Colt Starting Crimes

I was asked to assess a neighbor’s 1 1/2yr colt. The horse hadn’t been handled much, and when he was, it was done with making the colt physically comply. Responding to pressure, spatial respect, human communication had not been part of the owner and horse’s interaction. My goal was to help the horse slow his brain down so that he could learn to focus on one thing (literally) at a time. To do this he needed to be willing to hear and address me. When I did something, it would need to mean something to him. Then by asking him to “search” for what I was asking- rather than micromanaging and directing his every movement. This encouraged him to try, participate, and gain confidence from trying. 

As the mentalities and priorities of fellow horse people have evolved, so has their verbiage from “breaking a horse” to “starting a horse.” The original “breaking” term was used to break the horse’s physical resistance and limit his ability to think. Depending on the confidence, fear, and history of the horse “breaking” could vary from tying a horse to a solid post in the middle of a round pen, blindfolding them, “sacking” them out, and then hopping on and hoping to survive their bucking spree until they finally gave up and tolerated being ridden. This could have happened a few or many times until someone finally had the nerve to ride the horse “out” (in the open) – all too often this is where usually running the horse until he was too exhausted to fight the rider would create the “broke” horse- remember that term “wet saddle blankets?” Over time it would take “less” drama and the horse would give up and tolerate being ridden… But there were always the “all of sudden moments” from when these sorts of horses pushed for years and carrying tons of emotional and mental stress, fear, and insecurity would “act out.” More dramatic versions of the breaking could include blindfolding the horse, “tripping” or “throwing” (literally) him down to the ground and tying up his legs while he was covered with tarps, blankets, and a saddle, tying up a leg to get the saddle on, and much much worse scenarios.

Nowadays the public has grown a conscience and “starting” horses has become popular. Though many people with good intentions end up causing damage due to their lack of education and understanding. You can’t open a horse magazine, newsletter, email, or attend an equine expo, etc. where you don’t hear “colt starting clinic,” “colt starting demonstration,” etc. I believe most mass commercialized horsemanship "programs" decrease the quality of information presented in an attempt to be easily accessible for the masses. Yet every human/horse combination is a unique pairing. One-size fits all training programs don't work.

All too often owners don’t realize the “damage” they have done until it’s too late and the horse is pretty confirmed that people are not a good thing… Then because the horse’s behavior has reached a point of dangerousness, they usually find someone like me- who is there to clean the slate and pick up the pieces.

I once watched a clinician “talk the talk” about calm, quiet, feel good, etc. and within 20 minutes he had taken a relative calm and confident filly and had her racing in circles around the round pen as he continuously created spatial pressure by casting his lariat at her; she was lathered, fearful, and panicked by the time he was done. 

As I looked around at the audience of about 1,000 people leaning forward in their seats watching, I could just imagine them going home and trying out the same tactics on their own unsuspecting horses. Here was a nationally recognized, “respected” horseman, of course you could mimic their behavior? Another time I watched a clinician work a colt to the point where the horse was so overwhelmed, that he actually physically quit, and laid down with the clinician on him. The clinician then proceeded to kick and yank on the horse until he got back up again, blaming the horse for his response. And no these aren’t just “a few” bad clinicians- they are the people most who use the terms “natural horsemanship” are turning to- how-to DVDs, earning thousands of dollars at clinics, selling “special” equipment, you name it, they are promoting it.

So the point of this post is to encourage you to trust your instinct. Too many times people can “smooth over” a colt starting session because the colt doesn't have the confidence to resist. A young horse may take and stuff his emotions about what he is being exposed to until one day “all of a sudden” (usually at age four) he purges all that has been contained. I’ve seen weekend colt starting where the riders are literally “stealing” a ride but don't realize it until they get home where they are alone, and get seriously hurt by their fearful horses. It’s such an unnecessary shame that these young horses have gone through these initial experiences as to what interacting with humans is going to be like.

A few thoughts:

If this horse is going to be your “long-term” partner what is the rush in how quickly he progresses? Many times a horse may physically look mature but is mentally and emotionally immature for a very long time. Put it into people's terms- how much would you ask of a small child to learn, participate, and perform? No different from your horse.

