Behavioural problems related to pain
The origin of most behaviour problems in horses is physical and are caused by the way we keep, feed and treat our horses. The majority of the domestic horses are suffering from light to severe pain caused by saddles, halters, bridles, bits, riders or training. Pain causes stress and that changes behaviour and decreases health. Another cause is a disturbed digestive system and stressed organs caused by bad nutrition, toxins and lack of movement throughout the day. In most cases we can learn the horse to behave like we want them to. But wouldn’t it be more fair to the horse to treat the physical causes as well? When we take away the physical causes and cure the horse with natural remedies, we often need less training to treat the behaviour problems. We also prevent further damage to the horse and decrease the risk of illness.
Let’s start with saddles and bridles. Some people break in horses with old budget saddles to prevent damage to expensive saddles when the horse panics. That’s a bit paradoxical because the horse would not panic if it had a proper saddle on and the horse would be well prepared. Another reason to use an old, low quality saddle is that the back of the horse changes because of the training that follows. However, the back of the horse changes more than one time. In the summer the horse has often more muscle and fat than in the winter and that changes how the saddle fits. Also, the skeletal system of the horse grows until he is 7-8 years old and every level of training can change muscle development and how the saddle fits. So even if you have a good fitting saddle from the start, it can be too small half a year later. That’s why I recommend my clients to use a flexible tree saddle after bodywork treatments so the back problems caused by saddles won’t return. A flexible tree saddle adapts to the horse and doesn’t contain hard parts. Good flexible tree saddles also give riders a very good posture which is also important to prevent back problems. The last years flexible saddles have been in development and have been improved to perfectly fit the rider and horse.
The next damage is done by bridles and bits. When a horse is uncomfortable, it will try to go away from the pressure by running or rearing and people try to hold the horse by using sharp bits and tight nose bands. The head is a very sensitive area with a lot of nerves and we can really cause headaches or even partly loss of sight to horses by applying too much pressure on the head. However, too much pressure on the head and headaches can start already when the horse is nearly half a year old. It’s very common that people halter foals and colts and tie them up to a fixed object. When the foal is startled by something or is not trained to give in to pressure, it fights for a short or longer time against the rope. These minutes of a horse life might seem innocent but it can really damage the very sensitive poll area, especially when it happens more often. There are horses with uneven eyes, noses, cheekbones, and occiput. There are skulls of horses that show shifted bones, probably caused by pressure of halters and bridles. These things may cause headaches, headshaking and partial loss of sight, which changes behaviour. The so called spooky behaviour often disappears after a treatment with craniosacral therapy and natural remedies. The pressure on the poll can also affect the hypofisis and that can facilitate metabolic issues like Equine cushing’s disease or PPID. I treated horses with craniosacral therapy and natural remedies who showed signs of metabolic disorders, were girthy, protesting in training and were spooky. All or most of these problems disappeared after 1-3 treatments of bodywork, craniosacral work and natural remedies.
Metabolic issues can also have other causes of which the most important one is nutrition. The anatomy and physiology of the horse’s digestive system is adapted to digest a lot of fibre, little sugar, little starch and little fat. The horse is also adapted to move throughout the day. Too much sugar and starch can cause excessive energy and stress, hindgut acidosis, increases the risk of colic (especially when feeding cereals) and eventually the development of hormonal disorders like insuline resistance, EMS and PPID. Sometimes a behaviour problem is simply solved by taking away the excessive sugar and starch from the diet. But when a horse is poorly fed for a longer time, especially in combination with stress and confinement, it can have stomach and hindgut ulcers. These can cause training problems and girthiness. A horse with pain in the stomach and hindgut, will not be comfortable on the back. It’s very important to reduce sugar and starch and to give the horse 24/7 access to good quality hay. With bach flower therapy and herbs like aloe vera, marshmallow, fenugreek or meadowsweet we can help the stomach or intestines to heal.
Related to nutritional problems are problems with the organs. Toxins and bad nutrition can cause overloaded and damaged organs. Organs are related to emotions. The kidneys are related to fear, the liver is related to anger, the lungs are related to sadness and the intestines are related to insecurity. When an organ is out of balance, these emotions are stronger and that can be an underlying or facilitating cause of behaviour problems. After a detox program and natural remedies to support organs, the horse can change a lot in behaviour.
Many trainers are doing very good work with problem horses but they often would be much more efficient when they take these physical aspects into consideration. We can prevent a lot of problems with good housing, good equipment, good training and good nutrition and we can solve a lot of problems with bodywork and natural remedies like aromatherapy, herbs, flower therapy and natural detox products. And a well behaving horse will live longer, move better, be happier and will save the owner a lot of vet bills, when it’s also a healthy horse.
Lisette van Dijk, Natural therapist for horses and dogs and holistic horse trainer/instructor
Geor RJ, Harris PA, Coenen M, editors. Equine Applied and Clinical Nutrition. Saunders Elsevier; 2013
Dr. Bradley Nelson. The emotion code. Wellness Unmasked Publishing; 2017