Riding is an addictive sport that is built on a foundation of trust between a horse and rider. A good horse and rider partnership is the product of hours upon hours spent working together; however, sometimes that partnership breaks down and becomes a source of frustration, fear, and disappointment to both partners.
The hardest horses to train are human-created “problem” horses. The hardest horses to train demonstrate a chronic state of decreased learning capability and dangerous behavior. These horses may exhibit learned helplessness, aggression, or an exaggerated fear response.
Many horse blogs will confidently state that the hardest horse to train is a stallion, chestnut mare, or X breed of horse. However, in my twenty-six years of horse riding, I have found that while certain variables can make a horse harder to work with, the HARDEST horses to work with are those who have lost their desire and capacity for learning.
There Are Few Genuinely Untrainable Horses
Most experienced trainers agree that true problem horses are much rarer than people think.
People like to talk about the unusual, the rare, and the exotic. Trainers and experienced horse owners often enjoy sharing “war stories” about the untrainable horses they have heard about or encountered in their lives. These horses are notable for their scarcity, so they feature so heavily in people’s life stories!
The majority of “problem” horses that end up at trainers for re-schooling are not born that way but rather are a product of mishandling, human error, and traumatic life experiences.
A Horse With Learned Helplessness
Learned helplessness is a psychological condition that has been extensively studied in humans, rats, and dogs. Equine researchers have now started investigating learned helplessness in horses.
Horses with learned helplessness have discovered that they must endure aversive and unpleasant situations because nothing they do can make the situation better.
In these cases, the horse would have lost their curiosity, autonomy, and willingness to engage with the people or their environment.
It is near impossible to train a horse who has lost its willingness to “try.” Many of these horses shut down during human interactions, and in severe cases, their pathological apathy may extend to their interactions with other horses and paddock life.
Horses Who Are Susceptible To Learned Helplessness
Riding school ponies, trail horses, slow-reacting horses, horses undergoing bombproof training, and horses trained with harsh methods are all vulnerable to developing a state of “learned helplessness” and losing their “try.”
Horses learn through various methods, but one of the most common techniques used is pressure and release.
When using pressure and release, the trainer will apply physical or mental pressure to the horse. If the horse performs the right action and successfully answers the trainer’s question, pressure is released.
This technique is reliable and produces good results if:
- The horse is set up to succeed, thereby limiting the amount of pressure applied
- The pressure is released at the first hint of a “try” in the right direction
- The trainer respects the horse’s autonomy and listens to the behavioral signs that indicate whether the horse is feeling overwhelmed or enjoying the work.
When performed by a skilled trainer, the pressure and release technique provides an effective means of communicating with the horse.
Riding School Horses And Trail Horses
Trail horses and riding school horses are the backbone of the horse industry. These horses are often the first equine contact people have, and they’re responsible for teaching prospective riders the basics of horsemanship and riding.
However, these horses are particularly vulnerable to learned helplessness. A new rider doesn’t have the skill, fitness, or balance to judge when and how much pressure to apply, and more importantly, they often don’t fully understand the importance of release and lightness in training.
Riding school horses and trail horses are rarely rewarded for doing the right action, so they stop trying to find the answer and work with the rider.
Slow Reacting Horses
People want instantaneous results and may fail to recognize that some horses need time to think through a problem and find the solution.
Slow-reacting horses may be working through a problem, but they are unfairly punished because they show no visible reaction. Eventually, these horses will stop reacting as they have given up on finding the answer.
Bomproofed Horses And Horses Trained With Harsh Methods
Bombproof training is the equivalent of the exposure therapy used to help humans overcome their phobias. Unfortunately, because people want to get rid of their horse’s fear response, they fail to respect the necessity of a horse being able to express that fear.
The horse learns that it cannot escape the scary stimuli and instead gives up, standing silently in a state of abject fear. The tragedy lies in the fact that people often do not recognize the damage they have done to their horse’s psyche and instead laud their horse as bombproof and beginner-safe!
Horses trained with harsh methods show a similar reaction to horses undergoing bombproof training, except you are more likely to hear these trainers talking about “teaching the horse to respect the alpha” and “teaching the horse a lesson they won’t forget.”
In short, these horses are silent victims, being bullied by a human; many owners are surprised to find that both inexperienced and experienced trainers can be guilty of this fault.
Fixing Learned Helplessness In Horses
Helping horses rediscover their curiosity and willingness to try is an enriching journey, but it takes time, tact, and patience.
