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Behavioral Problems In The Horse

An uncontrolled horse comes in many different sizes and degrees of severity.  No matter the level of the problem, a horse with behaviorial issues not only creates potential problems with competition and training, but they can also be very dangerous to be around due to unpredicatability.  There are many different causes to behavioral problems, some we can manage and others create more of a challenge. One of the first things we need to do is get a better feel for the problem at hand.

There are many different types of behavioral problems in horses and can include overt personality problems such as aggression or stubborness, but also include more habitual problems including cribbing, weaving, headshaking and pawing.  In more subtle cases, a horse may be more resentful to picking up a certain gait or maintaining a particular lead or kicking out or biting when brushed or cinched up, being interpreted by the rider or trainer as potential stubborness, personality flaw or unwillingness to learn.

Behavioral problems in the horse have many different causes and thus come with different solutions.

• Training issues / incompatability

• Pain induced issues

• Stress induced issues

• Hormonal associated issues

Let’s briefly review each of the above mentioned categories to get a better feel for what they represent:

Pain Induced Issues:

One of the most common sources of behavioral problems in horses is pain, which can come from many sources.  When presented a horse with behavioral problems, first we must define the issue at hand and attempt to recreate the problem.  In the inital stages of the exam, a full physical is essential to rule out the obvious.  If all is clear, the next step is to perform a lameness evaluation, again looking for potential sources of pain or problem areas.  The pain can be coming from a variety of sources, which include a joint, tendon/ligament, back or neck region, oral cavity and even the stomach region.  The pain may be hard to detect in some instances and will require a more extensive exam, possibly under saddle, trying to mimick the conditions that the owner experiences on the farm.  This includes evaluation for saddle fit, possibly changing out saddles or pads to see if problem continues.

Training /Environmental or Incompatability Issues:

If the physical and lameness examination are clear, with no signs of problems, then my first inclination is to put another rider on the horse and see if the problems continue.  In many instances, the behavior is not present any longer, which implies to me that there is a potential incompatability between rider and horse, which can be on many levels. In fact, many of the horses that come into our rehabilitation program have some behavioral problems that are often improved with a new rider and change in environment.  The reasons for this are numerous and may simply imply that the environment that the horse was in added undue stress or that simply the rider and horse were not a good match and rubbed each other wrong.  

Stress Issues:

Stress is a major player in equine behavioral problems and becomes more of a factor as the horse climbs the ladder of success.  We have discussed the impact of stress in the performance horse in prior article, but the bottom line is that it is a huge player, impacting the horse mentally and physically.  The exact causes of stress are hard to pinpoint, but can stem from lack of proper turnout, poor environmental conditions, poor diet, overtraining, transportation influences and even rider incompatability.  The impact of stress can not only lead to lack of mental focus or frustration on the part of the horse, but also contributes to the development of gastric ulcers, which then can create a pain source for behavioral problems.  Stress commonly manifests as stomach ulcers, stubborness, irritability, weaving, cribbing and headshaking.

Hormonal Issues:

Hormones play a role in some cases of behavioral problems, impacting both genders.  Mares are more prone to behavioral problems during the estrus cycles, creating irritablity, lack of focus and in some cases overt aggression.  Stallions obviously have problems due to elevated testosterone levels, leading to difficulty in overall control, focus and again, overt aggression in some cases.  Gelding are usually considered to be free of hormonal influences, but this is not always the case as some that were gelding later in life may still exhibit stallion like behavior, especially around mares.


When a horse is presented for behavioral problems, the first step is to perform a thorough physical examination looking for obvious problems, which includes a cursory lameness evalaution to rule out sources of pain.  During the physical, it is important to take a look inside of the mouth, looking for potential sources of oral pain possibly originating from the teeth, tongue or even ulcers created by the chosen bit.  This physical exam will include evaluation for hormonal problems that may be obvious such as an intact stallion or a mare that is in heat.

In many cases, the behavioral problem may be readily apparent without much investigation, as in the case of aggression, but in others the problem may just be presented second hand and hard to reproduce.  If the problem is seen only under saddle or during a specific maneuver, then that must be replicated if at all possible so as to gain a better understanding as to what may be going on.  In some of those situations, once the problem is replicated, then a second lameness evaluation, including nerve blocks may prove beneficial to help rule out pain as a source. This is especially important in cases where a horse refuses to pick up or maintain a certain lead or gait.  

The majority of behavioral problems that are presented into our program or communicated to us through horse owners seem to arise out of stress.  Now, that is not saying that there is not a pain source that was originally present, but out of this stress arises, which then further compounds the problem and muddies the waters.  Many horses seem to actually start off with a known lameness condition, but progress into behavioral problems which then further create frustration for both owner and horse.


