Experiemental Interaction with your horse...
I am the first to admit that I’m quite resistant to most “step by step” methods of training. I find that although what/how you ask something of your horse may “seem initially clear” with a one, two, three type of instruction, due to the focus of the end goal, it also limits a person’s perspective in seeing what is ACTUALLY happening in what I call “real time.” Often the horse doesn’t act/react as shown or explained in the article or TV show, and the person is at a loss as to what to do next with their horse. If there is a lack of understanding as to the how, whats and whys someone is doing something with their horse, it leaves a lot of room for miscommunication.
So as I hear, read, or witness the ever popular “desensitizing for the general public” strategies offered, my stomach literally knots up as I imagine the novice, inexperienced or under-educated horse owner heading out with the best of intentions in attempting to help their horse with a “spooking” or “scary” issue. In trying to imitate the article’s instruction or the DVD’s “how to” series, instead of a successful outcome, all too often there tends to be a massive amount of chaos, insecurity and fear instilled in the horse (and often owner), whether or not it is immediately apparent is another issue.
As an owner realizes the predicament they and their horse are now in, often they turn to trainers like me, who must then “undo” (in both human and horse) what had been previously taught, and re-educate to build confidence and trust between the human and horse.
As much of the modern day “work with your horse” or strive to create a “partnership” using gentler techniques than those methods taught in decades past, the reality is, if you aren’t handling, watching, and experimenting with numerous horses on a regular basis, the chances are your timing, understanding and communication will be lacking. If you are “brainlessly” following a step by step instruction guide on how to work with your horse there usually isn’t much thought given to any of those three crucial pieces in your relationship with your horse.
Of course it is much easier to appeal to the mass of horse owners by offering specific step by step generalized instruction, but it leaves so much unsaid. There are those folks who think their horse is “ready” for ____________ and so may follow a guide referring how to _____________. What they may not realize is they are missing the initial tools or clear communication that must be established before they attempt ____________ with their horse.
And what most folks aren’t either seeing or understanding, is evening if a trainer is doing a step by step “live” demo, the trainer’s timing and feel are going to be very different than that of an amateur’s. Rarely do I come across a horseman who can communicate with humans as well as they can with a horse.
So this leaves gaps between what a student thinks they are seeing, and a lot of “stuff” that may be happening that the student doesn’t even realize is occurring, has been addressed/shut down/prevented, and then the trainer has moved on. And with horses, the difference in the final outcome in relation to communication offered at ten seconds versus a minute later can be huge. But people don’t realize that.
In society we are taught to look for results. The bad news is this mentality seems to blend into our horsemanship. Did my horse CROSS the (tarp, bridge, water)? Rather than evaluate, how did my horse FEEL about the (tarp, bride, water)? Even if the horse physically crossed, jumped into/onto, loaded, etc. does not mean he felt good about it. And each time he complies with something the person wants, but feels worse afterwards, the human is unknowingly teaching the horse to become defensive and resistant.
So six months down the road when the horse “suddenly” decides to quit complying, often the moment he chooses to quit tolerating what the human is asking, isn’t the moment of the “issue” but is rather the moment the issue has come to a head. The real “issue” started six months earlier and each scenario after that just reinforced the increasing fear in the horse along with his worry and defensiveness, even if he may have initially seemed “fine” because he had physically accomplished the task presented.
Perhaps I am being an idealist when I believe that folks can actually DO a lot more with their horses than they realize. I truly believe if we took society’s expectations of “accomplishment” away from our thinking when approaching and working with our horses, we’d actually get a lot more done with an increased amount of quality and trust between horse and human.
I think according to the last statistics I read, out of the entire riding community, about 85% are amateur or pleasure riders. If that is the case, then why can’t we mentally and physically slow down and REALLY start to learn about ourselves and our horses? What “end result” is so important that we choose to sacrifice the quality of our partnership with our horse for it?
From teaching small children to enthusiastic equestrians in their 80s, I am always amazed, at the almost immediate visible sign of PHYSICAL relief in a human student, when I suggest the idea of “removing” any level of society inflicted “must accomplish” myths in regards to their horsemanship and riding.
It is like a weight has been lifted, that person can suddenly just focus on BEING with their animal, and now, without the self-inflicted “rush-y feel” within themselves, can start to see clearly what exactly is happening with their horse. I know that sounds a bit odd. But the more “stuff” people try to do, the less they literally see.
I always refer to the novice or inexperienced horse person as being able to be the most “clear” about what they see in their horse. This is because the person has a clean slate, and hasn’t had years of unknowingly being desensitized to ignore horse behaviors whether it be by good intentioned “horse folks,” through lessons or just friendly opinions.
I’ll give you an example:
If a horse is tied and swinging back and forth on the lead rope, an inexperienced horse person might pause and be a little wary about the horse’s hind end moving all over the place. I’ve heard many folks in this scenario voice, “I wonder why he is doing that?” as they try to stay a safe distance from the moving hindquarters.
The “experienced” horse person on the other hand all too often seems to “blow off” behavior such as this with either a justification, “Oh, he just does that,” or a physical reaction such as slapping the horse on the hindquarters until he quits moving. And the horse may respond and stand still, but was the real problem the movement and was it fixed? No. The movement is a result behavior, or symptom, due to some unrecognized/addressed issue. Often anticipation to what is about to happen can cause “busy horses” beforehand.