The principles are very similar to how a skilled trainer will use pressure and release, except the emphasis changes from rewarding the horse for finding the “right” answer to rewarding the horse for attempting to find the answer.
In essence, you reward the “try” instead of focusing on the correctness of the response.
These horses are often naturally gentle, placid horses who respond well to positive reinforcement used in conjunction with pressure and release. Instead of the horse viewing their human interactions as a “have to,” it switches to a “want to.”
The Aggressive Horse
Horses are prey animals who prefer flight over fight; however, if placed in a situation, they cannot escape, some horses will choose to fight.
A horse that has developed an aggressive response can inflict severe and even life-threatening to people, dogs, small animals, and other horses; these horses should only be handled by an experienced, confident, and empathetic trainer.
There are three different types of aggression seen in horses:
- Fear aggression, in which a horse feels they are fighting for their life and safety
- A spoiled horse who has lost respect for a human
- Natural, healthy aggression, e.g., a stallion defending his band of mares
Horses Who Are Susceptible To Aggression-Issues
Not all horses will respond aggressively when faced with the same stimuli. Horses that are more likely to act aggressively are stallions, horses raised in a predator-dense area, horses who have lost their respect for humans, and horses trained with overly harsh training methods.
The high testosterone level in a stallion may result in increased aggression, which includes biting, rearing, and chopping. When used to protect their band of mares and babies or defend their territory, the stallion’s aggression is natural and healthy.
However, if that stallion starts displaying aggression towards his handlers, other horses, and animals, it becomes an issue that must be dealt with.
Breeding and competition stallions are often kept isolated from other horses, only being brought out for work or stud duties. These stallions lead stressful, frustrating lives that cause them to redirect their aggression towards any living being they come in contact with.
These aggression issues can be addressed by:
- Allowing the stallion to live outdoors with a band of mares, i.e., let the horse be a horse and not a human convenience.
- Geld the stallion and let him live in a herd with other geldings.
In many cases, the aggression is resolved by a change in the horse’s day-to-day management, as the stallion’s dangerous behavior is a product of unnatural living conditions causing the stallion to become overly stressed.
Horses Raised In A Predator-Dense Area
Horses growing up in a predator-dense area may learn to fight when approached by a threat. These horses have either successfully fought or seen another horse fight off a leopard, cougar, or other lone hunters.
The extreme nature of the predator threat combined with the horse’s success in defending itself ensures that the memory remains fresh and readily accessed when faced with other perceived threats.
These horses are often challenging to back and ride. They have learned that something on their back equals danger, and thus they struggle to tolerate a rider sitting in the same place a predator would attack.
Aggressive Horses Trained With Harsh Training Methods
Horses trained with harsh training methods may respond in one of three ways depending on their personality:
- Highly reactive horses may develop an uncontrolled fear response
- Gentle, calm horses will develop learned helplessness
- Dominant, naturally confident horses will lash out with an aggressive display.
Horses perceive stimuli and events differently from humans. A level of pressure or situation deemed acceptable by a human may be overwhelmingly frightening for a horse, causing them to behave as if they are fighting for their life.
Horses Who Have Lost Their Respect For Humans
These horses are often not genuinely aggressive but instead have learned they can get what they want by “bullying” the much smaller humans.
Horses are significantly larger than humans, which can cause people to become afraid and insecure when handling horses. Wilful, dominant, and intelligent horses can capitalize on their handler’s anxiety to get their desired outcome.
For example, an anxious child attempts to feed a carrot to a pony but, due to their fear, keeps snatching their hand away when the pony attempts to take the carrot. Eventually, the pony lunges for the carrot and grabs it.
The next time a child approaches, the pony attempts the same technique of lunge-and-grab, which again rewards the pony for their “aggressive” behavior. The behavior is now reinforced, and the pony is sent to a trainer for “fixing.”
Aggression due to a loss of respect is usually quickly solved by a confident trainer who can effectively and empathetically show the horse what behavior is and is not acceptable.
It is imperative when doing this training that the horse is still allowed to express themselves; stifling a horse’s autonomy and self-expression will cause other problems that are harder to solve.
Fixing Aggression In Horses
It is crucial to understand why the horse learned to be aggressive; the solution to an aggressive horse is inextricably linked to the “why” of aggression.
Regardless of the reasons behind a horse’s aggression, they are still dangerous animals that should be handled with care and tact by an experienced handler.
A trainer dealing with a genuinely aggressive horse must walk a fine line between allowing them to express themselves while teaching them that human-directed aggression is unacceptable. The tact and confidence required to retrain an aggressive horse are rarely present in novice or insecure handlers.
