It had been a long time since I’ve galloped. Literally.
So very often I have people tell me their horse “loves” to gallop, and as I watch the horse move at a faster pace, I often see fear in the horse’s eye and body. In my personal experience more often than not, the horse displaying what is typically interpreted by the human as having the “desire” to run, really is a horse trying to flee the scene.
For me, the more I learned about all the “stuff” I’d missed in regards to my horse’s brain and emotions, the more I realized I had no right galloping for many, many reasons. My priorities have since shifted to the concept that not until the horse is mentally, emotionally and physically with me, do I ask for faster speeds.
Looking back I now would classify most of my galloping experiences as A.) A challenge of my ego vs. doing what was best for my horse, B.) A frightful experience for the horse, and C.) Something I’m surprised I’ve “survived” with as little crash-and-burns as I had for how sort-of out of control I was.
Now you may be imagining me as having been on one “of those” scary riders on “crazy” or “difficult” horses, but I was not. I actually blended in quite well with the rest of the riders. Same strong horse, same strong bits to stop, spurs to go, and devices to help keep the head down, and a hopeful mentality every time I swung a leg over the saddle. No one thought it was odd to exchange equine related ER stories over dinner, to have dramatic rides or heart stopping experiences. We thought that “that” was what it took to prove that you were up to the task. Accomplishing the end goal whether within a certain time frame, over specific obstacles, or just surviving better and faster than anyone else had, was our sole focus.
An ex Chef’d Equipe to the USA Eventing team once told me in a lesson to keep a riding journal. It was some of the best advice I ever received. But it wasn’t until years after most of my entries had been made that I then realized the power of what I’d written at the time. When I read it in present day, it seems as if someone else wrote the journal, as if I can’t even remember how “I” used to be in my approach towards horses.
I have always naturally been analytical, and I believe part of what interested me in teaching others was my “problem solving” mentality. But when I review the old journal entries I realize, as literal as I was in taking the instruction back then, and how much of it (classical) was addressing major and valid points in my riding and my horses, every single instructor no matter their background or discipline had “missed” presenting the pieces that would allow me to mentally connect the whole picture of the whats, hows and whys I was supposed to be do something.
It was like lessons would focus on what seemed (from my student perspective) as to be some random problem, rather than addressing (what I didn’t realize was causing the problems,) which in my (and many other riders) was a weak foundation causing the unwanted results. We kept trying to band aid symptoms, rather than do surgery and fix the foundation.
Most of the instruction was often focused on both what my horse and I were NOT supposed to be doing, rather than creating a clear concept in my mind as to what we were supposed to be accomplishing. No one mentioned that when the little pieces were connected it would create the ideal “ride” we were striving for.
I was basically learning how to ride defensively and in a critical manner towards the horse; critiquing each wrong move, rather than communicating to the horse what I wanted from the start. It was sort of like a game of chess. I’d wait for his move, he’d wait for mine. Then it was a mental challenge to see who’d “win” the round. It was exhausting. To work so hard to get “it” right and feel like I was still grasping at air and even with the compliments never really feeling my horse recognize any relief from my constant demands.
There was a time when I rode race horses from 6am-10am, then headed to ride for a Dressage international USA representative and judge for three hours, then early afternoons were spent at an internationally competitive jumper facility and finally evenings with my own horses. I was riding a LOT of horses. Ranging from mediocre racing lines to hundreds of thousand dollar “super-star” steeds.
And I approached each place as if it were a completely “separate” world from the previous one. Why? Because that’s what I’d been taught. “These” are ______________ (discipline) and this is how we _____________ ride these _______________(breed) kind of horses. And I believed what I was told.
Never, ever, ever, EVER did I consider the horse was still a horse, no matter the breed, background, discipline or experience level. I was taught to consider lots of things ABOUT the horse, such as if the swelling I felt in the leg was new or a result of an old injury. I considered the level of “excitement” the horse would have if he was turned out too long or not lunged enough. I was taught a lap of walking around the barn as equivalent to a “hack” or let down time for the horse. I was told trotting on the side of a narrow European back country road in the pouring rain with cars flying past as “quality training” to teach the horse to be reasonable.
But I didn’t give a second thought towards the fidgeting, fussy horses. Or ones that had vices, didn’t like to be groomed or tacked, and were a bit “hot” to start or ones that I had to do things a certain way in order to get the horse to comply. I didn’t realize that a horse could be respectful when led out of the stall or gate, could stand while being mounted or that his pinning of his ears when I applied leg pressure was not a fluke. I didn’t worry if he swished his tail, or couldn’t halt in the middle of a “work” session. I laughed at the horse and all the things he was scared of and “forced” him through those scenarios. The ones that were difficult I was taught you just had to sedate to shoe or load into the trailer, and these were just normal occurrences. “That” was just how it was, and I had lots of other things to hurry up and do.
Now you might be thinking, sheesh, maybe I just wasn’t “getting it,” and that it had nothing to do with the quality of the instruction. Over the years my learning experience has ranged from Pony Club volunteers to Gold Medalist Olympians to the dying breed of what I call “real world horsemen.” It is very, very, very rare to have someone who can communicate in a way that makes sense to “everyone,” and who can offer both the detail oriented instruction and still offer the big-picture perspective all the while prioritizing the horse’s needs first.
Way back then I could rattle off all of theoretical cliché dos and don’ts of “classical” riding. But I had no feel. I had no timing. I had no rhythm. I had no finesse. I had no awareness toward’s my horse’s brain, emotions and body. I had no sensitivity in how I used my energy. I had no concept of pressure, whether it was physical or spatial.
And yet I was still going through the motions of appearing to have somewhat successful rides on a multitude of horses.
As most people would agree, the horse is usually the best teacher of all. The problem is most people (not purposely- such was the case for me) are completely unavailable to honestly hear and/or consider the horse. I know that may sound funny, but it is true.
Give the person the option of A.) Sneaking past the “scary” object and continuing on as if it didn’t exist, or B.) Stopping and addressing what was bothering the horse and nine out of 10 folks would (and do) pick option A.
Are they trying to avoid a conflict? A blow up? A potentially dangerous ride? Yes. And smart of them to think that. But I mostly believe they choose option A. because they don’t have enough effective “tools to communicate”, they don’t have enough tools to give them options in how they communicate, and they don’t connect the dots that if something is bothering the horse now, that he will not just “let it go” and move on, but rather he will continue to carry that emotion and stress and it will increase as the ride continues if it is not addressed.
So it wasn’t until one day at some low level competition where I was grooming that I started for some reason to look around me. I saw stressed out riders. I saw stressed out horses. I didn’t see anyone smiling. Even the rare pat offered to a horse for a good performance was perfunctory rather than heartfelt. I saw injured horses being asked to do things too soon in their healing process. I saw horses still willing to try, even with injury or fear or both. I saw how much “masking” was going on, all for the sake of the “end result.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I think competition can be awesome. But what I was finding was that more often than not, the end goal became such a focus point that the quality of the journey to get there was lost. Perspective was nonexistent. Why was I having to hand walk soaking wet (with sweat) horses at 8pm on a cold winter night after a top level rider/instructor decided the horse wasn’t “getting it” and rode the horse for three, yes THREE, hours for the horse to “better understand.” Hmmm. You may say, “oh bad trainer.” Well this same person is currently coaching top level competitors worldwide. For me, that was the beginning of the breaking point. To be prepping horses for shooting the “ideal” ride magazine photo op to go with the idealistic and inspiring article by the big name trainer, and the next day to have the same horse run into the ground to “teach him a lesson.”
I also started realizing the more “soft” I was getting towards the horses, the more severe the judgment, criticism and harsh instruction was directed towards me. And as with anything, once you start questioning the fundamental “basics” of a specific belief, the rest of the thoughts and things you thought you knew start coming crashing down at a rapid pace.
So long story short, I extracted myself from the horse world as I knew it. I had to reintroduce myself to the horse. The most basic fundamentals of being around an animal, showing it respect, offering my own availability to actually recognize what the animal was trying to communicate. For the first time EVER I had no agenda, other than trying to figure out how to get my fire-breathing-red-head-thoroughbred to keep all four legs on the ground when stressed. And oh how my world changed.
Every time I thought I’d tried, offered and experimented “enough” to get a change in that horse, he’d demand more of me. I think he was my karma horse for all I’d unintentionally “done” to past horses I’d worked with. EVERYTHING was a big deal. He was either 100% okay or 110% not, and there was NO middle ground. You couldn’t manhandle his athleticism, you couldn’t “make” him do anything and I certainly was not someone he trusted. I tried everything I knew, and nothing worked. At all. In fact it just made things worse. So I finally had to ask for help.
I remember laughing when I thought of the “old” galloping I used to do at a break neck speed, and here I was just trying to get this darn chestnut to walk a straight line at a reasonable pace without rearing, bucking or _____________.
On one hand I was in awe of him because of his acute awareness, his infallible timing, his athleticism and his persistence at not becoming “submissive” towards me. On the other hand it was overwhelming to feel no progress, and only a worsening in his fear, worry and discontent.
With nothing to lose, I reconnected with an old timer who wasn’t fazed by much. When I unloaded my red steed, the cowboy straightened up by about four inches. His eyes danced with enthusiasm at my “project.” I was so open to anything, so we started at what should have been the “very” beginning of establishing a connection with the horse in order to create a mental availability.
I was standing in the middle of a round pen while my horse was having a nervous breakdown over something happening a mile away (literally), when that cowboy stood up and asked if he could go in the pen. Ever have that feeling where you can’t wait to “get away” from your own horse? I had it. And then I watched.
It didn’t even take a full two minutes and there was this HUGE but almost unintelligible conversation happening between my horse and the cowboy, courtesy of using the lead rope. He’d wiggled the rope with a finger. He’d shift his hand ever so slightly; he’d pick up the energy in his fingers just a notch. My horse hadn’t moved; no circles, no fleeing, no dramatic behavior other than what at first appeared to be just a few nods of his head. And suddenly, he was blowing his nose. Over and over again, dropped his head and let all tension out of his body, passed manure, sighed, breathed, relaxed his eyes, and cocked a hind foot. The worry peaks over his eye were gone; there was a softness and alertness in his body, rather than defensiveness.
