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THE MISSING LINK: Understanding and Connecting the Actions of your horse

Question: What does trailer loading (problems), spooking, crossing water, jumping a fence, making a turn on a gaming course, asking for a flying lead change, trail riding, herd anxiety and turning a cow back have in common? The horse’s brain.

Question: What does a horse refusing or kicking out when asked to canter or lope, a horse bolting, a horse “leaning” on the bit, a horse become aggressive when worked with from the ground, a horse fidgeting in the cross ties, a horse that won’t stand quietly to be mounted have in common? The horse’s brain.

Question: Okay, okay so you’re getting the idea. The idea for this article came about from the number of people who send a question to my Ask the Trainer page- “horse issues” from around the world including the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, etc., are very similar no matter the various backgrounds and experience of the people and horses. As I review question after question, and start composing answers in my head, most days I sound like a broken record with my answers.

There consistently seems to be FOUR missing links with the most common issues or “problems” that people ask for help with:

Lack of Awareness (in both horse and person)
Lack of Understanding of the horse’s actions
Lack of Clear Communication, and therefore
Lack of Mental Availability from the horse

Most “issues” that people write about are not the problem itself, but rather a symptom of the underlining issue. How many times have you heard or maybe said yourself, “MY horse does (or doesn’t)…” or maybe, “It was all going fine and then suddenly…” or how about “My horse is really great but he just has one little problem with...” I could go on and on with these scenarios.

Lack of Awareness: So many times the person does not recognize, put value to or address their horse’s behavior until it gets dramatic enough that it cannot be ignored. The horse is not randomly acting out.  If he does something, you need to believe that it means something!  By then, the horse is pretty confirmed that the person is not there to help them through the scenario.

Lack of Understanding: Have you ever seen the magician move the three cups around with one cup covering a small ball. The object is for you to try and watch and follow the cup shielding the ball. The distraction of the movement tends to confuse the person watching and they usually pick the wrong cup at the end.

The same goes for horses. People tend to watch the “big” and “dramatic” movement instead of watching or noticing the small ways their horse is constantly communicating with them. Then they take the unwanted behavior of the horse as a personal offense and react emotionally instead of rationally by mentally backing up “through time” and trying to break down at what point did the horse start showing signs of the unwanted behavior. This lack of understanding causes the people who write in about their horse’s “issue” to not realize they are only attempting to address the symptom.

Lack of Clear Communication: If you spoke English and were attempting to communicate with someone who spoke Russian who had no understanding of the English language, it wouldn’t matter how many times you repeated yourself, how loudly you spoke or how much you changed your tone of voice- they STILL wouldn’t understand you.

This too often is the case of how people interact with their horse. First their behavior, energy or aids have no meaning to the horse. Then the horse who doesn’t understand appears to “ignore” their aids so they then keep asking in the same way until they get frustrated by the lack of change in their horse. Then they start using “stronger” aids (harsher bit, longer spurs, whips, etc.) and wonder why their horse still isn’t getting “it.” Then they start randomly using the same aids, with increasing severity, doing the same thing and are shocked to find no change in their horse- in fact usually a remission of “forwardness” or “success.”

Lack of Mental Availability: If you’ve ever been asked to do something that you really didn’t want to do, you can remember the feelings of physical resistance inside your body because of the mental stress you were experiencing?

The same goes for horses. When a person has demonstrated they have a lack of awareness towards their horse, then they have a lack of understanding when their horse does something, and then are not clear in how they communicate with the horse, the horse has no alternative but to mentally “shut down.”

AS many of us say, horses don’t have problems until you add people into their lives. Why should a horse demonstrate any level of willingness to “try,” to learn or to trust a person if the above three actions – or lack of – occur? Without the horse mentally participating there will only be “surviving the ride” and “hopeful” experiences- neither of which will make either horse or rider come away with a positive and motivated feeling for the next ride.

So the basic issues, “gaps” in the horse’s training, and lack of general communication between rider and horse ALL stem from the same missing fundamentals. How many times have you witnessed or experienced a “difficult” horse and stopped to actually notice where his brain was?

Have you ever watched a horse not wanting to load into a horse trailer- and noticed his head turned in the total opposite direction from the trailer? How will he ever get into the trailer if he is completely avoiding THINKING about the trailer?

Have you ever tried to turn left and had your horse “leak out” to the right? Notice where his eyes are looking? To the right. He’ll never make a quality and balanced left turn if he isn’t THINKING about turning left.

Have you ever watched a horse working cattle that kept “missing” its turns and therefore allowing the cows to run past? Notice where the horse’s brain is- if there is a lack of confidence, understanding or clarity the horse won’t/can’t do his job well.

Have you ever felt your horse “shift gears” and noticed you were hopeful that he’d slow down- wondering if you needed a more severe bit? Until that horse THINKS about slowing down, he will not, not matter how strong the bit is.

Have you ever been riding in a group and gone to leave the group and have your horse have a complete emotional melt down? Until you horse can THINK about riding down the trail with intention, his brain will be with the group of horses that left and therefore his body will try to follow his brain back to that group.

I’ll close with mentioning another key “tool” missing from most horse/people relationships: QUALITY. Too many times it’s not until “the day you need it” that a persona suddenly and randomly demands quality from their horse- without ever having offered it or asked for it beforehand. Don’t wait until the moment you NEED to get the job done to ask for quality from your horse- it starts with YOU. Every day, every moment you interact with your horse. If you’re not offering it, don’t “hope” for it from your horse.

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