If you don’t understand what or how the gradual evolution of working with your horse from the ground to working him from the saddle- YOU need to take the time to educate YOU. If you are working with someone who cannot help you understand that crucial factor of how your groundwork prepares your horse for the ride, then you need to find another instructor. A trainer, clinician, or any other professional should be able to explain why they are presenting what they are and the short and long-term education. If the trainer’s interactions with the horse do not match their words- this is a red flag.

You are your horse’s voice. Speak up if you have a problem with how someone is treating your horse. At the end of the day it’ll only be you and he- everyone else goes home and doesn’t have to “deal” with any mess, stress, or fear they may have instilled in the horse. For your horse’s sake- why even go to those “bad” places- why not stop it early on?

The BIG question: Is your trainer right for you and your horse?

Having come from the “mainstream” riding world many years ago it is sometimes hard for me “keep it in perspective” of what the general public experiences in “regular lessons.” As an instructor, I feel it is my job to assess where the horse and person/rider are on this specific day, rather than assuming that we’ll “pick up” where we left off in the last session.

I’m always amazed as I hear stories of the equestrian services people pay for and are berated, disrespected, belittled, and badgered by the "professional." And yet, if the student doesn’t know otherwise, they keep going back.

I believe that my student must be offered my respect for showing up and trying to improve themselves. They must also have trust that what I’m offering them will help them on their journey and the clarity to understand how it affects their “growth” in improving their horsemanship.

Most horseback riding lesson scenarios in today’s society have a delay in the timing or lack of quality in communication between instructor and student. Becaus the horse requires ongoing support, to help students learn how to improve their support, they need to learn how to be present every step of the ride.

Many students don’t realize the “process” it takes to create a working relationship with them. I never have a predetermined “we must accomplish this” agenda before we begin a session. Wherever the student is mentally and emotionally on that given day will influence how the lesson evolves.

My priority is to keep the human and horse safe, then to enjoy the experience. The more the student feels supported, the more they can learn. Too many times though even the word “lesson” has a negative association because of the one-way communication between instructor and horse. I can’t recall how many occasions I’ve sat on the fence watching lesson after lesson with the instructor literally repeating the same five sayings, (“head up, heals down, more, push him, good, etc.”) and always responding AFTER the student performed.

Another aspect I’m shocked at is how much the horse is IGNORED during the session. I know that sounds funny but when the instructor’s goals are predefined, "Everyone will work on x, y, and z today," there is a lack of consideration that their lesson agenda may not be appropriate for that horse at that moment in time.

I know there is pressure to accomplish a big feat each session. But what if the goal of the student was quality? Consider we spend a minimum of 12 years between elementary, middle, and high school on just the basics of human education. Why would we expect both us and our horses to “know it all” within a short 30, 60, or 90 day period? The famous “X” days of training, starting a horse, etc. always make me smile. The equine partnership journey is a continual, ongoing process and journey, not just the end result.

I truly believe more students would enjoy the “process” of educating themselves and their horses if they understand what, how, and why they were doing what they were doing. But too many times they have become “handicapped” for relying (literally) on the instructor for every part of the ride and have lost all ability to think their way through a ride.

So the next time you are about to take a lesson, audit a clinic, read an article in a magazine or watch a “quick fix” DVD on horse training, take a moment to really assess the quality of the information being provided. Is it clear? Is it appropriate for where you and your horse are at in your learning process? Did you both come away with a warm “fuzzy feeling” after the experience or was there a “blank” feeling of “never going to get it?”

Even if you don’t have years of experience with horses, trust your gut. Take care of you and your horse- he’s relying on you to make the best decisions for the BOTH of you! It’s okay to try different instructors, ideas, or philosophies to experiment with. Your top priority is to do what is best for you and your horse, even if it means stepping away from that “world-class trainer” or proven Olympian- trust me, I’ve been there, I’ve done it, and my horses are better for having had the ability to say “no.”