I wanted to scream, “Why hadn’t anyone told me about …. About… THIS?” How had no one ever, ever offered me the idea that my horse’s emotions could change everything? I mean, we talked about stressed out horses, and how to contain them, sedate them, wear them down, etc. but never had anyone I known even considered that we could influence a mental and emotional CHANGE by doing so LITTLE if we were specific and clear.
So that week I had to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew. Years after the fact, I was still having epiphanies about what had happened that day. And from there everything gradually became clear. There was NO option for me to NOT address my horse’s mental and emotional availability in order to accomplish the physical tasks I presented.
Which brings me to my most recent present day galloping. With a refined sense of awareness and understanding of the horse, as I increase my horse’s speed, I want it to be a reflection of his brain. Although the steps may be larger and faster, there still needs to be softness, lightness and balance. If at any moment I drain all my energy, my horse needs to immediately halt balanced on his hindquarters, WITHOUT me pulling on his face. If while cantering I feel him asking to drain into a slower gait, I need him to relax if my aid of asks him to go forward, rather than pinning his ears or becoming defensive towards me. The irony is the faster you go with quality, the slower it feels, and the more time it seems you have.
So I spend a lot of time going slow nowadays. Very, very slow. I mean slower than you’ve probably ever imagined asking your horse to go. As in, one-step-at-a-time slow. I always joke it takes me forever to go nowhere.
In the long run, by the time I’m asking a horse to move forward, my goal is that the horse offers to do so with a willingness, confidence and availability, and perhaps that carefree romanticized version we all have in our heads of what galloping across a field felt like as a kid.
And the other day it happened. I hadn’t planned on it, it hadn’t been my goal. But there I was working with a horse that had come a long ways from his shut down, fearful insecure self that I’d met a while back. As we rolled up into a light canter, there was a moment, almost indescribable, but where you can “hear” the horse reaffirming he is okay. So I asked for a big stride, and as my seat instinctively lifted out of the saddle and I lowered my upper body, almost floating above the horse, I could feel us shift gears and we were off… He stretched out all 17 hands of himself and all I could feel was the lightness of the gigantic stride below me. Time stops in those moments. Nothing else exists. It is why we all ride. It is the ultimate escape and emotional release for us humans.
As I slowed him back to a lovely trot, I realized my adrenaline had kicked in. When I sat back down in the saddle I instantly felt my fatigued muscles in my lower back and legs reminding of just how long it’d been since my last gallop. So even if for the rest of the day my legs felt like Jello, I was still grinning, and so was the horse. And to me, that is what the gallop is all about.
f you’ve read past blog entries of mine, you’ll see there are certain themes, such as focusing on the horse’s brain and emotions, raising the human’s level of awareness to better understand what the horse is trying to communicate, experimenting with the “concepts” that we often abide by but not always for a clear or appropriate reason, and so forth.
Some times when I make a blog entry it is due to an “ongoing” thought in my head that I let mill about until it starts to become clear and other times it is inspired by a particular experience. In the following entry it is a combination of both! I truly hope this entry can help some folks “connect the dots” as to some of the scenarios they may be or have experienced with their horse, and offer perhaps an alternative perspective in addressing their horse.
When resistant, unwanted, and/or dramatic behavior occurs in the horse the person gets distracted by the big-ness of the horse. In my mind the “big” is an after-the-fact response by the horse. The root of the problem has occurred or began to occur anywhere from minutes to months before the horse finally resorted to undeniably dramatic behavior.
Typically it is not until the horse is flamboyant in his response, that people really believe there is a problem. At the peak moment of the frustrated/fearful/insecure/defensive horse’s behavior the rider/handler will experience the most honest responses from the horse towards the person’s attempt at communication. Basically, if there are any “holes” in the manner, effectiveness and timing of your communication with your horse, it will become abundantly clear at the peak of his stress.
I will attempt to break down how I see the “pieces of the puzzle” that wind up falling into place causing the rider to feel helpless in the moment of the horse’s panic. It took years between my background in classical riding, spending time with true horseman on ranches throughout the west, working with international trainers/clinicians, etc. and then two outright “dangerous” horses (by most people’s accounts) to start to re-interpret and put value to what I was seeing/experiencing. To no longer just go through the “motions” of communicating, but learning how to understand why I was offering certain communication both before and in the “big” moments. I had to learn how my horse “handled” the scenario was influenced by his emotional/mental/physical availability BEFORE the melt down to the moment of explosion, and then to reaching the “calm” on the other side.
Over the years I have had to learn to translate not only words spoken by humans, but also what horses have been attempting to communicate. As with any attempt of translation, there is room for much misinterpretation of what is happening, which can greatly affect the quality of the final outcome after a horse has become dramatic.
In my original “world” of riding terms such as “contact, connection, and engagement” were common terminology. In another avenue of horses words such as “direct and indirect rein, disengaging the hindquarters,” became common lingo. Then there were concepts offered such as, “following a feel, having my horse mimic my energy, influencing a horse’s thought.” It took years to realize that for all the different sounding words, what everybody was telling me was actually the same thing. But, and I’m not 100% sure, I’m not even sure “they” (the teachers) would agree with that assessment. Because for me, it seemed each person was offering one piece of the puzzle that was to become a giant collage of my current horsemanship theories and concepts.
