Causes of misbehavior

Wrong feed, lack of turnout, saddle doesn’t fit, poor fitting tack, wrong bit for the shape of the mouth, pain related issues or just plain old bad riding are some of the biggest causes of misbehavior in Tb’s. I try not to come off as somebody who is that pain in the ass know it all when it comes to ottb’s but many of my opinions on the above issues come from years of experience.

Growing up none of these things were on my radar. I was a serious pony club geek yet I knew nothing about saddle fit or how feed affected behavior. What do you mean some horses like different bits? Some don’t like certain girths? Feed makes horses hot?


It’s been my experience that feeds that are very high in sugar can make certain Tb’s hot. I have seen it happen with my own eyes. I had a lesson student who I traveled out to teach. She has a lovely horse who was typically very quiet. His behavior had changed drastically and he was now spooking, bucking and just acting very abnormal. I had went out to give her a lesson and I normally rode him the first part of the lesson and she rode the second part. He was so high-strung we decided to free lunge him and he jumped out of the ring. Um, what the heck??? I was going over a long list with her of anything that changed in his routine. We got to feed and she mentioned she had switched him from TC complete to Omelene 100. If you read the list of ingredients it’s quite different between the two feeds. It was the only thing we could put our finger on so she said she would switch him back and see if it really was that easy. Imagine our surprise when he was back to himself in no time at all. Is it really that easy? I’m not saying that it always is but I very seriously consider feed as a root of misbehavior. Some horses are just that sensitive to sugar.

I feed my Tb’s TC Senior because it’s a feed that is one of the lowest in sugar on the market and has a very high protein and fat content. It puts on weight and you can feed a high amount of it without them getting the sillies. I also LOVE ration balancers. I had never heard of a ration balancer until I started reading about it on the Chronicle of the Horse bulletin board. It’s a feed that is high in protein and low in fat to be feed at a rate of 1-2lbs. Basically a vitamin/mineral supplement that is extremely low in sugars and can be used alone or to mix with your commercial feed.

My connemara/tb is an extremely hot type of horse but he’s an easy keeper. I can tell you that he looks amazing on just 1lb of the TC 30% ration balancer and he is calm. Seriously 100x calmer than he ever was on any type of feed. My easy keeping tb’s eat the ration balancer or a mix of the ration balancer and TC senior. I don’t believe in feeding a lot of concentrates because most Tb’s do tend to have ulcers or sensitive stomachs. Feeding high quality grain actually allows me to feed less.

When it comes to feed you really need to do your research. Don’t just assume what your boarding barn is feeding your horse is okay and there is no way it’s making your horse hot. Boarding barns often want to feed lower cost feed to increase their profit margins (Not saying this is the case with every barn) and this can really affect the horses.

What about alfalfa? I think that all horses are individuals when it comes to feed. I feed my Tb’s alfalfa and almost never see issues in behavior. However, if I do have one who tends to be really hot then I may not feed them alfalfa and instead go towards timothy or another grass hay. Alfalfa will give Junior (the conn/tb) the runs and his system just can’t handle it. Not to mention he’s an easier keeper and doesn’t need it 🙂

Feeding free choice hay can reduce ulcers in horses and I believe it removes the anxiety about feed time. We have slow feeding hay boxes that Kurt made so the horses have hay in front of them 24×7.

Saddle fitting:

Saddle shopping can be a nightmare! Fitting both the horse and the rider is a difficult process. Finding a saddle fitter who doesn’t just fit for one company and can bring a bunch of saddles for you to try is even harder. I hate shipping saddles back and forth in the mail and it costs a ton.

I think that a properly fitting saddle can make a world of difference in the behavior, movement and comfort level of your horse. I own a bunch of saddles in all different widths because of the large number of horses that I have coming in for training. I try to make sure the horse that I ride the most has a saddle that is fitted to it so I have all wool flocked saddles.

Now that I bought Letterman for myself I needed the saddle fitter to come and take a look to see what saddle of mine fit him the best. I had been riding him in my medium county conquest but she said he fit much better in the narrow county stabilizer xtr. She took some wool out of it to make it closer to a medium but she said the shape of the panels in that saddle fit him much better.

I have seen horses who are so painful in their back due to poorly fitted saddles. I imagine it’s like us wearing shoes that hurt and being asked to run. I have a lot of shoes that look pretty but hurt my feet so badly that I can barely walk comfortably. If the saddle doesn’t fit than behavior issues are sure to crop up. Some horses are just really tough and deal but others make their opinion know.

Way back in the day I had a horse named Bucking Beau Dandy. He was always really hard to get on the bit and bucked frequently. We had went for a lesson and the instructor asked to look at the saddle. Um, broken tree. My mom and I hadn’t thought to look but we think he rolled in the stall with his saddle on..hey I was a kid who didn’t think to tie the pony up 🙂

Kurt will tell you that Junior is very sensitive to saddle fit. He went through this period where he was bucking and bucked Kurt right off in the middle of a foxhunt. I can’t say that I didn’t know better about saddle fit because I did know quite a bit. I knew his saddle didn’t fit but I didn’t have anything else and had been lazy about getting the fitter out to discuss options 🙂 He had went from a medium to a wide (close to an extra wide). Found a wide county in a 19″ long forward flap for Kurt and life is good again.