Horses that are difficult keepers

Some horses, especially the "hot breeds" (Thoroughbreds, Arabians, etc.) can be hard keepers- difficult to keep weight on them.  I find in most cases this is because they are extremely emotionally sensitive, the more worry, concern, or possibly even fear they carry, they less they are able to maintain an appropriate weight.
Other factors such as age, work schedule, etc. can also affect body weight.

If you find you have a horse like this, besides trying to address what is emotionally and mentally bothering your horse, you may also have to play with a combination of grass and alfalfa, or grass and weight gainers such as beet pulp, which will not make him seem so "high" due to his feed. Also depending on his lifestyle (pasture, with or without other horses, stall, etc.) make sure he not only has access to his feed without the fear of it being "stolen" from the neighbor, and all that he is current with his dental work so that he isn't in pain when he is eating. He also should be on a regular worming schedule.

Beet pulp, rice bran and corn oil are great ways to add weight without “heat” to the horse’s feed. I've had good results with Red Cell which is also an affordable alternative that has lots of nutrients to help maintain a hard keeper.

Here are a few signs that your horse may be suffering from dental issues:

• Abnormal bitting behavior

• Bad breath, halitosis

• Difficulty chewing (you’ll see large chunks of food fall out of his mouth as he tries to chew)

• Discharge from one nostril

• Headshaking

• Repeated bouts of colic

• Tenderness around the face

• Difficulty maintaining weight

Learning on your own- The Power of Video or Pictures

Well we are in the beginning stages of wrapping up another winter season here in AZ. The temperatures have skyrocketed into the high 80’s in the last few days and will keep rising until they hit anywhere from 115-120 degrees in July and August (no, that’s not a typo.)

The final schooling horse show of the season was a success in a lot of ways; many riders seemed to have started this season in a bit of “riding plateau” and by the end discovered a mental clarity within them and how they are working and interacting with their horse.

An interesting thought crossed my mind again as I was discussing/evaluating different performances of both my own students and those of other competitors. For many people in the United States who keep their horses on their own property, or live in remote locations, they do not have access to barns, get-togethers, clinics or regular lessons where they get to not only participate, but also WATCH other riders. For many people nowadays keeping a horse boarded at home is common and rewarding, usually allowing for much more time spent with their horse without having to “commute” to the barn. On the other hand this “seclusion” decreases the level of interaction the rider has with other horse people.

Take for instance a few of my jumping students. They are not aspiring to jump huge obstacles nor attend upper rated competitions, but they’d like to learn how to jump for the sake of variety and a new avenue to try with their horses. Yet, other than maybe “seeing it a few times” at some high end competition televised or in a magazine, they have no idea (visually) of “what it’s supposed to look like.” So many people nowadays rely on watching others to help them self learn.

In this particular case of teaching riders the physical position they need to be in with their upper body, seat, lower legs and hands on the approach to the face, while in the air, and then on the landing, the visual aid of being able to watch someone can help greatly. Keep in mind not all fellow riders may be setting an example, but even so, you can still learn what NOT to do too, by watching. I always encourage people to go and watch the warm-up arenas rather than the competition arena because many times you’ll see a lot more “real” riding rather than “pretty” riding due to a judge watching.

But, what if it’s not an option for you to watch other riders? Most people nowadays have a video camera or a digital camera. This is a great alternative to “barn life” and “regular” lessons. The awesome thing about digital is that it doesn’t cost anything to take tons of pictures. If you can rope a friend or family member into taking a few minutes to photograph or film you as you ride, you’ll then amazed at how much you’ll be able to “critique” yourself afterwards.

As you evaluate yourself don’t have “pretty” as the focus, rather effective. If you see in a photo or video that your horse isn’t performing as desired- start by looking at you in the picture. What are you doing? What else could you be doing? What did you think you were doing and is that what it looks like when you actually have a visual of yourself? Most performances in horse are a reflection of the partnership between horse and rider. Instead of focusing on what you could “change” about your horse- address yourself first. If you’re sitting crooked in the saddle, how can your horse move straight? If your hands are “dumped” down low, how you can use independent and effective aids to communicate to different parts of your horse if our body is moving as one? How can you ask your horse to perform, if you aren’t?

