Horses Searching For An Opportunity

I have to admit that it had been years since I rode multiple "broke" horses before my fall arrival to the northeastern Texas ranch I’m currently based at. This winter I’ve had the opportunity to work with over 30 horses varying in degrees of experience in an assortment of disciplines including ranching, roping, reined cow horse, driving and cutting prospects all varying from two to 10 years of age.

One by one I rode each horse with my initial purpose to familiarize myself and assess the horses here at the ranch. Each horse had been broke with what I call the "mainstream" approach and were "quiet" in their behavior during the basic saddle, mounting, tying and standing for the farrier. Tacking up and mounting in the barn aisle was the "norm" and there was not any concern for the horse’s brain or emotions.

Wind, cows, the indoor arena, nearby running tractor equipment, welding, loose dogs and goats, being hosed down or standing tied for hours at a time, these horses were what appeared to be "fine." But to me, a "lot" was missing in their confidence, willingness and performance.

Whether in their stall or among a herd in a large pasture, not a single horse looked with any degree of enthusiasm or interest as you approached, and most, if they had the opportunity, walked off as you neared with the halter and lead rope in hand.

What I had been told were the "best" horses in each discipline, were often the most difficult to catch and most defensive in how they carried themselves and maintained tightness in their bodies (noticeable even while just standing tied.)

Not a single horse was able to walk with any sensitivity or respect towards personal space or in response to pressure of the lead rope; so as you lead each one, it felt as if you were draggy 1,000 lbs. of horse with you.

Although they would stand still while tacked up, about half of them would get a concerned look as you swung the saddle blanket onto their back.

The "typical" order of doing things here on the ranch was to tack up and mount without any consideration or evaluation of the horse, his brain, etc. Although most of the horses stood quietly while you mounted every single one would "drag" along in their walk to wherever you were heading. There was NO consideration as to being able to walk with varying degrees of energy.

I had the opportunity to watch and be reminded of how the "mainstream" thought process was in regards to training performance horses at several facilities that were considered by most within the industry to have "top notch" programs. The almost non-stop "fussiness" of rider’s hands constantly taking up on the reins and asking the horses to yield at their poll and jaw vertically and horizontally until the horse’s nose almost touched his chest, made my jaw ache as I imagined how the horses felt being ridden in such a manner and with such severe bits. And yet to the uneducated eye, it would appear that each horse was accepting their rider’s actions and aids because he was not "acting out" dramatically.

Things that I consider as "the basics" such as asking a horse to look where he was going as I rode, or to increase and decrease his energy within a pace in response to my change of energy in the saddle, commonly got either a "fleeing" response, or the horse would totally lock up or "brace" his entire body in resistance towards my aid.

Many of the horses responded as if shocked by the things I asked such as taking a specific step or movement, whether it was a turn, a transition, yielding laterally, moving one specific foot, backing, etc. I could feel the patternization in these horses by their response or lack thereof, in how they "expected" me to ride. In anticipation the horse seemed to prepare himself for the expected busyness and severe aids, and would mentally check out.

I find horses and humans at times can be very similar. The more boundaries and clear black and white instructions you offer the better and more enthusiastic the response is, even if there is initially some resistance. In the long term, it seems horses and humans offer a respect when the communication presented is clear, honest and consistent.

A majority of the horses would brace against my reins and gently "leak out" acting like they had had a few drinks, when asked to carry themselves using their

hindquarters rather than dragging themselves around on the forehand.

Every time I would offer an aid in an attempt to ask the horse to participate with me, rather than submit to my aid, it was like there was this mental and almost physical pause in their response. It usually took three or four times "showing" the horse (by offering a quiet in my own energy, actions and aids) that got them to start to fathom that they might be "rewarded" by their efforts and participation, rather than being taken "advantage of."

My goal was to get these "shut down" horses to first consider mentally what I was asking of them, then to address my aid with a physical effort.

With most of the horses you could feel "surprise" in them as they realized that each time they tried to address what I was asking, there was an acknowledgement in me, rather than greediness with me continually hammering away at them.

The biggest "red flag" in all of the horses was that you could feel the "quantity" they had been ridden with, rather than a quality. I am so adamant about not brainlessly asking something of my horses (or human students!) over and over and over to the point of nearly driving the horse nuts. If the horse isn’t "getting it," I believe it is the human’s responsibility to change how they are communicating with their horse, in order to get a different response from their horse.

Sometimes when I hear folks talk about their horse’s resistance it seems that the person feels the horse is scheming as he stands in his stall all day about the new and creative ways he will "resist" his rider.

I believe the horse is a mirror of his rider. Often people don’t like that statement, because they don’t always like what they see in their "mirror."

So from day one to 10 and then by week three, it almost seemed as if when you sat on some of the horses they weren’t even the same animals. The quickness of their willingness to try, or their ability to "let go" of an initial resistance was so fun to experience. It felt as if the more you "opened the door" and encouraged them to participate in the ride; the more they wanted to offer.

Now I’m not saying that in a few weeks I "undid" all of how they used to "operate"; the old saying is, "It takes me six hours to fix what it takes someone else six minutes to wreck."

Because of the craziness of my schedule I find I only have so much time and so I have to pick carefully in each session with a horse what I want to address, as I see it is my responsibility to help increase that horse’s confidence and willingness by the quality of what I present in each session.

Another HUGE factor in all of the horses increased levels of "search" during a ride, was by literally changing the routine of where, how and when they were ridden.

The facility I’m at has an amazing variation in terrain, rolling pastures to wooded trails, numerous horses, cows, dogs and goats roaming about. It allows for me to "work" on something, but in a totally new setting, and just by changing the scenery, it is as if all preconceived ideas the horse had about something being asked of him, disappears and is replaced with a curiosity.

When I’m riding a horse I felt was initially mentally "shut down," to feel him actually take interest in our ride, tuning in to his surroundings, blowing his nose, taking huge sighs and turning to putty in my hands, I believe I’m on track that will better help him.

Then of course after the ride, to suddenly find playfulness in the horse searching for physical affection, or gently blowing down my neck sending goose bumps down my arms, it makes it all worth it.

So the next time you have the opportunity to work with a horse that seems obedient, patternized or tolerant, experiment with offering the horse "what he thought he knew" in a totally different way. You might be surprised as the horse’s personality "comes to life" as he begins searching for an opportunity!

