Does your horse need behavioural therapy?
PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 May 2017 | UPDATED: 17:17 11 May 2017
Horses need tender loving care at the best of times, and even a 'therapist' now and again. Mairead Mahon went to meet an expert in Moore, near Warrington.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can’t put a horse on the Naughty Step! So, what can you do when your horse displays challenging behaviour?
‘Well, the first thing is to make absolutely sure that there is no physical cause for the problem,’ says Lynn Bird, a member of the Society of Equine Behaviour Consultants and one of the north’s most highly regarded horse behaviourists who, as well as gaining many clients from reputation alone, also gains referrals from vets and horse professionals such as farriers. ‘If a vet gives the horse the physical all clear, then maybe it’s time to take it to a horse behaviourist who can discover if an emotional issue is the problem. Sometimes there is a simple answer and sometimes it requires a diagnostic approach: horses are just like people, there is no one size fits all cure,’ she said.
If it hadn’t been for a horse called Satan - the clue is in the name - Lynn’s career might never have happened at all.
‘My father was a breeder of prize-winning shire horses and from a very early age, I was used to being around horses from helping to muck out to standing on a stool to groom them. One day, he went to auction to buy me my very own pony. It was called Satan but he thought my mother might be happier to let me ride it if it had a change of name so, by the time he reached home, Satan had become Jett,’ smiles Lynn.
It had been called Satan for a reason and was very difficult to handle; bolting if anyone mounted him but Lynn discovered that she had an uncanny gift for calming him down. Soon, she was able to ride him and he became much calmer around others; something that became a talking point in the community around the family farm in Moore, near Warrington, where Lynn still lives.
‘I did it by constantly talking to him: Jett knew all my teenage secrets. I discovered that horses react well to a calm voice, especially if the tone is low and measured with elongated vowels. Naturally, every horse is different but this is a technique that I use regularly,’ explains Lynn.
Over the years, Lynn’s ‘horse whispering’ ability was often sought out, from dealing with horses who refused to take the bridle to helping horses in emergency situations.
‘Horses can easily become distressed and it can be difficult to calm them before harm is done. In one incident, I was called to help a horse whose rug clips had become entangled on a wire fence and he was very frightened. The more panicked he became, the more he moved and he was at grave risk of damaging his skin. I told everyone else to move away and then approached him slowly with no sudden movements. I maintained eye contact with him and kept talking to him for ten minutes. He then trusted me and moved slowly towards me, so that I could gently touch his face. When he was totally calm, I was able to release him,’ explains Lynn.
As well as having an innate ability as a ‘horse whisperer’, Lynn has also undergone rigorous formal training. Her local vet supported her application and, after two years of study, in which she gained top marks, she formally qualified as an equine behaviour consultant. So, does she ever wish she had an equine naughty step for the many horses that she is asked to help?
‘Of course not! The first thing you have to do is to respect the horse, treat it gently and know that there will always be a reason for what might be termed challenging behaviour. A common problem is a horse refusing to enter a trailer without a scene. You know, it might be something as simple as the fact that it once experienced bad driving: after all, people aren’t too keen on being a passenger with a driver they don’t trust: it’s no different for horses! However, there are other reasons, a horse can view a trailer as a trap and then we use desensitisation techniques,’ explains Lynn.
Some horses can’t cope with traffic and others simply don’t want to be ridden at all. After checking that the problem isn’t caused by something as simple as a badly fitting saddle, Lynn will undertake a programme to find the root cause and address it. Some horses, like some teenagers, aren’t too thrilled at the thought of being washed or clipped and others don’t want their feet touched, which can be problematic when visiting the farrier.
‘One horse would ‘barge’ anyone who came near her feet which meant that, as well as having no shoes, her feet were becoming very overgrown. She had simply never been taught to lift her foot up and so I began doing it bit by bit, until I was able to get her into the clenching position which is necessary for a farrier,’ says Lynn.
Some horses, that are kept in the same field, simply don’t get on and Lynn has to explore who is the confident horse and who is the passive one before coming up with a scheme that will lead to restored harmony.
‘Yes, every day can bring a different problem but, you know, most of them can be addressed, so never give up on a horse before checking it out physically and then emotionally,’ says Lynn.
It all makes perfect horse sense!