All too often, even with instruction, a rider will think that they are riding in a certain manner or using a specific aid. In their mind they feel like they are riding as they should, but when they actually see themselves with a form of physical evidence, the realization then sinks in as to how they are “really” riding.

I’m always amazed at how quickly people can adapt or change their riding “habits” once they have a clear visual on what they think are doing versus what they are really doing.

Give it a try- your horse will thank you for it! Sam

Word of the Day: Confident Horses

Confident Horse- Building a horse's willingness to try in unfamiliar scenarios without fear or defensiveness. Each interaction with the human should build his mental availability to address and search for what the person is asking of the horse. The more curious the horse is about what the human is presenting, the increase in his physical softness and reasonableness.

Arizona Ranch Remuda- Review by Sam

I just returned from a scenic five hour drive north of where I spend my winters to attend the 12th Annual Invitation Arizona Ranch Remuda Sale held just north of historic Prescott, AZ. Horses consigned were brought in from throughout AZ, CO, and NM. Beautiful weather helped set a fun mood for a crowd of at least 100 spectators.

If you’ve never been to a Remuda sale it’s a completely different experience from a “regular” auction. Even though the horses are being “judged” it retains a very relaxed feel. And I believe the “judging” doesn’t truly affect the potential buyers. Most buyers are ranchers and cowboys who know what their looking for in a proven horse or a young prospect and are not influenced much by the judging. Riders wear whatever attire they feel comfortable in horses- most look like they are about to head out for a day’s work on the ranch. Horses come in as if they’ve just been working on the ranch- there’s no worry about cleaning, primping or prepping like you find at many sales. The rider’s ages varied from eight (yes, eight) years old to late 60s, and horses ranged from coming three year olds to just ender 10 plus a few two year olds shown in hand.

I’ll give you a description of the day’s events and then I’ll break it down into an assessment of what I was looking for, seeing and came away with!

At 11:30 in the morning the horses were presented in hand and “inspected” by several veterinarians for soundness and overall health.

Then they are saddled and are individually showing their flatwork which included loping a figure 8- with either a flying or simple lead change. The horse and rider then demonstrated several “stops” from a high rate of speed, perhaps a few rollbacks, and then a few steps to show the beginning of a “spin” or the actual completion of a full spin. Then a calf is let out of a mechanical shoot and the rider demonstrates the horse’s ability to “drive the cow” along an imaginary “wall” of riders attempting to keep the calf separated from his buddies.

After a few times of (ideally) gently turning the calf back, the rider then drives the calf down the fence line in an attempt to show the horse working at speed to gain on the calf, get ahead of it, and then turn it back down the fence line. This may be done a few times; it’s up to the rider. They then build a loop in their rope and rope the calf, trying to show the horse’s ability to haze the calf, his comfort with being tied off to the calf, and then his ability to “drag” the calf- all things that would be asked of the horse in a “working” lifestyle. This individual demonstration would range anywhere from five to 10 minutes.

I tend to get frustrated watching many “mainstream” competitions whether it be English or Western disciplines due to the lack in quality of the horsemanship and the “holes” in the partnership between horse and rider. People in competition seem to get so focused on winning- with too many times the rider pushing the horse “at all costs” for a performance the horse may not be prepared for. As I tell my students, the show is not the place for TRAINING your horse and introducing new things unless you are using it as a schooling experience. The show arena should be a place that the rider and horse can confidently demonstrate their abilities. The show is also NOT the place to “try something for the first time.” I tell students they should be riding at a more difficult level comfortably at home, than the level they are planning to compete at.

So in the case of watching the ranch horses perform I was looking to see how these real life work horses “performed” in an arena scenario. Here are a few of the factors I was watching:

Rider’s skills (finesse, softness of aids, “quiet” hands/seat/legs, etc.)

Clarity of Communication between rider and horse- Was the rider just “suddenly” demanding things of the horse? Did the horse “know” the plan ahead of time because his rider prepared him for what was going to be asked of him?

Horse’s maturity- Many of these horse were young and I find for a lot of horses it takes a while for their mental and emotional maturity to catch up with their physical maturity

Horse’s work ethic- Where was the horse’s brain? Did he WANT to participate or was he tolerating what was asked of him?

