Horse Bad Habits and Vices

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Cherry Hill's
Horsekeeping Almanac

How To Think Like A Horse
Horse For Sale
Making, Not Breaking
Cherry Hill's Horsekeeping Almanac
How to Think Like A Horse by Cherry Hill
Horse For Sale by Cherry Hill
Making Not Breaking by Cherry Hill
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When Good Horses Do Bad Things

  2008 Cherry Hill   Copyright Information


Horses are nomads. This wandering tendency is the precipitating factor for confinement behaviors such as pawing, weaving, and pacing. These vices result from boredom, lack of exercise, over-feeding, and insufficient handling. Regular exercise is necessary for the horse's physical and mental well-being. Any horse, and especially an energetic, inquisitive horse, should have active, sustained exercise at least five times a week. Active, sustained exercise would be longeing, driving, or riding. Turn-out usually does not yield sustained exercise - after a few leaps and bucks, the horse rolls and begins grazing or might stand at the gate, ready to come back into the barn.

A horse's ration should be tailored to meet his energy needs. Too often a horse's ration is set when he is being regularly ridden but is not adjusted when the riding program is interrupted by an injury, poor weather, or the owner's schedule. An overfed, under-exercised horse is a prime candidate for developing any of a number of stable vices.

Horses that are kept in box stalls or small pens need to be turned out and allowed to "be horses". Otherwise they may become bored, tuned out, lazy, and unresponsive OR irritable, anticipatory, nervous, and explosive.

How to Think Like A Horse by Cherry HillEven though the modern horse is relatively safe from predators, its historically long struggle for survival has resulted in a deeply imbedded suspicion of anything unfamiliar. Keen senses plus the flight reflex can turn into panic. Few horses, on their own, stick around to ask questions of something spooky. A horse can be taught to trust his trainer's good sense, however. A trail horse, left to his own devices avoids the "black hole" which is really just a ten inch deep puddle. When his fair and competent trainer asks him to consider stepping into the water, the trusting animal tries. As long as a trainer makes wise decisions and never asks the horse to negotiate something unsafe, the horse's natural instinct of fear can be over-ridden by its confidence in his trainer.

When a horse lacks confidence or has received poor handling he can behave very irresponsibly and spook with the slightest provocation. Because a horse has an excellent memory, he can remember quite remote experiences especially if they relate to his imagined safety. It is thought that horses never quite forget these fears. All you can hope for is to encapsulate the bad experiences with layers upon layers of good ones.

Horses are capable of assuming thundering speeds from a standstill, of rising from a lateral recumbent sleeping position and instantly running, and of striking or kicking in the blink of an eye. These lightning-quick reflexes helped the horse survive for over sixty million years. The same automatic responses allow today's horse to perform in a vast array of spectacular performance events but they also can prove to be potentially dangerous.

Much of training is designed to work with and/or systematically over-ride the horse's natural reflexes. For example, it is a natural response for a young horse to raise (flex) his leg when it is touched. This reflex is beneficial in teaching the horse to pick the hoof up for farrier care, yet there are times (bandaging, clipping) when you need to handle the horse's legs without him lifting them. It is important to make the two requests as different as possible so that the horse can differentiate and will not be confused as to what you want.

Making Not Breaking by Cherry HillFor example, when asking the horse to pick up a hoof for cleaning, pinch the tendon area just above the fetlock between the thumb and middle finger. At the same time, use a verbal command with a high tone and rising inflection such as "Foot!" which will encourage motion. Be ready to catch the hoof in its upward flight with the other hand, because the total reflex chain includes the horse putting its foot right back down! If you let the horse put its foot down several times, you have inadvertently taught him the wrong lesson!

Young horses often stamp their legs when introduced to electric clippers as if they were trying to ward off a huge buzzing insect. For this lesson, you want to over-ride the horse's natural reflex to pick up his foot. During the first few lessons, it might be best to hold the horse's leg in the air while you are clipping so the horse can get used to the sound and feel of the clippers without moving its leg. Then you can move on to teaching the horse to stand with his weight on the leg for clipping. Press back on the knee or forward on the point of the hock to remind the horse you do not want him to flex those joints. Then use a low-toned, falling inflection command such as "Stand". Most horses will soon differentiate when to pick up the foot and when to keep it on the ground.

Most vices and bad habits can be prevented by a thorough understanding of horse behavior and the use of logical, progressive training methods.


click here to see a chart on horse VICES

click here to see a chart on horse BAD HABITS

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