I received this email from a reader who is considering using an equine shock collar on her unruly gelding as a last resort. I wrote about equine shock collars as endorsed by Julie Goodnight here.
I was considering buying equine shock collar for my horse and came across your article. I’m keen to understand what the alternative is when you have exhausted every avenue in terms of seeing if the horse has physical pain and it seems it is purely behavioural.
My gelding is not on the extreme end of the spectrum I am sure but is at times dangerous enough to the mare he shares a paddock with and to me that I have considered selling him.
He generally bullies the mare and when she comes into season he becomes quite aggressive towards her, last time pinning her down with his teeth by her neck while trying to climb on top of her.
With me he is generally pushy and argues about anything I ask him to do, and if I am out riding and other horses are running around, he then puts on his best stallion impression, tail up, neck arched, screaming at the top of his voice while plunging and spinning around.
I have had countless people of all sorts of therapeutic disciplines look at him and almost all have concluded there is not a huge amount wrong with him. Vets too and I recently had him tested as to whether he is a rig and his testosterone levels came back as lower than a normal gelding would be.
So here I am, trying to work out what on earth I do. I have had a trainer out who has given me some great things to work on with his behaviour toward me (basically me being a stronger more consistent yet fair leader) and I can see that over time this will work.
However I am at a loss of what to do with him and the mare. I am fortunate to be on our property now so can separate them but this is obviously unnatural and not a nice long term solution for either of them. Most of the day they graze happily together and he even lets her share his food, but in the afternoon, when he is bored, he just starts pushing her around and bothering her. And as I say, when she comes into season this escalates quite dramatically to the point one or both of them are going to get seriously injured.
If you disagree with shock collars, what would you suggest I do?
Many thanks in advance for your response.
I don’t believe there is ever an end to the opportunities for change in a horse. A shock collar is not going to make a lasting difference because horses, like people and other animals, cannot learn while they are in pain or afraid. And that’s just what a shock collar produces.
Imagine being shocked by a stun gun at what you believe are random times during what you consider perfectly normal behavior. How would you make sense of what is happening to you? I think it would take a very long time and a great deal of inductive reasoning. I’m not sure horses are either capable of or willing to apply this degree of reasoning to painful, seemingly random events like those produced by a shock collar.
The fact that you have had your gelding checked out extensively is commendable. But in terms of exhausting every available avenue to improve your horse’s behavior, you may need to consider that there is more to the behavior of a horse than physical or training-based behavior. If you have tried a wide variety of training solutions that have not worked (have you given them enough time for your horse to really learn?), then perhaps what you have is a loosely related group of behavioral reactions caused by fear, anxiety, or the fear of pain. These often are principal causes of “mis”behavior in horses.
It might be helpful to list the “mis”behaviors and group them according to whether your horse is acting aggressively, defensively, overly playfully, or just blowing off steam. Which ones seem to be most prevalent? What happens before “what happens happens (so to speak)”? What happens when you try certain solutions? What works and what does not? Keeping such a log even for a week might show you useful patterns in finding a solution.
After reading your description of his antics, I am reminded of my gelding Buster, who everyone said was too much horse for me. He was. At 17hh (I’m only 5′) and absolutely loaded with personality and great gusto for causing trouble (play) and breaking stuff with his teeth [(investigation) (hence the paddock name)], Buster also enjoyed imitating stallion-like behavior when it suited him. And it suited him every time I felt less than confident in handling/riding him, which was quite often!
In fact, Buster nearly killed me one afternoon as we rode back home along a fence line of fillies and I tried, mistakenly, to rein in his airs above the ground and “look at me I’m such a stud” antics by exerting “control,” rather than just doing the sensible thing and getting off, asking him to drop his head, and working on his body in such a way that I would connect with his limbic system to engage his attention, calm him, and make the situation safe. I should have and could have accomplished this easily with Tellington TTouch© bodywork and a few maneuvers from the ground. There is so much I regret about how I handled Buster, but I did not know at the time that connecting with his emotions through his body could effect such a profound change. In the intervening years, I have seen astonishing changes in just this kind of behavior in all sorts of horses with consistent, calm, quiet work with the TTouch Method.
Reading your descriptions of your horse’s behavioral issues makes me think it won’t help at all to get into a battle of wills by asserting yourself as a consistent, firm leader. This just won’t work. In fact, it has not worked, according to your own admission. So why not try something else? Something different, that affects animals in a completely different ways through different pathways?
Here is an article my friend Caroline Larrouilh and I collaborated on to define TTouch. I hope it helps you to see the possible benefits for you and your gelding.
Alternative Definition of Tellington TTouch In Light of Recent Findings in Neuroscience
by Caroline Larrouilh and Kim Carneal
The Tellington TTouch Method® is a holistic approach to physical, mental and emotional wellness that seamlessly integrates body work and in-hand work (ridden work in the case of horses), promoting a state of homeostasis (or coherence*) in both animal and handler. Maintaining a stable physiological and emotional state under varying types of stresses is the ultimate goal of all organisms. TTouch has a direct effect on the natural physiological responses necessary to achieve homeostatic equilibrium.