Equipment- What was used on the horse, was it effective?

So now I’ll break down each part of the rider and horse’s performance using examples of riders who in my book would have scored ranging from a nine or 10 and at the bottom end of the scale, a two or three.

One of the best horse and rider combination of the day was the first rider out. The problem with this is that they set an initial “standard” – which I think many of the spectators didn’t appreciate until they saw some of the other horse’s performances and realized just how quality the first pair was. I like to tell students the more quality your ride, the more boring it should look.

What I mean by this is usually the “dramatic” ride is not a quality one. This first pair did exactly that. The rider came out with a big soft curve in the reins between his hands and his horse’s mouth. His lope circles displayed the horse’s soft body with him looking attentively around his circle, creating a light and balanced gait. His flying lead changes- which most riders incorrectly think “rushing” or gaining speed before asking their horse will help- looked almost slow motion and with just a slight skip in his step he’d easily switch from one lead to the other. You could see the rider tell the horse to prepare for the new direction, and not until that horse was committed to the new direction, did the rider ask for the lead change.

The quick stops were not “jammed” down the horse’s face with dramatic rein communication, instead you could see the rider again “tell the horse ahead of time” the stop was coming. This allowed his horse to prepare and softly stop with the majority of his weight correctly on his hindquarters and his top line relaxed.

On the other end of the scale, more horses than not, would look like they had the “emergency brake” pulled as they were literally slammed in the face for a “quick” halt. To me, that’s scary. The horses would stop so hard and so unbalanced, that they would “pop” forward a few steps to try and regain their balance from the abruptness of their “surprise” halts. The horse’s mouths would be bared open and gaping, trying to avoid the severity in which the bit was being used.

Because the first rider could ask the horse to shift his weight onto his hindquarters, the horse’s forehand was “light.” This allows the horse to easily move his front end around his hind- such steps are used in spins, quick and balanced turns such as what one would use in a rollback.

In other horses you could see where left and right (literally) still weren’t clear to the horse. There was no association with a certain aid from the rider having a clear meaning to the horse. This caused many horses to “push through” their turns for several reasons.

First, the horse never even looked to where he was about to step. Next, because he wasn’t looking, his weight wasn’t distributed in a way that the shoulder closest to the direction he would be asked to turn could step. So because he was unbalanced, he’d have to make the first step with the opposite shoulder- causing him to “walk out of” his turn. It would take two steps forward to achieve one lateral step. The “drag” that appeared in the horse’s response was due to lack of clarity. A lot of the young horses looked like they didn’t have a clue.

This is where there is a fork in the road in some philosophies in training. For me personally, no matter the discipline, I want my horse to be clear on left, right, forward, stop, back, moving portions his body independently, and having a sliding scale of the energy he moves with. This became very important to me after years of surviving riding “slightly out of control.” I was jumping horses over pick up trucks without having steering or brakes!

Today, whether I’m educating a green horse or re-education a more experienced one, I always start with the basics. To me, without the foundation of clear communication and the basics- it just typically becomes a fight between the horse and rider as the difficulty in performance is increased. If I don’t have these established “tools” to use when working with my horse, I don’t feel I am “armed” with enough options to help my horse, especially when he gets into an uncomfortable spot.

A lot more common theory on educating a horse is “wet saddle blankets.” This means that miles and miles of riding and surviving real life will give the young horse enough exposure that eventually he’ll “know his job.” I have a hard time with this theory because I find that there are very few talented riders who can still balance this theory with “helping” the horse as he learns.

More often than not, it winds up with the rider “pushing” the horse mentally and emotionally, until he physically wears out and “gives up” by not showing any physical resistance even if he is mentally stressed. To create this feeling in a young horse in my opinion can leave for a lot of years left of riding a horse that will absolutely do his job, but is mentally shut down towards the rider.

So it all boils down to what is the rider’s goal and his ability to balance that goal with his horse’s mental, emotional and physical well being throughout his education. In the case of this show, you could clearly see the horse whose attempts were “good enough” and those where the rider had prioritized clear basics.