I could write a book with pages and pages of detail and experiences, but I’ll keep this to “blog length” offering the “cliff notes” version of my assessment.
Most people would agree the moment of “explosion” is the not the time to find out if your aids are affective. But often that tends to be the time folks shift from “passenger mode” to “leader mode” when working with their horse. For a horse that has never had its human make decisions “before the fact” rather than always “reacting” after the horse did something, this is a new concept for the horse. For it to be “used” for the first time when the horse is totally stressed and distracted, will probably not have the desired result and would be a bit like adding gasoline to an already burning fire.
So before addressing the moment of panic in the horse, let’s take a few steps back and revisit a few concepts and aids that we use to communicate with the horse.
In regards to a bridle…
Contact, accepting the bit, not ‘leaning’ on the bit, following a feel, softening to pressure…
Each of the above concepts is used throughout various disciplines. You may have heard some of these, others maybe not. To me, they all are attempting to reach the same end goal. A horse respectful of the bit, that maintains a light and willing responsiveness towards the bit.
Now in reality, in any given year of me teaching throughout the United States with students ranging from novice riders to novice horses, to internationally competitive students on top level horses, EVERYONE suffers from the same “issues” with the bridle.
First and foremost many horses are defensive towards the pressure of the bit. (Ruling out physical/pain issues.) Next, very few riders address the horse’s thoughts and emotions when riding, often being distracted by the physical response/lack of and movement of the horse. The “physical” I see in a horse tends to be a reflections of his emotional and mental state.
So if in general, under seemingly “non” stressful times a horse has a tendency to “pull” on the bit, to ignore or push against pressure offered by the bit, to be heavy on the forehand, what happens in the moment of chaos when the rider attempts to use the bit to “control” the horse? The sudden increase of physical pressure of the bit tends to add to the horse’s problem rather than help him through it.
I don’t know how many times have I heard, “I tried to stop him, but he just dragged/bolted/bucked me off, the reins were useless.” As people recount dramatic events, I always feel like I’m playing detective at not only listening to the words they are telling me, but to how they’re saying, and what they are not saying too. These are all indicators as to things that may have happened that the person may not have even realized were going on.
In looking at this concept of a dramatic event occurring and attempting to use the bridle to “control” the horse, people often start at what I’d call point “G” in their story telling (this is how far along things have happened before the person realized how bad something was going to get.) Then the person tends to react at point “R” in the story.
So what was the horse doing between point A and G, how was the rider addressing/or not the behavior, and then I ask the same thing between point G and R? Usually the horse is slowly increasing his physical signs of distress, worry, agitation, fear, insecurity, while the most common response I find from riders is to A) do nothing and wait and see if the horse will calm down on his own, or B) not believe the “snowballing” effect his emotions are going to have on the physical outburst that is about to occur.
By the time the rider tries to pull back, turn, etc. with the rein, which initially had never been established as an effective and quality aid prior to the horse’s stress, now, it seems is a useless tool in the moment of chaos.
So a few questions I’d like you mull over in your head:
Have you ever thought/attempted to direct your horse’s thought, before you asked him to move?
If you pick up your reins while at a halt, what is your horse’s initial response?
How immediate does your horse look, turn or halt if you use just your reins?
Does your horse ever lean on the bit/get “heavy” on your hands as the ride progresses?
Have you had to change to more severe bits over the course of riding your horse?
Can you move your horse’s nostril, head, neck, shoulder, and hindquarters all separately based solely in a difference in how you use your reins? (With no leg pressure.)
Can you use different energy “levels” within your fingertips and get different responses from your horse?
In my mind the bridle, whether with a bit or not, should be used as a fair, respectful tool to communicate with my horse’s brain and body.
In regard to leg pressure.
Yielding to pressure, lateral work, bumping, creating boundaries, energy, etc.
I do not want to feel like I’m “driving” my horse forward with my leg, instead I want to feel that the energy I offer with my seat should be reflective in the energy my horse has in his movement. AFTER that I will use my legs to finesse, fine-tune, and ask for more specific movement.
I find a lot of unintentional “nagging” on the horse’s sides when people use their legs. A majority of riders rely solely on their leg to get their horse to “go” and sit like a passenger sack of potatoes in the saddle.
The leg to me should offer varying degrees of energy, be able to influence the horse’s front end (from the shoulder forward,) ribcage, and hindquarters together and separately. It should be able to create a definitive “boundary” (not one the horse leans on) or it should be able to encourage the horse to yield a specific body part. It should be a supportive aid to what the rider’s seat communicates, and not a random “kicking” aid.
As we all know, the horse can feel a fly land on him. So why when a majority of riders, whether with spurs or not, lay a leg into their horse’s side, does the horse ignore or more often than not, actually “bulge” their ribcage out in resistance to the pressure the rider’s leg has created?
Because it has not been established as an effective aid.
Fast forward to the horse “melting down,” let’s say in a “restrictive” spot (side of the cliff, near a fence/dangerous object) and the rider attempts to “move” the horse away from danger by adding their leg to either “block” or laterally yield the horse? What does the horse do? Push back against the leg and head straight towards the danger.
