Q&A with Equine Behaviorist, Beth Gibbons
Beth Gibbons is a qualified Animal Behaviorist who works with horses in the UK. Aside from studying equine behavior, she’s also traveled to Kenya where she studied White Rhionoceros’ social structures. Beth upholds the belief that no person has the right to cause pain, suffering or fear to any other individual, and says this is equally relevant when it comes to dealing with horses. To learn more about Beth and what she does, please visit her website.
What are some of the most common behavior ‘problems’ you encounter when dealing with clients’ horses?
Usually when I, or any other behaviourist, gets asked to come and do a consultation on a horse, the behaviour in question is very pronounced. Unfortunately it has often gotten to the point where it makes all other tasks incredibly difficult for the owner before a behaviourist is brought in. I see a lot of cases of aggression, where the horse has learnt to bite or kick people to avoid something he perceives as threatening.
There are also many horses who are extremely fearful of everything, and so very reactive and unpredictable. Horses with a profound fear of trailers is a common problem, and something that most horse owners are keen to resolve. There are also a worrying number of horses who have developed ‘stable vices’ known as stereotypies, such as weaving, box walking, crib biting and wind sucking.
All of these behaviours are obvious and easily noticeable. However, there are countless behavioural responses which get overlooked or are accepted as normal. Horses who won’t stand for the farrier, or who try to avoid being tacked up, or won’t stable, or are hard to catch or have separation anxiety. There’s an endless list of subtle behaviours that suggest that something isn’t quite right, and highlight stress or conflict within the horse’s life.
Although I do not get asked to consult on these subtle issues as much as the blatantly obvious ones, I do believe they are more widespread and should get just as much attention.
In your experience, how does a horse’s lifestyle and/or feeding program affect their behaviour?
The horse’s environment has a much greater impact on their behaviour than most people believe. It is a common misconception that the horse’s management and training are two separate, unrelated components, when in reality they are both intrinsically linked.
In today’s society, horse management has become something very far removed from what the species has evolved to live like. They are usually kept inside stalls or stables for a significant part of the day, if not all of it. Their diet has been reduced to a few meals of concentrated, high energy, high protein feed. Often they are segregated from other horses, moved around, or sold from one home to the next which prevents the maintenance of lasting social bonds,.
Horses have been evolving for over 65 million years, an extremely long evolution compared to most mammals. In this time they have developed behaviours which are crucial to their survival as a species. They have adapted to living in stable family groups for protection as well as for social development. Their guts are designed to eat an almost constant supply of low quality, high fibre forage. In order to stay safe, their primary response is to flee and escape.
Being managed in a manner which prevents the vast majority of the horse’s natural behaviours creates a huge amount of stress. Most horses kept in this way are chronically stressed, which in turn contributes to a multitude of behavioural as well as physical problems.
Once the horse’s lifestyle is adapted so that it allows the horse to act out natural behaviours the majority of the time, the stress levels reduce. With this, most behavioural problems the horse was experiencing diminish as well!
In your experience, what do most negative behaviors in horses stem from?
As I have just explained, the horse’s management has the potential to create a huge amount of stress for the horse. Chronic stress contributes to the vast majority of behaviour problems seen with horses, and is directly linked with behaviours such as stereotypies. For example, feeding concentrated feeds rather than ad lib forage has been scientifically linked to an increase in oral stereotypies such as crib biting and wind sucking.
Most of the behaviours deemed as ‘problem behaviours’ are coping techniques for the horse, as they try to deal with the excessive stress. They may also be a learnt response from the horse trying to avoid something they find unpleasant. When analysed, I believe that most of these behaviours come down to a fear response. For example horses who are aggressive towards people are fearful of what may happen if the person touches them. Spooking and bolting are a response to a perceived threat. Present or remembered pain will also create a fear response in the horse.
These problems are then further compounded by trainers and handlers using excessive force or punishment in an attempt to resolve it. This creates negative associations with the training, and even more stress and fear. In a process known as second order conditioning, these negative associations also become generalised to other related experiences. The horse goes on to develop more behaviours to cope with the increased stress and avoid the negative experiences, and the cycle continues.
Overall I believe it is a combination of stressful management practises and the widespread use of forceful and punishing training systems that contribute to most problem behaviours. Early experiences such as abrupt artificial weaning and social deprivation also play a major role.
What signs should we, as horse owners, be aware of that would indicate our horse may be in pain or experiencing discomfort?
Any avoidance behaviour is a good indicator. If your horse flinches away from touch, or shows they are uncomfortable with being touched by flicking their tail or putting their ears back. They may move away from the tack or being mounted. Bucking is a classic response to back pain, as is reluctance to move. Resistance to the bit, such as chomping or mouth opening may indicate tooth pain.
Physical indicators may be unevenness of gait, stiffness through the back or holding their tail more to one side than the other. If you are in any doubt at all that a horse may be in pain, then advice should be sought from the vet. Failure to identify and address pain problems will certainly result in behavioural problems later down the line.
What is the best way to go about changing negative behavior in a horse?
Unfortunately most traditional methods of changing behaviour rely on force and suppression. This means that the behavioural response is punished and the horse stops expressing it through fear of what might happen is he does. However as these behaviours are usually the result of excessive stress and fear this does nothing but make the problem worse in the long run.
The best way to address these behaviours is to first address the environment to reduce chronic stress. This may involve moving yards or changing your entire management practises, and will certainly take continual tweaking. Nether the less, it is essential to get right.
After this has been achieved, the behaviour will be significantly reduced and can then be analysed to identify its cause. Non-forceful behaviour modification techniques such as positive reinforcement training may be used to address the cause rather than the symptom. Positive reinforcement training avoids suppression and is very effective at changing previously negative associations with training to a positive one.
Training should be approached gradually and incrementally, and should aim to not create a fear response in the horse.
Do you have any tips for horse owners as far as being pro-active and preventing negative behaviors from occurring in the first place?
First and foremost address their lifestyle in order to reduce stress as much as possible. Learn about their natural repertoire of behaviours and adjust their management regime so that they are able to act out the majority of these most of the time. This may include having constant access to an outdoor area such as a field or yard space, living in a permanent herd, and developing lasting social bonds, as well as being fed ad lib forage.
Make sure that your horse is not experiencing any pain or discomfort. They should be regularly checked by a veterinarian and relevant healthcare professionals such as osteopaths, farriers, and dentists.
Concentrate on moving away from overly forceful techniques and the need to suppress behaviours if they arise. Rather than reaching for a gadget or more assertive training, start to ask why the behaviour is there in the first place. Avoid any trainers who use flooding, where the horse cannot escape a scary situation, as it is unethical and ineffective.
Lastly, if behaviour problems do arise then seek a well-qualified equine behaviourist. It is important to remember that the behaviour and behaviour modification are incredibly complex aspects in their own right. Qualified behaviourists have trained for many years to be able to accurately identify and address the cause of behaviours without using force. With a physical problem you would contact your vet, if it was a rider problem you would ask your riding instructor, and likewise behaviour problems should be referred to a behaviourist. If you do experience any lasting problems, find a behaviourist who has a scientific background and avoids using suppression, flooding or force. Contact them for guidance on the best way to avoid and resolve the problem.