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We have all encountered horses with behavior issues, from bucking to rearing, “girthiness” to rushing fences. What we should always stop and consider however, is that perhaps some of the behavior problems we see aren’t really behavioral, and are instead linked to a physical problem and pain.

Sometimes finding a physical problem isn’t easy, but it is still important to give our horses the benefit of the doubt and take the time to rule out possible issues before pushing harder in training or labeling the horse “bad.”

The same goes when we start asking more from our horses, and work on improving and developing them physically through suppling, bending, or collection exercises. Stiffness can come from a horse that is mentally guarded, nervous, etc., but it can also just be plain stiffness.

As well as natually having areas that are tighter, horses also have a dominant side – no different than how inept we feel when we try to use our non-dominant arm for even simple tasks like brushing our teeth! (actually their “one-sidedness” is more lateral than literally one side, but I explain that more in the video)

So take a look at today’s video and meet the horse who is reminding me to “consider the physical” time and time again.

See you in the comments,


p.s. Look for the crazy bug at 1:13!


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21 Responses

  1. GREAT discussion! I would love to see the ground work you are doing with Promise to help her develop physically while her back heals. I have a OTTB that I rescued who has been quite challenging and rears all the time. His back is sore and I am suspecting that this cold have been a chronic problem that no one dealt with or considered. Jury is still out. My newer OTTB, an adoption, is so lazy that he talks me into thinking something is wrong! I have been going over him with a fine toothed comb in terms of vetting, did find some back soreness, but am thinking this is more an issue of his needing to gain strength, confidence, and suppleness. Have done a lot of groundwork with poles and try gin to get his to stretch. Note sure how to know when riding him is a good idea, or if I should be doing both groundwork and riding. Thanks for your series!

    1. Hi Kim,
      It can be tough to know for sure, and of course some soreness can develop as a result of work and it isn’t a bad thing. Just like when we work out and can feel it the next day. Poles are great – I have found that trotting over poles can really help a horse learn to stretch and use his back when trotting. I usually think about teaching lowering the head and stretching the neck, bending, then moving the hindquarters – these are all things you can teach from either the ground or the saddle. As far as riding vs. groundwork, what was your vet’s thoughts on riding and the back soreness?

  2. My generally good-natured mare started bucking. We looked at her food and supplements; she also had chiro adjustments, equine massage, ferrier check, etc., to check for a pain issue. There may certainly have been a minor pain issue, however it looks as though stubbornness has amped the misbehaviour. It has been suggested that I do ground work with her. It would be wonderful if you would do a blog on some ground work exercises that you feel helped Promise. Also, I am struggling with girth issues, which she has had since I bought her one and a half years ago. Unfortunately, they are becoming more intense (I have been nipped a few times). I have tried a sheepskin girth cover, stretching her legs to be sure there are no wrinkles, doing up the girth very slowly while doing other grooming in between snugging up the girth, etc. Any other suggestions? THANK YOU.

    1. Hi Cheryl,
      Thanks for the suggestion for the next video with Promise – I have been doing “in-hand” work with her (basically dressage from the ground). Right now we are working on head down, bending, shoulder in, haunches in, and leg yielding. She is getting pretty good at it and seems to be a lot more “aware” of her body.
      As far as your horse’s girthiness, and you may have already done this, but check the saddle fit thoroughly. I though I knew about saddle fit until a few years ago when one of my clients had a saddle fitter come out and look at her saddle. There are many different things to look for and I interviewed that saddle fitter, Terry, here: If your saddle does fit and the biting is purely an old behavior, then I have found that either using negative reinforcement by holding the pressure on the girth while your mare tosses her head or moves around, releasing it when she stands still, or using positive reinforcement by clicking and treating for standing still can both be good strategies.

    2. One other thing that might cause pain issues is Lyme Disease. Your vet can test for it and it can be treated with large doses of antibiotics.