Sam

Hoofprints & Happenings Fall/ Winter 2012

Please enjoy the latest copy of my newseltter! http://www.learnhorses.com/newsletter/Dec%20H%20&%20H%2012.pdf

Full Immersion Clinic September 7-9

I have two participant spots available for my last Full Immersion Clinic of the season.  It will be held at The Equestrian Center, LLC, in Sandpoint, ID, September 7-9 from 8am-5pm each day with a one hour lunch break.
Auditors are welcomed and encouraged! For details on the clinic visit http://www.learnhorses.com/Clinics/camp.htm
For registration please visit http://www.learnhorses.com/Clinics/tec_registration-non-java.html

Chores and clocks... Changing what defines a "training session"

Over the years as I try to give people ideas on how to keep their interaction with their horse “interesting” so not to fall into the seemingly inevitable “patternized” routine I often suggest for folks who keep their horses at home, to do chores with their horse.
Recently I just saw a great photo of a numeral clock with no hands on it titled “Horse Time.”  I re-posted it on Facebook adding, “When I have a horse in training often people will ask how long a session is, and this picture of the clock is my answer.”  After posting it, I realized I ought to expand my thoughts on what I might consider part of a “training” session.

I believe that every moment of interaction with your horse increase or decrease the quality of your relationship based on what you “offer” your horse.   Society often likes to categorize and contain things, and it is no different in the horse world.  The 45 minute or one hour lesson.  The “magic” 30 days of training.  The feeding two or three times a day.  Keeping horses in stalls.  Tying their heads down.  Changing their natural movement into unnatural gaits.  We try to contain and suppress the horse until he becomes whatever the “ideal” goal is in our head and all too often we take the “horse out of the horse.”

What if instead we started to question our current acceptance of the “rules” in our head, and at the same time no longer accept the preconceived notion of “this is how we do _______________ because that is how we have always done _______________.”  I never ceased to be amazed when talking with a completely non-horsey person and having them watch a session, whether ground work or riding, and their clarity of being able to literally “see” what is going on with the horse’s behavior tends to be far clearer than the person who has spent their entire life around horses and who has taken a lot of lessons.

I get a lot of colts to start each year, and typically most owners have been waiting a long time to get on their horse want to get on and “go.”  I on the other hand like things really, really, really boring.  Even if I’m galloping, it needs to feel soft, balanced and boring.  Most people approach interacting with their horse with a “survive” the ride mentality.

I believe the foundation of a horse’s education should include him learning things such as becoming mentally available towards a person, learning to focus on what is being presented, learning patience, and increasing his confidence and independence while still participating in communicating with me in a reasonable manner. 

So what does doing chores have to do with what I’m writing?  My “practical” mind tries to make my life more efficient as I run a “one woman” operation so all property maintenance, training, teaching lessons, bookkeeping, etc. are included in my day.  When I have a horse in for training I’ll often use some of his “training” session as a good opportunity do chores.  By doing so, it can help present “scenarios” that can teach him some of the things I mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Let me give you a few examples.

For my Dressage arena perimeters I have white chain, which can break when loose horses or wildlife crossing through the property and step on it.  I’ll often take a horse, whether lead or riding, and find a broken link, and ask him to stand and wait while I fix the fence.  If I’m riding, it may require I mount and dismount multiple times (from both sides,) and the horse starts to realize the ride isn’t “over” just because I’ve gotten off.  As I fix the fence, the horse needs to stand at attention almost as if he was watching (I try to imagine I’m doctoring a cow), so there is no mentally “tuning me out” or grazing just because he has to wait.

I have tons of weeds this year with all the crazy rain, so I may actually have a horse that is standing at the end of the lead rope or ground tied as I use a shovel for a few minutes to pull weeds.  The motion of the shovel, the gently “tossing” of the weed clumps, great desensitizing, and again the horse needs to be focused on what I’m doing, either ground tied or with the lead loosely slung over my arm.

Cleaning out/scrubbing water troughs is another great one, especially because the “flooding” of the emptied tub makes a great muddy water hole for the horse to learn walking through, without me leading him, never mind the sound of the automatic waterer refilling.

Opening and closing gates is another great opportunity for him to learn to be helpful and participate.  One time I may lead him around the gate, another send him in and turn around to face me while I’m still standing on the opposite side.  If riding it is a great opportunity to use the initially taught literal “one step at a time” tool, also a great time to show him WHY he needs to be able to move his front end independent of his hind end.  The clanging of the gate, the shifting of my weight in the saddle as I fuss and fidget with the gate are also great ways to improve his confidence of movement.

If I’ve “left” things such as halters, lead ropes, etc. hanging on the fence, teaching the horse to sidle up the exact spot I need him, leaning off to the side of him to reach for ropes, “dragging” stuff along his shoulder, over the saddle, etc. as I carry it back to wherever I need it.  Again, the goal isn’t to pick up my stuff, but rather to have the horse learn how to participate in a reasonable manner for whatever the task may be.

Changing jumps in the arena is a great time for loose horse to learn to follow, wait, follow, wait, as I drag jump poles, standards, walk distances, etc.

Sometimes I’ll teach a lesson to someone else while I’m sitting on a young horse.  They have to learn to stand relaxed and wait, and yet be ready as soon as I pick up a rein to participate.

Now further along in their education we may get to clearing the trails in the woods.  If a heavy limb or branch has fallen down, I’ll teach a horse to drag it, just like he was dragging a calf.  Him having to learn to shift his weight according to what he is dragging, getting used to movement and noise behind him, etc.  I can do this whether I’m leading him or riding. 

Another similar one is instead of hiking a ladder all through the woods, I’ll sit on a horse and with small clippers I’ll trim the slightly overgrown trails.  Patience, movement from above his head, and branches falling down.  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!!!!

My point is that based on the quality of the initial relationship and respect of how you communicate, you can use your horse as a practical “tool” but also be improving your relationship AND furthering his education. 

Now you could go through each of the ideas I’ve suggested above, and if there is brainlessness in either you and/or your horse, there is no point in doing the tasks.  And really, the point isn’t to accomplish the task.  The point is you have a task which mentally gives YOU intention, whether you realize it or not, that then gives the horse the sense that what you are asking of him is “important.”  Also, by specifically having to accomplish the task, it will help you slow down and assess where your horse is perhaps starting to tune you out, offer less than 100% brain and effort, etc. 

BUT REMEMBER… If your horse isn’t “doing” what you want, always, always, always, stop and assess what YOU are doing and offering your horse in terms of clarity.  Most times the horse doesn’t “get it” because the human is unclear.  If you’re feeling stuck, start describing (out loud ) first what you want from your horse, and then literally how and what you are going to do to communicate each “step” in order to get him to understand.  If you horse gets “stuck” a portion of the way through, check to see if you may be “trying to do it for him” without realizing it, and therefor may actually be accidentally preventing him from accomplishing what you want.

