Friday, January 14, 2011

Equine mind games

Dr. Jeannine Berger

The better you can manage "mind games" with your horse, the more likely you can get the results you want.

Principles of horse behavior are universal. Sure, genetics and situations affect how an animal acts, but you can count on a series of common behavioral responses among horses that can be used while training.

"The trick is to get the horse to want to do what you want it to do," said Dr. Jeannine Berger, an equine behaviorist from Davis, Calif. To start with, understand that horses have a highly evolved fight-or-flight response, she said.

Reacting quickly to perceived dangers and threats is what kept the herd alive and thriving. Primitive horses had to learn the hard way that running away was a good thing. "Their flight-or-fight response is what kept the horse from ending up as a painting on a cave wall," Berger said.

Berger offered three principles to managing equine behavior: understand what stresses the horse; prepare you and the horse for those stresses; and provide motivation to overcome or accept the stresses. Behavior management is essential for performance horses that are constantly taken to competitions, but sound behavior management can greatly improve the experience for the pleasure horse and rider, too, she added.
Since horses have such a highly developed flight response, it's easy to produce stress. Stress results from a constant sense of fear brought on by situations in the environment the horse can't control or understand. If the horse feels it can't control its situation, it wants to take off If the horse can't take off because it's in a pen, on a trailer, or being ridden, the stress can cause undesirable behavior.

"When the horse can't control the outcome of a situation, then the stress can often become distress. Not only can you see bad or altered behavior, constant stress can also begin to lead to health issues like ulcers or other disorders," Berger said. "Problem horses and horses with metabolic disorders are often horses under stress."

Horses are creatures of habit and most view change to their routine as bad. Loading on trailers, travel, new stables, new footing, different water and feed, new sounds and noises can all stress a horse. Getting the horse to accept change requires the handlers to build trust.

"You should be able to ride a horse up a telephone pole, but it's your responsibility not to try it," Berger said. "It's good to start by getting your horse used to lots of different situations. Change the routine once in a while. Some fresh obstacles in the paddock or stall make for good distractions. Make change part of the routine."

If you travel with your horse, bring some clues from home. Horses have a keen sense of smell, so having along blankets and tack from home can help. Bring a friend if you can. Horses usually hate to be alone, and other horses or animals from home are a comfort.

"You are the one who must stay consistent. Your horse is counting on you to be its pillar. A horse must be able to rely on its human to be the one who it trusts and looks to," Berger said. "A horse needs a consistent human with a reliable plan."

Bring feed and water from home if possible. If you can't bring water when traveling, Berger suggests adding a drop or two of vinegar to the water at home. The change in taste is harmless to the animal but prepares it for changes in the water from place to place. Increase the long-stem roughage in the ration. Horses need forage in their guts at all times, and keeping them full of hay reduces stress.

"Mostly, take your time," Berger said. "If something startles your horse, bring it back around to the spot again. Pretend that you always have all the time in the world."

Finally, if you have your horse on a trailer, do everything possible to make the experience positive. Abrupt stopping, starting and turning can be a terrifying experience to a horse.

"I have a clinic where I have horse owners get in a trailer and we go for a ride," Berger said. "They usually come out with a whole new understanding of what it's like for a horse in a trailer."

Work the animal's instinctive behaviors into your training program. Reward positive reactions to possible stress situations and build the animal's confidence in you by managing changes and situations for the horse, she said.

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