Until her retirement my wife Bonnie was a second grade teacher. She had classes of up to 33 kids. Somehow, single handedly she managed to keep reasonable order for six hours. On good days there was even some knowledge passed along. Earlier in her career she was involved in a special education room, assigned to just one pupil. Anna was in school just two hours a day, and for those two hours my wife was always by her side. One teacher, one pupil. Anna required every bit as much of Bonnie’s attention as an entire classroom.
The school system labeled Anna as “special needs.” She was not slow or stupid, and in fact had above average intelligence. The problem was that Anna’s behavior was totally unpredictable. Bonnie never knew exactly what Anna was going to do next. Maybe punch someone. Maybe hug them. The reason for Anna’s behavior was her home situation. No one ever took the time to instill in her a proper code of behavior.
You and I live by a behavior code. It is made up of thousands of unwritten rules that govern our daily behavior. If you go to a movie and find a line at the ticket window, you get in it. You willingly get behind someone else. You do so with the expectation that when you get to the window, those behind you won’t push you out of the way. It’s the give and take of daily life. At school Bonnie had to stand in line right next to Anna. Without my wife’s restraint Anna might walk away or just shove her way to the front.
There is also a people-animal code. We make and enforce the rules. You stand and laugh as your puppy plays with your kids on the floor. If the puppy bites, you intervene and correct the behavior. The puppy soon learns what is permissible. The rules aren’t as many or as complex, but you gradually teach your animals the code, a way to behave around us.
Imagine the terribly dangerous situation when there is no code instilled in a 1000 pound horse. Put an untrained horse in a threatening situation, and it is possible that the animal will either retreat or attack. Retreat might mean a set of cross ties ripped out of the wall. Attack can mean flying feet or snapping teeth.
It’s been over 30 years, but I’ll never forget an experience with a “no rules for me” 2 year old standard bred colt in the third barn, first shed row at what used to be the Lewiston Raceway. I was in the barn to pull some blood for a Coggins test on this young, wired-for-trouble horse. There were four experienced horsemen in the barn where this happened. We all knew by the way the colt was acting that he might react to the needle stick. However, none of us had any idea that he would explode. His trainer was holding him by a lead when I approached, patted him on the neck and tried to slide the needle into his jugular vein. I never saw him strike, but I was on my side, sent flying through the air and landed sprawled over a tack trunk. The trainer’s arm was broken when the same leg that hit me struck again. A two hundred pound horseman standing near the colt’s right hip went flying six feet when the horse’s hind legs connected with his chest. This all happened so fast that none of us that were hit saw a leg leave the ground. Total time elapsed was maybe 4 seconds. This colt didn’t weigh 900 pounds, but he had speed, agility, and some pretty amazing moves.
Thankfully, this is a rare situation. Even with minimal training most horses have no intention of causing harm. I am just trying to underline the fact that they have the capacity to do so. With their size, strength, and speed, the potential for harm is always present. We would not want to diminish these qualities as they are the very things we prize in our horses. However, we must make take steps to insure that they are never used against us. Our horses must be taught the code. To use the horsemen’s term, they have to be “broken” I have never really liked the term because it seems to imply a broken spirit. Just because I am willing to stand in line doesn’t mean that my spirit has been broken.
I am thinking of a very high performance show mare that was an incredible mover and always pinned in the show ring. What the judges or spectators didn’t know is that it used to take the owner at least 5 minutes to get her bridled. Her head would go up, down, and sideways when the owner tried to get her to take the bit. This was more than annoying as anyone who has been bonked with a horse’s head will tell you. The mare also didn’t like her feet picked up. If you finally got one off the floor, she would stamp it back down as soon she had had enough. More than one farrier left the barn in frustration, vowing never to return. Yearly vaccinations were more than difficult. The mare wasn’t mean by nature, she just wanted her own way, and she got it. No had ever taken the time to teach her that there are things you just have to accept. As a youngster she should have been taught to submit, but her owner was indulgent. She was just one of those horses that performed well but was no fun to be around and just plain dangerous.
You should be able to walk into any horse’s stall with a halter without a sugar cube in your other hand. Your horse should come out of the stall willingly, with you leading the parade. He or she should be able to stand on cross ties without pawing as you work around them. If something in the barn falls with a loud bang, I expect a horse to look startled. I don’t expect them to pull the barn down. Feet should be willingly given and tack accepted with no dancing around.
I have noticed that if any one horse in the barn has no code, the others usually don’t have good manners either. Plainly said, the fault lies with the owner, not the horse. Horses are always looking for a leader, and like teenagers, really want to know the rules and that there will be consistent enforcement. If you think your horse doesn’t measure up in the behavior department and you aren’t capable of teaching him or her manners, seek the advice of a good trainer. Your horse’s behavior is a reflection of how much you care about him or her.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM