Maladaptive & Counterproductive Care & Training

Maladaptive and Counterproductive Care and Training
(How much DO you love your horse?)


It begins with the birth of a horse in a domesticated environment and ‘nature versus nurture’ in determining or causing individual differences, (specifically in behavioral traits).

Researchers on all sides of the nature vs nurture debate agree that the link between a gene and a behavior is not the same as cause and effect. While a gene may increase the likelihood that we, (or the horse in this case) may behave in a particular way, it does not make us or them do things. Which means that we/they have choices in life. In recent years, Jaak Panksepp’s ‘Affective Neuroscience’ and a few other leaders in the field of Social Neuroscience, (event-related potentials, molecular biology and autonomic, neuroendocrine and immune responses) lend much to the fact that our environment has both a direct effect and altering effect on our genetic makeup.

Let us suppose, for the moment, that the optimum scenario for an animal is that an equal balance of nature AND nurture lends to optimum potential of any individual within a species.

Of the four basic social structures used by various species, (Solitary, Pairs, Extended Family and Harem Groups) the success of the Harem Group model is demonstrated by our Mustang herds here in America. Though some of their productivity may be due to a sparse counterbalance of predators, the vast majority of the propagation of their species can only be attributed to their Harem Group model.

Within that social structure of the harem band, it is relatively unheard of for a foal grown into a colt or filly to leave their natal group until they are forced out by the stallion and/or lead mare, (exogamy). During that roughly two year period, they learn the accepted social behavior, hierarchy and familial/herd dynamics of their species. Colts join a bachelor band and fillies are quickly assimilated by a bachelor stallion or band stallion. (In essence, this is the ‘nurture’ side of the equation where they ‘learn to be a horse.’)

Unfortunately, the foal born in a domesticated environment is denied that social learning experience. Generally speaking, ‘weaning’ is done when the foal reaches three to six months of age.

As Doyle G. Meadows, Professor, Animal Science and John E. Henton, Professor, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine put it in one of their papers: “Weaning is stressful on both the mare and the foal. Many times horse producers wean foals with little regard to the emotional and physical stress that often arises. They typically wean their foals based on tradition or mere convenience.”

I would tend to agree with them. Although not to be minimized, the devastating stress is not the point in this case. Not only is the ‘lack of learning’ a consequential factor, but also what they DO learn and from who after separation from their Mother. For as the scales are now almost completely tipped from learning/nurturing of their own species to nature/instinct, they are cast into an environment of ‘learned helplessness’ and human dominance rules in a world of chaos. (If it wasn’t too long ago, I remember one clinician actually picking a foal up by his tail to ‘teach him a lesson.’)

Thus from the beginning, the domesticated foal learns submission to a dominant human being left with nothing but his instincts to guide him as he is forced into what to him are the insanely suicidal situations of domestication.

With hopefully no stretch of the imagination, we can assume that a horse raised in a complete equine social structure/harem band would certainly face the world of domestication with a greater amount of self-confidence than those raised in our present day early separation of mare and foal and the complete absence of a stallion/mother/siblings familial unit, (no role models or familial social learning). Acceptable equine social behavior and culture (herd manners and role-responsibility) can only be learned through the experience of interactive membership in a complete equine social group. Limiting inadequate social environments produce a number of psychological conditions which tend to malign their ability to function in social settings. In short, they never learned what is proper behavior for a horse.

Will domesticated horses ever be allowed to experience their own culture the first two years of their life?

Very doubtful! Shucks they race two year olds and the ‘training’ is started long before that!!

But if we do not at the very LEAST take this into consideration, then we certainly cannot blame the horse when they react unresponsively, aversively or aggressively to our present day archaic methods of ‘training.’ (And with it, the Horse suffers chronic stress.)

While there may be instances to the contrary, the Horse’s strongest basic instinct is self-survival. Most mares will defend their foal to a point of near death against a predator attack, but in the end they will flee. Mother nature deems the propagation of their species is afforded a greater reproductive potential if she lives, rather than chance losing both her and her foal. Thus the Horse’s primary means of insuring their survival is flight. Not being able to run/flee in any given split second of his life greatly DIMINISHES his ability to survive.

Sometime in his growth, the foal will be ‘trained’ to forego panic and tolerate the feeling of entrapment. This training is usually done with the aid of a halter rope or longe line. They may also be ‘trained’ within the confines of a round pen or picadero. What one tends to forget when the horse balks, panics or displays aggressive/defensiveness posturing in that initial stage of learned helplessness is how unnatural and frightening that it can be for the Horse.

Suggestion: (Try taking a stroll all alone in the wee hours of the morning through the worst crime-ridden section of any large city without a cell phone or concealed weapon).