At clinics I often do an exercise where I have a human “play” a horse, and another human play a “rider”.  The rider has only a lead rope held lightly in the human-horse’s hands across the front of their waist, to communicate to their horse (whose eyes are closed) and certain tasks I’ve assigned to the rider (the human-horse doesn’t know what they are.)  No voice, no clucking, no physical touching of the human-horse, no nothing except using the lead rope to communicate.  Afterwards everyone who plays the part of the horse talks about how they had to keep guessing at what the rider wanted.  The riders, all usually say it took a huge amount of mental effort to figure how to communicate and be specific.  Then I remind people that what they felt as a “horse” is usually what their real horse is feeling, and I always ask that if they addressed their real horses with as much mental effort as they did their human-horse, they’d probably see a big difference in their relationship.

Now what did this blog have to do with clocks without hands?  Well for all the ideas I suggested above, none I would every present in a “we have to get it accomplished in this amount of time” manner.  If it takes three minutes until we find quality, fine.  If it takes a lot longer, so what?  My goal is quality, not quantity.  So if I have to take a lot of “baby” mental and physical steps in order to accomplish a task, so be it.  When there is quality, your horse should feel like putty in your hands.  Light, sensitive, responsive, reasonable, participative, curious and much more. 

So if you’re a rider who is used to only have a certain amount of time to be with your horse, try and experiment with perhaps changing when you work with your horse so that you don’t feel the “pressure” of always having to hurry up.  If you’ve had a great session, even if you have more time… stop early!  If you present something and your horse makes a really big improvement, leave him alone… that is the best reward you can give him!  The irony is the more you initially “leave them” when they get it right, the more they want to be with you and the more they offer you because they realize you recognize their efforts and don’t just try to take advantage of them.

I haven’t worn a watch for almost fifteen years, and it isn’t an accident.  But then again, I live in a lifestyle where I go to town once, maybe twice a week, and in my world, it doesn’t even really matter what day it is… Perhaps I’m living on a horse time?

Sam

The value of a voiceless day...


If you’ve ever read any of my past blogs you can probably imagine that in person I talk a lot.  It is always a challenge as an instructor to convey to the student exactly ALL of the information I want to offer in a single session.  Amazingly my voice holds up over my 3-5 day long clinics (thanks to the best-investment-ever PA system I have)… But usually once a year I’ll lose my voice for 2-3 days.  Although it can be annoying, I find it can be a great reminder forcing us to raise our awareness in how to best communicate with other people when we can’t talk, so too could we use that same awareness in how we interact with our horses.

It is also the time of year in which I invariably get a few calls about young horses that are progressing in their education and have “suddenly” started acting dangerously; bucking, kicking, bolting in response to something their rider has asked of them…   I find (and perhaps this comes from WAY too many hours spent pondering as I mow the property on the tractor and the riding mower) that there is a relationship in the various ways people “react” to my having no voice and how they attempt to interact with me, to being similar in how people approuch working with their horses in using “body language” when we communicate.  I know the comparison may seem a little odd, but bear with me.

The times I have lost my voice and have been around young children, when they realize my voice is gone and I can only barely whisper, I’ve noticed an entire change in the child’s mannerisms.  Behaviors such as responding to me in a whisper because I’m whispering, or literally changing their posture into a more “submissive” manner with their shoulders rolled forward and head slightly hunkered down as if they were telling me a secret when we were “talking.”  There also seems to be a slow tentativeness in their behavior such as when passing me an item or taking something from me. 

I find the same goes with young horses.  Horses are born with a curiosity that all too often humans diminish rather than support.  But initially that young colt or filly is curious about everything.  You go out to fix the fence, pull weeds, etc. and if you do it long enough, eventually that youngster will come over and inspect your activities.  If you’re “hunkered down” fixing fence, they will actually lower their posture as they inspect what you are doing.  Now they may bolt off and then come back again, but there will be gentleness to their curiosity.

Back to the days of no voice, when interacting with teenagers, at first there is a shock that I have no voice, and then you can almost see the impulsive, mischievous thought, “So if she can’t talk, then maybe I could __________.”  They may not actually act on that thought, but any initial intentions tend to be focused on restraining themselves from acting on those thoughts that might get them in trouble.  Then as they continue to interact, they will often come up with a sudden bunch of answers for you every time they ask you a question.  But none of their answers will really be appropriate and most will just be a result of them brainlessly talking.

All too often from a horse’s two to four year old age, which is usually the most common time people really start to handle, saddle and start young horses, the horses wind up getting anticipative while they get more “creative” in how they are reacting to the human.  The horse doesn’t really mentally slow down, so they wind up with a lot of excessive movement and chaotic thoughts, which eventually leads to them scaring themselves and not feeling too good around the human.  Because of the anticipation, they get defensive, usually by starting to offer dangerous behavior as a preventative measure to stop the human from asking more of the horse.

When voiceless and dealing with humans who are in their 20s-30s, often when they realize I can’t speak out loud, they tend to immediately “shut down” and end any form of communication, as if to say, “Since you can’t ‘talk’ there is no point in interacting.”

Often with horses from 5-10 years old they will have enough confidence and exposure to “get by” in how they interact with humans, but they have started to become accustomed to patternized behavior in how people interact with them and what performance is expected of them.  These patternized horses that often are calm and “quiet,” can suddenly turn into a fire breathing dragon when something is presented in a way they are unaccustmed to.  People don’t realize how their complacency in working "routines" with their horse can actually teach their horse’s brain to “shut down” towards anything new.

When dealing with people in their 40s and 50s when I have no voice, they tend to become the “let me do it for you” sorts… Meaning, that if I have no voice, in their good efforts and intentions, they will take over “all decision making” as if my ability to do that was directly related to whether or not I had a voice.  If you show signs that you do not want them to takeover, they tend to blow you off and continue.

Take a horse in their early to mid-teens and often their rider is someone re-entering the horse world after years of “having a life with school, work, and family” and now finally have to time to get back in the saddle.  All too often this group of riders has fantasized so long about “how it used to be” that they often lack the ability to really “see” what their horse is communicating to them.  They tend to assume they always understand and “know what is best” for the horse.  This can often lead to another version of “mentally shut down horses” that are old and mature enough to have the patience to put up with their riders ignoring them.  But they also are the group of horses that many times wind up having harsher bits, spurs, crops, etc. in order to get a response from them because they are “dull” or “stubborn”.

When dealing with older folks while I don’t have a voice, at first they think it is them that is having the problem in hearing me.  Then they realize it is me that can’t speak.  Then their eyes light up, as if they have nothing else to think about, and all the time in the world to “play” guess-what-I’m-trying-to-communicate.   They have the time and enthusiasm and can usually decipher what I’m conveying pretty quickly.

