Are today's competition horses prepared to do their job?
How a horse behaves gives us valuable insight into the way they are feeling. Specific behaviours, their facial expressions or body language can tell us whether a horse is stressed, relaxed or even in pain.
A 'conflict behaviour' is performed by a horse that is having difficulty coping mentally or physically, and this may be demonstrated as some form of resistance to handling, riding, training and/or equipment. The horse may be in pain or he may have been asked to do too much, too soon and therefore is struggling in that situation.
Conflict behaviours often seen in the ridden horse include tail swishing, opening the mouth, head tossing or shaking, pulling the reins out of the riders hands, teeth grinding and reluctance to go forward.
It is so important to watch out for any changes in your horse's behaviour. If they start to perform a conflict behaviour when ridden – or even when handled – then stop what you are doing and consider what could be causing them to behave this way. Try to establish the cause of the problem and address it, rather than mask it. Sadly all too often a noseband will be tightened to prevent the mouth from opening, a martingale will be used to try and restrict the head tossing, a stronger bit will be used to stop them pulling or there will be an increased use of spurs or the whip to try and 'ride the horse through the problem'.
The vet should be your first call if you see any change in your horse's behaviour as pain must always be ruled out as a potential cause. What was happening when your horse started performing this behaviour? Did you ask too much of your horse before he was ready?
We need to start recognising that horses are communicating how they feel via their body language and behaviour. Often the first sign that something is wrong will be subtle changes in their expression or body language. These signs can be difficult to see if you aren't paying attention. If these behaviours are ignored or suppressed the horse will likely try and express themselves in a different way, and that may mean their behaviour escalates into something far more dangerous. Often they are then labelled as 'difficult' or 'stubborn', when in fact they really need help.
A very interesting recent study has examined conflict behaviours in elite showjumping and dressage horses and found extremely high occurrences of conflict behaviours whilst competing. The study has suggested that many horses 'may not be sufficiently prepared for competition in line with the FEI code of conduct guidelines.' This suggests these horses are struggling with what is being asked of them either mentally or physically.
The researchers said 'Clearly, this could lead to welfare concerns for the horses within these equestrian disciplines... ...we suggest that the occurrence and/or the extent of conflict behaviours exhibited by horses participating in elite jumping and dressage sport require further scrutiny in terms of the FEI code of conduct guidelines.'
Social media is flooded with photos of elite horses wearing extremely harsh tack. What are these horses doing to warrant needing that level of control to suppress their behaviour?
You can access the paper here.