So with the first horse you could see he had been taught to look (literally) to where he was going- again another way the rider can “tell the horse” ahead of time what the plan was. So between shifting the horse’s weight to his hind end, asking him to look, and then being able to move the horse’s body independently (hindquarters separate from the ribcage separate from the shoulders,) the rider could ask the horse to step his front end around his hind, demonstrate a quality spin.

You may be wondering why a horse needs to be able to spin if he’s working on a ranch. Well for the next part of competition, the horse had to be able to show his ability to turn back and sort a calf. If your horse isn’t watching the calf, he isn’t prepared for a quick turn that may be demanded of him in order to “cut” the calf’s movement. Take this a step farther would be when the horse is hazing the calf down the fence line, there has to be a balance in the level of energy and where that energy is directed towards that calf. The horse needs to be able to adjust his speed, movement and spatial pressure, which will affect the speed, movement and direction of the calf. This way the rider and horse can “influence” what the calf is about to do, rather than react to what the calf presents. Here of course you can imagine timing and finesse separates the mediocre from the quality horse and riders.

This ability then prepares the horse to be able to “softly” follow a calf at speed that is not being “driven” down a fence line, but rather is in the “open” and the rider has to rope it. Soft and balanced turns and lead changes are crucial to help set the rider up in the ideal position to rope the calf.

Once that calf is roped, the horse must be balanced to “sit” or sink his weight onto his haunches to bear against the weight of the struggling calf. The horse also needs to be able to quickly relax mentally and emotionally after the high speed “chase” as soon as that calf is roped. In real life the horse may need to stand on his own keep the rope tight against the calf, while his rider doctors, brands or cuts the calf.

Too many times we’ve all seen or experienced that horse that “once you get him going, you can’t get him relaxed again.” In a real life working scenario there isn’t room for that- the rider on the ground has to have full faith in their horse as their partner and “tool” to help bet the job done with as little stress to the cattle as possible.

The less educated or clear horses “sloughed” their way through their turns and spins, which was magnified when “real life” with the calf was happening. The calf would stop and turn back, and there’d be a delay in the horse being able to find his balance to turn back and move with the calf. That delay would allow the calf to get “ahead” of the horse, so then the horse would have to race at a faster speed to catch up. But because the horse was moving so unbalanced, the faster he went forward, the more dramatic his stops, the less balanced his turns. As you can imagine, it can quickly evolve into a chaotic and stressful situation.

This is the point when the rider’s emotions tend to interfere, and feeling the “pressure” of not moving the calf as desired, the rider winds up over riding his horse, causing more stress which never helps a horse’s confidence and certainly not his performance.

The other thing that was interesting was to watch how many horses only wanted to lope on one lead on their figure 8. But when they were hazing a calf or attempting to set up their rider to rope it, when the horse’s brain and attention was on that calf, the horse “all of a sudden” had no problem changing leads as necessary to follow the calf. That is such a great example of why I’m constantly asking riders to focus on getting their horse mental availability. If your horse isn’t thinking his way through the ride, everything presented appears to be a “surprise.”

There was an extreme case of that with one of the coming three year olds performance. As one rancher watching said, “that horse doesn’t even know there’s a calf in that arena.” And he was right- the horse was literally looking out over the arena at EVERYTHING except what he was supposed to be focused on.

The quality horses and riders always easily stand out, no matter the discipline. At this point I will mention that the first rider happened to be 12 years old. Yes, that’s right. I jokingly tell my adult students that if they rode with the intention and commitment that teenagers tend to ride with, so many of their horses would be clear on “the plan.”

On a funny note the calves won the “high jump” award of the day. As I mentioned there was a mechanical shoot that would let each calf out. I also mentioned part of working the calf was to show sensitivity to the “pressure” created by horse and rider. Well a few of those calves got real smart, real fast. They began to realize what the “routine” would be and by the time the rider would get to the roping portion, if the calf felt too much pressure, he aimed straight for the 4 ½ ft tall solid wall of the arena and would jump it- and clear it- to get back to his herd. There were only about six calves that were rotated through and about four of them had figured out an “alternative” to being roped.