Let’s say the horse is worried about something ahead of him, and so he responds by slowing down/slamming to a halt. The rider responds by kicking him to get him going forward. Too many times, this extra “pressure” causes the horse to go flying backwards or make a dramatic spin-and-bolt move. Then there is also the “completely” ignoring the leg when the horse halts and seemingly is unwilling to budge no matter how hard the rider kicks.
Here are a few more questions for you to think about:
How often do you use your leg in a ride?
What part of your leg and where on your horse’s body do you use it, and with how much energy?
What is your horse’s response to your leg pressure if he isn’t stressed?
If you ride a circle does your horse always feel like he is leaking and that you have to put continuous leg pressure on him to prevent him from doing so?
Can you move specific body parts of your horse, or does his entire body move at one time no matter where you apply your leg?
How many times do you have to use your leg before your horse responds?
Do you ever feel like your horse will only offer a limited amount of “forward” if you use your leg?
Have you had to increase from no spur/mild to more severe over time?
Does your horse pin his ears as you use your leg or ride at a faster pace?
Does your horse “throw” his __________ (shoulder/hip/ribcage)?
For me, the leg should be a tool that I can soften, yield, stop and create boundaries with. It can create a positive pressure to help support my other aids to communicate with the horse.
Obviously there are many other aids I could address, but for right now, since a majority of people use a bridle and their legs when riding, we’ll stick to these two tools.
Here’s the scenario:
Riding down a wide sand trail (no cliffs, mountains, no traffic, etc.) the horse sees something in the distance and perks her ears.
Sam’s response: Using a rein I ask my horse’s brain to focus on an object (rock, plant, foot print) that is within a foot of my horse’s nose. I want to see her eyeballs look at wherever I’m asking her to look. I assess her gait, and will probably decrease my energy to a “creeping” walk.
Horse’s response: She looks at the object, but immediately goes back to perking ears forward, raising head and mildly tightening her body.
My thought is that she didn’t “let go” of the distraction down the road, so now I’ll ask her to look at an object close to us and move perhaps on a circle. Does the circle “fix” anything? No, but it allows me an opportunity to assess. Does she quicken her pace? If she does and I decrease my energy and she goes to push through/lean on the bit, this tells me her “physical forward movement” is stemming from her pushing through my energy with her hocks. So I need to use an indirect rein to disengage her hindquarters to shift all of her weight from being heavy on the forehand to balance on the hindquarters. Once her body slows for a moment, I have an opportunity to influence her brain.
Now that she is slowing down as she walks on the circle, is she falling in/leaking out with shoulders or hips? If so, this tells me her body is trying to follow towards the direction her brain is thinking about. So with my rein I need to redirect her thought to perhaps a more “opposite direction” until she is mentally closer to where she is physically at. Now that she is looking and thinking about where she is moving, her body starts to relax and she walks a bit straighter.
Now I’m assessing the quality of her steps; she’s a little “locked up” (falling in) with her inside hock- lack of bend in the hock= resistance and heaviness towards to the bit. I might use my lower leg and ask her to spiral out (move laterally onto a larger circle) a few steps on the circle. I create pressure with my lower leg asking her to yield one step at a time, as soon as she gives one step, I decrease pressure of my leg. So she learns if she quickly and softly yields, my leg pressure decreases. I’m looking for several slow, intentional steps, not a “fast” reaction to avoid my leg pressure.
She did yield laterally on my circle, but she rushed and attempted to continue yielding even after I quit asking. This tells me she is anticipative and not thinking through what I’m asking her. The more mentally distracted a horse is, the greater the chance of a bigger “reaction” when surprised. I decrease the forward energy to get better quality in the lateral steps. I establish a bit more dramatic “end” point with my outside lower leg when I quit asking for the lateral movement.
The horse slows her energy, steps laterally, and continues straight on new circle. I halt as the “reward” for her effort and to give her time to mentally process what just happened. I breathe. She breathes. As we’re standing she wants to glance back towards original distraction. I use the rein on opposite side of the distraction and using just my third and fourth finger squeeze like a sponge. As if the pressure of my fingers on the rein is a string to her brain, she draws her attention away from distraction and redirects her thoughts towards where I asked, then she drops her head, sighs, and blows her nose. This tells me she has “let go” of the distraction.
As we continue down the trail, she glances at the distraction, but with softness in her eye, body, breathing and energy, so I allow her to look. I do NOT want to “take“ the horse out of the horse, but I also do NOT want to no longer “exist” if my horse gets distracted by something.
I need my horse to be mentally available to “hear” what I’m offering through my aids, in order to support her through a time of worry, fear, insecurity, etc. The more she realizes I can help her “let go” of what is bothering her, the more she will offer to stop and “hear” my aids, rather than to do what is most natural to horses, which is to flee the scene, then stop and think. Each time we come out “better” after a possible stressful time, the horse gains confidence, which in turn decreases the amount of initial stress the horse experiences every time something new is presented.
Whew. It may seem like a lot of “work” for what appeared as an insignificant “look” by my horse. But after working with enough “dangerous horses”- all results of lack of understanding between human and horse, it is never too early to start helping your horse. I’m not sure why but so often people become very hopeful around their horses rather than proactive. None of the unwanted behavior your horse displays will disappear on its own. If the behavior or resistance seems minor now, and you don’t address it, it will only evolve until you can no longer ignore. Why wait and see?