    3. Just a thought,d Did you ever check for gastric ulcers? Girthiness can be due to gastric discomfort.

  3. The many issues you translate are definitely a go-to for me! Why blame the horse when clearly they are trying to tell us something serious. It has become my pet peeve when I happen to be around the barn, and hear in a lesson “…just give him a whack with the crop; he’s just being silly!” and, of course many more similar comments!
    Yeah, lesson horses can pick up habits (most likely from inconsistencies of riders) but when observing a horse balking during a lesson, I become quite concerned for the horse. “Work through it” could lead to potential dangers for both horse & rider. My much loved, older thoroughbred was retired when he constantly threw his head up during canter. He had hip soreness relating to a chronic, deep digital flexor bowed tendon, and I was selfless enough to let him him retire. The last thing I wanted was for his leg to buckle and us both go down!! There was a time where we were working on a dressage sequence and suddenly his head shot up and he bolted around the arena at breakneck speed. Scared the dickens out of me…but, it could have ended badly. [Horse people…take Callie’s suggestions seriously and learn to read…not just ride…horses.]

  4. Great video. Thanks for making people more aware of their horses. Also, don’t forget to float your horses teeth.

  5. I have an ex riding school pony that was retired due to intermittent lameness and we have been working through a lot of issues including bucking , I have had teeth back and hocks checked and recently had xrays of his legs , the side he was showing uncomfortable in wasn’t as bad as his other hock but we think the other side had fused I have just had hock injections in the hope that it can make him more comfortable in his body to be able to do some strengthening exercises and improve his physique, it has been a process of looking at him work and paying attention to his well-being to check that it wasn’t as a lot of people told me naughtyness,
    I also got a friend to ride him and as she is very experienced and a sympathetic rider she was able to help him to bend and soften and tell me how he felt.
    Love your blogs very interesting and nice to see that not everyone labels a horse naughty because he does a behaviour we don’t like or want they have no other WYoming of telling us x

  6. Hi Callie, amazing that Promise looks so calm and relaxed whilst standing with you but there is an underlying problem causing her grief. Keep us posted please on her progress, treatments and training. Best wishes always, Linda & Boy, downunder Australia

    1. I will! I have been recording her various treatments as well as the groundwork I am doing with her to hopefully improve her physical issues, so in the end I to be able to go back and watch her gradual improvement (and of course I will share it with you!)

  7. I am experiencing similar issues with both of my horses who were rescued. I recently had an equine osteopath visit them and she gave them acupuncture and acupressure treatments as well as cranial sacral work. My 17 year old gelding has shoulder, spinal, sacrum, pelvic and hock issues. My 23 year old mare has wither and rib issues. It was recommended by the therapist to not ride my gelding anymore and to only do groundwork exercises with him to keep him supple and only light riding for my mare. I have not had a vet scope them yet, but both the therapist and vet believe they both suffer from ulcers which can also cause a myriad of riding issues if let go untreated. My mare’s so-called “behavior” issue of trying to bite me when I saddle her is a result of the pain in her withers and also quite likely from her stomach ulcers. I am planning to learn massage techniques to help keep them relaxed and as comfortable as possible and learning how to use long reins and cavesson and working with them from the ground to keep them moving. I am also supplementing them with MSM and Herring Oil to help their creaky joints and ligaments to become more free-moving and treating them for ulcers. The therapist’s work was a great help for them as well.

  8. I have been riding daily a reformed military parade horse who was pastured for years. He is usually sweet and loves refinding his earlier dressage training. But he gets really sensitive and reactive if I let his feet get too long. Once trimmed, he’s back to sweet again. I also have a 25yr old who’s got a back tendon inflamed and I haven’t ridden him for 2 months. He kindly hid his lameness for years until this summer when it started getting too painful. Vet says it’s arthritis in the joint and for external signs of swelling like that the damage is pretty advanced. So we also have to keep in mind that if a horse is reacting with bad behavior, they also have been trying to deal with it internally and the bad behavoir is a desperate measure for them.

  9. Poppy and I went to a clinic in August and the instructor noted that Poppy was weak behind. He has this GREAT big powerful chest and his rear doesn’t seem to fit his front. But it seems to explain some of his bucking.

