Does your horse say NO?

I am a true believer that a horse is not intentionally out to get us. I do not believe they are in their stable conjuring up how they will get us back at our next ride. It could be that your horse is in some sort of pain, maybe it’s related to diet, I am also a true believer of diet and the effects it has on inflammation not only in us humans but our animals as well. If only they could talk sometimes. Below may give you a heads up on starch and sugar and also some tips on what you can do if your horse just says NO!

When Behaviour May Be Related to Digestive Health

We all know how it feels to have to perform work when we aren’t feeling our best. Whether it’s from pain, illness, hunger, or other deficiencies we just aren’t capable of our very best – and may even get grumpy about it. Why would our horses be any different?

Starch in Concentrates May Cause Sugar Highs and Lows

Performance horses have higher energy requirements which often lead us to add a grain or other starchy concentrated feeds to their diet. Concentrate meals move through the fore-gut in a matter of hours, where starches and other simpler carbohydrates are broken down in the stomach and small intestine, and absorbed through the wall of the small intestine.

The influx of concentrates into the system in a short amount of time can cause a “sugar high”, followed by the subsequent crash, exactly like when it happens to us. The body produces insulin in response to the influx of sugar, and this insulin then creates the crash. These sugar highs and lows can have a negative impact on a horse’s attitude. Sugar imbalances may cause horses to be high-strung and unpredictable or lazy and lethargic, both of which can be expressed through resistant behaviours.

Feeding Concentrate Meals Hard on the Hindgut

In most stables, concentrates are fed twice a day. Often, this is too large a volume of grain feed for the horse to digest and absorb properly in the fore-gut. That means undigested sugars and starches can reach the hind-gut, where they are fermented by the bacteria there to produce high levels of lactic acid. This can lead to hind-gut acidosis, and a whole array of potential hind-gut health problems, that can leave a horse off its game, to say the least.

Digestive Discomfort Displayed in Resistant Behaviours

Low-grade digestive issues may be much more common in horses than you think. Some horses may be stoic when faced with pain, and others may be in the early stages of digestive distress. As a result, these horses may display their discomfort in their behaviour rather than through the typical clinical, physical symptoms.

A Healthy Horse is a Happy Horse

If you could keep your horse turned out to graze on quality pasture, and you had the ability to rotate pasture from time to time, there would be few demands on the horse’s digestive system. Your horse would most likely get all the nutrition and care it needs. But in the performance world, this is not practical.

A horse whose digestive tract is healthy and functioning properly won’t be in pain (at least not in the gut) and will also be more capable of receiving nutrition and energy properly from his food. Address digestive health and management of possible causes of resistant behaviours, and you may see improvements in your horse’s willingness to perform under saddle.

Or, if you and your veterinarian evaluate your horse’s digestive system and find it healthy, you’ve checked one potential cause off the list and can pursue other reasons for resistance.

Resistance under saddle is a training issue, is it? Maybe, maybe not. Poor behaviour may be related to training, riding, tack, or lameness issues. However, it’s quite common that the slightest issue in the equine hind-gut may have the ability to negatively impact behaviour and performance.

In summary, don’t always assume that your horse is just being a stubborn old bugger that is testing you, I truly believe that a horse 99.9% of the time only goes to the trouble is disobeying us because there is something not right health or fitness wise. I observed many clients horses I had in training go from downright “pigs” (so I initially thought) to awesome show horses simply by finding and fixing their health issue, many of them being dentistry related even though the owner had not long had their teeth “done”! Many also gut related, ulcers for example, some, you have to go deeper with and get x-rays done on their feet and joints to help find the problem. There are also many memories of horses I had that had such terrible feet issues.

There usually is a legit reason why they give us a hard time when riding them. Mostly very fixable. The other .1%? Can be man made by perhaps choosing the wrong trainer and they do exist! Or, even the owners, riders that may be allowing their horse to “rule the roost”. Horses pick up bad habits just as easily as good ones, it just takes a matter of a few times him stopping for whatever reason in his head, they stand there, we pat them, tell them he’s/she’s a good boy/girl and not to worry or be frightened. Next thing we know, they begin to play us.

I have had horses come to me, I have had young horses try me out by baulking, even backing without any cues from me to do so. I have had horses of all ages think they’ve had enough for the day and point blank refuse to go forward, even attempted a little lift off the ground threatening to rear if I continued to try and ask for forward.

Some things you can try to unlock your horse

The best way I have found to unlock this baulking habit when they stop and refuse to go forward is to turn their head around to either side, it doesn’t matter which side you choose, just get their head around and with your opposite leg push them over to the direction you have them facing, this gets them off balance and forces them to take a step in that direction, once you get that first step, keep going, if they try to stay grounded, again, pull them around in the opposite direction and repeat, this should get them moving. The wrong thing you could do is just sit there kicking them to move forward, especially once they realise they are in charge. Get them off their line of tracking and change direction, not slightly, but definitely!

If you do have one that wants to leave the ground with his front end, before it turns into an out of control rearing session on you every time he feels like it and if you are brave enough, wait until he lifts his front end and while he’s up there, you need to bump him fairly hard with your legs (don’t use your spurs), if you have spurs on, turn your toes in toward your horse to ensure the sides of your heels are going to land on him, not your spurs or you may find yourself on the ground quick smart. Repeat this thump on his sides two or three times quickly. This move is something most horses don’t expect while they are rearing up on you, it can startle them and it does put them back in line. If you feel you’re not ready for this, have someone like a professional breaker do it for you to get them out of it.

An Old Timer tip

When I was a young teenager, I had a chestnut mare that reared up all the time on me. I was with a group of friends riding our horses down the beach, my mare did a few of her virticle rears, this old guy came sauntering up to me and said “Get a plastic bag, fill it with warm (body temperature) water, leave the top open and just hold it shut, when she goes up on you, you break that plastic bag on the top of her head and smack the top of her head with the flat of your hand enough to make her think you have whopped her one, between her ears, when you open your hand the water will come out everywhere, I guarantee you, she won’t rear again”! After I laughed for a bit, I asked him what he was on about, he told me that she would think that it was blood running down her head and that if I put some effort into the open handed whop she wouldn’t rear again, thinking that I had cracked her skul open and made her bleed. Tell you what, it worked! She stopped rearing.

If you have any questions on this article or just want to leave me a comment you are more than welcome!

Until next time…

“Let’s Ride”!

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I am a retired professional horse trainer, active Certified rider coach, I coach riders and their horses throughout Australia and New Zealand, I am the author of the book From Go To Whoa - Training Your Own Horse, I am also a Certified Nutritionist and a professional Keto Coach. I am a keen fisher woman and I love the gym where I weight train 4 days a week. I travel Australia full time now with my husband and our Jack Russell Doug, booking and holding clinics and lessons throughout the country for many remote horse riders as well as not so remote. I love coaching riders and their horses along with helping people with nutrition and the ketogenic diet.

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