According to Jeannine Berger, an equine behaviorist at UC Davis in California, the better you can manage "mind games" with your horse, the more likely you will be to get the results you want.
Berger offers three principles to managing equine behavior:
- Understand what stresses your horse
- Prepare your horse for those stresses
- Provide motivation to overcome or accept stresses
Since horses have a highly developed flight response that creates stress because of the constant sense of fear brought on by situations in the environment the can't control or understand. When a horse feels it cannot control its situation, it wants to flee. If the horse cannot flee because it is in a pen, trailer or being ridden, the stress can cause undesirable behavior.
"When the horse can't control the outcome of a situation, then the stress can often become distress. Not only can you see bad or altered behavior, constant stress can also begin to lead to health issues like ulcers or other disorders. Problem horses and horses with metabolic disorders are often horses under stress."
Horses view changes to their routine as bad. Loading on trailers, traveling, new housing, strange footing, different water and feed, different sounds and noises can stress a horse.
To relieve the anxiety and stress that horses feel when circumstances or routines change, Berger offers several suggestions for managing what might appear to be "mind games" on the part of your horse brought on by changing circumstances.
- Be consistent with your horse and have a reliable plan for new occurrences.
- Change routines once in a while to get your horse used to different situations.
- If you travel with your horse, bring along items with which the horse is familiar such as blankets, tack and a companion animal in some cases since horses hate to be alone.
- Bring food and water from home and make sure the horse has access to long-stem roughage since horses need forage in their guts and keeping them full of hay reduces stress.
- Get your horse used to water that tastes different by adding a drop or two of vinegar to the water at home occasionally to prepare it for changes in water from place to place.
- Be patient. If something startles your horse, bring it back to the spot again and pretend that you have all the time in the world to overcome any stressful situations.
- Make trailer experiences positive and avoid abrupt stopping, starting and turning which can be terrifying to your horse.
Reward positive reactions to stressful situations and build your horse's confidence by careful management of changes and situations so that your horse is not stressed by surprises and can grow to trust you under unusual circumstances. True trust will relieve any need of mind games on the part of your horse.