This blog entry isn’t supposed to be used an instructional “how to fix” manual, but rather to share from my perspective an example of a “journey” with a horse. With a different horse, I might use a different mental/physical task, but the point is the philosophy behind what I’m doing.
Over time it should take “less” from me to get “more” from horse as her confidence increases. Our partnership should be a continually evolving and respectful relationship.
This blog entry isn’t just for trail riders, young horse riders, or folks who have “problem” horses. This is for all horses, all ages, all breeds and all disciplines. So rather than “challenging” your horse to “survive” the next thing that bothers him and physically attempt to “push” him through/past it, perhaps experiment with playing detective in learning how to help your horse through a scenario BEFORE a stressful scenario occurs. It will also shine a light on any “holes” in your communication and give you homework to refine and finesse how, what and when you communicate with your horse.Good luck and have fun,
Posted by SamanthaHarvey
Why do we put so much effort into focusing on teaching the "unnatural" response of stop, ask for direction and then react in the horse? Here is a 10 min Budweiser demo gone wrong- if you watch from 4:30-8:40, it is the ultimate display of trust... would your horse handle this in the same way? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUt1c_2v0fw
I have to ability to review visitor “stats” on my blog entries. In the last few years I’ve had over 2,000 hits on my “My horse won’t lead,” topic, and the most common search words folks have entered on the blog are “horse will not lead, resistant horse, stubborn horse, how to get a horse to move forward.” Visitors have mostly been from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada and the USA.
In the first “half” of my riding career, the horse’s brain, emotions or just plain considering the horse wasn’t ever mentioned. What always amazes me is how much I was STILL able to physically “accomplish” with horses, even if I was completely unaware/ignorant of just how troubled my horse(s) were. I was taught to focus on the “end results” not prioritizing quality relationships with my equine partners. I often wonder how many dangerous scenarios could have been avoided if I’d been taught a different approach; in those days it was almost a bit of a “brag fest” about what you survived.
Fast forward to my current training theories and philosophies and the underlining concept of everything I teach is that the goal be to have a mentally available horse. I sometimes feel a sense of guilt that a problem so many folks and horses struggle with worldwide, in my mind seems like such an obvious “case” of connecting the dots.
Most horses with human handling experience typically offer what I call a “teenager” mentality in response towards people. They offer a “Why should I?” attitude which to me is a defensive and resistant mind set. But what if instead we were able to influence our horse to start with a “What would you like?” mind set so that as we presented tasks, “jobs,” etc. the horse had an interest in participating, rather than being tolerant and “prodded” through what we asked of them.
If you have a horse that from the moment you attempt to “catch” him (rather than having him approach and present himself in a respectful manner to be haltered,) shows resistance, such as running away, turning his hindquarters to you, hiding behind other horses/objects in the pasture, turns his head away from you as you attempt to halter, sticks his head straight up in the air if you try to halter, what do you think he will be like when you finally manage to lead him? Basically you’ll feel that you are “towing” 1,000lbs of horse flesh. Have you ever had a horse that either “drags” on the lead rope, rushes past you out the gate, hovers/crowds your personal space, follows you “fine” as long as you don’t ask him to speed up/slow down his energy or stop when he doesn’t expect it, etc.?
If you start with a horse that is resistant to being caught, resistant to being led/takes over when led, has no concept of following the pressure of the lead rope and respect towards your personal space, ask yourself, is this horse going to be the one who “stands quietly” while tied, groomed, tacked and mounted? No. And often people will tell me the horse has “bridling issues, saddling issues, problems when they attempt to mount, etc.” in my mind – if all possibilities of any pain issues have been ruled out- the horse's approach seems to be that the "best defensive is a good offense."
If everything you’re doing is making the horse uncomfortable, and his behavior shows signs from the start that he is having a problem, unsure, lacking confidence and mentally unavailable, if you keep asking ‘more’ of him, what do you think he will do? You are forcing him to act more resistant and increasingly dramatic in his response towards you every time you ask something else of him. You are setting him up to fail.
If you continue to ignore his pleas for help (yes, that really is what his actions are saying when he is fidgeting, looking around at everything except where he is going/what he is doing, crowding you, etc.) and attempt to have a “relaxing trail ride,” or successful “schooling session” and you’re starting with a horse that is in “survival mode.” He is defensive about how uncomfortable you may (unintentionally) make him by what you might ask next. How much quality will your ride have if you keep asking more and more and more until one day the horse can no longer reasonably “handle” what you’re presenting?
There are only so many ways a horse can ask for help. Often “shut down” horses give the illusion that they are “fine” because they are physically dull and slow and classified as “stubborn.” Other horses that wear their emotions on their sleeve and leave no question as to when they are having a problem are categorized as “crazy” or “bad” because they don’t “comply” with someone’s training style that are unable/unwilling to attempt to learn how to work with the horse.
