When is an aggressive horse not aggressive? When he is playing!

When is an aggressive horse not aggressive? When he is playing!

Sometimes in my work as an equine behaviourist it is enough to change people’s perception of their horse or pony without working on solving the ‘problem’ through behaviour modification.
A good example is a case I saw nearly ten years ago now. One day the phone went and a distraught mother explained that she had bought her pony-mad teenaged daughter a pony two months ago but that the pony was aggressive and her daughter is understandably distraught because the ‘dream’ was turning into a nightmare. They couldn’t lead the pony (let’s call him Fred; names changed for this article) from the stable to the field without him pulling, running away from her and nipping. Life at the livery yard was becoming fraught with fellow liveries offering plenty of judgement and advice to the new owners but no help. Things had got so upsetting that they were planning to sell Fred and give up on the dream but didn’t feel they could sell him to another teenaged girl as he was so dangerous.
I attended the consultation prepared to talk about aggression, leading and some general handling advice. I was concerned that, as is often the case with teenage owners, I’d need to carefully manage their expectations about when the pony would be able to go to shows and so on. However, during the consultation it became clear that Fred was not aggressive at all…..

Photo: Suzanne Rogers CHBC (IAABC), Learning About Animals
Photo: Suzanne Rogers CHBC (IAABC), Learning About Animals

Unlike behaviourists on TV, practicing behaviourists in the real world, when faced with an aggression case do not ask the owner to handle the horse so that the behaviourist can see them getting kicked or bitten! Instead, after taking a full history, we then ask the owners to carefully describe what the horse is doing (not what they think the motivations of the horse are) and we might perhaps ask to see them interacting with the horse but not put horse or owner in the exact situation we know is potentially very dangerous. In this case, the mother and daughter described Fred’s behaviour to me in detail. Throughout their description it was so clear that they were feeling very hurt and confused by Fred’s behaviour – they loved him so much, owning a horse was meant to be a dream come true and they felt that he hated them! It didn’t take long for me to suspect that rather than aggressive behaviour the horse was in fact playing with them….
The chapter ’Equine play behaviour’ by Debbie Goodwin and Carys Hughes in ‘The Domestic Horse’ provides a full discussion of play behaviour in domestic and wild horses including con-specific and inter-specific play. The effects of domestication on the behaviour of horses is generally considered to have resulted in retention of juvenile characteristics and an increased propensity to play.   Horses are one of the few mammals to play throughout their lives rather than just as young and juvenile animals. Horses that have been hand-reared can be more likely to try to play with humans, and when I took the history it was revealed that Fred had indeed been hand-reared as a foal. Much horse-human interaction has been interpreted by humans in terms of dominance/submission but as a social prey species for which cooperative behaviour is important, horses are willing participants in horse-human play interactions (Goodwin, 1999).
Horses have four main play patterns (described by Fraser in 1992): nip and shove; chase and charge; follow the leader and object play (playing alone with an object).  The two that Fred was exhibiting were “nip and shove” and “chase and charge”. On the way to the turn-out fields the owners had to lead Fred past a number of temptations. When the owner was using her shoulder to try to  manoeuvre him away from these, Fred interpreted her behaviour as being an instigation of the pattern ‘nip and shove’ and would join in enthusiastically. This then became chase and charge when the owner commonly let go of the lead rope and he used to run into a field that they were meant to go past chased by the owner. Fred was having fun – playing one game then another with his owner. Each morning he did this – the owners thought he hated them and was being aggressive but Fred thought each morning started with vigorous play!

Suzanne Rogers CHBC (IAABC), Learning About Animals
Photo: Suzanne Rogers CHBC (IAABC), Learning About Animals

Fred was generally very playful at other times too; for example with the other horses in his field, often eliciting the ‘follow the leader’ play pattern. He was also observed during the consultation to engage in object play with brushes, wheelbarrow handles, ropes and everything he could investigate!
To add to the problem, other people on the yard were advising the owners to hit Fred when he was doing these things. This was also not working because the owners were hitting him very lightly so he was probably thinking they were further engaging in the ‘nip and shove’ game and he was reacting by ‘shoving’ or ‘barging’ back. The advice given by other livery owners was then to hit harder, which, to Fred, would either be playing rougher, or would indeed be a punishment and sufficient to terminate play behaviour but is not the safest way to solve the problem (as discussed by Fagen in 1981).
When I explained about what was happening to the owners they said that it fitted in with other aspects of Fred’s personality’. We then discussed how to address the problem safely and effectively. This involved first considering his management – in all behaviour work before any re-training is done we must consider the daily life of the horse and how well their needs are being met. In this case although Fred was stabled overnight, other than a few ‘tweaks’ there were no big changes required.
The aim of the programme was to teach Fred how to relax, to harness his playfulness in a more appropriate manner, and to use clicker training to teach him to lead. This would therefore extinguish the nipping play behaviour by both training an incompatible behaviour (can’t be relaxed and nippy at the same time) and teaching the owners to be more effective at communicating with him when leading. We trained Fred to touch a target (part of a box) and to follow it whilst remaining calm and relaxed. This was immediately successful as he picked it up very rapidly and the owners could lead him to the field by throwing the target in front of them, he’d walk up to it to touch it with his nose, get a treat and repeat on the way to the field. I advised to use different targets, vary the treats, and gradually phase out the number of times the game was played on the way to the field.
Nearly instantly he could now be ‘led’ from stable to field without pulling away, nipping or shoving. And over the course of two weeks the owners were using the target game more sparingly as he got into the habit of leading calmly rather than playing. But the biggest thing about the case was that just knowing that Fred was playing with them rather than ‘hating’ them pretty much made the problem go away in both the owners minds. This case often serves as a reminder to me that sometimes the various things that horses do are only a problem, or not a problem, because of the way that people interpret them. And sometimes knowing the reason why horses do things is enough to mend a wobbly relationship between horse and owner.
Suzanne Rogers CHBC (IAABC), Learning About Animals (www.learningaboutanimals.co.uk)
Fagen, R.M. (1981) Animal Play Behaviour. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Fraser, A.F. (1992) The Behaviour of the Horse. Wallingford: CAB International
Goodwin, D. (1999) the importance of ethology in understanding the behaviour of the horse. Equine Veterinary Journal, 28 (Suppl.): 15-19
Goodwin, D. And Hughes, C.F. (2005) Equine Play Behaviour. In The Domestic Horse: The Evolution, Development and Management of its Behaviour. Edited by Daniel Mills and Sue McDonnell. Cambridge University Press