Depending on how long it takes to break the resistance and spirit of the Horse in question, this process of entrapment and force in the name of ‘training’ based on hierarchical dominance/submission can be quite lengthy, (and with it, once again, chronic stress).

Using restriction coupled with pressure/release — comfort/discomfort to ‘train’ a horse results in a confrontational relationship based on learned helplessness and imprinting a higher hierarchal standing, (herd rank). The success or failure is determined by how well the horse responds both initially and over a period of time, (which is completely dependent upon the depth of imprint and the psychological/genetic make up [basic origin-prototype] of each individual horse).

In retrospect, if the horse later displays any compassion or intimacy, we find that the direct causal had nothing to do with what we did, but in spite of it.[/su_spoiler]

The maladaptive management practice of stalling prevails throughout the entire world. “Horses housed in stalls are deprived of opportunities for social interaction and the performance of natural behaviors.” (Houpt, 1998).

  1. The innate needs of a horse are designed as a complex social structure in which a number of different levels of interactive relationships are essential as a matter of social function. Horses are designed to spend a considerable portion of their day (up to 18 hours) in social grazing. Throughout this time period a process of mental/emotional stability, social bonding, family/group cohesion and sense of self / belonging is continually being nurtured.
  2. The human psycho-pathological effects of solitary confinement become evident after just 30 days (and we are basically ‘cave dwellers). It is no small wonder that the psychological repercussions result in stereotypic behaviors such as: stall-kicking, weaving, pacing/box walking, cribbing/wind-sucking, incessant digging/pawing, repetitive whinnying/screaming, despondency, eating disorders, self-mutilation and wood-chewing! This does not take into account the discomfort and pain of excess hydrochloric acid when their stomachs are empty for long periods of time. Yet ‘tradition’ continues to ‘turn a blind eye’ to the repercussions of maladaptive management practices (just as it does to archaic ‘training practices’).
  3. Horses cannot experience REM sleep unless they are sleeping in the prone position. This restive state is essential for all mammals including ourselves. The first thing our doctor will tell us when we catch a cold or the flu is, “Drink lots of liquids and get ‘plenty of rest.’ Social groups provide a sense of security/safety as one or more will ‘stand guard’ while the others sleep. This facilitates REM sleep and its consequential ensuing mental/emotional/physical healing. Lacking REM sleep, the physical, mental and emotional condition of the stalled horse cannot possibly compare with that of his freedom-based counterpart.
  4. The anatomical design of the horse is a free-ranging lifestyle. The average distance of normal daily movement in a feral herd varies from 10 to 20 miles a day. The detrimental physiological effects of even limited confinement for an animal whose body was designed for that essential range of daily movement are beyond imagination. Healthy suspensory ligaments and hoof growth as well as adequate circulation to the lower legs would be the first to appreciably deteriorate. As a horse walks, it continuously regenerates the blood and fluids flowing in and out of tissues surrounding the bones of the hoof and legs. It cannot do this in a stall.
  5. Based on scientific evidence, the therapeutic benefits of regular exercise are well documented. Study after study has shown that it increases health and general well being. The evidence is clear, leaving no doubt that physical exercise has a positive effect on stress by calming the mind and relaxing the human body, (through the release of endorphins, the body’s ‘feel good hormones’). These molecules attach to special receptors in the brain and spinal cord to stop pain messages, and act as natural mood enhancers.From a strictly neurological standpoint, it takes no stretch of the imagination to conclude that, forced to endure solitary confinement/stalling, the domesticated horse is robbed of this natural opportunity to live a stress-free life. When released from their cage, they understandably often exhibit abnormal, sometimes defiant/aggressive behavior.In what must be the ‘Mother of All Egotistic Abusive Tragedies,’ they are usually admonished if not physically punished for their behavior when set free from their cage.For those who are under the false impression that ‘turn out’ for an hour a day is sufficient, I would ask them to perform one simple experiment:Stand locked in your bathroom for twenty-three hours a day, (no mail, phone, no outside stimuli/conversation, radio, TV or reading/writing material allowed). At the end of a week, you will be better able to understand a tiny fraction of what your horse goes through his entire life if he is stalled.
  6. Given the horse physiologically requires exercise, (traveling 10 to 20 miles a day in their natural environment) it is no small wonder that solitary confinement/stalling for any period of time prevents optimum fitness, (while often leading to various respiratory, cardiovascular, musculature and physical ailments). Stocking up, arthritis, stereotypical behavior, despondency, weaving/box-walking, eating disorders, stall kicking, pawing, constant rubbing, chewing and cribbing are some but not all. This does not take into account possible respiratory infections and diseases due to dust and the four main gases produced from decomposing manure, Hydrogen Sulfide, Methane, Ammonia, and Carbon Dioxide). In high concentrations, (as with no adequate ventilation) each of these gases pose a health threat to horses.
To further make the domesticated Horse’s world as insanely chaotic as possible, they are bounced from one environment to another. And if by chance they are left in a stable environment for any period of time, herd mates and preferred associates, (bonded horse buddies) are often lost or new additions are added. If bonding has occurred with any specific individual, the repercussions of separation anxiety and grief response can be severe and traumatic.

