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Tricks of the Trade

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

Behaviourist Jenni Nellist shares her go-to equine behaviour problem solving strategies for success

Correct Assessment

Getting to the root of the problem and fixing it from the bottom up is the heart of the diagnostic approach to behaviour problems. When I understand the deeper issues I can tailor a highly integrated approach: strategic changes in management, training and behaviour modification, and any drug or nutritional therapy that may be required (one of the reason why I work alongside the vet and other professionals!). Just throwing some training recipe at the symptoms and seeing if they’ll stick can be doomed to fail if the emotional and motivational reasons for behaviour are not properly understood.

There are four key questions that need answering, regardless of the type of behavioural problem:

1. Where, when and how is the behaviour happening?

2. What’s in it for the horse?

3. What are the horse’s emotions?

4. What is the horse’s body language trying to say?

Sometimes the answers aren’t that obvious, so I dig deeper to learn about how the behaviour has developed and is being maintained, and to understand the horse’s life experience to date. This is to find out more about the horse’s personality type, how much distress the horse might be experiencing, and what their learning ability is like.

A stressed out, anxious horse is more likely to learn flight behaviour, so desperately needs to de-stress first: a stress audit will identify the trouble spots to be addressed. With less stress it’s easier for the horse to be gradually reintroduced to something they fear.

A confident, pushy horse might still be confused underneath, but fight behaviour has become a habit. A stress audit is still useful and training will often consist of teaching the horse a new behaviour that’s more rewarding, and incompatible with the unwanted behaviour.

Jenni Nellist is an Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist and a Full Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors.

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