Behaviour Basics

By Your Horse

Seasonal guides

18 October 2010 09:30

Equine behaviour consultant Dr Debbie Marsden, author of How Horses Learn (JA Allen £19.99) would agree that the daily discipline of handling and socialisation is as important as the exercise itself.

"As far as managing your horse’s behaviour goes, I cannot stress how important it is to allow free association with other equines," she says. "This doesn’t just mean touching through a stable partition, as that can actually be more frustrating and creates its own problems.

"The reason that exercise and free association with lots of others works best at keeping horses sane and manageable is because of the social interaction involved and is actually nothing to do with physical work or getting them too tired to be naughty.

"When it comes to winter manners, a treadmill is no use unless you just want to get your naughty horse even fitter! A horse walker is marginally more beneficial as at least they get driven from behind by others in a herd-like fashion, but then, they also drive one horse ahead of them, which reduces the effect.

"Essentially, not being moved around by other horses or, ideally, other people such as when being lunged or ridden, makes most horses more socially confident and those with naturally high social dominance tendencies become so confident they act as though they are the boss of everything and everyone, even after one day off!

"They will try their luck with even previously respected handlers, which leads to all kinds of social dominance problems that are interpreted by the owner as naughtiness.

"This is why a lot of handling and ridden problems appear after a period of box rest and many horses appear a bit fresh after extra hours in the stable.

"So the bad news is, if you don’t want to deal with a cheeky monster this winter, you have to ride or lunge every day, more as a daily reminder of manners than anything else. When this is impossible, the horse should have as long as practically possible in free association. In other words, turned out in a school or enclosed hard standing, or other suitable environment, with as many other horses as he’s usually in a paddock with," explains Debbie.

"Do, however, be careful with the use of snack balls. Studies have shown that these can be more frustrating than helpful. In my opinion, they’re an adaptation of something developed for pigs and not suitable for horses, constituting a safety hazard in the box and resulting in hygiene issue from mice, etc. Food also tends to get stuck and go stale, resulting in wastage and contamination.

"I absolutely agree with increasing the fibre ration (see The role of nutrition, page 28). Most horses can manage on ad-lib hay if it’s of good quality with only a small amount of hard feed for essential minerals or extra protein if the forage is poor, and sprinkling hard feed in among this in small-holed haynets is a much more natural, hygienic, effective and horse friendly way to keep a horse occupied in his box.

"Stereotypies are not caused by boredom but by arousal – and the most common cause of this is frustration in the stabled horse by social restriction and not enough time spent eating enough fibre," says Debbie.