Excerpt from article written by Dr. Kenneth L. Marcella, DVM:

“Veterinarians have become so aware of their special role in this potentially devastating event that some clinics and veterinary schools now have “grief counselors” and there are many reference sources, support groups, and even “pet loss” chat rooms to help people deal with this trauma. But there is almost nothing written and virtually no research, surprisingly, dealing with the reaction of animals to the loss of a partner or close herd mate. Animal behaviorists caution that it is not always correct to think and speak anthropomorphically (giving human feelings and characteristics to animals) but owners and trainers feel that they can tell when a horse is feeling happy, playful, contented, angry, bored, tired, upset or any number of other emotions. And most veterinarians, even if they do not use these terms, recognize similar behavioral expressions. In cases like that of Ben and Doc, the surviving horse often shows signs of classical depression and, in the words of most of horse owners, acts sad.

There may be more science to the way animals seems to act, however, and Dr. Crowell-Davis, DVM, Ph.D. and board certified animal behaviorist at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine assures us that these interpretative evaluations of how animals “feel” in response to certain situations are fairly accurate. “The use of PET scans (positron emission tomography) provide researchers with an evaluation of mental states based on brain activity and neurochemical changes noted in response to specific stimuli,” explains Dr. Crowell-Davis. A person is presented with a stimulus that causes them to be happy, for instance, and the PET scan records their pattern of brain activity and the chemical changes that occur in the brain during that time period. Additionally, certain drugs can be given that produce specific feelings and the resultant brain activity and chemistry can be recorded. “When animals are recorded showing the same patterns of brain activity and the same brain chemical changes that correspond to a particular human emotion or mood state,” says Dr. Crowell-Davis, “ it would not be logical of us to assume that they are not experiencing similar feelings”. Based on how closely some horses correspond to the classical signs of clinical depression and on how intense the individual responses can be, the loss of a close companion is felt as sadness by horses and they can certainly express grief.

Anyone who has spent time around horses will tell you that they can be happy and pleased or angry and discontent They do have emotions and they can certainly interact with their environment and feel things. When horses are separated or die, other horses close to them exhibit grief-like behavior, which can become excessive at times. Recognition of this phenomenon is important for equine veterinarians because clients will seek help in dealing with these situations. Being aware of ‘grief loss’ in horses and being willing to help treat these situations will allow you to help both horses and their owners. It is likely that we will eventually find that many behavioral and emotional states currently assigned only to humans, such as paranoia, schizophrenia, attention deficit disorders and many others are all found in horses. Their recognition, diagnosis and treatment will help improve life for many horses that are currently thought of as “un-trainable”, “spooky”, or simply “crazy”. It actually may be far crazier to assume that these horses do not feel many of the same things that we do, and need treatment just as much.”

Add to this the changeability of domesticated herds. It is no small wonder that we have ‘behavioral problems and issues,’ (and again chronic stress as well.)

If suddenly a tall well-built stranger barged into your house and sat down unannounced at your dinner table, how would you greet him? What would be your first reaction?

Would you experience doubt? Apprehension? Fear? Anger? Perhaps the two of you could move out to the front lawn and ‘settle things,’ (as is done in most ‘new horse scenarios’ in the horse world).

You would in all probability, experience an overabundance of stress.

So does your horse.

While rider induced lameness is becoming an accepted possible cause of physical disability , we seem to forget that rider induced stress can be, (and probably is) much more common.

Poor saddle fit, whipping to encourage forward motion, unnecessary harsh bits, indiscriminate use of spurs, (also never needed) rider imbalance, (uneven weight distribution at various gaits) and jerking on the reins for balance all lead to a situational pattern of discomfort and pain.

Thus any/all mounted activity becomes viewed by the horse as something to avoid if at all possible. Failing that, and being forced to endure the discomfort and pain, we have the audacity to wonder why the horse displays aversive/shying, bolting or spooking at an unknown or familiar source/stimuli and/or actually bucking to rid themselves of the discomfort and pain. Sadly, for most horses that do not have a rapport with their rider, (or an uncaring rider who seems to be completely oblivious) it is the only means of communication the Horse is allowed.

