Pet Care

Horses Who Are Sensitive to Handling

Three brown horses standing in a field

Horses are fabulous, fun companions. Given their size, personality, strength and the convenient shape of their backs, it seems like nature created the horse as a wonderful working companion for people! But the fact is that horses originally were wild animals, and like other large, hoofed animals who live in herds, they are prey animals. In the natural world, horses eat grass and vegetation while other animals—predators such as coyotes, mountain lions and wolves—eat them. As potential prey, horses are very sensitive to things touching their bodies. Their natural reaction is to quickly move away.

Living among people has forced the horse to adapt to a number of situations that go against his nature, such as being alone in a stall, not being able to continually gaze and chew and not being able to walk and run on both hard and soft surfaces. Because nature gave the horse teeth that grow continuously to make up for the wear of nonstop grazing, horses in our care must have their teeth artificially ground, or floated. Their hooves also were designed to grow constantly to compensate for wear, and now must be trimmed. Domesticated horses also need protection from parasites, since they can’t move out of infested areas, and regular grooming to protect the beautiful and glowing but short, thin hair coats that breeders have bred for.

These necessary procedures require handling the horse a great deal. Many horses adjust very well to their domestic lifestyle, but some have problems. Some horses object to being handled for one or more of the procedures necessary in their care or in activities related to their use.

What’s the Problem?

The first step in resolving a handling problem with your horse is to determine why the horse is reacting poorly. There are a number of specific reasons why horses object to being handled:

Never Been Taught to Accept Handling

The most common reason that horses object to being handled is that they have never been taught to accept handling. Horses rarely, if ever, simply stand quietly for handling without prior training. It should never be assumed that a horse has had the proper training to accept handling, and all horses new to a caretaker should be given rudimentary training in handling.

Fear of Equipment

Sometimes a horse will stand quietly for most handling, but will react to certain procedures that involve specific equipment. For instance, many horses are afraid of hair trimmers, coat vacuums and other grooming tools that make noise, and will not stand when approached with these tools.

Bad Experience

Some horses object to handling because of a prior frightening or painful experience while being handled. For example, many horses react quite violently to the sight of a worming syringe because they remember the taste of the wormer from earlier experience. Many horses object to having the crown strap of a halter slid over the top of their heads because at some point someone mishandled their ears. Horses who have endured inappropriate girthing, in which the handler quickly drew the girth tight and pinched them, or kneed them during the girthing process, will react defensively when the saddle is placed on their backs. Some will begin to fidget and move away at the very beginning of the grooming process if it leads to painful saddling in the end. Even predictable grooming and tacking sequences that are followed by bad experiences—like a frightening ride or poor treatment during a ride—can cause a horse to react with anxiety at the beginning of the grooming or tacking sequence.

Handling Styles

Horses can also object to a handling style. In general, they do not like to be handled by a person who moves fast, talks in a high-pitched voice or handles them brusquely. Horse training books advocate confident, authoritative handling of horses—and this is good advice—but apparently some handlers misinterpret this as advocating rough or demanding treatment. Horses do not react well at all to rough treatment and will attempt to protect themselves. They can become unruly if you demand that they do too many things—particularly when a behavior you demand hasn’t been properly taught . Horses also react poorly to people who are afraid of them because the quick, uncertain movements made by people who are afraid make them nervous.

Taught to Fidget

Horses can actually be taught to fidget during handling. It’s unlikely that anyone would do this on purpose, but it’s relatively easy to do it by accident. Consistently bringing a behavior that the horse is displaying to the horse’s attention can actually teach the horse to repeat the behavior—even if that is far from your intention. For instance, if your horse occasionally paws with his forefoot while tied for handling, and you try to stop the behavior by yelling at him each time he paws, you can actually increase the pawing. Pawing is frustration behavior in a horse. Yelling singles out the behavior for the horse and may serve to relieve some of the horse’s frustration by giving him your attention.

Rule Out Medical Problems

Pain or discomfort can increase a horse’s reactivity to all things. A horse who normally stands relatively quietly for handling and grooming, then suddenly objects to handling—particularly handling of a specific area on his body—should be checked carefully for a physical problem by a qualified veterinarian for physical problems.

