Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: Pain or Behavior?

“I imagine that, like people, there are no horses who feel no discomfort when asked to work. They will have sore joints, eventually tired muscles, sometimes a tweak of pain here or there. Sure. And for some, there will be acute pain.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey shares her logic troubleshooting horses that display “bad behavior.”

One of the hardest things to determine as a trainer (and hell, as a rider) is why horses do what they do. A horse bucks in a canter transition. OK. Is it an opinion, fear or is it a result of pain? Do we need to train it out (AKA send the horse forward) or do we need to hunt for the cause? Usually the answer is both…

As a kid, I was the one who would hop on anything. Oh, it bucks and you won’t get back on? Sure, I’ll swing a leg over. Rank and gate sour and needs to be sent forward. I got it. Keeps stopping at a fence. Let’s see if I can get it over. With less veterinary diagnostics and far less knowledge, I’m sure I asked some horses to move forward through pain. I’m sure we all have. I’m grateful for the ones who accepted my dumb young confidence and said, “Well, alright then.” I’m grateful to those who didn’t kill me in the process. And I’m grateful for the ones who put me in the dirt and said “no.”

This Welsh pony hellion, Snowflake, put my a$$ on the ground more times than I can count. Photo by Pamela Graham.

Many years later as a trainer and rider who works closely with a team of excellent vets, farriers, and body workers who understand not just horses in general but Thoroughbreds, knowledge has started to filter into the diagnostic black hole of understanding (some of) the causes of behavior. I imagine that, like people, there are no horses who feel no discomfort when asked to work. They will have sore joints, eventually tired muscles, sometimes a tweak of pain here or there. Sure. And for some, there will be acute pain. And while hunting down that pain and relieving it is critical, it is also important to sort out how they communicate that stress, pain or discomfort.

Uno (Hold Em Paul) not being technically bad, but definitely responding to the stress of a seriously busy warm up arena at Stableview earlier this year. These whale-like leaps are the worst he does (and only under tons of stress), so good kiddo, Uno. Photo by Adela Narovich.

One of the things I love most about Thoroughbreds is their desire to work. The vast majority not only crave a connection with a human, but a job. They don’t care about the height of the fences or if you’re competing in a FEI level event or the smallest schooling show. They don’t have aspirations. But they want proper care, security, work and attention. At my farm, I’ll pull one out of a stall and the “why not me?” in the eyes those who haven’t been groomed yet follow me to the cross ties (ahem, Rhodie, Wolf, Needles, Hudson…) Anthropomorphism or not, there’s little doubt that they want to work.

I love first post-track rides for this reason. There is so much try, so much enthusiasm, even if they don’t quite understand the new sport-horse game yet. They want to go forward. They want to ‘do.’ Sure, they might have opinions about what exactly they do and how (yes, yes, you mares know I need to ask not tell, I get it), or how fast that forward moves, but they still want to work.

Ramen (Plamen) made it clear he had been a very accomplished racehorse during his first post-track ride. Forward and want-to-work was in full force. But a little training later, and here he is. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

So when they don’t want to work, there should be a big ole caution flag flying. When they don’t want to move off your leg, when they regularly rear, buck, kick out, suck back and say “no,” I have to pump the brakes and take a good long hard look at the whole situation (see my recent article on Troubleshooting). (And because I was dumb and apparently troubleshooting is on my mind, I rewrote the questions to assess a horse, so I’ll leave them after the sign off below.)

But when “bad behavior” shows up, it is always worth both looking for pain and knowing that, regardless, you’ll also have to train the reaction. Ignore the pain and address only the behavior and things will likely only get worse. This is the proverbial going to send them to a cowboy response (no offense cowboys, I know there are a lot of awesome, kind folks out there… but this refers to the stereotype). Address only the pain and hope the behavior goes away … well… that might keep the problem out of sight for a while, but it will likely come rushing back in when enough stress accumulates.

Madigan Cat came to me from the track with knowledge that he failed off before ever race training because he bucked. He is a long running challenge that despite vet work and training, I never managed to solve. Photo by Cora Williamson.

Let me say that another way: A horse’s particular type of reaction is going to be remain their ‘go-to’. Stress brings out the worst in everyone. Hell, I’m pretty sure when under deadline understaffed with a sore back, you’re just as “pleasant” to deal with as I am. But with stress, responses vary: Some people will become explosive and angry, some will punch a hole in a wall, some will cry, and some will shrink back from the world, or offer any other myriad reactions. You probably know what your go-to is. Horses aren’t that dissimilar and their response to stress is rarely random.

Whether the cause of stress is pain, fear of pain, or simply a new situation or a desire to not want to do something, stress is going to get a response. Some horses will sweat, others will shake. Some will flick an ear on their rider and trust them. But keep pushing, keep the pressure on, and eventually the behavior will kick in — Hudson will rear. Curry will lock up. Rhodie will run sideways. Madigan would bronc buck.

