physical ability. While some horses do not comply because they associate the responses desired by riders with musculoskeletal discomfort, others are insufficiently athletic because of poor conformation or lack of fitness shown by:

  • Fatigue (lack of energy as distinct from lack of willingness to respond)
  • Problems in transition (congenital propensity to disunite at the canter)
  • Tripping (poor locomotion due to fatigue, conformation or excessive hoof growth)
  • Hitting fences (failure to elevate limbs, especially the leading foreleg while jumping)

Evidence of learned helplessness. Horses may learn that they are unable to help themselves when responses they use to relieve pain or discomfort or threats (or their precursors) are unsuccessful. Such horses often become unresponsive to the stimuli. Although many horses appear to habituate to the stimuli, it is unclear whether they all do so with a concurrent reduction in physiological distress. Examples include:

  • Hard mouth (habituation to rein pressure)
  • Unresponsive to leg (habituation to leg pressure despite having sufficient energy)
  • “Staleness” and “sourness” (general reluctance to work and resistance to signals from the rider)

Human Causes of Unwelcome Behavioural Responses

Some unwelcome responses disappear if management deficiencies are corrected or if the rider becomes more skilled or is replaced by a more talented equestrian. Horses learn to evade discomfort in both appropriate and inappropriate ways. Therefore while schooling in the form of operant conditioning can make a horse respond desirably it can also evoke resistance, conflict and learned helplessness when administered crudely, inconsistently or too rapidly. Because equine memory is excellent, these interventions are particularly contraindicated because they have the potential to ruin a horse and lead to its condemnation as a “rogue”.

Poor application of learning theory. Horses are adaptable and therefore tolerant of poor handling and training. This may help to account for their success in the domestic context but should not absolve riders from their responsibility to use tact and sensitivity when applying aversive stimuli. Inappropriate negative reinforcement and punishment are prevalent because few riders appreciate the fundaments of learning theory. Common rider faults include:

  • Nagging (eg repeated application of aversive stimuli regardless of response)
  • Poor timing (eg application of signals after the response has been offered)
  • Inconsistency (eg failing to relieve pressure to reinforce a desirable response)
  • Failure to reinforce (eg complete ignorance of the need to relieve pressure)
  • Inappropriate punishment (eg punishment for fear responses)
  • Poor balance (eg inability of the rider to balance without signaling to the horse)
  • Pursuit of style at the expense of other appropriate goals (eg prioritising desirable outline over self-carriage).

Unrealistic expectations and ignorance of limitations of the horse’s ability. As the commercial value of a horse is often related to its ability to compete, many owners seek to push their horses to the limits of their performance. When the expectations of the owners are not met, this may account for some abiding dissatisfaction and the application of interventions that can elicit conflict. For example, although the majority of Thoroughbreds are physiologically suited to fast work, one study demonstrated that only 10% win prize money to offset the purchase and ongoing expenses (More, 1999). Such horses may be viewed as underachievers and may even attract more use of the whip than those that run fast enough to meet their owners' expectations.

Causes of hyper-reactivity. By feeding horses inappropriately and housing them without regard for their need for conspecific company and spontaneous exercise and play, humans increase the likelihood of explosive displays of locomotory behaviours. Some riders train their horses to be acutely sensitive to leg pressure. This is appropriate only if the horse is never ridden by novices who use their legs to balance. Broadly speaking, two causal categories can be identified:

  • Management (eg confinement of racehorses to conserve energy)
  • Schooling (eg mismatch between training of horse and skill of rider)

Pain. The application of pressure in sensitive areas is an implicit feature of traditional equitation which relies on negative reinforcement. While humans routinely inflict pain and discomfort for ridden horses intentionally with rein and leg pressure via bits and spurs, they may also do so unintentionally as a result of poor management. Examples of factors that contribute to unintentional pain in ridden horses include:

  • Tack (eg saddles that pinch the dorsal lumbar musculature)
  • Hoof care (eg inappropriate hoof trimming that contributes to bruising of the foot)
  • Malnutrition (eg overfeeding can increase the risk of rhabdomyolysis)
  • Exercise surfaces (eg surfaces that cause unnecessary pain)

Failure to consider social needs. Most equestrian pursuits require riders to thwart the horse’s innate need to have constant conspecific company.

