Can horses be stubborn?

Scottie going over the poles, example of chestnut coat genetics.
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As humans, we are guilty of treating our horses (and other animals) like people. But when it comes to training animals, this isn’t helpful. This topic has spiralled on social media recently on the back of a post about loading stubborn horses and the horse who “plays dead” to get out of being ridden.

I found myself getting called out as stubborn for believing that our current research slightly underestimates what horses are capable of thinking. And after feeling like I was hitting my head against a brick wall being called uneducated for believing we still have a lot more to learn, I wanted to write a blog post to get my point across.

This person’s main 3 arguments were:

  • Horses can’t be stubborn
  • Horses learn to react to aids without thought
  • Horses have a small frontal lobe

Horse’s don’t scheme.

Firstly, I want to agree with the current understanding of what horses can and can’t do. Horse’s aren’t capable of planning ahead the same way we are. They don’t do things just to spite us and believing that they do will just make any training harder. Most of the time, a horse won’t do something because they don’t understand, find it hard/painful or are worried about it.

However, I do believe horses can be labelled as “stubborn” or “naughty”. Not because they are doing the wrong thing just to annoy you. But because for whatever reason, they don’t want to do what you asking and they have learnt a way to avoid doing it. This could be learning that if they plant at the bottom of the ramp for long enough, that their owner will give up. Or it could be something really subtle such as bending through their neck, rather than their body when ridden to “trick” you into thinking they are doing what you are asking.

In reality, the horse isn’t doing these things to be annoying. They are doing them as when we first asked them to do something, the “naughty” behaviour was the easier option and now they have learnt to behave this way each time. Your horse might not be worried about loading anymore, or might have developed the muscle to perform the correct movement, but they have learnt the wrong behaviour and it feels like they are being stubborn.

While this doesn’t meet the human definition of stubborn or naughty behaviour, I do think it is okay to say that the horse is being stubborn in these situations. As with the right work from you, the horse will unlearn the stubborn behaviour and do the right behaviour.

Horses aren’t robots

One point the woman calling me out kept making was, horses are not capable of thinking about what comes next. So if they doesn’t do what you have asked, you haven’t trained them right. Now I get where she is coming from, but I don’t completely agree.

Afterall, we mostly train our horses using pressure and release. We put our leg on, applying pressure until they give us the response we want, moving forward, and then we take our leg off. The horse isn’t born knowing what our legs mean. So the first few times you start using your leg, your horse may offer you multiple responses; nothing, going sideways, backwards etc. It’s us rewarding them by removing our leg when they go forward what teaches them to go forward when we put our leg on.

I believe that this demonstrates a level of forward thinking from the horse. Afterall, the horse isn’t a robot, so just because you have put your leg on, they don’t have to go forwards, they choose to so that we remove the pressure. Sometimes they won’t go forward when you put your leg on and this is where I think the original argument has a problem. Just because a horse doesn’t respond instantly to an aid, it doesn’t mean the riding or the training is at fault.

Yes the rider might have not asked quite right etc. But even if the rider asked perfectly, the horse might have been briefly distracted by something, or they might not want to perform that movement for any number of reasons; such as finding it hard, being tired or even injured. That doesn’t reflect the horses training, just the idea that horses are living beings with their own brains. Even Grand Prix horses don’t respond to aids 100% of the time and I think it would be hard to argue that this is an issue with their training.

Horses still have a frontal lobe

Her final point was that horses aren’t capable of any sort of planning as their frontal lobe is too small and no amount of research is going to change that. Yes, horses do have a small frontal lobe, which in humans is responsible for strategy, impulse control and rationalisation. But horse’s do still have a frontal lobe, so while current research believes that horses are not capable of planning, our understanding of the horse’s brain is still very basic and we are constantly learning more we did not know. It’s also possible that just because this part of the brain is responsible for these types of behaviours in humans, it might not be the case for horses.

Dogs (and other mammals) also have very small frontal lobes and research has found that they are capable of some level of impulse control. An example of this is learning that if they ignore a tasty treat on the floor, that they will get another tastier treat from their handler. This is better impulse control than small children who will eat the sweet in front of them rather than waiting to have 2 sweets instead. This is a great example of planning ahead as they turn down the stimulus in front of them as they know something better will happen if they do. This suggests that just because an animal has a small frontal lobe, doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of any forward thought.

I am not trying to say that horses are able to come up with these amazing plans to outsmart us to get what they want, or that they do naughty things just because they can. Because I don’t believe that. But I do believe that they are capable of more thought and planning than research currently suggests. And I hope that as we do more research into horse behaviour and how their brains work, we continue to learn more and more about them.

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