The older folks who interact with horses of all ages often have quality relationships because they aren’t in a “rush” to hurry up and accomplish anything.  That doesn’t mean that they don’t have goals, but often they enjoy the process of getting to the end goal, rather than just value in the sole accomplishment of the goal.  They also tend to notice a lot more of what is “going on” with their horse, even if they aren’t sure what to do about it.  If things don’t go “as planned” they don’t get stressed out.  Their horses also tend to respond a lot more positively to change and trying new stuff.

 So my point is, we affect and have the ability to influence every moment of how we interact with our horse.  The slower and more open minded we are, the greater the opportunity to take the time to really “see” what is going on.  Somehow I think being able to communicate vocally in the rest of our life, allows us to rush in our intentions, energy and movement when we work with our horses.  If for one day we had to rely more on our senses and pay attention to what we were actually doing, we might re-sensitize OURSELVES and be in awe of the mirror affect it would have on our horses.
Sam

Doctoring the Defensive Horse

So this latest blog came to my mind as one of the young horses I have in training put a nice little puncture in his front leg half way between his knee and the point of his shoulder.  It seems to be a “rite of passage” as I can’t remember how many four year old geldings I’ve seen that seem to have the “need” to put a hole in their leg…

Anyhow, this particular horse came to me pretty defensive about most things in life and certainly when it came to anything around his legs.  His nature in general would appear to most horse folks “relaxed” or “quiet.”  What I was “translating” was that he was mentally shut down, or unavailable, and his resistance made him appear, slow and quiet, whereas I saw a horse constantly looking for “a way out” from anything associated with humans. 

I’ve mentioned in past blogs about Not Embracing the Brace, Filling the Holes in your Horsemanship, and so on… this horse is the absolute epitome of why I at times might seem a bit “over the top” in really laying down the basics and creating clear communication.  Any time something concerned, bothered, or worried him, he’d mentally check out and physically “lock up” or “blast” his body in any direction possible, including considering running over the top of me.  In scenarios away from the other horses he’d seem like he was “in your pocket,” but in reality it was the lessor of two evils- him being alone, or him being “with” a human. 

With the distraction of other horses, if he was loose, I witnessed him actually consider climbing my four foot metal gate to put himself back into the pasture to be with the other horses.  Even in the herd, he had a hard time respecting the “leader” and had quite a few marks from his “delayed response” after being warned by the herd leader. 

The first time I was working him in the round pen (he happened to be trotting) and the horses on the outside of the pen moseyed off; he literally turned and ran straight into one of the pen panels.   

When his brain “checks out” his eyes literally glaze over and he looks “empty.”  Then when he checks back in, it is as if a lightning bolt cracked him on the backside and his body will spring into multiple directions at once.  Watching him loose trying to make up his mind just as to which direction in the pen or how fast he wants to move would be stress inducing for the folks who’d want to “do it for him.” 

I honestly believe he never was asked to think before he got here.  This is not at all to nay say his owners who specifically took their time to go slow and not rush him.  The problem is their lack of experience and ability to recognize and translate his behaviors has now led to a horse whose level of anticipation about “anything” about to happen is pretty extreme.

But horses are amazing… In just a few weeks he learned he could use his brain to make decisions in a reasonable manner, participate but be respectful while being groomed, tacked up… He learned about yielding to and following pressure.  He learned that he could move backwards when asked.  He learned how to move one foot individually without a chaos.  He learned how to “wait.”  That he didn’t have to “flee” anytime anything more than a walk was asked of him.  To literally look and think to his right and left before he moved.  To increase and decrease his energy, to line up to the mounting block (loose), to be able to be “sent” through obstacles on his own without mentally checking out, to push his way through hanging tarps, to work at liberty in a 100x200 grass arena… To jump over cavalleties, etc… And to bring himself “in” to his night pasture when his name was literally called from the opposite end of the property.

But there was still a very long “list” that I wanted him to learn to be reasonable about.  On that list included movement near his legs… He’d tolerate (which did not mean I believed he was “okay” with it) ropes swing on top of his neck, back and rump, but as they slid down to any of his legs he’d either try to flee or slightly kick out at the rope.  I’d been working his front legs in being able to just dangle a rope to rub all over them, and then with each end of the rope held in either hand to gently apply pressure against his leg, releasing as soon as he “followed” the pressure I was applying.  I didn’t want to just see him physically yield his leg, but rather to feel better about the moving, touching, etc. of his legs and feet.

And then I walked out one morning and there was the swollen knee and upper leg.  It wasn’t extreme, but I realized the smooth scratch about the width of my pinky I’d seen the day before, really had a hole under it.  I’ve dealt with many wounds that turn most people’s stomachs… and this one was a pretty petite one.

So I had an already defensive and anticipative horse, who now was 100 times more on edge with the pain of the wound.  Which meant that even when I just stood on the side of the wound and patted his neck, he’d try to turn his head to block me from getting anywhere near his injured leg.

This is where revisiting the pre-established basics comes into play.  Although he was pretty much dead set that there was no way I was getting near the wound (which he communicated to me with offerings to strike out, run backwards/sideways/forwards and considered running me over, locking up his body so that any moment of touching he would go straight up in the air, bracing his neck in his “got to bail” position over his right shoulder with his left shoulder trying to “push” on my personal space to keep me at bay, etc.

Now my “scale” of extreme behavior is pretty crazy compared to what the average horse person has seen, and by no means was this horse particularly “creative” in his resistance.  What really intrigued me was the way he “held” on to his anticipation causing him to emotionally come completely unglued mentally.

Lips curled up and pursed, chest muscles twitching, tail wringing, neck so rigid you could bounce a coin off of it, the whites of his eyes showing… He just knew I was going to saw his leg off, except because of his insecurity, as his defense he tried everything he could to avoid looking at me, thinking about where I was asking him to stand, or staying mentally “tuned in” as I touched him (not on the leg.)

So each time he presented a way to “avoid” mentally addressing me, I had to get him to “let go” of what he was trying.  It was a bit like an emotional roller coaster for him which was mirrored with dramatic movement; he’d initially lock up, then try and have excessive movement, then lock up, then tune in to what I was offering, and then start to take baby mental and physical steps/movement, then would take a huge sigh or blow his nose, and instantly all of the signs of stress and anticipation would dissolve from his body language.  Then I’d go back to whatever I’d originally been asking, whether it was where I was touching him, or with how much “energy”, etc.  Keep in mind my standard for him standing quietly was that I could “work on him” with him standing ground tied (the lead rope loose on the ground.)

