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Evaluating for Behavioral Problems

I am frequently called upon to evaluate horse behavior. Whether it’s a friend’s horse or a horse that belongs to a client, I often marvel that these people couldn’t see the problem and its source. Then I remember the ‘e’ factor. That ‘emotion’ factor is probably the most universal problem in decision making, regardless of the subject matter. Emotions often impact our observational powers, too, especially when we’re looking at a horse.

Emotions hijack our rational thinking

The ‘e’ emotional component in decision-making is true in our personal and professional lives as well as when we’re dealing with horses. If we could only look past our emotions we would most likely see the truth, and therefore make much more sound decisions. By eliminating our emotions in situations with horses, we would be able to see that horses are simply the sum of all their training and instincts. Many owners are tied so closely to the emotional state of the horse and the role this animal plays in their lives, that rational observation is hindered — and often just flies out the window. This scenario reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by an 18th century French philosopher, Denis Diderot: “We swallow in one gulp a lie which flatters us, but only drop by drop, a truth that is bitter to us.”

The answer escapes us

Why aren’t we taught how to decipher our horse’s behavior? I’ve spent hours thinking about this question. As a whole, today’s horse people have made great strides toward a connected relationship with their horses. Yet the simplest answer to something like, “Why does my horse act that way?,” seems as distant and remote as a far-off world. So let’s take a moment or two to explore a step-by-step answer to that elementary question.

The ‘why’ of it all . . .

Like the adage, “you can’t see the forest for the trees,” we often can’t see the truth that’s at the base of the horse’s behavioral problem. The problem may be simple, but there’s that “e” factor again: our emotions get in the way. Why does my horse bite, why does my horse rear, why is my horse weaving in its stall? All of these questions, when assessed through a solid evaluation program, can be answered. However, you must first explore the ‘why.’

OEPA: A systematic program

Answers to the “why” can be found by employing the Connective Horsemanship evaluation method: Observe, Evaluate, Plan and Act (OEPA). This is the technique I use when evaluating horses — whether it’s a horse for myself or for a client. Here’s a valuable tip: If you’re looking at a horse to buy, always utilize the first two segments of this program before making a decision.

For the purpose of this article I will be discussing the OEPA method as if you or I were under saddle. You should not — and I repeat not — work this method under saddle if you feel the horse is not safe. If you start out under saddle and then begin to feel unsafe, dismount! You can then evaluate the situation: Should you continue with ground work or should the training session be discontinued until another time? Neither you nor the horse benefits from an unsafe situation. And don’t think you have failed, or that you need to “teach the horse a lesson.”

Step 1: The powers of observation

Before beginning the first step of this method, remember that all behaviors change when influenced by an outside force. So as the first step of the OEPA method, you must Observe, but not interact.

Watch the horse in the pasture. Watch the horse in the stall. Does he weave, crib, pace or bite objects in the stall? Does he face the stall wall even when you’re present? Is he interested in you at all? In a herd environment, or even over the fence, how does he interact with other horses? Is the horse fighting with other horses more than normal? (Remember that any amount of conflict is abnormal in a balanced herd.) Is there some dissention in the herd? Is the horse pacing the fence, or is he disengaged and not interacting with the other horses? Does the horse constantly flap his lips or suck air? Is the horse weaving in front of the gate or screaming? Is the horse running a lot, or herding the other horses around?

When some of these behaviors are taken out of context they may seem quite normal. However, when you observe your horse ritualistically and consistently performing these behaviors, they are abnormal and a product of a stressful environment. Your next step would be to isolate the stress and, if possible, remove it from the horse’s environment (this means making careful observations about his environment, in addition to how he responds to it — for instance, if he’s stalled, can he see other horses?). However, these observations alone often will not be enough to curb the behavioral issues, but will help you make inroads toward solutions and a balanced horse.

Step 2: Evaluate the basics

The second step in the OEPA method is to Evaluate the horse. This means testing how the horse responds to the six basic commands outlined in my program as Basic Control: Go, stop, left, right, back-up and stand still. The horse should immediately respond to all these commands without resistance, and follow your cues. If the horse is rooting his nose outward in response to a stop cue, that tells you that the horse needs work on the stop cue. If while in the saddle you have to cue the horse over and over to go forward, this tells you there’s a need to work on the go cue. Each of these responses by themselves means very little to the average person. However, the trained eye will see this as a precursor to conflict behaviors.

Stop and Go: The root of all problems

I believe, and as my Connective Horsemanship® training program teaches, that the root of all equine behavioral problems (after eliminating physical problems) is a product of bad or unconsolidated stop and go cues. The more I work with conflicted horses and study the writings of other horsemen I respect, the more this proves to be true. Stop and Go. These elements are so simple that the truth easily hides from us.