Bear with me for a moment while I use the analogy of a wildfire. Let’s say there is a severe drought. There hasn’t been rain for a long, long time. You are walking through a field of dry grass that has no moisture due to months of no rain. For some reason you see a spark in the grass. A little red spark the size of a pea. And as the wind gently blows, you realize that ember is growing into a larger red dot on the ground. Knowing that you are standing in thousands of acres of dried grass, do you A.) Wait and see what is going to happen, B.) Attempt to “stomp out” the spark, but don’t check when you’re done stomping to see if it the ember is actually out, or C.) use a pile of dirt to cover and completely obliterate any signs of heat. The last option requiring you to divert from your originally planned path you had intended on taking.
With horses, all too often when there is the initial spark of a problem, people are often “hopeful” (whether due to lack of understanding, lack of “effective tools to communicate” or are oblivious) and respond with option A of the wildfire scenario. Then, they act completely surprised when the “fire” erupts from their horse.
Others who may recognize the behavior but perhaps are not able/willing to follow through until they get a mental and emotional change in their horse, so they go through the motions of “correcting” the horse (option B of the wildfire example) but never check to see if they are influencing a QUALITY change in their horse, or if they are perhaps just temporarily delaying the unwanted behavior by addressing the symptoms and not the root cause.
But what if we all approached our “horse sessions” being open minded. Even if we had a specific intention when we went out to work with our horse, what if we were present enough to HEAR, SEE and RESPECT what our horse was trying to tell us. What if we had the capacity to forget about our original goal for the session and do what was best for our horse? How many times of showing the horse that you were available to address, clearly communicate and then help him through his worries, fears, defensive, insecurity and other issues do you think it would take before he started to trust you? Before he started to realize that if he tried to do what you asked, he, the horse, would feel better afterward? How long would it be before your horse would start to take an interest in what you were presenting rather than always being defensive towards it? How long would it be before he displayed a curiosity about “life” and your time together that would make the sessions really rewarding for both of you? How soon before your horse would offer more effort and "try" without you having to ask as much or get into an "argument?"
So the list below all share one thing in common- the root cause is a mentally unavailable horse, which makes him unable to “hear” what you are communicating, unclear of your intention, defensive towards your aids, resistant to “changing” what he thought was being asked of him and usually leading to physically dramatic and dangerous scenarios in the long run.
My horse won’t be caught
My horse won’t lead
My horse won’t stand still
My horse only has one speed
My horse is heavy on the bit
My horse is herd bound
My horse won’t cross water/pass the tarp/walk on the bridge/etc.
My horse won’t load into a trailer
My horse has to walk in the ____________ of a group on a trail ride
My horse always has to ______________
My horse bucks when I ____________
My horse doesn’t like to leave ____________
My horse is spooky all the time
My horse has to be worked (“lunged”) for 20 minutes before I ride
My horse is good after the first ________ min/miles when I ride out
You can only use this “method” to get a response from my horse
You get the idea. It is all connected like the string on the grain bag. You start pulling at one end and the whole thing quickly unravels. Yet somehow people are hopeful when working with their horses. They don’t believe how big and fast things can go wrong. I can’t tell you how many folks have voiced their shock when their scared horse went straight down the cliff, or when their “baby” turned around and bit them in the shoulder/chest/etc., or when their "stubborn" horse who never liked to go forward “suddenly” had a bucking/bolting fit.
Was the moment the horse started acting in a way that could no longer be ignored the true cause of the unwanted behavior? Not at all. The resistance may have started last week, last month or last year. The point is not “if” but “when” the consequences from not addressing our horse’s brains will appear. And yet people are hopeful that “it” will solve itself on its own. A horse only has so many ways of telling you he is having a problem, and whether you think it is appropriate or not, you MUST believe what he is telling you.
You really do have the ability to influence a long term, quality change in your horse. But people have a hard time getting out of their own way- it is on YOU to realize “people problems” forced upon the horse are only adding fuel to fire. Things such as:
Not having enough time and rushing how, what and why you are asking your horse to do something
Being distracted by work/family/stress/others at the barn leaving you not mentally present when working with your horse
Having unrealistic and inappropriate goals for both you and the horse
Getting distracted by the end goal that you are unable to see what is happening in front of you
Focusing on quantity rather than quality
Challenging the horse to “get it right” rather than helping him be successful
So the next time you experience a bit of resistance from a horse, perhaps re-evaluate how you’re interpreting what you think your horse is doing. Remember, his physical behavior is a reflection of his mental and emotional state. If you could change how he feels on the inside bout what you’re presenting, what sort of physical change might follow and imagine what you might be able to accomplish with quality in the long run!
As the year is coming to an end, I find myself looking back towards my equine related experiences. This year in particular I’ve enjoyed a balanced blend between new and past students, their horses and participating in their ongoing journey. As I mentally started to review different teaching and training highlights, the most common theme throughout the year has been the “mirror” one. I know have stated many times that often our horse is a mirror of ourselves, and we don’t always like what we see.
The statement above sounds a bit basic, and everybody says, “Yeah, yeah,” when they hear it, but rarely do folks put what I feel is the necessary effort in addressing “the mirror” by asking themselves, “Well, what is my horse “seeing” in what I’m offering him?”
So rather than writing my typical “on going thoughts” on one topic, this time around I’m just going to offer basic thoughts I’ve had, things that have come up in lessons or clinics, or just overall assessments I’ve made in this past year all related to the “mirror” concept. These are written in no particular order.