Although my “goal” may have appeared to doctor his leg, it really was to help this poor horse feel better about life.  He had no trust that I was going to help him relax.  He had no belief that I’d really “follow through” until he made a change, which is why I believe he hung on to his extreme mental resistance for so long.  But as soon as he “let go” of his anticipation it was like he turned to putty in my hands- literally.

Eventually on day one I got a hose (by the way I don’t think he’d ever been hosed/bathed) on him for twenty minutes while he stood with his head low and relaxed and with a hind foot cocked.  That afternoon I put a sweat on his leg which involved applying ointment with a Popsicle stick (he would have sworn it was going to be a knife), seran wrap, cotton and then vet wrap.  The irony was that he didn’t care at all about the crinkly packaging of the vet wrap and cotton rolls or the actual touching of his leg as I applied the bandaged.

The next day I applied a new bandage after he’d gone through the night without one, and the swelling was definitely going down.  I don’t work by the clock, and although initially met with the similar “the world is going to end” resistance as the previous day’s initial session, in less than a quarter of the time he completely relaxed and let me doctor him.

That evening after he came in from grazing I asked him to stand (totally loose) and I was able to approach, although for one moment he thought about fleeing the opposite way from me, and then he took a deep sigh and stood relaxed as I undid his bandage and inspected the wound.

On day three of doctoring he just about put his leg in my lap to inspect; all signs of swelling were gone as was the heat and he was totally sound.

The next day when I actually went to “work him” his entire attitude and body language from the start was much softer and more participative without me having to “do” so much to get his brain with me.  We still have quite a ways to go, but it was like he realized I was there to support him through worrisome scenarios, rather than scare him through them.

So as much as it was on my list to gently and slowly address working around/with his legs and desensitizing him to movement, pressure, etc., by having him get hurt, it fast forwarded his “learning” how to be reasonable in a situation he clearly thought was going to kill him.

Every single one of the “tools” I used in how I communicated with his brain and then body was through the over simplified points of yielding to pressure, directing his brain, influencing his energy and a clarity of when something he offered was “correct” or not the desired response. 

I could imagine many other folks attempting to “take on” a horse like him, who to a certain extent you could probably “bully” into tolerating a scenario, but I’d hate to imagine where that sort of interaction might lead in the long run.  I’ve already witnessed a few of his “light switch” dramatic moments, and in my mind, “challenging” a horse like this to “get it right” is like lighting a fuse on the end of a stick of dynamite.

Over the years I have heard quite a few stories of the “wild and crazy horse” that of course gets hurt, and in the human’s commitment to “doctor” that horse, where under other circumstances the human would never had spent so much time with the horse, that the horse and human actually built a very trusting relationship and “fixed” a lot of the horse’s initial “problems” without realizing or trying to do so.

But all too often people wind up being distracted and aren’t really “committed” themselves to mentally focusing on their horse until the moment of an emergency.  So instead of “waiting” for a scenario like that, for those who don’t have an injured horse, maybe experiment with interacting with your equine partner as if it were as important as attending to a wound.  You might be surprised by just having the thoughts in your head how the difference in your energy and intention will be perceived by your horse perhaps causing a change for the better in him.

Here’s to “TLC”,

Sam


Filling in the "holes"

I’ve had a new horse come in for training and in between this crazy ongoing rain I head outside to work with him.  He is a four year old that has had a lot of handling, though his owner’s experience is limited, she has gone “slow” with him…

It is my job when a horse first comes in to evaluate “where the horse is at,” mentally, physically, emotionally and experience wise.  So I thought I’d share with you some of the more common “holes” I tend to find in working with horses of all ages…  I believe a majority of the time the holes are present because owners and horses learn to get comfortable with how or what they present in a scenario.  The horse learns what is expected of them and then can comply.  The problem occurs when the “rules” or expectations change.

One of the most basic and common initial scenarios is a horse that is totally “light” on the lead rope when you are walking him in the “normal” position (standing somewhere near his head and drawing him forward with the lead rope.)  The problem appears when you attempt to stand ahead, or off to the side, and are about a lead rope length away.  When attempting to “draw” the horse forward without physically walking off.  “All of a sudden” there is a brace (meaning the horse stands rigid and leaning back against the rope).  The horse has no concept to “follow the feel” of the pressure the lead is creating, instead, it is a game of “tug of war.”  This basic resistance towards pressure affects all “tools” the person from the ground and while riding must have.  Many horses that have issues with “brakes” while ridden are completely resistant to any pressure with the lead rope.

Another leading “issue” is the horse is walking at a reasonable pace next to you, and you ask him to increase or decrease his energy in time with you increasing or decreasing your physical movement and using the lead rope to encourage him to walk faster or slower.  Perhaps as you walk faster, the horse just stretches his nose and neck as far forward as he can and gets “heavy” leaning on the lead rope because he has made no change in his walk speed; or as you slow down, he plows on past you because he has “only one walk speed.”  Again, while sitting in the saddle I ask my horses to have ten different energy levels within each gait, so why not establish that standard form the ground first.

In their attempt to desensitize their horse many people have offered to “touch” their horses all over their bodies, etc. to get them used to stuff rubbing on them such as a saddle pad.  The problem arises when “movement” occurs, rather than “quietly” presenting something to a horse.  In the case of the saddle pad, many people walk up as close to the horse as possible, take their pad and gently place it on the horse’s back.  No problem, horse stands quietly.  But when someone approaches and from about a foot away “swings” the saddle pad up on the horse’s back, a lot of times the horse may jump forward, sideways, or brace up with anxiety.  Why is this an issue?  Well standing on the ground presenting “unexpected” movement is a lot safer than when: in the middle of mounting (such as if you are wearing a rain coat in this crazy weather) and having “excess” movement, riding through the woods and having unexpected movement such as a branch swings against/towards/away from the rider’s body, when the rider leans over to pass something to someone on the ground or on another horse, they are just a few of the many scenarios that can occur.  Why not address your horse’s concerns about unexpected movement beyond his vision while your feet are still planted firmly on the ground?  

Speaking of saddling many people try to “sneak” the saddle on the first few times, and then let the horse to sort out (i.e. fleeing around the pen, bucking for five minutes, etc.) how he feels about having an object strapped to his back.  For me, I’d rather initially have “tools” or options established in how I communicated with the horse, that way, when he shows concern, insecurity, fear, etc. I have a “safe” and previously clearly understood manner of communicating with him in order to help support and influence him as he sorts out and learns how to accept the saddle, and still be able to let go of his emotional stress…

The amazing thing with horses, is they are such a clear reflection of oneself… And they are totally honest about when they “get it”.  If they really make an emotional/mental change in how they feel about something, it sticks.  So when I hear people tell me, “Every time I present ________________________, it just feels like we are starting over each time.”  That translates to me that the horse may be “tolerating” the stressful scenario, such as passing/walking on the ________(tarp, water, loading into the trailer, etc.) but he has never changed how he FELT about doing such activity, therefor every time the scenario is presented, it is still an “issue.”  Change how he feels about the issue, and the task at hand will be “easy” for the horse to accomplish.