Which only adds to the stress the Horse has already endured, (not counting the fact that the Horse is forced into environments and situations he regards as insanely suicidal).

What a difference it could have been if the rider had an interest in giving their horse every possible opportunity to carry them as effortlessly and joyfully as possible.


A very brief look at ‘chronic stress’.

(Excerpt) Serotonin and Hippocampal Neurogenesis Elizabeth Gould, Ph.D. ~ ABSTRACT ~
The dentate gyrus continues to produce new granule neurons well into adulthood. This has been demonstrated for many mammalian species, from rodents to primates. The proliferation of granule cell precursors can be suppressed by stressful experiences, presumably via adrenal steroids. Recent evidence suggests that serotonin can enhance the production of new neurons via activation of the 5HT1A receptor. These results present the possibility that the inhibitory effects of stress on granule cell production may be prevented by 5HT1A receptor agonists.
While few if any equestrians have any interest in delving into neuroscience, the above study indicates that a healthy brain and learning is diminished when chronic stress is involved in an animal’s life, (and especially so in early life). This is commonly accepted by neuroscientists.

Horse Heart Coherence May Be Key To Non-invasive Stress Detection
By Dr. Ellen Gerhke

“A horse’s heart rhythms reflect their emotional state and can respond to the emotional state of a nearby human, according to a pilot study conducted by Alliant International University Professor Ellen Gehrke and the Institute of HeartMath. When in contact, a horse’s heart rate may mirror a human’s emotions, signifying a close unspoken form of communication between man and beast.

Horses have long been known to be sensitive to their environments. The preliminary research project “Horses and Humans Energetics: The study of heart Rate Variability (HRV) between horses and Humans” is the first step to proving horses to be as equally sensitive to the humans within that environment.

For years humans have reported emotional bonds with animals. Horses are often used therapeutically with emotionally and mentally ill and handicapped children and adults. This pilot study is the beginning of many studies to provide the research and data to support these reported bonds.”

Add to this the Horse’s olfactory sense, (which is beyond any doubt the one most dependent upon survival and quite extraordinary). Estimates vary as to how much greater a horse’s sense of smell is than a human’s from several hundred to thousands of times greater. In many cases, it is not known whether these estimates are exponential or linear, but it is safe to say that the Horse’s olfactory sense is very much, (if not thousands of times) greater than our’s. In addition, the horse carries around his own laboratory to instantly analyze and identify different pheromones. It is called the Organ of Jacobsen (or Vomeronasal organ.)

While present day science has not conclusively proven or disproven if the Horse can detect human pheromones, the success of air scent rescue Horses must certainly be considered in making that determination.
So, they hear things that we cannot hear, see things we cannot see, smell things we could never smell, and sense things we could never possibly be aware of, no matter how hard we tried, (perhaps something to consider the next time our Horse ‘spooks at nothing’).
Being so sensitive, in so many areas, it is no small wonder that they sadly often reflect our own intentions.

Q. Is there anything else we can do to make the life of the domesticated horse any more miserable, chaotic and stressful?
A. It seems doubtful.

Oh! Yes! Even though we know that in nature, horses graze and secrete saliva constantly, (which buffers the stomach from gastric acid) and that when horses are kept on dry lot or stalled this natural buffering mechanism is disrupted and acid indigestion often results, let’s just feed him a little once or twice a day! Of course we don’t know how well he will adjust to the discomfort, pain and resulting ulcers, (and chronic stress) but that’s his problem.

And we can wear spurs to jab them in the sides to ‘make them go’ and train them. That should also make them joyfully look forward to carrying us!)
And we could change our scent from day to day with various deodorants, hair sprays, shampoos and body powder. (That ought to really confuse them.)
And we could change our body covering texture and color and ‘take some off or put something different on’ during the day. (Have to ‘keep them guessing.’)
And we could even ‘bare your teeth’ when we’re really happy, unlike other predators, and even horses, that bare their teeth when fighting or attacking. (Nothing like a little instinctive behavioral reversal active to maintain perceptive instability.)

Q. Is there anything we can do to give our horse a tranquil domesticated life, and regard both ourselves and our mounted activities with joy instead of gloom and despair?
A. Evidently, quite a bit.
But that will only happen when concerned, caring horse owners realize how we have ‘stacked the deck’ against the domestic horse, (making it difficult if not impossible for them to be the horse we want, hope, or expect him to be).
And when we decide to reap the rewards of placing the physical, emotional and spiritual welfare of our horse above all else.
Actually, when you stop to think about it, why wouldn’t any caring horse owner choose to do so?