Horses very rarely misbehave simply to be bad, Dr. Erin Contino of Colorado State University (CSU) College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science’s Equine Orthopaedic Research Center told The Horse. Oftentimes what people perceive as “naughty” behavior is the horse trying to tell his owners and riders that he’s hurting.
Contino notes that many owners and trainers underestimate how much pain a horse is actually feeling – even when they aren’t performing up to their usual standard. When called out to assess a horse that is “grumpy,” “lazy,” or even “misbehaving,” Contino will perform a lameness exam as well as look for negative behaviors while administering nerve blocks to targeted areas.
Negative behaviors are those related to the ridden horse pain ethogram (RHpE), which recognizes 24 behaviors that can be related to pain when taken in combination of eight or more. These behaviors include tail wringing, rushing, grinding teeth, and more.
If Contino finds that blocking doesn’t resolve the behavior, she keeps digging, looking at everything from the footing and environment to the rider’s ability, tack fit, and more. She stresses that to truly pinpoint what is wrong, one thing must be changed at a time.
Additionally, Contino sometimes administers a course of anti-inflammatories for 10 days to see if the behavior abates. She encourages her clients to work the horse consistently and journal each day so even small improvements can be noted. If the horse gets better during the treatment, Contino can be assured that she’s looking for an inflammatory condition.
However, no change in pain doesn’t rule out pain as the underlying cause of the behavioral issue. Poor performance can also be caused by gastric ulcers, upper or lower airway disease, or exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH) – all conditions that would not be affected by anti-inflammatory administration.
A vast array of conditions can cause poor performance in horses and it sometimes takes repeated trial-and-error attempts to find out exactly what is causing the negative behaviors.
Read more at The Horse.