Teaching Your Horse to Enjoy Handling

Prevention: Teach ‘Em Young

As mentioned, without training, horses rarely if ever stand quietly for handling. In fact, handling sensitivity is so universal a problem that some horse trainers have dedicated themselves to designing training programs specifically geared toward overcoming handling issues. Because horses are big and strong once they are mature and because young animals accept new experiences better than mature animals, most of these training techniques are specifically designed to teach handling acceptance while the horse is still a foal. Early handling should include familiarizing the foal with a halter, with leading, grooming and standing while held. Here are some general tips in teaching foals basic manners:

  • Work slowly. Begin by getting the foal used to your presence and touch.
  • Move slowly. Keep a calm and patient demeanor.
  • Talk softly. Loud or high-pitched noises frighten horses. Keep your voice soft and reassuring.
  • If possible, use two handlers. One person should handle the mare and the other the foal.
  • Keep in mind that your touch is scary to the foal. Use the removal of your touch to reward the foal’s acceptance of your touch. For instance, when you are handling the foal, keep your hand on him until he stops attempting to avoid your touch. As soon as he stops reacting, take your hand away.
  • Use decreased distance to the mare as a reward to the foal. For instance, when introducing the lead, first turn the foal away from the mare and attach the lead, and then lead him back to his mom.
  • Work slowly, accepting small steps as big achievements. For instance, when teaching the foal to lead, begin by rewarding even a single step away from the dam by then allowing the foal to turn back and join his mom.
  • Use treats as rewards as the foal matures.

For a thorough discussion of early handling and training of foals and young horses, please see our article, Handling and Training Your Foal.

Training Your Adult Horse

Horses with existing reactions to handling can be taught to accept and even enjoy handling. It simply takes persistence and, most of all, patience on the part of the horse’s caretaker. Attempting to force a horse to accept handling is very likely to backfire and create even more problems than existed in the first place. Horses subjected to rough training methods are more likely to suddenly spook, kick or rear.

Positive Reinforcement

The key to teaching your horse to work with you as you handle him and to accept routine handling procedures begins with making the procedures enjoyable for him. The simplest way to do this is to reward—positively reinforce—the behavior you want while ignoring the behavior you don’t want. This means that you have to teach yourself to do two things: to recognize behavior you like instead of behavior you wish your horse wouldn’t do, and to keep yourself from reacting to the things your horse does that you don’t like. Most of us are good at catching the things we don’t like and pointing them out to our horse by yelling at him or even swatting him, but we aren’t so good at catching and pointing out the small things our horse does that lead to the behavior we want from him. But bringing attention to the behavior we want our horse to continue to do is the most effective method there is to teach him good handling behavior.

To help yourself recognize good behavior, a first step is simply to ignore the things your horse does that are bothersome for you, but then quickly reward your horse the moment he stops doing the unwanted thing. Whatever he is doing when he stops acting up—even if it’s just standing next to you—is good behavior compared to what he was doing. If he begins to paw the ground while you are brushing his back, continue to brush as if he isn’t pawing. Then, the instant he stops or even simply takes a tiny break, make that a big deal by rewarding it. The best way to reward the new behavior (the “new” behavior here is standing with all four feet on the floor) is to “catch” it with a sound, stop brushing and then give your horse a treat. The sound you use doesn’t really matter. You can say “Yes!” or “Good boy!”; you can snap your fingers, you can cluck your tongue or you can give a short whistle. The sound draws the horse’s attention, and that serves to catch whatever he’s doing at that moment. Catching behavior makes it memorable, and making it memorable helps your horse associate your reward with it. Here are the steps from the above brushing example:

1. You are brushing your horse and he begins to paw the floor.

2. You ignore his pawing and just keep brushing.

3. He stops a second.

4. You instantly say “Yes!” and stop brushing.

5. You quickly give a treat to your horse.

Rewards (reinforcers) don’t have to be treats. They can be anything your horse enjoys. Food such as bits of grain, horse cookies, wisps of hay, carrot or apple pieces or mints, etc., all work great as long as your horse likes them, but you should also try things like neck patting, a scratch on the withers and breathing softly into your horse’s nostrils in rhythm with his breath. Most horses like all these things.

