The word ‘naughtiness’ implies deliberate misbehaviour, and it’s all too common for owners and riders to assume that this is what is going on when a horse does something they’d prefer him not to do. Whether it’s refusing jumps, declining to enter a trailer, not standing still for mounting, kicking the stable door, removing his rugs or jumping out of the field, our automatic line of reasoning tends to be this: He knows what he is supposed to do. He is being deliberately defiant or disobedient. He needs a …. (insert punishment of choice). How often do you see this happening? How often do you see anyone questioning it?
But how many of these are reasonable assumptions?
If you think that a horse can be deliberately disobedient, you are making a lot of assumptions about his mental processes. First, that he understands the moral concepts of right and wrong, and second, that he knows that domestic animals are supposed to obey their human handlers and conform to a set of rules that humans have invented. How can we possibly expect a horse to know what behaviours we expect of him, or even that we expect any behaviours at all? Where would he get that knowledge? How might he know what any particular human considers good or bad? How could he even know about the existence of these concepts, let alone know when his behaviour falls into one or other category? When you think about it, these are all fairly complex abstract thoughts that we are able to have because we have a verbal language to express them to ourselves and to explain them to other people. Horses haven’t got that facility. Neither, as far as we know, are they as good as we are at rational thinking, planning ahead and reflecting on their experiences.
There have been reports in the journal Equine Behaviour (assuming that people have remembered and reported correctly) of incidents where particular individual horses do seem to show some evidence of an ability for forward planning and reasoning. I don’t think it’s possible to say categorically that horses can’t have thoughts along the lines of ‘When she comes to catch me this morning I’ll give her a surprise and run away’ or ‘I’ll swerve to the right at that next jump and she’s bound to fall off’, but it’s probably safe to say that this is not the default way of thinking for most horses most of the time. Formal experiments on random groups of horses don’t suggest that these skills are the norm. Most horses, like most animals including us, seem to base their behaviour on the principles of doing things that are rewarding and avoiding things that are not rewarding (McGreevy & McLean 2010).
Many apparently naughty behaviours are actually learned ways to avoid pain or something frightening. The horse is more likely to be acting purely in self-defence than to be going out of its way to annoy a person. How would a horse know what people find annoying, anyway?
As for punishment, all too often it is not so much an attempt to change a horse’s behaviour as to stop it. It is also a way for the rider to take out her aggression and anger, so it can easily become abusive. It’s not at all uncommon to see horses hit really hard for what would be very minor offences even in the unlikely event that the horse really was doing them to be deliberately annoying. Studies have shown that punishment can lead to horses learning to fear their handlers and to stop them trying out new behaviours, which is not what anybody wants to happen (McGreevy & McLean 2010). It can also have the opposite effect to the intended one. I’ve seen this happen when a horse was routinely hit for spooking at traffic, so that he learned to associate the approach of vehicles with pain as well as with alarming sights, sounds and smells, and would spook increasingly violently at the approach of a vehicle. If you wanted to teach your horse to be afraid of traffic it’s hard to imagine a more effective way of doing it, yet the owner acted thus in the belief that the horse was being naughty and had to be corrected.
Whatever the truth of the horse’s thoughts and motives, it’s best to treat them as if they are not malevolent, and that if they don’t want to do something, even if they have done it a hundred times before, not to assume it’s for badness but for a real reason important to them if not to us. And if they want to do something we would rather they didn’t do, again it is best not to assume that they are trying to get the better of us, or make us look stupid, or to show that they don’t respect us, but to assume that they have learned that behaviour either because it’s rewarded or because it gets them away from something they don’t like. It’s also more than likely that we ourselves have inadvertently trained them to do it.
If you think, how is my horse being rewarded for doing this? you are far more likely to come up with an effective, ethical way to teach him to do something different than if you just assume he is being naughty.
McGreevy, PD & McLean, AN (2010). Equitation Science. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.
Alison Averis is a rider and horse owner and is the Editor of Equine Behaviour, the quarterly journal of the Equine Behaviour Forum. For more information on this international membership organisation, which is open to anyone interested in the way equines behave, please go to www.equinebehaviourforum.org.uk.