This whole blog came about in my mind today as I worked a 10 year old 17H half Arab/Warmblood gelding. He’s big, he’s super athletic and he has a lot of baggage. A majority of all his human experiences as a youngster were about “submission” both towards the human and physically towards foreign aids such as draw reins. His “method of survival” was to either ball up physically to avoid reprimand, or to get really, really, really big and dramatic.
As a result, he had so much mental stress, he had physical issues. Once the physical wear and tear on his body was decreased and addressed, taking on his patternized (see past blogs for more on that subject) responses as a way to get through something was the next priority.
He has boarded on and off at the same property for several years; in some parts (where he has the opportunity to graze five to six hours a day) he looks as quiet and calm and happy as can be, yet there are other areas he will explore only if other horses are around, and still other places irrelevant of other horses present or not, he will not travel of his own free will.
He is such a great example of a horse that you could manhandle (to a point) into submission for the sake of accomplishing a task (i.e. we must ride next to the scary orange trees with the noisy birds in them.) But I believe his current behavior, fear, insecurity, worry, defensiveness, spookiness, etc. is the continuing result of his initial training as a youngster. Too much asked, too soon, too harshly, too many human goals. And here he is YEARS later (without much riding or handling in between) and he still carries a very strong defensive “survival” mentality. I believe his “restrictive” initial education handicapped his willingness to try.
My goal is that he can slow down mentally (which will in turn slow him physically) and not just in a scenario but rather to THINK through each scenario I present. To teach him how to learn to try, and help him realize his efforts will be recognized (giving him a break to mentally to process every time he addresses things in a reasonable manner) and to help him to learn to let “it” (the stress, worry, concern) go rather quickly.
My goal on this windy, blustery day was to help the horse feel better. It didn’t matter if it was for him to feel better in the open, by the trees, moving slowly or picking up the pace. Feel better both near and away from the other horses. I was very, very proud of his efforts today. You could see his brain thinking, his eyes blinking, him experience an emotional roller coaster as he explored brainlessly reacting vs. thinking through what I was asking of him. For the most part things were quiet and slow. Other times as he was exploring his options, there was big and dramatic movement. Each time he got big and mentally checked out, he succinctly shortened the time of being “lost” through his own decision to quit brainlessly fleeing the scene if he was unsure.
Each time he’d fall apart he’d literally grunt (due to inconsistent breathing,) he’d jump with legs going in four different directions; he’d appear on the edge of I-just-want-to-explode physically. It was like he had to peer over the imaginary “ledge” and then chose to step back. By allowing him to TIME try, to think, and not critique him, the more he kept letting down. Then he’d offer to stay mentally present longer and could focus, causing the feeling to flee to decrease, until finally it evaporated.
Through all of his dramatic, “light switch” changes in his emotions and physical behavior, I was imagining how many folks could seemingly “steal” a ground work session with a horse like this. He had been taught in steps, and if you presented things in that manner, he’d resort to his old mentally shut down self but would appear physically “quiet” and compliant.
So rather than address any real problems, you could very easily gloss over his “issues” if you stayed within the imaginary safe boundaries he felt existed. But if you decided to one day present a new, random goal, he is a horse that could very easily hurt you in a heartbeat. Not out of aggression, but out of resorting to survival mode.
So irrelevant of your experience, history with your horse or other equines, take a few minutes and evaluate what it is that you’d like to get out of riding or working with your horse. Then you might ask yourself if what you want is an ego or emotionally driven desire? You may also present yourself with investigating if you’ve noticed any fear(s), insecurities, gray-area moments, etc. as you work with your horse. Start to recognize if you’ve created/presented any patterns or routines in either you and/or your horse’s interaction. Notice if there is anything you “always do” and then ask yourself why?
Experiment with slowing down your own brain, ideas, and goals to become more present. I joke that horses have A.D.D. but humans are even worse when it comes to lack of mental presence in general, and certainly when it comes to their horsemanship. Start to search for quality in the most basic things, such as catching your horse, leading your horse, grooming your horse, tying your horse. Remember that everything is connected.
Another example I’ll use:
The draggy horse (thinking backwards, heavy or slow in movement) on the lead, is already telling you his lack of mental availability for the upcoming ride. Why not address the unavailability and resistance on the ground BEFORE you ride?
An extra five minutes on the ground could change the overall feel of the ride.
So the next time you head out to “work” your horse, perhaps change the semantics to “play, have fun, explore” with your horse. If you find yourself starting to say, “My horse…” Try and change it to “I can help my horse…”
The next time someone rushes you, or offers an unasked for opinion while you’re exploring how you work with your horse, kindly reply, “I appreciate your suggestions but I’d like to experiment on my own for a few minutes.” Most folks will be taken back; nobody uses the words “experiment” and “horse” in the same sentence. People have been taught to fear change, to quit thinking and to quit asking questions. I’m not sure why people give in to those mannerisms (or lack thereof) but it has damaged many relationships between horse and humans.
Give yourself one week of experimental interaction and see what happens…
So go have some fun with your horse!