TTouch is the first integrated system of touch and in-hand work to consciously and systematically recognize and honor inter-species communication, seeking to create a relationship between animal and human based not on dominance or the “alpha” model, but rather on the acknowledgement of the animal as an individual. Instead, the Tellington Method teaches the handler to lead by example: to approach and work with the animal with respect and empathy; to break information into manageable bits based on what we know about the way animals’ brains and emotions work; and to give them time and space to process what is asked, using feedback from the animal to guide the next step. The Tellington Method teaches the handler herself flexibility and open-mindedness when seeking solutions, requiring that they adapt creatively to the situation to help the animal learn new behaviors. The Tellington Method thus differs from more dogmatic, academic training approaches with circumscribed toolboxes that rely on ethology-based dominance or fear to force obedience rather than engaging the mind of the horse.
In each of its applications, the Tellington Method allows for an animal and handler to connect at a cellular level, experiencing a state of harmony characterized by a calm, focused awareness and trusting confidence in each other. Each species reaches emotional and physical homeostasis individually and as a unit.
The electromagnetic field of the heart is responsible for generating heart coherence.
Heart coherence in turn effects an empathetic experience while increasing levels of neurohormone oxytocin (calm connection through physical contact) and decreasing cortisol (stress) in both animal and handler.
This degree of calm, engaged trust in mutual homeostasis (or coherence) greatly enhances the learning capability of both animal and handler. Research has shown that new skills are more quickly and easily learned in a state of calm, and are better retained and more easily generalized, or applied over a range of different situations. New scientific research about mirror neurons† may explain in part why the Tellington Method is so effective. Its exercises are thought to awaken mirror neurons in the brains of both animals and humans through both the sense of sight and touch. The sense of touch, along with the physical proximity and handler state of mind, is thought to further enhance the capacity for cooperative learning and performance via
Mirror Neurons form a large part of how we relate to others.
Discovered by Marc Iacoboni, they are literally responsible for the old saying, “monkey see, monkey do.
A key difference between the Tellington Method and others is that many of the benefits for the animal are handler independent and reciprocal. TTouch at its foundation is not a one-way endeavor like some methods of animal training, “do it my way because I am lead mare” or massage where the recipient is passive and the massage therapist is active, but interactive because heart coherence, neurohormone levels, and mirror neurons amount to cellular coherence in both beings. TTouch works on the entire body, brain and mind of both species involved. TTouch benefits both animal and handler all the way down to the cellular level.
* coherence–consistency, cohesion. From Dictionary.com:
coherence (kō-hîr’əns, -hěr’-) A property holding for two or more waves or fields when each individual wave or field is in phase with every other one
† mirror neurons–neural cells found in the premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, primary somatosensory cortex, and the inferior parietal cortex of the brains of humans. While studies have not been conducted on horses, it is believed that most mammals share both similar brain structures and the capacity for mirror neuron function. In monkeys, functioning mirror neurons have been found in the inferior frontal gyrus. See Rizzolatti, Giacomo; Craighero, Laila (2004). “The mirror-neuron system”. Annual Review of Neuroscience 27: 169–192.
First, I suggest moving the mare for the short term, for her safety. If you are not her owner, you are at risk of being held responsible for any harm that might come to her through his hijinks. I would not worry at this point about what is “natural” and not natural.
Second, how old is he and how much exercise is he getting? A young horse (like my Buster) with tons of energy and not enough exercise is somewhat like a bored kid with too much Mountain Dew in his system and no hall monitor. “Eeee! What’s next? What can I do with all this energy?”
If he is not getting consistent workouts in interesting and stimulating environments (I am NOT talking about being run in a round pen or W/T/C around, around and around in an arena or lunging) enough to tire him out, then it’s only natural that in the afternoon he would seek out his own stimulation. “Buster” busted a lot of stuff, including me, and eventually, himself. Don’t let this happen to you.
As far as escalation with mares in season, I suggest that after you take a serious look at TTouch bodywork and groundwork, and if you choose to try some out, that you ask him to lower his head and lead him past mares in season using TTouch ground work methods. If you have to stop along the fence line and get him calm, do so through the use of bodywork. It’s quick ad simple, and the calm focus it creates cannot be beat. You are not then in danger of being injured in a battle for control.
Once you have success with a fence separating the mares, try working him (use a partner to work the mare, for safety and to reduce the possibility of mayhem) with the mare that is most familiar to him. If you have even a small success, then you know you are going in the right direction. Keep it up.
What I am suggesting is a methodical examination of how, when why and where his problems occur and what you have done in response. What works, what hasn’t. Follow this by an equally systematic connection with your horse’s mind, body and spirit in a way you might not have done before.
I truly feel that you will not have to resort to a shock collar if you try out these suggestions. Please let me know what you think and if you find a solution. I wish you the best of luck and safety!