Once you become skilled at catching good behavior, you don’t have to wait for your horse to misbehave so that you can ignore it and then catch and reward the behavior you like. As long as your horse is behaving well, catch and periodically treat throughout the handling procedure. Because the key to good behavior is reward, it can help to break down each handling procedure so that you recognize when something could go wrong and be ready instead to catch the right behavior when it occurs.

When catching good behavior, the important thing is timing. Your “Yes!” or other marker sound helps you to be more effective catching the behavior, but it’s important that you time your sound correctly. The trick is to say or make the sound at the instant the behavior occurs, while it’s occurring if possible—not afterwards, which is the way we usually tell people they did something right.

Some General Tips for Handling Horses

  • Talk to your horse. As you handle different parts of your horse’s body or move around behind your horse, talk to him with your calm, soothing voice so he knows you are there and he is safe. Keep a hand on his rear to let him know where you are when he can’t see you.
  • Speak softly in a low tone of voice. Avoid yelling or using a high-pitched tone when communicating with your horse.
  • Start small. Studies show that animals can be taught to accept somewhat uncomfortable or unpleasant procedures if the procedures are introduced gradually and, most importantly, begun with steps that are pleasant and rewarding for the animal. This advice holds true with horses. When you must teach your horse to do something he has never done before, begin by asking him to do something he knows and will do willingly, be that touching his nose to your hand, lifting a hoof or looking your way when you say his name. The moment he complies, say “Yes!” and give him a treat. Gradually work toward introducing the new behavior or procedure.
  • Avoid behavior sequences that lead to unpleasant or stressful outcomes. Horses have very good memories for unpleasant events and will quickly learn that certain handling practices lead to certain outcomes. Negative responses to these handling sequences can be minimized by making stressful outcomes less predictable. This isn’t to say that you should spring stressful events on your horse without warning, but rather that occasionally you should practice procedures that may usually end in a stressful outcome but without the stressful finale. For instance, if your horse is stressed by showing and you show relatively frequently, practice grooming, braiding and even loading him in the trailer off and on through the week. But when he gets in the trailer, give him a handful of grain or a bit of hay to eat in the trailer, and then unload him and put him away.
  • Keep training periods short. When introducing new procedures, working for I0 to l5 minutes a day is ideal. Longer sessions can cause the horse to lose his interest in your rewards or to become agitated.

Helping Your Horse Get Over a Bad Handling Experience

Horses who have had a bad handling experience need to be taught that handling is pleasurable. The approach is very similar to the one used to train a horse to accept handling in the first place. The only difference is that the bad experience that caused the horse to dislike handling should be identified so that it isn’t repeated. Sometimes the experience isn’t actually part of handling. For example, horses who must carry riders under a poorly fitting saddle can become fidgety or unruly during grooming or tacking because these activities lead to being ridden. To treat this problem, try getting a new saddle or fix the one you have so that it fits your horse; then you’ll need to teach your horse to accept grooming again.

The following are tips to help your horse recover from a bad handling experience:

  • First, work around the problem. Never force your horse to accept a procedure that frightens him. Instead, use lots of positive reinforcement as described above.
  • Catch behavior that is acceptable and reward it!
  • Don’t scold your horse. Positive reinforcement of calm behavior works best.
  • Make sure your horse gets plenty of exercise. If he’s in high spirits, lunge him without his saddle before you groom (exception: you should always clean out his hooves before you work him).
  • Change handling locations, times or equipment. Horses have excellent memories for people, places and events. They react to things that have happened with a specific person or in a certain place (like the cross-tie station). Therefore, combined with positive reinforcement of any calm handling behavior your horse displays, changing where you groom and the time of day you groom can help your horse get over some bad habits. Sometimes just changing the sequence in which you groom can help. Don’t always start with his body and move to cleaning his hooves; begin with his hooves, brush his tail and then groom his rear instead of his back or shoulder.

