Is It Behavioral Or Physical? The Horse Person's Conundrum

Nov 11, 2022 - 8:09 AM

“We are their advocates.”
“You need to stand up for your horse.” 
“Listen to what your horse is telling you.”

If you’ve ever owned a horse, chances are you’ve heard one of these phrases. They are meant to instill a sense of responsibility—to make sure that before ribbons or achievements, your horse’s health and welfare comes first.

But chances are, you’ve also heard these phrases:

“He’s just testing you.” 
“She has your number.” 
“He’s just seeing what he can get away with.”

On one hand, horses are large creatures with opinions of their own, and there need to be boundaries and expectations set at an early age. Otherwise, the inherent dangers of riding can skyrocket. On the other hand, horses are intelligent creatures with minds of their own, and we need to be aware of what they’re trying to tell us at any given moment.

Azul in her stall
After making little overall progress with Azul’s canter transitions, blogger Sophie Coffey went back to the diagnostic drawing board. Photos Courtesy Of Sophie Coffey

Those are the two opposing goalposts of horsemanship, and we can’t securely be on just one team. We’re constantly running around on the playing field, trying to ascertain at any given moment which side we want to defend and which side we want to score on. Do we tell our horses what to do, or do we listen to what our horses are trying to say?

Along the way, we rely on others to help us sort through the endless shades of gray. We have vets out to evaluate anything potentially physical. We have trainers to evaluate anything potentially behavioral. At the end of the day, though, the owner is responsible for making the final call. 

As an amateur, this can be doubly difficult when your trainer or vet is solidly on one side, while your gut instinct is on another. 

This is where I’ve found myself pretty much all year. Despite making great progress, Azul’s canter departure always remained troublesome. At some points it was better, at others it was dreadful, and the issue never completely went away. We had a vet out in February, but couldn’t really pin anything down, and my trainers used their knowledge and decided that she was trying to push the boundaries of what she could get away with—that she was being a “bad baby horse.” After all, Azul does embody many “mare” qualities. But despite those facts, every ride my gut said, “she’s trying to tell me something…” 

So I recently had the vet out again for another check-up, and this time, he gave a diagnosis: Her sacroiliac joint, where the spine and pelvis connect, was pretty out of whack. Bad enough that it was impinging her movement both on the ground and under saddle at the trot, and that was, in his opinion, also the most likely reason why her canter performance was so low. 

It also explained why things were so on/off with her canter transitions. Just like with any back injury, things could feel better one day—or even for weeks at a time—but it wouldn’t take much (a farrier visit, a buck in the pasture) to tweak it and send her into a worse place on the next ride. Since we missed the initial injury when it happened (most likely back in February when her performance first started going south) for the better part of a year she had just been getting by. 

Azul Trotting
Despite challenges in the canter departure, Azul consistently gives lovely efforts at the trot.

Azul is now on a treatment plan, but even though we’re hopefully on the road to a better overall canter experience, she is also still a young, intelligent mare. I’ll always need to thread the needle between, “my horse’s actions are the result of something physical,” and, “my horse’s actions are the result of something behavioral.” 

If I learned anything from this experience so far, it’s that moving forward, I personally want to be the type of horse person who defaults to the former. Do horses sometimes develop behaviors that are meant to test the boundaries of what they’re asked to do? Absolutely. But horses are also literally mentally incapable of premeditated behavior. They don’t see us coming and think, “Oh good, I know what I’m going to try out on HER today…” They are creatures of the past and present.

So while I can’t change the past year with Azul, I can change our present, and ultimately our future. From here on out, I promise to give her the benefit of the doubt. No, not to let her tell me what we’re doing at any given moment—but to be a better listener when she’s trying to communicate.

Hopefully, she’ll have different things to say to me moving forward as a result. 


Sophie Coffey grew up riding by the seat of her pants in Virginia hunt country, and she took a flying leap into the top levels of the sport through sheer will and luck after a cold call landed her a job at Hunterdon, Inc. She continued freelancing as a jack-of-all-trades through her 20s for some of the top names in the industry, getting the best education possible in horsemanship and larger life lessons. After leaving the sport to pursue a career in marketing, she returned in 2018 as an adult amateur and is currently teaching her baby warmblood mare Azul the ropes. She resides in Richmond, Virginia, with her fully indoctrinated horsey husband and several kitties. Follow her adventures on Instagram @coffeyinthesaddle.

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