How to identify why your horse is misbehaving

Naughty horse or a horse in pain? When your horse is misbehaving being ridden, there are two schools of thought swirling around your brain – is he in pain or just being naughty!? Before going down the tough love route it is probably best to give your horse the benefit of the doubt and have a full service and MOT.

In this blog we’ll highlight some critical checks to help identify why your horse is misbehaving.

Check your tack isn’t causing your horse discomfort

The three important parts of tack that are typically used to ride your horse are: saddle, bridle and bit. Getting these right is vital, fortunately we have some great tips to ensure a smoother ride for all concerned!

Saddle fitting by a Master Saddler

The saddle used to ride your horse should ideally get fitted by a Master Saddler. That way, you are giving your horse the best opportunity to have a saddle that fits properly and is comfortable when being ridden. The Master Saddlers website offers further information on the Society and features a search directory so you can find someone local to you.

If your saddle is fitted but you are unsure whether it is correct or working for your horse, there are physical signs from your horse to look out for which include; inflammation, white hairs where the saddle sits, bare patches and pressure sores. Behavioural traits that indicate a poor saddle fitting include; hostility towards being tacked up (especially when being girthed), a cold back, bucking, or an unwillingness when being ridden, particularly in canter, jumping, or any other high intensity work.

Does your bridle fit?

An ill-fitting bridle can cause just as much pain as a saddle – although it is often overlooked. Working from the headpiece down, check for any potential pressure spots where the bridle makes contact with bone areas of your horse’s head. A couple of key pointers; the browband shouldn’t be too tight as it can pinch and pull the headpiece down and into the ears. If you’re riding in a cavesson or flash noseband, there is the two finger rule which implies your noseband should sit two fingers width below your horse’s cheek bones, too high or too low and it can cause discomfort. Behind the ears, bigger horses may need a sheepskin or headpiece cover to provide that extra bit of comfort.

If you are unsure or need help fitting your bridle, most saddlers offer a bridle fitting examination that can be included when getting your saddle fitted or independently.

Your bit and the two wrinkle rule

The two wrinkle rule as we all know it is a guide to where approximately your bit should sit in your horse’s mouth. The idea behind the rule is that the bit should sit just in front of your horse’s first molars. Having the correct size bit is also important, too small and it can create pain on the corners of your horse’s mouth, too big and you will compensate by putting the bit too high in the horse’s mouth. Tongue size is another factor in determining the right type of bit for your horse. An ill-fitting bit as well as discomfort can contribute towards respiratory problems.

If you need any help finding the right bit for you and your horse, bit bank is a very popular company used by many equestrians in the UK.

Your tack fitting correctly is important and may correct any naughty behaviour that is occurring whilst your horse is being ridden.

Call out an equine chiropractor, osteopath, or physio

Checking your tack is fitted correctly is step one. If you are now confident the tack is not causing any poor behaviour due to poor fitting and resulting pain and discomfort for your horse, it is worth calling out a “back” person. Horses in regular work and competing can become tight or pick up an injury easily. Your horse may be resisting doing a particular exercise because they find it physically uncomfortable – a professional who specialises in this form of treatment will be able to help.

How often should I get my horse checked? It is advised to have check-ups anywhere from once a year to every three months subject to a horse’s workload – some horses may never need a check-up. It is on a horse by horse basis that the frequency of check-ups is determined.

A trip to the dentist may be required

A horse needs their teeth checked at least every twelve months with some experts suggesting every six months depending on the horse’s age. Oral health is important and left unchecked can lead to sharp points on a horse’s teeth due to the way a horse’s upper and lower teeth work together to allow the horse to consume forage. Those sharp edges can then cause pain to the horse’s cheeks and tongue, especially when ridden, due to the addition of a bit in a horse’s mouth. Added pressure on the horse’s face, even with a well-fitted bridle, will cause pain.

How to spot if your horse requires a dental check-up? Loss of weight and appetite can be common when a horse has sharp teeth. Other noticeable signs include a change in attitude towards their ridden work and head shaking.

Now you have had the tack, back and teeth given the all clear, it is at this point you would expect a horse in pain to start showing signs of improvement in their behaviour whilst being ridden.

Consider riding lessons

Amateur riders who have the means should have regular riding lessons regardless of ability. It is very easy to fall into bad habits and very hard to change those if left unchanged for a long time. I have a sharp horse and my bad habit is to use my hands instead of my leg when he starts messing about – having an instructor on the ground to remind me stops this habit of mine from growing into a major problem.

If your horse is still misbehaving whilst being ridden, perhaps it is the way you’re asking your horse rather than pain. An instructor might spot something from the ground that you can’t feel. Even if you do not want to have regular lessons long term, one lesson per week for a month or two to fix a serious behavioural issue would be a worthwhile investment.

X-rays and scans

Failing to train out the naughty behaviour with a riding instructor may be the point where you call out your vet who may advise some x-rays or scans to look for issues that aren’t visible to the naked eye. Your horse may not be lame but there’s a chance that something internally is causing the pain. The early stages of kissing spine for example are not always obvious in a horse and may require x-rays to reach an official conclusion. Although it sounds scary, the advancement of technology and medicine means that most conditions can be treated.

However, if there is nothing physically wrong with your horse, what next!?

Re-schooled by a professional rider

If you have followed the above pointers and your horse has a glowing bill of health, with correctly fitting tack and you have invested in lessons yourself all to no avail, it may at this point be worth exploring the possibility of sending your horse to a professional rider to be retrained.

There is nothing wrong with seeking out an expert. Professional riders will be spending on average four hours a day, six days a week in the saddle. The variety of horses they will ride along with the amount of time spent riding means they have a significant advantage over you when it comes to fixing behavioural problems.

Going down this route can be effective, but it is sometimes advisable once the problem is fixed to attend riding lessons with the professional so they can teach you to work your horse in the way they found effective. You may also need booster lessons every three to six months to stop your horse from reverting back to a way of going that led to the behavioural issues in the first place.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

If you have tried all of the above and your horse is still naughty when you’re riding, keep trying different variations of key areas: tack, lessons, re-schooling, and health check-ups. It may take a couple of iterations until you crack the code but when you do it will be worth it. The more time you spend caring after and riding your horse with these pointers in mind, the more you will understand your horse and therefore improve the chances of remedying any behavioural issues.

To wrap up

Progress won’t happen overnight. Stay patient and focus on your long-term goal. Sometimes it may not be easy, but it is always rewarding. Best of luck and if these tips help you, or you have some tales of how you managed to turn your horse’s behaviour around, drop a note to – we would love to hear from you!