Another common mentality in working with young horses is the “no distractions” theory.  Meaning that while working with a young horse often people want to be “away” from any activity, possible distractions, etc.  To me this is just “sneaking” through asking the horse to mentally be with you.  I often joke young horses have ADD and their ability to focus is for very short periods as they can often and easily be distracted by anything.  I once had an OTTB that would get distracted by small 2-4 seater planes flying overhead (you couldn’t even hear them.)  BUT if you’ve ever had to the opportunity to watch a young horse in the herd, as much as he may “mess around” and cause havoc, when the leader of the herd communicates with that young horse, he is at total attention.  So in my mind, the same standard should apply when I’m working with a youngster.  When he is with me, he needs to not just be physically next to me, but he needs to mentally commit to addressing me at all times; even if the “real world” has lots of stuff going on it.  I find it is easier to set the standard of respect, communication, etc. from the start, than to ask for just “some of his focus”.  If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “Let’s see how he does,” this usually comes from the horse’s brain not really addressing what is being presented and the rider just “sneaking” through the scenario without tools to influence the horse.  It is safer, and easier, to establish from the ground the standard and clear communication before you get in the saddle.

Speaking of the “real world,” I find many times horses learn the “pattern” of focusing while in a training scenario, such as being worked in the round pen, but in the time of being handled between the pasture and the pen, all “quality” in regards to respect, communication, etc. towards the human disappears…  It is the human’s responsibility to mentally participate if they expect their horse to participate.  All too often the human is distracted, and during the catching, leading, (grooming, tacking, etc.) are brainless and do not ask their horse to participate (so you see behaviors in the horse such as hard to catch, the horse “leading” the human, fussiness/fidgeting while being groomed tacked, etc.)  As the person and horse enter the “magic gates” of the arena or round pen, the human “suddenly” expects their horse to be attentive, focused, participative and up to par.   As with most things in life, but certainly with horses, the phrase, “Expect the unexpected,” is all too true.  So why would someone “only” have a standard for what they would like of their horse in one scenario but not another?  You never know what unforeseen scenario may arise as you are working with your horse, why not always have the same standard for his brain and body when you are around him?

“Whew… the session is over!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed a “great” training session, and as soon as the “magic gate” swings open, the horse’s brain is gone.  I’ve heard about so many accidents that have occurred when least expected after a ride that had gone “so well…” At all times, whether from the ground or the saddle, human and horse need to participate and remain present.  People are quick to blame their horse for inattentiveness, but as an instructor, I find the horses focus way easier than most people do.  It is the person’s job to constantly assess what/how/why they are communicating with their horse, before they critique the horse; in 90% of the scenarios I see, once the person makes a change within themselves, you can see the immediate change in the horse.

Routines, or what I call “patternized” behavior… As people in general become more open minded to working with their horses from the ground first to assess where their horse is “at” mentally, emotionally and physically, before climbing into the saddle, they need to “keep it fresh” in what and how they ask something of their horse.  (As a side note I’d like to mention in my definition, working from the ground can occur during something as simple as leading your horse from the pasture to the grooming area, it doesn’t have to involve a “40 minute session in the round pen.”)  Sometimes depending on the facility, the person’s schedule, etc. people get into the habit of always presenting the same thing in the same place at the same time.  Same time of day rides, same area to groom and tack, same spot you mount your horse, same direction you start off riding in the arena, etc. these all create “patternized behavior.” 

When a pattern has been established, the horse appears to “be listening” and “respectful.”  The problem is, as mentioned at the beginning of this blog, horses easily learn routines or patterns and therefor can often “offer” something before the person has asked.  Often people will say, “Look how good he is by doing that, and I didn’t even ask.”  Well it might seem like “good behavior,” but the problem is, if a horse learns to “take over” and make decisions before asked by the person handling/riding him, what happens in an unforeseen scenario?  The most natural defense a horse has is to run.  So if the horse has learned to “take over”, and something that bothers, scares, etc. him arises, will he really stop and ask his rider, “How would you like me to respond?” or will he most likely make the decision on his own in how he reacts with a “Flee the scene,”  mentality?  Again, the standards you establish during the calm, quiet moments solidify the quality of relationship (which will affect both you and your horse’s safety) during the “eventful” moments.  The time to “fix” or set a standard in your relationship is not in the moment of panic or emergency.

There are many other “holes” I could mention, but the above are the most “common” ones I initially come across.  So the next time you head to work with your horse, take a few minutes to assess your standards, communication, possible routines, or other “he just always does” scenarios to clarify just how quality is the foundation of you and your horse’s relationship.

Filling in the Holes,
Sam

Would you like guidance to improve the partnership with your horse? Find out about Sam's Remote Coaching.  Click HERE

TEC re-opened for 2012

I arrived safe and sound to the gorgeous northwest and have spent the week re-opening the Sandpoint, ID facility. Starting Monday May 21 I'll be starting lessons, training and more! Reminder there will only be one Full Immersion Camp this year held June 8-10. Please visit www.learnhorses.com for details!

Expanding your Experience- Breaking the boundaries of invisible barriers

As I’m winding down in my last week of teaching here in the quickly warming Arizona desert and prepare for my trek to the north where cooler temperatures and greener pastures await (think rain and wet), I have had several conversations with students whose initial reaction to my leaving is a state of semi panic.  But as I try to continually remind people my goal is to empower them with the awareness, ability to assess and interpret their horse’s behavior, and then offer them tools to effectively communicate with their horse in order to achieve the desired mental and physical changes. 

With the ending of each lesson we always review a few of the key points we addressed in that session, so that the student is able to literally think through and then communicate verbally what, why and how they did what they did, so that when they are on their own, they are able to address behaviors, issues, etc. without having to rely on me “watching” them. 

Several new students this winter have started to really “take the ball and roll with it.”  What I mean by this is that at the beginning of each lesson we discuss the rides that occurred between lessons; as the students are able to vocalize observations (of themselves and their horse), report on experimenting with various “tools” to achieve desired results, and have a more “tuned-in” perspective in how they approach working with their horses, their confidence increases tremendously, which of course is a rewarding and encouraging feeling to both the rider and horse.  This is the “path” that allows the rider to not feel “needy” towards the riding instructor and still allows a forward progression with a clear direction.