    Poppy also has tender feet…and wears Mac boots on the front but he will be getting rear shoes as well. But Poppy is going to the trainer for a week to help him with training to use his hind end and some spooking issues because we’ve discovered he’s not too confident and is apt to give up quickly.

    Poppy is a 7 year old OTTB off the track a little over 2 years.

  10. Hi Callie, great video, thanks. At around 1.46 in the video you mention that rushing after fences could be caused by pain or physical problems. Our OTTB does rush after his jumps, and we’ve mainly been looking at this as a behavioural problem. What would be the possible pain or physical issues we should also be looking for or considering, and do you have any suggestions on how to identify these? Thanks.

    1. Hi Barclay, sorry my response is so late – there was a glitch with comments showing up earlier this month. The issue that my horse had was a twisted pelvis. She was off the track as well and must have had an injury either during her race career or even out in the field where she landed on her hip and basically knocked it out of place. Because of that she had chronic back pain. My guess is that landing after the fence either engaged or put concussion on those back muscles, causing her pain. Back soreness is common with OTTBs, so I would look there first.

  11. On a trail ride I wanted to go one direction and my horse wanted to go the other. He did a hip lift. I ended on the ground. That behavior was so out of character (it helps to know your horse) I decided he need an Equine massage to rule out physical. Sure enough the therapist discovered a bruise on his hip where the back of the saddle hits. He may have rolled on a rock.
    Just recently I had one of my horses checked by a Chiropractor who was highly recommended (must be a Vet). I have been riding my horse for awhile and he wasn’t responding to some of my cues. I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right or he didn’t want to do what was being asked or didn’t understand.
    The Chiropractor discovered he had a lot of bones out of alignment. Since the adjustment he is doing a lot better moving his body parts. I’m glad I had it done.

  12. Hi call i. I like to make a comment on discomfort and behaviour , I had a very troublesome time for a number of years with my own horse . Although following a number of treatments body works physio etc . Eventually discovered he was insulin resistant , so was being effected by discomfort muscle , circulation , feet etc , over a matter of a few hours while sugars hit in . He is now strictly managed and treated and perfectly polite. Chris uk

  13. Hi Callie, I hope my experiences will add to the conversation about discomfort and bad behavior. I am in my late 60’s and have been riding for a very long time. Rode as a professional hunter rider in my younger days. I have started a lot of OTTB’s in my day. Never really gave it a second thought that pain could cause behavior issues. But back then we didn’t have the resources available today. I have a very good friend who is a vet and works with sport horses and lameness issues. She opened up my eyes to the fact that pain could cause some of the issues I was having with my horse.
    I got a horse off the track, he had raced for three years. After almost a year of lay off out in pasture at my place I started him under saddle. He was amazing, uphill, balanced I thought I had a winner here. About a month in after he got comfortable he started getting really spooky, running sideways from just about everything. At this point he hadn’t totally grasped the concept of not running through my leg so I couldn’t stop him from going sideways. I struggled for a while with that, I stuffed his ears which did help some. My vet friend checked him out and we both agreed that being off the track he probably had ulcers. Did a complete month of ulcerguard. That really helped, I could now hack him. I still stuff his ears when I ride him, he seems more relaxed. He could now hack with much less spook, never totally stopped, but it allowed to teach him to respect my leg and not overreact to things. But when I jumped him he would dash away from the landing side of the fence. It seemed to me to be pain related, just a gut feeling. We tried polygycan kind of like Legend, or Adequan, injection once a month. Don’t know where he was having pain but this really works for him. Thru all of this he never took a lame step, automatic lead changes. He had chiropractic work done, only found a little stiffness in his neck, not much really. We tried acupuncture but he would not tolerate the needles. It has been a long, long journey with this horse. I just knew that there was a very nice horse here, very sweet and loving. He went to a couple of shows last year and got some good ribbons, very presentable. He can still be a little quirky but I can deal with his moments. He lives outside on the pasture most of the time, would not be a good box stall horse. This horse has taught me so much about how pain can make even the nicest horse behave badly. Now he and I are both happy.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story Janet! The longer I train the quicker I am to look at all kinds of possible physical issues or discomfort along with training better behaviors. Thanks again!

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