Resolving behavioral problems can be complex while others rather easily resolved.  If the problems stems back to a source of pain, then we may have two conditions to manage, one primary and the other secondary.  In cases of shear stress induced problems, we have to take a look at the big picture which includes environment, training, rider, diet and turnout time.  I think that many horses develop behavioral problems secondary to a lack of environmental stimuli or adequate ‘horse time’ and too much focus on training or competition.  Certainly many behavioral conditions including weaving, cribbing and some headshaking develop out of stress related boredom, which is often due to high focus on training, too much stall time and not enough turnout to be a horse.  

The bottom line is that we need to put on our investigative hats and really dig into some of these cases, trying to link certain things with the problem.  As mentioned, many horses have underlying lameness problems that have not resolved, but have grown into behavioral problems due to chronic pain.  Gastric ulcers or GI upset are a common manifestation of stress, leading not only to obvious signs such as colic, but also subtle problems including irritability, resistance under saddle, resistance to the girth and even back sore in some cases.

By trying to pinpoint the causes or sources, we can then try to manage the problems on a different level.

In our hands and in our rehabiliation program, we often look at many of these cases as stemming from poor gastrointestinal health, including ulcers, often accompanied by inflammatory problems leading to pain in a variety of locations including tendons, joints and ligaments.

One of the first things we do is eliminate all prior supplements and feeds, putting them on a whole cereal grain diet with high quality hay along with a consistent turnout period each day and no active work.  I have my opinions about many diets that are consumed by horses, believing that some are actually contributing to active ulcers and excess ‘heat’ in the body, which fuels many behavioral problems,which is why we opt for a ‘wash out’ period on all horses presented.

After 48-72 hours, we then reassess the horse, seeing what has changed if anything, then starting from scratch with a new evaluation, which includes a lameness workup and being ridden under saddle.  Amazingly, many behavioral problems become less apparent or reduced in intensity within a couple of days, likely due to changes in environment, reduction in stress and fewer dietary influences.  

Many of the horses have underlying lameness issues, whether if that is restricted to a joint, tendon or even the back, so we know we need to manage inflammation for overall health and control in clinical deterioration.  Considering that many also have underlying stress and ulcers, which contribute to the behavioral problems, we are also likely to have gastrointestinal problems.

Given these two findings, our standard approach to these cases is:

1.  Cur-OST® EQ Total Support which helps to manage ongoing inflammation, supports cellular health, healing, reduces oxidative stress and support healthy digestion

2.  Cur-OST® Adapt & Calm which helps to combat the impact of stress, helping to calm the mind and restoring focus

In severe cases of stomach ulcers, we will commonly also add in our soon to be released Cur-OST® EQ Stomach, which provides a higher level of Marshmallow and Aloe to help soothe to the stomach and support overall healing.

What we find is that by using the regimen, many behavioral conditions and often their accompanying lameness is much improved within a couple of weeks with steady progression noted on a daily basis.  As the horse becomes more settled, they are returned back into a steady training regimen, but continue to have adequate turnout and time to just be a horse.  

In many cases, the problems are resolved in a short period of time, but some do persist on a lower level.  I think that is important, especially in cases of pain to try to pinpoint down a cause so as to offer a solution.  I do feel that by managing ongoing inflammation and supporting GI health, many conditions are dramatically improved, but we also have to consider other factors such as chosen bit and saddle fit.  Again, these variables often change with a new rider and when improved, they are hard to rule out as an underlying cause.

It is hard, when presented a horse with a lameness and behavioral problem to determine which condition came first as each can fuel the other.  An ongoing lameness creates ongoing pain and stress for the horse, especially if pushed repeatedly.  This stress then can contribute to more health and behavioral problems, but can also impair digestion, which I believe is linked with many sources of lameness, ranging from tendon/ligament issues to laminitis.  We have to remember that if the digestive tract is not fully functional, then nutrient absorption may be impaired, which then can impact tissue strength.  If the digestive tract is inflammed and irritated, it will also contribute to systemic inflammation and even allergies, which then opens the door for more distant problems.

In the end, behavioral problems are very common in the horse, especially in the higher level athletes.  We shouldn’t accept them as just being a personality flaw, but we should understand that likely there is a problem somewhere and if that problem is resolved, then that horse may actually perform better and be more content doing it.

Just my two cents.

Tom Schell, D.V.M.

Nouvelle Research, Inc.




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