Each person will have a different interpretation of my thoughts written below, based on their own experiences, but I encourage you to perhaps explore some of them with a bit more energy rather than just accepting your initial reaction as you read them. As with most things, the light bulb moments often happen days, weeks or months down the road. Something you’ve heard many times, somehow suddenly makes sense, perhaps some of my thoughts can help you too!
Your ride begins when you THINK about going for a ride and it does not end until you have turned your horse loose in his stall or paddock. All the time in between you are communicating with him, whether or not you realize it.
Carrying anticipation from “what happened last time” prevents you from remaining mentally present while with your horse.
I ask my students to ride in “real time,” this means there is no pause button when things don’t go as expected with the horse.
A majority of riders do not maintain a “standard” in their life outside of horses, but when it comes to their horse, they are expecting/hoping for the best possible outcome in the worst possible scenarios.
Reactive riding versus proactive communication with the horse; always having to fix/correct after the unwanted behavior occurs rather than clearly telling the horse what the plan is ahead of time.
Fear. Horses have it. People have it. The horse cannot rationalize his way through a fearful scenario without the help and active support of the human. Most humans hope that by being “nice” and doing nothing, the horse will figure out how to get over his fear, and then the human will start interacting with him again once he is more reasonable.
90% mental, 10% physical. There is a reason why a daunting, scary scenario presented often by the “child who doesn’t know better” turns out with horse and rider fine, unscathed and feeling confident, whereas the “experienced” rider often has premeditated everything that could possibly go wrong and ends up having a very dramatic experience with their horse in the same exact scenario.
The more people “know” the less they actually see what is happening with their horse.
A majority of pleasure riders initially get involved with horses thinking it will be their “outlet” and time to let down from the rest of their life (stress, drama, work, kids, etc.) Few realize how much the “modern day horse” often needs them to be at their BEST to help the horse feel better about life.
Working with horses requires a continual adaptability within us. For humans, this is often a struggle because complacency, routines and patterns require both less mental presence and less physical effort.
More than half of the horse owners I encounter are not partnered with the correct horse, but continue to maintain a relationship with their horse based primarily on guilt and a sense of “I owe it to the horse.” What few realize is how dangerous this sort of partnership can be.
People do not realize how “light switch” a horse’s emotions can be; even if a person is not getting the changes they want in their horse, it all can change for better or worse as fast as the flip of a light switch.
Rarely do people believe they can A.) Get a change in their horse, or B.) Realize how little physically effort and more clear communication it takes to get a big emotional, mental and physical change.
The “That’s good enough,” mentality that occurs when people try to be “nice” to their horse often leaves the horse in the gray area, with the horse lacking understanding, rather than when the person follows through until the horse really understands the emotional, mental and physical change that is being asked of him.
Most folks are hopeful. “I hope he slows down.” “I hope he doesn’t spook.” “I hope we have a good ride today.” “I hope he goes over that jump.” You can decrease the “hopefulness” and increase both you and your horse’s confidence based on how you help prepare your horse for the upcoming scenario.
If you are carrying a “Let’s see what he does…” mentality, please stop and ask yourself would you challenge your horse to getting “it” right, rather than helping him be successful.
Often people have an initial specific interest in what “type” of riding they will do, rarely do they realize that if they are going to prioritize helping their horse, it will be the horse that is going to “direct” what their “interest” will be.
Just because you may not agree with your horse’s resistance, does not mean you cannot believe it.
The moment of the dramatic behavior is often the symptom and not the issue.
Attempting to finally address and “fix things” at the peak of stress, worry or fear in your horse should not be the first time you start participating in the relationship.
You can be actively supportive without the partnership feeling like a dictatorship.
The more gear, equipment, and tack a person has to communicate with their horse, the less they actually convey.
Talk to the horse, rather than shout at him.
Making a decision to do something is better than doing nothing.
Breathing and smiling while working with the horse are two of the most undervalued behaviors a human can offer. It affects the person mentally, physically and emotionally. It affects the horse mentally, physically and emotionally. Breathe, smile, breathe, smile. Seriously.
Often people are aware of their own behaviors/personality (amped up, high strung, talkative, introvert, etc.) but just accept that that is how they are, rather than attempting to learn how to be adaptable in the way in which they communicate with their horse.
Often when the horse needs us the most, we humans attempt to avoid the situation entirely.
There are only so many ways a horse can ask for help, and more often than not he is ignored, not addressed, or forced into scenarios where his behavior has to increase dramatically until the person can no longer ignore that the horse is having a problem.
Don’t leave your horse in the tantrum, don’t avoid the tantrum. Embrace the tantrum, but help your horse get to a better spot on the other side.
And the most major theme, for all riders, for all disciplines, for all experience levels, is:
Slow down. Mentally, physically, emotionally. Slow down. What is the rush? What MUST you accomplish? The slower you go the more time you have to influence what is about to happen, to help both you and your horse think through a scenario, to be present to feel what is happening, to be able to learn to have a real time, ongoing conversation with your horse rather than a shouting match. You will accomplish so much more by slowing down and achieving quality, than rushing with brainlessness behaviors in you and your horse.
My hope would be that you take a while let this all sink in. It is a lot. Then come back and review it, a week from now, a month from now, a year from now…
Looking forward to more fun with the horses in the upcoming year!