Understanding Horse Behavior Can Influence Your Horse Barn Construction
December 11, 2019
We generally take our cues on horse barn construction from a stand-out team of designers and engineers. But the advice of horse trainer Warwick Schiller on horse behavior should definitely be taken into consideration when you’re designing and building your horse barn.
Warwick Schiller is a well-known name at horse expos worldwide. His website describes him as a “lifelong equestrian of varying disciplines,” and the description is apt.
He moved here from Australia in his 20s to train horses. Since then, he’s built a remarkable career both in horse training and competitive reining, where he became a National Reining Horse Association Reserve World Champion and a representative of Australia at the World Equestrian Games in 2010 and 2018.
His “varying disciplines” is his more recent development of behavioral techniques, which are both fascinating and amazingly beneficial — even when it comes to horse barn building.
The Horse That Got in Warwick’s Head and Changed His Approach
Horse training, as Warwick practiced it in the past, was primarily about obedience.
“People would bring me the horse, I’d train the horse, and then they’d take it home,” he said.
It was all about either correcting behavior or instilling new ones — typically a combination of them both. But that all changed when his wife brought home a horse named Sherlock.
“The horse was just shut down,” Warwick said. “He kept everything on the inside. I would compare it to depression in humans.”
None of the techniques Warwick had used in the past would draw Sherlock out. “It really made me look at things differently,” he said. “It got me looking for answers in places that are not mainstream horse answers.”
Warwick really had no motivation to change how he approached his profession. His horse training business was successful; his YouTube channel subscriptions were through the roof; he was speaking at horse expos worldwide — but Sherlock was pushing him into new areas.
Answers in Places That are Not Mainstream Horse Answers
Sherlock had made Warwick step away, and really think about why horses do what they do. He began to study the subtle signals they give off, the little signs of concerns.
A lot of horses have anxiety, Warwick notes. That anxiety is lessened when they are in a herd, as other horses are collectively looking out for the herd’s well-being.
Alone, or with humans, a horse is on the lookout for trouble, and that anxiety flares. Those are the signs Warwick began to notice and react to — and they began to produce some remarkable results.
Consider the case of Cody. This mustang had a propensity to bolt — never a good thing with a horse. At a training session, Warwick observed that horse would turn its head when approached from a certain side.
What Warwick did next was very subtle, but the result was amazing. He tells the tale in this video:
By recognizing Cody’s agitation, Warwick was able to calm the horse to the point where it launched into a deep, REM-rich sleep — perhaps the first one it had ever had.
“When You Change the Way You Look at Things, the Things You Look at Change.”
The impact the new approach had on Warwick cannot be understated. Before he was “telling the horse more. Now I’m listening more.”
He’s also watching for “little signs of concern” in the horse. “When you see these signs of concern, stop what you’re doing and wait for them,” he said. “It can make a huge difference.”
Warwick shares an example of a typical anxiety sign — a biting problem — in this video. In the past, he might have tried to interact and change it. Instead, he used this approach.
Ultimately, it’s led to what Warwick describes as relationship-building with the horses. He’s attuned to their anxiety, and as a result, his training is more efficient and effective.
“These days I do less training because they feel so much safer,” he said.
As Warwick explained in the video, if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
How Warwick’s Techniques Can Impact Your Horse Barn
This is great stuff for horse training, but how can it apply to your horse barn construction?
Warwick notes three examples:
1. Allow Your Horse to See Other Horses While in the Stall
Horses in the wild see other horse from the day they are born until the day they die. They are never out of eyesight of other horses as they’re in a herd; this serves as a security mechanism, as we noted earlier.
In your horse barn, if you have more than one horse, allow them to always be able to see each other. “If you keep them in a stall, use bars between the stalls instead of a solid wall,” Warwick said.
An example of horse stalls in a Wick Building where horses can see each other.
2. Install a Slow Feeder
Horses are meant to graze eighteen hours a day. They have a lot of stomach acid, and the refuge from the grazing prevents the acid from splashing up on their stomach, which can lead to ulcers.
“The ulcer isn’t from stress,” Warwick explains. “It’s often because owners only feed the horse twice a day.”
He recommends installing a slow feeder in their stalls, which allows them to continuously graze.
Here’s a great post on using a slow feeder from High Plains Journal.
3. Heed the Signs of Concern
“All horses are similar, but no two are the same,” Warwick said. Because each horse is unique, develop your own relationship with them, and watch for any type of unusual behavior. These might be indications that something is troubling the horse.
Then take note of what is occurring when those signals are sent. Is it when the horse is in the stable? Is there something around that is agitating it? You may need to modify some of the horse’s surroundings.
Your Duty as a Horse Owner: Continue to Learn
Sherlock taught Warwick a valuable lesson. Even though he was considered a top horse trainer, the horse pushed him in a new direction. It helped him uncover an entire new way of approaching horse training — or should we say, horse relationships.
“It’s what you learn after you think you know it all that makes it important,” Warwick said.