 Inattention to this need or inadequate training of the horse to cope without it can lead to undesirable responses under saddle. The inadequate provision of space between horses that are strangers or occasionally even affiliates can cause horses to show aggression to conspecifics while being ridden. This is unwelcome since it can cause injuries to both horses and riders. Examples of unwelcome responses in this category include:

  • Separation related distress
  • Problems in company (eg aggression to conspecifics while under saddle)

Horse-related Causes of Unwelcome Behavioural Responses

If horses continue to perform poorly despite demonstrable improvements in management or technique, they may have innate or acquired physical anomalies that make them unsuitable for ridden work. This is not meant to suggest that the horses are at fault since most of these problems can ultimately be attributed to human intervention or omission. While reactivity is selected for in some high performance breeds especially those used for racing, it is unwelcome in the breeding stock of others such as those used for draught purposes. Therefore motivation to respond to pressure may be reduced in the more stoic animals that are commonly labelled sluggish. Perversely the so-called warmbloods may be sufficiently stoic to tolerate bit pressures that allow them to perform in dressage competitions while subjected to bit pressures that hot-bloods cannot ignore.

Examples of problems caused by inappropriate matching of horses for the work required of them include:

  • Hyper-reactivity (eg some horses cannot be used in traffic because they are intolerant of large objects moving in their peripheral vision)
  • Pain
  • Musculoskeletal pathologies (eg navicular pain may make the horse resistant to work on hard surfaces)
  • Dental anomalies (eg sharp spurs and hooks in the molar spurs may make jaw movement uncomfortable and therefore make the horse less likely to relax its jaw)
  • Head-shaking (trigeminal pain causing frenzied flexion and extension of the poll)
  • Anomalies in perception (eg, partial blindness that leads to increased wariness)

Physical inability to perform required responses

  • Conformation (eg height for jumping, hindquarter strength for dressage)
  • Physiology (eg low threshold for dehydration and fatigue)
  • Gait anomalies (eg pacers versus trotters)

Remedial Courses of Action

When horses behave inappropriately riders often use mechanical solutions to increase their ability to apply pressure. Alternatively they may attempt behaviour modification.

Mechanical approaches. Trainers often experiment with increased pressure to overcome resistance in horses that do not comply. Mechanical restraints and stimulants may be used to magnify the pressure that a rider can apply. These include:

  • Bits (applying pressure to parts of the mouth, usually with increasing severity)
  • Curb chains, gags, hackamores, draw reins, balancing reins and chambons (to apply pressure to the other parts of the head)
  • Whips and spurs (applying pressure to the flanks)
  • Martingales and tie-downs (applying pressure to prevent evasive raising of the head)

Behaviour modification. While many disorders such as cold-back syndrome and the relationship between dental problems and behaviour under saddle have yet to be thoroughly explored, the treatment of most organic disorders that lead to poor performance is considered in detail in the veterinary literature. Behaviour therapy can help overcome undesirable equine responses that may have an innate component but are largely learned. It is now recognised that better results tend to occur when the human-horse relationship is nurtured when the rider is both on the ground and in the saddle. Examples of techniques used for behaviour modification include:

Habituation (reduction of fear responses by repeated exposure without aversive consequences)

Counter-conditioning (by habituation while concurrently rewarding more appropriate mutually exclusive responses)

Extinction (removal of rewarding outcomes associated with evasive responses)

Operant conditioning   

  • Punishment
  • Consistent use of negative reinforcement (the key to retraining the basics but notably more likely to work in a horse that has not habituated to pressure)
  • Clicker training (particularly for refinement once negative reinforcement has established the basics)


Mills DS (1998) Personality and individual differences in the horse, their significance, use and measurement. Eq Vet J Suppl 27: 10-13.

More SJ (1999) A longitudinal study of racing Thoroughbreds: performance during the first years of racing. Aust Vet J 77: 105-112.Roberts T (1992) Equestrian Technique. JA Allen, London.