Can horses be naughty?

I was asked recently whether I think that horses have the capacity to be naughty or if this is a label we give horses because we humans think in those terms. However, I believe that ‘naughty’ is a term that is overused for both animals and children.

We call children ‘naughty’ so often when more accurately they are frustrated, tired, have misplaced humour, or are expressing an opinion that differs from ours. ‘Naughty’ is one word to cover things we don’t like – and it conveniently puts the blame with the child or animal. If we call a child or a horse naughty we don’t have to look at ourselves to see if something we are doing is the underlying cause of their behaviour. Through the label of ‘naughty’, especially for horses, we convince ourselves that punishment, an easy option, is justified.

For example, take the child that is saying he/she doesn’t want to have a bath. He is expressing an opinion. We as adults often don’t want to do things and either we do them because we understand that we have to, or we simply don’t do it. Rather than punish the child for getting frustrated that his opinion doesn’t change anything, we change tact - we find a way to motivate the child to have a bath through making bath-time more fun, or we explain that we understand but that he/she must have a bath and afterwards they can do something nice, such as play.

However, we expect our horses to understand without explaining. For example, consider a horse that doesn’t want to be caught. It is much easier to label them as ‘naughty’ rather than address the fact that he/she would rather stay in a field than go somewhere with you. The horse is expressing an opinion - we should listen rather than dismiss it, which might cause frustration and make the situation worse. I am not saying that you should let your horse do whatever he/she wants but rather work with him/her in the same way that we work with children at bath-time.

With horses, we are quick to use punishment to get what we want - such as using a whip on a horse that doesn’t want to walk in from the field. Although this can be effective, and we can train the horse that he ‘must do as we say, or else’….is this really the relationship we should be aiming for with our animals? You’ll end up with a very obedient horse that never expresses an opinion but most of us want a partnership and this is not the way to go about it. Owners who listen to what their horses are telling them, and use a patient, flexible and compassionate approach to working with their horse, have horses that have opinions, but who listen when an alternative is suggested and trust their owners.

In summary, the question to ask is not whether or not horses can be naughty but ‘why is my horse doing that?’ – then we have started on the path to a better partnership with the horses in our lives.

                                                Suzanne Rogers

By Suzanne Rogers (Learning About Animals) August 2009