Sometimes horses that are sore from bad fitting saddles don’t act out but maybe they don’t go forward or they pin their ears. You have to check for the subtle signs. It’s not that expensive to have a saddle fitter come to have a look. There are some awesome blogs out there about saddle fit and this is one of my favorites-


I think we all know that turnout can affect behavior. I’ve been dealing with horses that have been kept up in their small paddocks due to rain and they are being very silly. I rarely lunge but sometimes if they aren’t getting turned out then lunging is a great way to make sure you get the kinks out before getting on. Don’t put your body on the line 🙂


Man, I just love bits. I have a huge bit collection that I like to look at but rarely use. All horses have different shaped mouths so the bit you ride in can make a lot of difference. I’m far from an expert on this top but I have found that horses with really fat tongues often like a thin bit or maybe something with a mullen mouth. I have serious love for nathe bits or the herm sprenger duo bits which are super flexible rubber mullen mouth bits. The tb’s that are sensitive or are just learning about contact love these bits.

When talking about bits it’s also important to remember teeth. The younger the horse the more often they need their teeth done. I try not to even start working a horse unless I know their teeth have been done. I had a horse (Boppus) that had some of the most messed up teeth I had seen. It was like they hadn’t been touched. He had embedded caps stuck up in his gums, horrible points and his canine teeth were actually cutting into his tongue becuase they were so long and sharp. He had a lot of resentment about contact for a long time but eventually got better.


I could write for hours on this topic. There are so many pain related issues that can cause misbehavior. My blog readers probably remember me writing about Prospect Park aka Parker. He was this gorgeous lovely horse who raced until he was 6yrs and came to CANTER. He had this amazing personality and just loved life and loved people. He was with a professional trainer and having major behavior issues. He was pegged as just an asshole who didn’t want to work and was borderline dangerous. Allie sent him down to me to have a shot at figuring him out. I brought him along slowly and everything was going really well. I couldn’t figure out why he might have had issues in the past. He was this amazing mover and boy could he jump. It started to get hot and all of a sudden he became reluctant to go forward, started propping and was reluctant to do anything. I leaned towards ulcers because he was a very sound horse. Gave him some time off and treated for ulcers. He was drastically improved after the treatment and we started going out xc schooling and to little shows. He was still struggling to round his back and the canter and quite resistant about it when you would make him come through the back in the canter. We tried lunging, different bits, hackamore and tons of other stuff. It was puzzling to me but all along I kept thinking there is some issue that I am missing.

I had taken him out xc schooling several times and he was awesome. We went one really super hot day and he had what I will call an episode. This normally super quiet horse went crazy. He was bucking, rearing, running sideways and just panicked. I was out there with my mom and had no clue what was wrong. He was lathered in sweat and just mentally checked out. We went down in the woods just so he could relax and cool down. I decided not to jump anymore because something was wrong. It took him an hour to cool down that day. I called Allie and said okay I think he can’t breathe. Now he had never made a noise to indicate he was struggling to breathe but my gut was telling me something had caused this panic attack. Then I noticed he got to running in the field and came in and couldn’t cool down and couldn’t seem to catch his air. I emailed my vet and she was leaning toward onset of a heaves.

We have the vet out and start with lunging him. His respiration is extremely high. We go to scope him and immediately she goes OMG this is bad just so bad. I can’t recall everything but he had a paralyzed pharynx and so much scar tissue in there. Now he had been a horse that had choked several times quite badly so of course it all made sense once we got the diagnosis.

Another recent case came up with a horse that I used to have here in training. Kiss a Monster aka Monster was a 3yr when I had him and he always had this little buck in him. I thought he just needed some more time as he was growing. He wasn’t bad at all and almost sort of typical for a young horse. Allie had started him back up in North Carolina and said the same behavior was there. They had the vet go over him and he had a slight tear in the stifle area. They injected it and she tells me he is a completely different horse. An absolute puppy dog and as quiet as they come now that he doesn’t hurt anymore!

I know that Letterman was a real bastard off and on when I started riding him but again not in a mean sort of way. He raced for a long time and it was very clear to all of us that his muscles hurt. I can tell you that if I had pushed him during this time when he was painful from new muscles being used he could have been pretty bad. He was pretty explicit about his feelings and I could read him pretty easily so I knew that he needed a very gradual build up of work. I avoided the bad behavior just by reading what he was trying to tell me.

I think that I have gotten pretty good at listening to my horses and figuring them out but I sure have made some mistakes along the way which have helped me be more aware for the next time. CANTER does an amazing job at making sure we are not passing on problem horses. If they aren’t 100% right then we aren’t selling them!


Let me just say that I do not believe in the typical stereotype that tb’s are hot. This blog shows that the majority of the Tb’s we get in are absolutely quiet enough for amateur riders. They are kind and forgiving. They don’t require a perfect rider or even a rider that has experience with tb’s.