I’ve always told my jumping students that cow could jump a fence three foot fence from a soft trot and that the horse did not NEED a lot of speed to clear an obstacle, it was all about balance of his movement when the jump was presented. The calves that proved my point!

So the return trip I played tourist in Prescott, which is home to the “world’s oldest rodeo”- although that statement has been contested several times. This was again another fun and educational road trip. Do you have a fun or unique horse event in your area? Let me know!Sam

Maintaining Perspective

Horses can carry mentally and emotionally turmoil because of their ability to tolerate a situation or people imposed “pressure.” All too often these horses are taken advantage of for their seeming willingness to “stuff their emotions.” But at what point does a horse owner’s thinking transition from “this is my goal…” to “this is an appropriate goal for my horse and I…” – if it ever does? In my experience is seems to take a traumatic situation for the owner to realize they’ve pushed their horse “too far.”
I find myself responding cautiously when I have an overly enthusiastic student that “can’t wait to show me” something that they’ve been working on with their horse. It seems all too often that the “end goal” or “result” has become the sole focus point for the person, causing them to overlook the deterioration of the quality in their horse’s performance.
The problem with “over focusing” is that the person stops offering their horse an open line of two way communication. The less clear the communication, the less attentive the person is to “zoom out” and be able to assess the ENTIRE scenario, rather than just a specific movement or action of the horse. With the “intensity” factor at hand, the person becomes increasingly demanding that their horse perform a specific task, and the more the horse doesn’t “get it right” the more unclear pressure is applied by the person.
Usually as the pressure is increased the quality of the communication between person and horse starts to deteriorate. As the horse starts asking for help, he winds up being ignored by the person and so he has to resort to “helping himself” which usually causes undesired results by the person.
So where is the “line” or balance to where the person can feel “forward” progress in working with their horse, and yet can do so without blowing their horse’s minds? The concept for this blog came to me over the past week as I watched a multitude of horses all in different places in their training, development and maturity. And yet I found myself basically “teaching” the same lesson. I don’t feel there is a “right” or “wrong” way to do things. But I do believe in prioritizing communication with a horse in a way that the individual horse needs rather than trying to get the horse to follow a set “program.”
The opposite extreme from the “intense person” are those people that have become overly sensitive, usually owners of “reactive” horses, this causing them to never want to “push” the boundaries of quality with their horse for fear of a “blow up.” Well there is a fine line. But keep in mind the horse is never going to wake up one day and say “Gee, this is what I need to focus on today…”
I think the problem stems from people many times viewing the actual accomplishment of an act or task as a relief. Instead I prefer to look at the interaction and communication that helped get the horse to achieve the task at hand as the accomplishment because those are the same tools the person will use with their horse to take things step further.
Somehow it seems to be human nature to work one “one thing or another” but not to maintain a perspective that everything we ask of our horses is connected. It may not look the same, but really it’s all about both our and our horse’s mental availability. Our intention whether we’re working on something “old” or “new” should be no different. I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard people say, “Oh we worked on that a long time ago, but now when I ask my horse to do the same task he acts as if we’ve never done it before.” For these people, their horse is trying to TELL them that obviously “way back” he wasn’t clear on what they working on, and today, he STILL isn’t clear.
So the scale seems to be extreme with people and horses- it’s “all or nothing” when it comes to lacking sensitivity or being overly sensitive. It’s our responsibility to find that “middle” ground. Don’t be “afraid” to experiment with your horse. So many people say “well the trainer finally got him to this point and I don’t want to ride him because I might ruin what the trainer did.” If the trainer was clear in how and what they presented to the horse, and the horse really understood, then the owner isn’t going to “wreck” the horse.
Horses have an amazing way to decipher and adapt from one rider to the next. Have you ever had that “crazy” or “high strung” horse and then put a small child or disabled person near that same horse? So many times that horse will completely adapt their behavior and energy to who is around them.
So the next time you head out to work with your horse experiment and assess where your energy, mind and focus is- then see how it is affecting your horse. Try and make some changes within yourself, and you’ll be amazed how fast your horse will change too!
Keeping it in perspective- Sam