In part one of this series we talked about the differences between a naturally lazy horse and a horse displaying resistance, as well as the fact that some horses are indeed both lazy and resistant. In this article we are going to dive a little deeper into "resistance"; the symptoms, the cause, and the cure.
First, let's talk a little about equine behavior. Horses are not naturally rebellious or defiant, they do not intentionally create strife or purpose to make your life difficult. They are not vengeful or malicious. These are all human traits that we like to think our horse's are capable of in order to try and understand a horse's behavior through human eyes; this is called anthropomorphism.
Horses are much simpler than humans though, desiring one thing above all else, and that is to survive. They are born depending on their innate instincts for survival and over time adapt to their environment through learned behaviors. They are peaceful creatures that more often than not resort to flight over fight, avoiding conflict if at all possible, but they can be provoked to fight if flight is not an option.
A horse's drive to survive will often push them past pain for as long as they can, just so they can keep moving with the herd or keep eating or keep procreating. With domestication horses have been selectively bred for certain traits and different temperaments, but regardless of your horse's breed it's survival instinct and ability to communicate are still the same as a feral horse's. However, some horses are more sensitive than others or they are less tolerant than others.
What often happens is that horses will push past pain or deficiencies in their life up to a certain point in order to "keep the peace". This can look like horses performing despite lameness, extreme saddle pain, enduring poor or abusive riding and training, and so much more..... all so they can "survive" to the next day. This may sound ridiculous and extreme to us humans, but to horses we are a predatory species that often resorts to force to make them comply despite any pain or confusion they may be feeling; they buck because their saddle hurts, they get punished. Often they choose to stop communicating or in some cases they end up resorting to extreme form of communication in order to be heard.
Resistance is a horse communicating. Sometimes the communication is as subtle as a lack of wanting to bend to one side, but often the horse is forced to a point where they they feel trapped or the pain is too great and they resort to "fighting" back. This can be as extreme as kicking out, biting and so on. Extreme behavioral problems.
What's more is that once a horse learns (is conditioned) that a human only responds to extreme forms of communication they will likely resort immediately to extreme behaviors in the future, skipping any subtle forms of communication. Creating "problem horses".
If we stopped considering these symptoms/behaviors as a form of rebellion or disrespect, and instead listened to the form of communication that they are, we could avoid pushing horses to a point of extreme communication and even avoid possible career ending injuries. What often starts as a small problem turns into a much bigger problem that is very hard to undo.
Signs of resistance can come in all types and levels of intensity depending on the horse's prior training, it's genetics, and the severity of the cause. One horse might display symptoms of resistance by refusing to pick up the left lead canter, while another will throw a rider the minute it sits in the saddle. Likely the horse that throws it's rider didn't begin displaying resistance in such an extreme way, but through conditioning has now learned it's the only way to get a human to listen.
It's going to be impossible to list every single unique symptom a horse can display of resistance, but I'm going to try and list some common ones as well as some you might never have considered.
Jump Refusal or Dropping Rails
Refusal to climb up or down hills
Refusal to be caught
Difficulty circling in a particular direction or at all
Cross Cantering and/or reluctance to pick up a canter lead
Sour attitude during saddling, bridling or grooming
Resistance to moving forward (requiring whips, spurs, or heavy kicks to go forward)
Sluggish or refusing to backup or even halt
Difficulty picking up feet, or even kicking out
Tripping or "laziness" with the feet
Exposed tongue or open mouth during training/work
Pinned or Flattened ears
Refusal to accept bit
Difficulty flexing or bending
and so much more
Here's the thing, if your horse is refusing to do something you've asked, especially if it's something he "should know" (I use that statement very carefully, please really consider if your horse knows what you are asking or not before just assuming it does), it could belong on that list of symptoms.
There are a couple of common "cause" categories that your horse's particular symptoms of resistance could be belong in. Those three categories are pain, environment, and training. I'm going to go in depth about each of the categories while trying to remain brief. The goal is going to be to provide you with some information to start your own discovery journey on, not to diagnose your horse.
Pain is probably the winner if we were competing for the most common cause. However, this can be a little complex as pain can be a direct result of training or environment, meaning it could in itself be another "symptom" but still not the cause. So while pain of course needs to be address immediately, I encourage you to look past stall rest and medicine and dive deeper into what's causing the pain to eliminate future problems. An easy way to tell if pain could be just another symptom is if it returns repeatedly even after thorough treatment or attempted resolution; even if it's months or years later.
Possible pain causes might be -
Poor Fitting tack (saddle, bridle, bit, cinch/girth, harness, saddle pad, etc)
Unbalanced or poorly trimmed/shod hooves
Malnutrition or an Unbalanced diet
Structural limitations (needing to be adjusted by an osteopath or chiropractor)
Organ Troubles (kidney, liver, stomach, heart, etc)
Mouth Pain (unbalanced or damaged teeth, damaged tongue, etc)
Cranial Imbalances (resulting in probable headaches or pressure points)
Kissing Spine or other spine problems
Environment might seem like an odd category to add under possible causes, but if you really think about it, it could be a major factor in causing your horses resistance. Environment is an "all encompassing" category for everything that has to do with your horse's life style, diet, social interactions and so on. Horses are social grazing herbivores that we have pulled from their natural environment and into our human made world. Some horses are given the opportunity to live like they were designed, but some are not. This doesn't mean that you need to run out and buy a thousand acre ranch in Montana and set your horse "free", but it does mean you need to be very considerate of how you expect your horse to live while still maintaining a willing and problem free attitude.