Handling a Horse Who Reacts to Equipment

Horses who react negatively to specific equipment, sights or persons—such as the veterinarian—are telling you that they are frightened or stressed. If your horse reacts to a particular thing differently than he reacts to other things, he isn’t telling you that he thinks he’s your boss and doesn’t have to do what you want; he’s telling you he’s worried. In these situations, it’s up to you to help him overcome his fears.

Helping your horse overcome his fears does not involve proving to the horse that he has nothing to fear. Fear is not a rational response to things that are truly dangerous. Fear is an emotional reaction that in nature serves to keep horses safe, even if it means that they avoid far more things than necessary. Forcing a horse to directly approach, touch or otherwise contact something that frightens him is dangerous and inhumane. And it doesn’t work. Therefore, never force your horse to face his fear. Instead, work around the problem. There are a number of ways to teach your horse to accept something without forcing his attention on what he fears. One technique is a procedure known as systematic desensitization with counterconditioning (DSCC). Another is to teach your horse to do something on cue, such as targeting (see below), to distract him and help him tolerate being in the presence of the scary thing.

Desensitization and Counterconditioning (DSCC)

DSCC is a procedure that helps both people and animals get over emotion-based reactions to things. It works by keeping the sound or sight of the frightening thing at an exposure level that doesn’t feel threatening. At this level, the thing can be associated with treats, praise or other valued items. This association counterconditions or replaces the fear reaction with acceptance or even a pleasure reaction. The procedure is known as systematic desensitization because once the feared thing is counterconditioned at the lowest exposure level, it is moved a tiny bit closer or otherwise made a bit more noticeable and is counterconditioned at that level. This systematic approach avoids actual fear reactions that interfere with conditioning so that the training can be successful. For a more thorough discussion of DSCC, please see our articles on Desensitization and Counterconditioning and Horses Who Are Afraid of Noises.

Steps in DSCC with Horses Who are Afraid of Grooming or Husbandry Equipment

First decide where you want to work with your horse. Use a place that is familiar to him. If you choose his stall, keep in mind that you will need to repeat the steps when you bring him out and handle him in his usual grooming or tacking spot. Also keep in mind that horses who are being taught to overcome fears while they are in a stall can be dangerous if they get scared. Be sure to stand outside the stall and give your horse his treats through the feed door so he can’t accidentally hurt you.

  • Select the right treats to use for counterconditioning. Begin with a variety of treats, like apple pieces, carrot bites and horse treats, and offer them one at a time to your horse to see which one he prefers. Most horses—but not all—prefer sweet treats.
  • Once you have the right treats, make a list of the features of the equipment your horse fears. Most equipment not only looks a certain way and feels a certain way when it touches your horse, but also makes distinct sounds. Horse’s usually most fear sounds, so it is the sound that you must be most careful with during DSCC.
  • Make a numbered list of the things your horse will notice about the thing from least to most frightening. Using grooming clippers as an example:

1. Sound of the clippers being switched on

2. Sound of the clipper motor

3. Sight of the clippers

4. Feel of the clippers on the horse’s leg or shoulder

5. Feel of the clippers on the horse’s neck

6. Feel of the clippers on the horse’s face

7. Feel of the clippers on or by the horse’s ears

  • Start your DSCC treatment with number 1 (sound of the clippers being switched on). Stand at your horse’s head. From across the barn, have an assistant turn the clippers on and then immediately off.
  • Give your horse a treat. Repeat this step until your horse looks at you for a treat when he hears the clippers turn on and off.
  • Next, tackle exposure number 2. Have your assistant turn the clippers on and keep them on until you give the signal to turn them off. Your signal will be “Yes.” When your assistant turns on the clippers, silently and slowly count to 15. When you get to 15, say “Yes” loud enough so that both your horse and your assistant can hear you. When the clippers are switched off, give your horse his treat.
  • Gradually increase the time the clippers are on.
  • Move on to number 3. Have your assistant come into your horse’s sight with the clippers. If your horse reacts to the sight, have the assistant back up as far as it takes for the horse to calm down. With the horse calm but watching the assistant, have your assistant move a step toward your horse. If your horse remains calm, say “Yes” and have your assistant turn and leave. Give your horse his treat, and repeat the steps. Do this until your assistant can stand next to your horse with the clippers. If, at any time, your horse leans back or otherwise tries to get away, this means he is worried, and your assistant has gone a step too close. Have your assistant back up and practice more at a greater distance.
  • Once your horse will accept the sight of the clippers, reintroduce the sound. Don’t turn them on while you are standing next to him; start across the barn again. The difference is that you should be able to get next to the horse in two or three steps now. Always say “Yes,” turn off the clippers and give your horse his treat.
  • Move on then to exposure numbers four through seven.