Evidence of said Madigan bucking and me not managing to stick it. Screenshot by Alanah Giltmier.

So after one treats for ulcers or starts supplements or injections for joint pain or the like, the behavior needs training. I can tell you how I try to fix these things, but the bottom line is a) assess what you are comfortable with and b) find a trainer who is good at this and who you trust and get help along the way.

With much of this behavior, I’ll go back to the ground to train. “Forward” is always the safest option to counter these particular behaviors. For a rearer, I’ll put them on a lunge and train a verbal cue and send horses on, rewarding the good behavior. If they go sideways, I will train in a set of “over” commands to help control the shoulders. Once in the saddle, that “over” command can help a lock up or skitter sideways response come back to center and forward. Bucks are about sending forward and keeping a head up and that can often be done under saddle as on a lunge.

Warm up arenas are Rhodie’s (Western Ridge) unraveling. Here he is at Stableview, focusing as best as possible in a not-super-busy ring and not running sideways. Photo by Adela Narovich.

Quality training and treatment of pain can put a mile between the so-called bad behavior and the riding experience of the horse and rider. But a horse that rears  — if pushed hard enough — MAY still rear in the future. A bucker MAY still try to buck. And a horse who runs sideways, even with excellent training, MAY still drop a shoulder and begin to shut the forward down when scared. It is worth knowing what your horse’s go-to is and what the tells are that stress is accumulating and that one is backsliding. From there, you can alter situations, train, treat, or all of the above to help reduce stress and promote better outcomes.

This once-fat shiny mare is now back in my barn after backsliding and passing through a few hands. Her behavior isn’t dangerous, but when pain kicks in she kicks out. Can’t say I blame her. So back to treatment and gentle training. Photo by the Kivu Team.

Taken together, sorting out horse behavior is about what a rider is willing to handle both financially in terms of vet bills and maintenance, and what a rider can comfortably manage in the saddle. I guess the final takeaway is that honest assessment of abilities, fears and finances leads to the happiest horsemen. And horses who have pain addressed and behavior trained have the best chance of being part of that happy riding combination.

Go ride folks — and if it isn’t working, call your vet and your trainer and make a plan.

Enjoy a pretty Curry (Curlin Lane) photo to close out. I’m excited to get this handsome, all-sorted-out kiddo out showing soon. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

Here are the troubleshooting questions I run down when assessing a horse with “bad behavior” — regardless of whether they are right from the races or have had retraining time since:

  • What exactly is the behavior? Detail is important here. Behavior is layered, and sometimes the underlying info can give us more information than the bigger more notable action itself.
  • What rider action seems to cause the behavior? Is it trying to use a left leg under saddle? Is it a canter transition only in one direction? Is it a 10-minute time limit and then the horse’s quarter runs out? Is it asking to do something that is just a little bit more challenging than usual?
  • What other data do we have? Have there been veterinary assessments in the past? Are there radiographs available? How did they race? Were there any gaps in training or potential injuries? And in speaking with the owners (if that’s not me), I’ll ask about timelines and try to put diet, training, and behavior changes on a mental continuum to see if there’s a point that makes sense as to when this behavior began. All of that helps me start to understand a cause.
  • How does the horse move at a walk and a jog with and without tack? This helps sort out if lameness is an issue and if hoof / limb / joint pain could be influencing the behavior or saddle fit / girthing etc.
  • How does their body respond to palpation, especially over their neck, back, and SI regions? If a horse is body sore to the touch, it will be sore under saddle. Where it is sore, in consultation with a good vet will help resolve the pain. For instance, if the horse is sore through their SI region, I’ll often look down the hind limbs for lameness and to the hooves to make sure the legs are supported with proper, balanced hoof angles.
  • What is the quality of their coat, body condition, and general health? This one is a bit of a no brainer, but if they don’t look healthy, they probably are not. That is something I always want to sort out before really tackling the under saddle behavior. If the horse horse bucks, cutting their alfalfa or grain is not likely to make them buck less.
  • Does the horse have different behavior depending on who is in the irons? Sometimes horses simply don’t like how they are ridden. Riders might dig their seat in or have hard hands. If they horse has the same behavior with a quality trainer and the rider, ok, we might have a consistent issue. If not, what is the behavior that sends them to reaction?
  • How does the horse respond on the ground to humans and stimuli? Are they reactive? Aggressive? Kind, soft and never put a foot out of line? Trusting or distrustful? How they are on the ground often tells a story about their past and how this behavior has been handled.
  • How are they in turnout? In a stall? Horses are nothing if not pretty consistent. If they are bolshy and over confident and just want to play under saddle, you’ll see it in a turnout as well. If a horse is painful or something is not right, a trained eye can often pick that out in turnout – do they spend time alone? What is their activity level relative to their peers?

All of these questions and more bang around my head at night when trying to figure out how to “fix” the horses that need it both in terms of where to ask a vet to look and what plan I need to make for training.

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