Some possible causes for resistances stemming from environment might be -
Restricted turnout (remember - 24/7 turnout is "ideal" to a horse)
Stressful barn environment (artificial lighting, cranky neighbor horses, harsh handling,
Lengthy stretches between eating (horses are designed to graze up to 17 hours a day)
Bulk feedings (a horse's system is designed to eat small quantities all day long, which means primarily forage. Heavy infrequent meals can cause many problems)
Traveling (traveling can be stressful for horses, especially those not used to it or not properly maintained during traveling)
Limited social interactions (being herd animals, ideally horses do best in a herd environment where they can interact freely with other horses.)
Aggressive herd environment (especially in over crowded pastures, during feeding times, or with limited grazing/hay access herd mates can become abnormally aggressive towards one another causing stress and possible painful injuries)
Hormones (imbalanced hormones can cause extreme mood swings or even pain such as in a mare's heat cycle etc)
Training is a huge factor in causing horses to become resistant. This category includes not only how you train new behaviors but also daily handling, rider's position/equitation, the horse and rider's balance, timing, learning theory, behavioral understanding and so much more. This category is prone to being the root cause for eventual chronic (and sometimes acute) pain development.
Consider these questions about how you or anyone that comes in contact with your horse -
Do you have an understanding of science based equine behavior and learning?
Have you waited until your horse is safely old enough to start training, especially under saddle?
Do you use training gadgets? (draw reins, side reins, tie downs etc.)
What about your balance and equitation? Do you have a trainer that helps you?
Have you taken the time to develop your horse's balance and flexibility in a correct and patient way? Not rushing or forcing them or "making it happen"?
How about your timing, could it possibly need some tuning up? Whether you use positive or negative reinforcement, or even positive punishment, timing is absolutely critical.
Is anyone handling your horse that could be undoing your work?
Do you give your horse sufficient positive feedback (meaning positive reinforcement or even pressure release with negative reinforcement) so he understands what he's being asked to do? There should always be more positive feedback than negative.
How about your expectations.. are you expecting too much from your horse too fast or too soon? Training and working with horses takes incredible amounts of patience.
And what about consistency? Are you extremely consistent with your timing, expectations, and handling in general?
What about the horse's psychical needs and development? A horse being trained to drop it's back, even unintentionally, will become very weak under-saddle and eventually be caused great pain.
Is your go to response to training problems to "bit up" or "spur up"? In other words, "apply more force"?
Do you punish your horse for behaviors that are only natural to him that you've never taken the time to teach him an alternative "desirable" behavior?
As you can see, resistance can stem from many areas and it's not always an easy fix. However, continuing to force and push your horse through its pain, frustration, or confusion is not going to cure the problem. You will not just wake up one day to find a happy content horse with pressure and force. Sure, it can suppress the symptoms for a time, but it will not cure it.
Horses are very simple creatures that require immense amounts of patience, incredible consistency, and at least a basic understanding of their behavior and bio-mechanics. Understanding how a horse learns is critical to unlocking their potential and preventing them from shutting down or becoming resistant. They also require their basic mental and physical needs to be met through a more natural lifestyle, proper medical care, and correctly fitted tack. On top of that, it's up to the rider to be highly aware of their own actions, educating themselves so they can be better riders, trainers, and care-givers for the horse.
Since horses can not talk, we have to be very aware of their other forms of communication. in some cases horses communicate very loudly through actions we often automatically assume are rebellious, disrespectful, or aggressive... and yet we regularly lament over the fact that they can't just "tell us what's wrong". It's vital to remember that they are in fact communicating to us, just not in the way we easily understand. However, with advancing science we now are beginning to understand horses better than ever before, and we are able to treat the causes in a way we never used to be able to.
Technologically advanced tack and equipment, advancing western medical procedures and diagnostic tools, improved eastern medicine practices, progressive diets and supplementation, and so much more are all available to you! Even if you live in the middle of nowhere you can find information available online or pick up the phone and call a specialist in another area. Really the only thing between you and improving your relationship with your horse and your horse's overall well being is your willingness to do so.
On one last note, I would like to say that sometimes you may find the "cure" but the symptoms will not resolve right away. Symptoms from pain, poor training, stress, dietary deficiencies and so on can all take time to heal or recover from. Especially if they were occurring over an extended period and caused mental or emotional trauma to the horse.
For example, in some situations "just getting a new saddle" will fix all your problems immediately, but sometimes it can take many many rides for a horse to learn they won't be in pain when ridden anymore. This can be due to mental trauma, or it could be due to residual muscle tension and soreness from the poor saddle fit. However, if you discover a cause for your horse's resistance and work to change it but see no improvement after awhile there could be multiple causes for the resistance. Especially in cases of extremely resistant horses, it can take a long series of changes to develop a new sense of willingness in the horse, but once you unlock that willingness there is nothing quite like it.
An excellent book on this subject, that I highly recommend all horse owners read, is a book called Recognizing The Horse In Pain by Joanna L. Robson DVM. Click here to check it out! And Click Here to read my review about it.
Personally I find the process of helping a horse discover that willingness to be addictive, but it's not without it's frustrations sometimes. Making sure you have a supportive team working towards the same goal is critical. Your vets, trainers, and anyone who comes in contact with your horse need to be willing to work together for the sake of the horse.