Most of all my clients find me through word of mouth recommendation and over the last few days, without my initiating, several have mentioned that what they are learning, how I approach teaching them, and the “issues” I help them address, were not “at all” similar to what our mutual acquaintance had mentioned in suggesting they work with me.  I find humor in this because it is completely true. 

I believe the challenge in being a quality instructor is assessing what either the human student or horse need me to address and we go from there.  Even if I have two students with similar “problems”, I may have to approach teaching them in completely different ways. 

So when a current student is asked about how or what I teach, their answer may be appropriate for them, but their friend might not have the same experience with me.  And yet, they all can arrive at the same end goals.  The downside to this, is that I often find what I do to be very “clear and simple”, and yet to even the most supportive students, when asked to “summarize” riding with me, they can’t.  For the student’s self-growth, their horse’s contentment and their goal achievement, I believe retaining flexibility in our “curriculum” helps both the rider and horse maintain a positive mental and emotional experience in their journey.  The downside is that this approach often can be a bit difficult for them to summarize to someone who hasn’t experienced a “Sam lesson.” 

Business wise the “vagueness” of my services not being “easily defined” often frustrates people when they attempt to “pinpoint” my style.  But blending the boundaries of “what I offer” allows no restrictions, no reservations and no judgments… I often find riders don’t experiment enough with their horses because none of their riding peers are “doing it.”  From things as simple as the “type of clothes” one wears (usually defining what discipline they ride) to the type of horse ridden, to the equipment used.  Take a ranch horse and jump that log?  Take a Thoroughbred and herd cows?  Take a Dressage mount and ride it in a western saddle through an obstacle course?  Why not?  Who created the “boundaries” and why are people so concerned with what others think?  (Obviously prioritizing the safety factor in any scenario.)

So my point is wherever you are at in your riding situation and experience, you just may not know what you’re missing out on by not keeping an open mind. Not to sign up for a lesson ever week and have to be committed for the rest of your riding days, but rather for some insights and new directions for you to work on…

Sadly the thought of working with someone new, especially when “nothing is wrong” can be scary as many horse folks have had a less than positive experience with perhaps a new instructor or clinician.  So before you commit to something “new” go and audit a lesson to find out “what you’re getting” as far as the horse professional’s teaching style, ability to communicate, etc.  Notice if the instructor seems to have a predetermined focus for the lesson or do they assess the student and horse’s current “needs.”  Look for communication between instructor and student, often people teach, and theories can be clear in their head, but that does not always mean the student on the receiving end is as clear in what is being taught.  Look for the mental availability and physical participation of the horse; as the lesson progresses does the horse seem “happier” or does it get stressed the more “stuff” is being worked on?

Go “break the boundaries” and watch what wonders in can do for your relationship with your horse!
Sam

Full Immersion Clinic June 8-10


Happy Spring Time to Everyone!

I have finally organized my calendar… I’ve received some emails regarding clinics, and this year I will only be offering ONE Full Immersion Clinic at TEC in Sandpoint, ID.  Please visit the following link: http://www.learnhorses.com/Clinics/camp.htm  for details, registration and more. 

This really is a great opportunity for an evaluation, ideas and suggestions in addressing current “issues”, thoughts and theories to help you and your horse attain future goals and much more.  I always have a varied group of participants; much of the feedback is the relief participants experience from being in a “supportive” setting with other equine enthusiasts who have left judgments and egos behind.  Often past participants have mentioned that the experience shifted from their originally intended goal of “fixing”  a current problem, to their realizations during the clinic, through a newfound awareness, of understanding "holes" in both themself and their horse in regards to things they never recognized or addressed that were affecting the quality of the relationship and performance in their horse.


Even if you cannot participate, feel free to pass this email along to all of your horsey friends!  As always auditors are welcomed and encouraged.


Thanks!
Sam

What do you do?

This picture was taken from the April AZ Clinic really "says it all".  I love it because it captures so much- often I'm asked what "exactly" is that I do in regards to disciplines, training, events, etc.  Although a lot of horse folks are coming around, there are still many stigmas as to staying within certain "boundaries" of a specific discipline, breed, etc.  If you look closely in the photo the horse on the left is a TB mare, off the track who is now spending her days jumping at local schooling shows and enjoying trails; next to her is a mule whose background included Dressage, jumping, trails and more- his new career has begun here in AZ is to be an endurance mount; and the last horse you see is a mustang rounded up five or so years ago that has gone "through" several owners, before his current owner began her journey of helping him "feel a bit better about life" so that they both can enjoy the ride. Yes, they all attended the same clinic.  As varied as their history, breeding and experiences were, they and their riders all shared many of the same concerns, issues, fears, and enthusiasm in searching for a quality and trusting paternship.

Remembering why we ride...

Whether you are a backyard rider, competitive or somewhere in between, I think sometimes as humans we tend to lose focus on our initial reasons of riding and spending time with horses…   Of course all of us have different definitions of “fun,” I for instance found sheer joy in jumping out of a perfectly good plane at 13,000 feet, someone else you probably couldn’t pay to do the same thing!  So too it goes with the horse world.  Some riders just want to have a confident partnership with their horse, while other people spend hundreds of hours fine tuning their skills in preparation for competition.
Wherever your enthusiasm falls on the scale, the truth is, we ALL share the underlining factor that too many times horse professionals, whether through lack of understanding, ability to communicate, or what I more often think is the case in the USA, don’t really prioritize teaching their students to address ALL aspects involved in riding.  In my opinion this includes, horsemanship, physiology of the horse, using anatomically effective aids, and encouraging an awareness in the human, but also a respect for both their own and their horse’s mental and emotional state.

Too many times, I think an instructor feels “pressured” to get their student or the horse to accomplish or achieve a specific task by a certain time; all too often the expectation and sole focus of accomplishing a scenario winds up inadvertently creating a lot of “new” issues.  So at what “cost” should it be that we can achieve our goals with our horse?  In my mind, there should be no cost.  There should be no trauma, drama, anticipation or ongoing stress in either human or horse. 

As I’ve mentioned in other blogs, if you expect the “perfect” ride every time you sit in the saddle, you are probably in the wrong sport… To me the excitement in working with the horses is the journey of ongoing learning; there never is an ending point, and I get motivated by the quest of continually learning, thinking and expanding my knowledge, understanding and perception.