However, there are many horses that just won’t work for a certain rider because their style of riding doesn’t match the horses personality or the rider’s schedule doesn’t work with how frequently the horse needs to be ridden. I have some horses who are so soft in the mouth they don’t tolerate bad hands. Some that are so sensitive they can’t handle somebody with grippy legs or seats. Horses that are really spooky and need a rider that is super-duper calm and can think before a horse even does something. Horses that have way too athletic of a jump for a rider that might not be that secure over fences. I’m always really careful that I make the right match to make sure the horse and rider will work together.

I have seen bad riding or bad riding programs ruin a horse faster than anything else. I do think that tb’s are so willing that they try to please but all horses progress at their own rate. You have to listen to the horse and the sensitive horses can become fried very quickly in the wrong program or a program that is pushing them faster than what they are ready for.

If your trainer doesn’t love Tb’s and doesn’t have experience riding tb’s than sometimes that turns out not to be a great experience (not saying you have to have experience with Tb’s but it does help). I have seen rider/horse combo’s do a complete 180 in a different training program. I often suggest that people get a second opinion from somebody who specializes in ottb’s  or green horses if they are experience training issues that don’t seem to be getting any better.

If the horse isn’t a good match for you then selling it is never the wrong thing to do. I have seen so many people who have come back and said they are now finally having fun riding again! Riding is supposed to be fun so don’t compromise when it comes to finding the right horse. There are many different types of ottb’s. I have had some 3-4yr’s that are the quietest tb’s you will find that are perfect for ammy’s. I promise you that ammy friendly ottb’s do exist 🙂 Just make sure you are buying horses that have been let down and restarted so you can get an accurate read on what their true personality will be.

Hope this can help anybody who is trying to diagnosis the root of a behavioral issue.


8 responses to “Causes of misbehavior

  1. Thank you so much for writing all this up — this is a great post with a lot of information. I have been wanting to try a Nathe bit on Encore forever, but they are expensive! Have you ever found a place with used ones or a program where you can trial them?

    • Brena, I’m the cheapest person around who has all the nicest high quality tack and equipment 🙂 Ebay is my friend and also bits and barter board is a good one. I have found the nathe’s or duo’s by search on ebay for rubber bits. They are really different than the happy mouths (thinner and more flexible). I think they are absolutely amazing and can completely take away anxiety in relation to contact for some horses.

  2. Great blog Jess! Very informative and definitely things to think about. Thanks for the great blog.

  3. Rebecca Macchione

    Great post Jess. I whole heartedly agree with all of these areas. My TB Bailey was such a great education in all of the above. With my other horses I had dabbled in ideas about feeding and saddle fit and working out training plans that work for the horse but because Bailey had some really serious physical issues, I was forced for his and my sake, to look very seriously at feeding, saddle fit, appropriate medications, training that worked for him. If I had not done these things he would have been a dangerous, lunatic and I am sure eventually labeled unrideable.
    Now that I am getting a fresh start with Fergus who has gotten such a great start with you, I am excited to use the things I have figured out, to make Fergus and my life together simpler and lots of fun.
    Of course he and Bailey will spend plenty of time chatting in turn-out, I hope Bailey doesn’t give Fergus any great ideas about how to “make Mom yelp” just for the fun of it!

  4. Lauren Gassaway

    Jess, this is a great post. Sad to admit it, but it never occurred to me until about 10 years into my horse career, when I was working as a racehorse groom, that horses could possibly have their own reasons for misbehaving.

    Your stories are interesting and great illustrations to your point. Here are two more simple stories I have to add to the post.

    Story 1
    I was grooming a racehorse named Tartlet. He would let me pick three of his feet, but not his front left. When I went to pick that one, he would kind of rear up and pivot away. It was very frustrating, especially since the other three were no problem, and this went on for some time. Finally, our vet told us Tartlet had internal knee damage and just could not flex it fully. Then you knew you just had to modify the way you cleaned that hoof. In retrospect, duh.

    Story 2
    We have an ex-racehorse we use as a pony on the racetrack named Ruthless. Our assistant trainer was riding him one day on the racetrack as usual and Ruthless just stone cold props, totally out of nowhere. Our assistant had enough sense to wonder why this happened. Turned out Ruthless harshly bit his tongue while galloping. When he did, he just stopped, took his moment to stand there licking his lips and chomping his mouth, then went on about his business.

  5. Great post Jessica. I wish more people would A.) realize that there is most likely a reason for the behavior, and B.) take the time to figure out what is going on.

  6. Wonderful article…my girl was older before I figured out it was saddle fit that made her so silly. Had a saddle fitter down who worked her magic and one used County later, we were literally jumping sunbeams in the indoor!

  7. Just found this blog post, and it is perfect timing. I am having what I think are saddle fit issues right now and it is reassuring to read this and also have a few other avenues to try if the saddle is not the problem. Jess the knowledge you pass along is great.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s