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Women & Horses by Mary D. Midkiff - horseback riding fitness techniques for women

Women & Horses, knowledge for the female equestrian; female equestrian fitness training and riding tips

HeadlineStop: Rethink Bad Behavior
by Mary D. Midkiff

Maverick Press Article - March, 2001

In general, horses are willing to live and work within human boundaries.

There are always exceptions such as the horse with a nervous disorder, severe chemical imbalance or dysfunctional temperament. But for the most part horses have acquiesced to the world of people. As youngsters, foals are socialized both with us and their own kind to find their place; they grow up learning how to balance their own weight and gradually how to carry us feeling like top-heavy bags of sand. We balance and rebalance together and establish a basic level of communication to take us forward, left, right and in reverse.

As we season together, layers of communication become deeper and more subtle. Our voices, body weight and distribution, pressure, vibrations and adjustments become a common language. Along the way, however, the horse may begin to show signs of disagreement with your pronunciation. That breakdown in communications can happen with an old friend or a new horse you have just purchased.

Time and time again, I have observed riders and trainers handle these problems with a "quick fix" or a "band-aid" approach. Many will initially change equipment adding a tie down to control the head, a more severe bit to slow the horse and access steering, a martingale of one variety or another to add leverage, a tighter cavasson to keep the mouth closed, a whip in each hand and spurs.

Another way people try to modify a bad behavior is to change the horse's training: for example, wearing him down before the rider gets on by lungeing him in small circles at a canter for 15 minutes each direction. The idea here is if he's tired enough he won't misbehave. He won't have the energy to do anything else but to submit to the rider's commands.

For still others, the answer is to simply get rid of him by selling him or sending him to another trainer. Some horses are shopped from one trainer to another, each person trying their methods, equipment gimmicks, feed supplements, farriers and exercise regimen. Even the more conscientious trainer who gives the horse a chance by starting from scratch, re-establishing balance in all movements, will slowly but surely give up on a bad actor because they are not willing to stop and rethink the origin of the issues.

Owners and trainers usually give up on horses because of the desire for performance within time and money constraints. Safety concerns can also arise from bad behavior, adding even more fuel to the flame and quickly condemning the horse to the auction block.

There is a better way. Stop with the horse and conduct a thorough physical evaluation to try to determine the origin of the behavioral changes. Money and time may be saved and the horse will likely return to a safe and tractable temperament once you've connected the problem to the behavior..

To determine the origin of your horse's issues, start with the mouth and work your way through the operating systems.

Have your horse's mouth examined by a professional master dentist. You are probably already aware of annual teeth floating from your vet but this is simply scratching the surface. A dentist will arrive with a speculum and a myriad of tools to level, align, balance and thoroughly check out any ulcers, abscesses, lesions, discolorations, lacerations or swellings which may be irritating. Mouth issues cause headaches, TMJ issues, biting difficulties, improper mastication and digestion.

(My mare has a sheared mouth, meaning her incisors have always been angled slightly sideways instead of the uppers and lowers meeting equally in a relatively flat and solid contact. Having her mouth realigned and leveled when she came into my ownership produced a profound shift in her behavior. She has greatly improved in attitude, her willingness to accept the bit, her happiness and comfort in work and movement. I am able to ride her in a simple noseband with no flash. Her mouth remains quiet and moist in a simple French snaffle. The older she gets -- she's 19 -- the more regularly I must pay attention to how her mouth changes to make sure she is comfortable and eating well.)

Next, have a vet and/or chiropractor give your horse a thorough going over. (Colorado law states you have to be a vet to practice equine chiropractic therapy.) Have the vet watch your horse move, turn and back up. They should also be looking into saddle fit as they move over the horse's withers and back as well as the chest, between the shoulders and through the girth area. Every aspect of the skeletal structure from the jaw through the ribs to the pelvis and sacrum needs to be evaluated for health and function. It may take a few sessions to get the horse totally comfortable again and you may have to have the horse adjusted every few months while he is in training. Humans and horses experience subluxations and articulations of bones and joints, which leads to pain, spasms and ultimately injury. If these misalignments are corrected in a timely manner, injuries and pain can be avoided.

Ask your vet and farrier to evaluate the balance of the horse's feet. In many areas of the horse world, the horse can be the unfortunate victim of trends and styles. In the case of the foot, it's long toes, high heels, squared toes, no heels, and so on. Balance, trim and shoe the foot for the horse to stand "into" his feet most positively, and forget about the fads.

And finally, there's saddle fit. Your horse's body and shape change often, and your saddle must be able to accommodate those changes. Seasonal weight changes, muscle development, age and types of work alter the placement of the saddle on the horse's back. If you are not sure of the fit, hire a specialist to come out to your barn and give you a comprehensive evaluation. The saddle should be checked with and without a pad, with and without a girth, and with and without the rider in walk, trot and canter. Remember that padding is to keep dirt and sweat away from the horse and saddle, and is not meant to be used as a saddle fitting tool. The integrity of the saddle fit should always be based solely on the saddle. If you are not in a position right away to change your saddle or have it restuffed, ask your saddle fit expert to provide you with shims. These are thin wedges, which can be placed under the saddle in various positions to improve fit temporarily. Make sure the professional shows you where and how to use them.

Beyond these basic steps to finding the origin of the behavior issue, you can consult with your vet on other areas such as feed and feeding schedules, supplements, salt, water quality, allergies, turnout, worming and vaccinations. If the horse is suspected of having systemic issues, blood work and x-rays may be in order.

Notice attitude changes (too neurotic or too dull or stubborn), an inability to bend and/or an unwillingness to accept your aids or cues. Mixed messages and a lack of understanding between horse and trainer, an unbalanced rider, or the absence of ground work can also contribute to behavioral problems. However, nine times out of ten, you will find the primary source of the disagreement in the form of a pain or discomfort issue.

Give your horse the chance he or she deserves by simply stopping your program and investigating the real issues causing poor behavior. Find the source of the pain and you will find the source of the behavior problem.

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