Evaluating for lightness

I would also evaluate the horse for lightness: Is the horse relaxed with the cues? Does he respond immediately to the cues from the bit and from my legs without hesitation or tension? Is the horse overflexing his neck and disconnecting the stop cue to the slowing of his feet? Is he flexing his neck correctly and responding correctly to the pressure of the bit? Is the horse able to hold the correct posture as long as we need for him to, or is his strength diminished due to tension in other parts of his body?

Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm . . .

Now I want to test the horse for rhythm. Can I speed up and slow down the horse without him hesitating? Can I ask the horse to maintain a particular speed within a gait and stay there until asked to change? Maintaining speed and gait is important to the hyper-reactive horse, and to the overall performance of any horse. It demonstrates that the horse has a clear understanding of the ‘go forward’ cue and feels no conflict associated with this cue.

Ask your horse to demonstrate different speeds. Ask for low speed to high speed and then to an even higher speed. Then ask the horse to begin slowing back down through each of these speeds. Rhythm goes hand-in-hand with Line (a specific direct line pattern).

Using “Line” to test responsiveness

“Line” tests the horse’s responses. If the horse is falling out of rhythm, he will fall off his line. The reason is that when a horse slows down with one leg or another, he will move toward that direction. So Line is the last in the tests for all three principles: Basic Control, Lightness and Rhythm. Line teaches the horse to follow our directive.

To test for the horse’s ability to understand the concept of ‘Line,’ I place the horse on a specific path using cue contacts with my hands or my legs (never use both cues at the same time; using hands and leg cues at the same time is essentially giving a ‘stop’ and a ‘go’ cue concurrently!). I then allow him to possibly make the mistake of falling off the Line by dropping my cue contacts to zero.

If the horse passes these simple tests (faster and slower speeds, following a Line without cues), I would say that a true connection has been made between the rider and the horse. When that’s accomplished, I would recommend that you progress toward your specific discipline goals. When the horse can correctly perform stop, go, faster, slower, and follow a line without cues, you shouldn’t have too much trouble.

Step 3: Plan the plan

However, if the horse fails to pass any or all of these simple responsive tests, then I would move forward to my next step in the OEPA method. That third step is to Plan how to achieve the desired responses that the horse failed to perform.

The Plan stage of the OEPA method is the most important for the horse. It helps you to clarify, consolidate and apply the proper methods to the problem areas your horse is experiencing. By keeping a training journal each day of your horse’s responses (with reports of good and bad and everything in between), you will be able to track your horse’s responses accurately. Even if you don’t ride or train every day, make notes about your horse’s behavior while in the stall or out in pasture.

When planning your training program, keep in mind that you must keep things simple for the horse. Plan each day before you go out and train your horse. This way you will have a specific direction to take and won’t be tempted to deviate from the initial plan. Keep the plan as simple as ‘go’ and ‘stop.’ As previously discussed, ‘go’ and ‘stop’ are basic responses and are the foundation from which every other response is built.

Step 4: Take Action and take heart — all behavioral issues are fixable

The last step in this OEPA method is to take Action. Go out to the barn or pasture, halter your horse, and begin working the plan you’ve made. Remember that rehabilitation takes time. No horse can be fixed in only one lesson. You will need to repeat the steps the horse needs as many times as necessary before feeling that the horse is rehabilitated. Take heart! All behavioral issues are fixable. There is no problem that doesn’t have a solution. It is a matter of how deeply habituated the horse’s incorrect response is and how much time you want to invest in fixing the problem.

Know when a behavioral specialist is needed

However, be aware that there are some problems that must only be addressed by an accredited behavioral specialist. These are trainers who have been taught to deal with behavior issues and know how to change them with the least amount of force. That’s the most effective method; one that can rehabilitate even the most seemingly hopeless horse.

Do not feel as though you have failed if you need to turn to an accredited behavioral specialist for help. You’ll learn a lot in the process, and in asking for help, you’ve gotten past the ‘e’ (emotional) factor of decision making.

Let’s recap . . .

The first step in the OEPA program is Observe (without the ‘e’ emotional factor) and determine if your horse has a problem. Secondly, Evaluate the horse using the Connective Horsemanship elements of Basic Control, Lightness, Rhythm, Line and Connection. If you establish that the horse has a problem, Plan the course you wish to take. Then Act. OEPA your steps to a better, more responsive horse.

This article is a sweeping overview of an in-depth program; there is much to be learned from Connective Horsemanship, whether at a clinic, by watching demonstrations, or through my educational material. My program and its supportive materials (DVDs, equipment, etc.) can be found by visiting http://www.connectivehorsemanship.com. I also hope you will visit me at one of the many shows and expos where I share Connective Horsemanship techniques and demonstrate how this program can guide you and your horse, and help elevate your horsemanship skills.

For more information, visit http://www.connectivehorsemanship.com or give us a ring at 800.359.4090.


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