Sudden Behavior Changes in Your Horse – What is the Source?

Are you baffled by the sudden change in your horse’s behavior?  Did it seem to come on suddenly, out of the blue with no warning?  Is your horse trying to bite or kick you, getting pushy or bucking for no apparent reason? Behavior changes can be baffling, upsetting and downright frustrating especially if you are preparing for a show or just want to relax on the trails.

When a horse comes into my training program with sudden behavior changes I run through a thorough intake to get to the source of the behavior.   Here are some questions I ask that can be very telling:

  1. When did you first notice the behavior change?
  2. Think back, was your horse trying to tell you something before the behavior became a problem? If so in what way was your horse trying to tell you for example little nips, pinny ears, cinchy, crow hopping?
  3. Did you and/or your horse have an accident?  If so what were the details?
  4. Was there anything going on at the barn at the time the behavior changed?  Did anything change in your horse’s environment?
  5. Has there been any change in feed or supplements?
  6. Has your horse ever had dental work?  If so when was the last time?  Were power tools used?  Was sedation used and if so was it heavy or light?  Did the dental specialist or veterinarian work with your horse’s head high in the air or did the specialist/vet work from their knees with your horse’s head down?
  7. If your horse is in a stall, how many hours a day does your horse spend in the stall?  Does your horse pace, crib or have stall bound behaviors?
  8. What position in the herd is your horse with other horses?  Does your horse get picked on?

As you go through this exercise don’t dismiss even the silliest thought that comes to mind, it may be a clue to unraveling your horse’s change in behavior, go ahead and write everything down that you can think of.

Horse Body Check

Horse Body Check


After a thorough intake next is a body check:

  1. Look at your horse’s eyes.  Are they tired looking or bright?  Does your horse have furrows above the eyelids?  Is there a worried look or does your horse look wide eyed and panicky?  Does your horse get panicked over certain situations for example having to go out to pasture with other horses?
  2. Gently and slowly run your thumb down the side of your horse’s neck and down the back.  Is there any flinchy skin, swishy tail, pinny ears or does your horse try to nip you? Repeat this on the other side and make any notes of resistant behavior.
  3. Gently run your thumb along the ribs and around the girth, and make note of any flinchy, swishy tail or behavior that is otherwise resistant.
  4. Gently press your thumb on your horse’s hip with about 1-2 lbs of pressure and see if there is any resistance or dipping away from your pressure.  Repeat this at the flank and make note.
  5. Check for possible ulcers by gently pressing on the nickel to quarter size indentation located in the girth area about a hand’s width from your horse’s elbow.   Does your horse have any reaction such as swishy tail, stomping foot or try to nip you?  Be gentle with this, 85% of domestic horses have ulcers and some are so severe the horse can kick violently or completely collapse.

Let’s review your list.  Are you recognizing possible sources of behavior?  Has your horse actually been trying to tell you that he/she has a pain issue whether that be physical or emotional (emotional pain can be a result from a move to a new barn to the death of a herd mate)?  With this intake you can now take informed action of perhaps contacting your veterinarian, a dental specialist, an equine chiropractor or maybe it’s time to change saddles or riding styles.  Whatever action you take you now know that Problems Are Not Always Training Issues……………


About Gentle Horse Trainer Missy Wryn

Specializing in problem and dangerous horses Missy Wryn is an internationally recognized Gentle Horse Trainer and member of the Association of Professional Humane Educators. Missy's Training the Whole Horse® methods & techniques and the creation of her widely popular All-In-One Bitless Bridle have been featured in media such as Alaska Airlines Magazine, Equine Monthly, Natural Horse, NW Horse Source, Stable Management, The Horse Show with Rick Lamb, Horse Girl TV and more. For more information visit Missy Wryn’s website at or call toll free (888) 406-7689.
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6 Responses to Sudden Behavior Changes in Your Horse – What is the Source?

  1. Susan Lund says:

    I’ve had a chiropractor out several times so pain issues should have been dealt with. Floated teeth. Started over doing ground work. The only thing I can think of is change in environment…I moved her to a stable where she is in a dry lot which was necessary to keep her off of grass for her health (metabolic). If this is the problem, and I cannot change her environment, what can be done to help her? She started rearing to the point she reared over backwards on me. Thank you.

  2. artofequus says:

    Curious about concerns re use of power tools and/or head high rather than low during dental work. Thanks!

  3. Christina says:

    I’ve been around horses all my life and never had to deal with this. I’ve got a new horse. Her she is somewhere between 3-6. When I first ride her she was absolutely fine. When the guy brought her to my house her attitude changed. I didn’t know she was in heat tilvafter my fiance rode her and she threw a fit. Trying to buck and run into the barn next to the guilding. We’ll how she has kicked me when trying to lounge her. Also everytime we apply weight to get back she tries nipping and kicking. I don’t know what I can do for her to go back to the other horse I’ve met. And no she wasn’t drugged when I rode her. I made sure she as an drugged

  4. Bec Jupp says:

    Hi Missy, my mare’s name is Missy! She started about 3 months ago getting grumpy under saddle then also on the ground and goes between being dopey and out of it to very angry and almost dangerous. I’ve tried everything and my vet has no more ideas. We started with chiro and physio, had a course of pain killers, blood tests, ulcer treatment, internal scan… But reading your page I’ve realised it all started about when I got my new horse and it put her to the bottom of the pecking order. She separated herself about a week ago and things have been a little better. I can rug her again and not feel in danger. I am wondering if I should try taking her up to my mum’s for a total change? I’m just not sure if anyone else can handle her at the moment, she seems to only put up with me. Some days she is very sooky other days won’t come near me now and I know to leave her alone. She did fracture her head a year ago and I’m also worried that is linked somehow.
    Would love your advice,

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