A Horse With Heightened Fear And Uncontrolled Panic
Horses with uncontrolled fear exist on the same spectrum as fear-aggressive horses. Where a fear-aggressive horse has learned to fight for its life, a panicked horse will do everything it can to escape the situation.
A fearful horse shows inhibited problem-solving, reduced intrinsic motivation (e.g., curiosity), and decreased learning capacity. A frightened horse may become dangerous in their attempts to escape as they lose all sense of self-preservation and awareness of their immediate surroundings.
These horses are some of the hardest and most dangerous horses to train because they have stopped “thinking” and instead are reacting in an elemental adrenalin-fuelled state of blind panic.
Horses Who Are Susceptible To An Exaggerated Fear Response
Many of the horses who develop uncontrolled fear tend to be highly-strung, reactive horses; horses trained with harsh training methods, horses who have been involved in a traumatic incidence, and stressed horses.
Highly-Strung, Reactive Horse
Horses are like humans; some horses strut out of the womb, confident and full of importance, whereas others are naturally more nervous and insecure.
These horses perceive many harmless stimuli and situations as being threatening and dangerous.
The trainer’s responsibility is to help the horse develop their confidence by teaching them to trust the trainer and self-regulate their fear response.
However, the trainer mustn’t mask the horse’s fear by stifling their response; this is the equivalent of hiding a bomb in a stadium. You can’t deal with the unexploded bomb when you can’t see it.
Fearful Horses Trained With Harsh Training Methods
Harsh training methods cause a wide range of problems, which include triggering uncontrolled anxiety in horses.
These horses become terrified of making a mistake and being punished for it; however, mistakes are a natural part of learning, and few horses get the correct answer the first time.
Reactive horses become sensitized and defensive as they learn to fear the punishment for making a mistake. Fear-based training results in a horse with increased emotional arousal and stress-response.
The stress-response decreases learning capacity resulting in the horse making more mistakes and getting punished; eventually, both horse and handler devolve into an unproductive cycle of fear and conflict!
Horses Involved In Traumatic Incidences
Horses may develop an extreme fear response to a specific stimulus if exposed to it during a traumatic incidence.
During a traumatic incidence, stress hormones flood the horse’s system, causing the memory to be consolidated in the amygdala’s emotional memory bank. The memory will form an unalterable bridge between the emotion and the stimulus.
However, the remembered stimulus may not be logical or reasonable from an unbiased observer’s perspective. During a traumatic incident, the brain will latch onto the most novel stimuli.
For example, a horse who is used to working in traffic (i.e., fine with cars) but was hit by a sunflower-yellow car may develop a phobia of all things bright yellow. The sight of a yellow rain jacket now causes the horse to fly into a blind panic as they have linked the color with a life-threatening situation.
Stressed horses will have elevated cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones, which prime the horse for a fear response.
It’s a little like when a human is watching a scary movie and jumps when someone speaks to them; they are primed to overreact to a harmless stimulus.
Fixing A Horse With An Exaggerated Fear Response
Stressed horses with an increased fear response are often the easiest to deal with; by identifying and removing the stressor, the horse returns to its normal state of placidity.
Highly-strung horses are often also stressed horses; however, their stress is often in response to unavoidable situations and stimuli.
Training should always focus on:
- Developing the horse’s self-confidence and trust in their trainer
- Habituating the horse to fear-inducing stimuli while being careful not to overwhelm or flood them
- Helping the horse to have fun and enjoy the learning experience
Horses who fall into a state of blind panic can be just as dangerous as overtly aggressive horses. While an aggressive horse may deliberately hurt their trainer or handler, a fearful horse may inadvertently cause just as much damage.
Horses in a state of extreme fear may inadvertently hurt their trainers, e.g., bolting through a fence line, spooking into oncoming traffic, flipping themselves over, etc.
Factors Which Can Make A Horse Harder To Train
Certain factors can make a horse more challenging to train, but these factors rarely make a horse impossible to work with.
- A stallion with a high libido who can’t focus on their work
- An orphan foal with abnormal behavior or overly-familiar behavior
- A horse who is ill-suited to the job they’re being asked to perform, e.g., it will be more challenging to train a Percheron for dressage than a Lusitano.
- A mismatch between the horse and handler personalities and skill
- An exuberant young horse with uninhibited emotional responses
- A horse in pain can’t perform or focus on their work
Horses who have lost the capacity and willingness to learn are the hardest to train because you can’t teach a horse who is unwilling to engage.