Advance through the numbers gradually. Never advance if the horse hasn’t fully accepted a step. Try to end each session on a successful note—when your horse is more relaxed and has stopped even noticing the clippers. Start each session at the same level of exposure that you ended on in your last session. You may find that your horse is back to being alert and a little worried about the clippers. That’s okay. Simply back up a step. It won’t hurt your overall progress. Stay at any one level as long as it takes for your horse to handle that level well—meaning he’s unworried and relaxed. This may take many sessions across several days or weeks.

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you do DSCC with your horse:

  • Avoid frightening your horse. Expose him to the clippers without evoking any fear. If he shows fear, quickly go back a step.
  • Avoid exposure to the clippers between treatment sessions until your horse is over his fear.
  • Ideally, each session should last at least 10 minutes.
  • Once your horse has overcome his fear, do maintenance sessions at least twice a month to prevent the fear from returning.

Target Training Your Horse

Target training a horse involves teaching the horse to touch his muzzle to a target, such as a stick with a ball on the end, your hand or fist, or a specific spot marked on a wall or other stationary support. Horses are very good at learning to target. They pick it up quickly and seem to enjoy it. Target training is effective in helping a horse overcome his fear of something because it focuses him on targeting and therefore takes his mind off the scary thing. It also gives him a behavior to do instead of an unwanted behavior—a horse can’t easily rear or pull away while he’s targeting. Because targeting helps take a horse’s focus from other things and put it on targeting, it is great to do in conjunction with DSCC. It helps the procedure to succeed more quickly.

Steps in teaching your horse to target:

  • Lead your horse to a quiet place—preferably where you handle him most—and show him the target. Hold it fairly close to his nose, but don’t move it to touch his nose (it’s his job to touch his nose to the target, not yours to touch the target to his nose).
  • When he reaches to sniff it, tell him “Yes,” or otherwise “catch” his sniff, and give him a treat.
  • Repeat holding the target up, catching his touch and giving him a treat until he tries to touch the target as soon as you hold it up. Then begin holding the target a little lower or higher so that your horse has to work a bit to touch it. If he’s cross-tied, make sure he can reach the target.
  • Practice targeting in different locations, like in his stall, in the arena where you ride and outside.
  • Once he targets well in many different locations, he’s ready to learn to stay targeting until you say he should stop. Quite often a horse won’t simply keep his nose on the target until you say “Yes,” but instead will touch the target repeatedly until you say “Yes.” That works just fine. Teaching him this last part can help keep him occupied when you need to do things around him that might worry him were he giving them his full attention.

Targeting can help your horse take his mind off whatever worries him and keep his attention on his job—targeting. You can then gradually introduce the worrisome thing. Follow the DSCC steps, but ask your horse to target during the exposure. For instance, if you are using DSCC for clipper fear and you are working on number two, present the target when the clippers are on. When he targets, say “Yes,” turn off the clippers and give your horse his treat. When you are working on numbers four to seven, ask for the target before you touch the clippers to the horse. Don’t say “Yes” to stop your horse from targeting until the clippers have touched him. Instead touch the clippers to him, say “Yes,” remove the clippers and give him his treat.

For more advice on how to help your horse with reactions to different things and procedures, please see our articles, Horses Who Are Afraid of Noises, Handling Your Horse’s Hooves and Horses Who Are Head Shy.