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Aint' Misbehavin' - is it Fear, or Willfulness?

Hi There,

I read your Q&A session with Danielle, and you made a comment that I've been wondering about for awhile that I'd like to have cleared up. I've heard different people who have been around horses say two completely opposite things, and so I'm trying to figure out whether they're misconceptions or not. My question is this: I've heard that when a horse "misbehaves," it is an indication that the horse is either afraid or in pain. What you said in the article seems to agree with this. But I have also heard people say that horses will "misbehave" because they are being disrespectful or willful. Horses certainly seem to have the capacity for emotions, and so I could see a horse just having a bad day, much as I have a bad day at work or what not. Are horses capable of being willful? If so, how does one differentiate between willfulness and fear/pain, and what would be different about managing it from a fear- or pain-induced reaction? The latter of course would be treated by addressing what is causing the fear or pain, but what would cause a horse to be willful?

Thank you for your time, Greg T.

Hi Greg,

Horses are not human. Many people attribute human characteristics to horses and that is not appropriate. Even some folks who have had horses all their lives can do this occasionally. For me, the truth is that a horse will "fend for itself" (become the leader and director of its own movements) when there is no great leader with it. This fending for itself behavior takes the form of what many people call "willful, disrespectful, pushy and bad." It is merely the horse acting in a way to help it to think/feel it is in control of what is happen so it can feel it will survive. Safety does not live in the outside world. It is a feeling only. One airplane is no safer than another actually. So, in order to feel safe the animal assumes the role of its own leader and acts accordingly. To me, all horses are innocent, including dangerous stallions, no matter what the behavior (dangerous or not). It is up to me, my responsibility, to be able to assume the role of the good and appropriate leader (sometimes firm) of the herd (the horse and me are a herd). If a horse is in pain, that makes it afraid. So, any possibilities of pain need to be resolved before training begins. Pain equals fear all the time. Some horses do have such a powerful work ethic that they will do their jobs even though they are in some pain (draft horses, doing heavy work, are often a good example of this in particular).

You have asked a very relevant and good question. I hear people too much referring to a horse as willful, stubborn and somehow misbehaving. In the wild horse herd, the only horses that occasionally misbehave are youngsters. Mature horses that "misbehave" are merely bullies. This is a natural occurrence within the horse herd. There are ways a herd leader will deal with a bully and provide a consequence for that sort of behavior. Is the bully misbehaving? I suppose it could be called that. Will an equine bully 'misbehave' with a human and attempt to bully that human? Yes! However, if the human is a right target leader, understands equine behavior and is skillful and compassionate, the bully won't have a chance and, over a bit of time, the bullying behavior can be trained out of the horse through leadership based on trust and respect. A horse is never, ever doing something personally to a human. It is just being a horse and its behavior should never be taken as a personal affront.

Compassion, wisdom, skill and trust are the real keys to successful and high level horsemanship.

Sincerely, Franklin

Hi, Franklin, and thank you for the very prompt response.

The notion that a horse is not willful but merely fending for himself gives me hope for these horses.  Willfulness hints at a problem that can't be overcome, but understanding that the horses are just not having basic needs met says that if I can find out what those needs are and meet them, then I can bring the horse around and inspire trust and willing compliance.  Thank you very much for your advice.

After I sent you the email, I continued to browse your site and came across some fascinating reading at every turn.  You had said that a way to provide a consequence for bullying was to have the horse do work - figure 8's, tight circles, and so forth.  I have been volunteering at a horse rescue, and few, if any, of the horses, as far as I know, have been trained to do even the most basic groundwork - yielding the hindquarters, backing up, etc.  Those that have been trained in that have fallen out of practice due to neglect.  How can I go about providing consequences for dangerous behavior (biting, kicking) when I don't have a way of communicating to the horse what I want it to do?  I want to be able to work with these horses and to develop a bond, to be the Great Leader, as you've put it, but you've said that horses pick up when we are afraid and so forth, and what can I say, I'm a terrible liar, even to people - if I feel the horse is going to come after me every time I try to work with it, then I'm not going to be very good at staying calm and relaxed.  I don't take their behavior personally, but I do take my safety personally.  If I can teach the horse not to come after me and can grow to trust it, then we can start working on its trusting me.  What consequences can I give that will deter the horse from being aggressive, without scaring it or harming it?  What would the herd leader do?  What next step can I take that will get the horse to the point that I could work with it in a round pen?  That is, how do I get the horse from the pasture into the pen, again without resorting to scaring or hurting it?

One of the horses at the rescue is very young - the vet guesses about 8 months.  One of the email responses I read dealt with horses not paying attention to the trainer on the ground.  I am having similar issues, but I wonder how much of that is due to the horse being young, and how much of that is lack of training.  If it's a result of the horse being young, can I expect that it will clear itself up as the horse matures?  Should I try to build the horse's attention span by working with it, or should I respect the horse's disinterest in working past 15-30 minutes and give it a rest?  What techniques can I use for getting - and keeping - the horse's attention long enough to build his trust?  When I say that the horse doesn't pay attention, I'm referring to his interest in grazing on whatever's handy just about any time I'm not actively asking him to move.  I understand that horses are grazers, but if he devotes all his attention to eating (even after he's just been fed), how can I build trust with him?

Thank you again for your help.

Hi Greg,

I have a few minutes to respond here. You are at a disadvantage as these are not your horses and your opportunities to handle in a training situation are limited it seems. Additionally, trying to teach these techniques in an email is like trying to teach someone to Tango in a letter. One has to see it to get it. It is my way to teach leadership and to develop trust with horses by teaching how to and developing the skills to direct movement (each and every step, start and stop). Without the time and opportunity to appropriately train a horse by directing and requesting movement and action and offering immediate reward for efforts at compliance, I know of no way to develop this all important trust. Respect will come along with the developed and earned trust. They are actually not separate issues. Lots of immediate and positive reinforcement for any decent effort by the horse is really the key. Learning to spot the effort is missed by the majority of humans handling horses. The great reward is to stop all input of energy towards the horse. Actually ignoring it for a few moments is the best way to do that.

Additionally, food is a big distraction as you have seen. A human has to get very good at not allowing the animal to eat constantly with it is with that human. It is like setting a physical boundary. It must be kept every moment. I can easily stop a horse from eating when it is with me. But, it requires I be so consistent as to have it be like breathing. I am at every second and instant paying attention to what a horse is doing. If it even looks like it is going to put its head into the grass I gently, but effectively and appropriately, check it.

If you had a 2 year old child in hand you would not take your attention off of the well-being and safety of that child for an instant. You might even develop eyes in the back of your head. It is the same when with a horse. Learning how much energy to put into a request is vital. Too much energy scares the horse and too little prompts the horse to ignore you. It has to be just right and right on every instant. This skill takes time to develop. I have over 40 years as a professional horseman and have practiced this all my life. It cannot be developed overnight, in a week, or a month, or even a few years. It takes a long time. This is my problem with the expensive certifications now offered by several big name trainers. They may take place over a year or so, but still do not provide the experience of working with hundreds or thousands of horses over a very long time. Folks pay thousands of dollars for these and think they are experts at the end because they have bought an expensive certificate.

If a human is truly sensitive and wants to learn these methods and techniques, I am happy to teach them. There is a philosophy behind them. There is an appropriate belief system about horses that needs to be in place as well. In many RDA centers I visit and places offering equine assisted therapies, there is a severe lack of knowledge and wisdom of horses. Most often there are no horsemanship programs and equine courses offered to volunteers who are doing most of the handling of the horses. How unfair to the horses and those humans handling them. Anyway, perhaps you might like to have a phone consultation/coaching with me. I can do much more via the phone than I can in an email. To assist you in resolving at least a few of the issues you are encountering, this is what I suggest. Think about it and let me know your thoughts.

Sincerest regards, Franklin

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