We are our own worst “enemies” in terms of the ability humans have to play mental games, even if unwittingly doing so.  The negative scenarios are almost always remembered and “hung on to” far longer than the positive ones.  What we can’t yet accomplish tends to be focused on, rather than what we can currently achieve with our horse.  We allow ourselves to be influenced by others or psyche ourselves out with a long list of why, what and how we are going to have a problem with our horse.  If we believe something is going to be an issue, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy , and of course it will become an issue.

And yet, with all the fear, anticipation and negative feelings, we continue to ride.  I won’t even diverge into the professionals who use their authority to degrade their students or their horses, but that too can open up a whole other can of worms.

For most people riding began as an emotional “outlet” – whether they started as a child clinging bareback gleefully galloping through the fields without a care in the world, or they became involved with horses later in life after their children have left home, careers have been established, and now have the time and money to fulfill a lifelong dream of having a horse.  Yet all too often because of idealism and/or lack of experience, a novice horse person often winds up in a scenario whether caused from being over faced with an inappropriate horse they have acquired or from an inadequate information “source”, and fear begins to slowly become an issue in their relationship with horses. 

I am always amazed how many people continue to be involved with horses after serious fear based accidents or issues with their horse.  More often than not, the person’s insatiable desired emotional fulfillment associated with achieving an accomplishment or task with their horse tends to often override the “common sense factor.”  This tends to create dangerous behaviors and can be a recipe for long term fear issues. 

I believe your horse is usually a pretty honest reflection of your emotional and mental state; most people don’t always like what they see in the “mirror” their horse presents.  The ability to have a mental clarity in order to offer positive, effective and confidence building leadership starts with you. 

So whether you are a complete novice or an experienced horseperson with years in the saddle, take a moment to assess the CURRENT “fulfillment” factor in your horse experience.  If you find that there is a lot of “gray” areas, take the time and effort to figure out how to eliminate those, whether it be finding new or different instruction, ideas, theories, etc.  There is nothing wrong in saying, “I’m not sure what to do.”  I tell people when they ride with me, the longer you operate in the gray areas, the less confidence you give your horse, the more your riding will evolve into “survival mode” rather than pleasure mode.  So if you’re at a plateau, or have clear “issues” with your horse- do SOMETHING about it. 

For your horse’s sake, for your own physical safety and for your future emotional satisfaction to put the fun back into riding.  Doing nothing, accomplishes nothing.  The more you take a proactive approach in all aspects of working with your horse, the more empowered you will feel, the more your horse will enjoy being with you, the more your emotions will be satisfied and you will start to find that “fun” factor again. 

Western society presents all too often that things should be “quick and easy.”  If that is your approach to horses, you’re probably in the wrong sport.  It is going to take effort, energy, research, open mindedness and time for you to become educated, understand and learn.  BUT by doing so, you’ll be achieving far more in your ongoing journey rather than resorting to the latest “quick fix” gadget or trick. 

One of the most rewarding experiences I can have as an instructor is at the start of a lesson when discussing with a student what they worked on in their rides between our sessions, and listening to a student as they relay having had experienced a “light bulb moment.”   Usually the sudden clarity occurs at a time when they are nowhere near their horse.  A person will be sitting in traffic, doing chores, etc. and they will be reviewing in their mind an idea, concept or theory when there is suddenly the connection made between the idea and the actuality of a physical aid which in turn affects the horse’s brain and then physical accomplishment of a task presented.  The student’s newfound clarity evolves into being a viable tool they can use in “real” time, thus improving not only their overall communication with their horse, but building a trusting partnership because the rider has become believable, clear with an aid, and honest in what they are asking of their horse.

These scenarios excite me because when a rider can start committing to raising their awareness towards the horse at times other than when they are sitting in the saddle, the “doors” in the person’s mind open allowing and ease and fun feeling as they make progression towards their goals.   Suddenly there is a flurry of positive energy the rider feels once they BELIEVE that THEY CAN influence and achieve a change in their horse!  The ability for a rider to realize they can make a change within themselves in order to influence a change in their horse is what brings the “fun” back to riding.

So whether nothing “bad” has ever happened with your horse or not, whether the ride is always sort of “okay,” or whether you’re just not sure “what to do next,” perhaps the best thing you can do is devote some time, effort and energy into varying your current exposure and ideas; not so much to “fix” what you currently believe is a “problem,” but perhaps for a different perspective on things that you may not realize might contributing to undermining the fun in your riding.

As I remind my riders constantly, keep SMILING- inside and out!

Sam

Finding the “child within” when we work with our horse!

Spring is in the air, most riding enthusiasts are getting giddy with thoughts of relaxed (and warm) days spent with their equine partner.  Many riders who are “gung ho” to learn and improve their education, understanding and abilities can unknowingly have an “intense” energy as they are focusing with their horse.  And although we want to be mentally participative riders, we need to remind ourselves that the underlining issue should be that we are riding to have FUN.  I jokingly tell adult students to take the time to “act like a kid again” once in a while when they ride.   I am referring to the sometimes overly analytical, overly sensitive, overly intensive behavior many of us take on as adults when we focus.  This behavior tends to lack a positive and supportive leadership energy that conveys to our horse that we are really having “fun” even if we are “working”.  So the more tight and tense we get as we attempt to focus, the more the horse starts to wonder why and starts to associate a “stress” every time we put him to “work.”
On that note, perhaps the next time you’re sitting in traffic or have some time on your hands, you can assign you and your horse some games or tasks for your next ride that might be similar to what a child might suggest to do for “fun.”  Take Pico and me for example.  The other day I had intention to ride out into the orange groves, but of course “life happened” and by the time I got to him, I had very little time, it was already close to 90 degrees out and I couldn’t leave the property, sooo… 

As I looked around the riding area, I glanced at the plywood bridge we’d built; it occurred to me that although I could ask Pico to step with one, two, three or all four feet on the bridge, pause him stepping up, standing on or stepping down off of it, I’d never asked him to step up onto an object as he was BACKING.  (I gather most sensible adults wouldn’t either, but can imagine a few kids sitting around saying to one another, “I wonder if we just tried to see if I could get my horse to do ___________________ .”  And then proceeded, unhindered by all the unknown and what-ifs , so that in the end they were actually able to accomplish ______________ with their horse.

From a “mature” perspective, why on earth would I ask my horse to step up onto something while backing? How about if there was an emergency situation (out on the trail, etc.), or helping desensitize him to movement behind his vision and to being physically “touched” in his personal space, using it as an opportunity to continue to build trust, it also creates a “task” to accomplish while I refine my use of clear communication, etc.

As a side note, although I want to be “carefree” in offering this new task, I did not want to present the scenario as a challenge to Pico to “see” if he could get “it” right.  So before presenting a task such as stepping up backwards, I needed to have pre-established tools and clear communicative that I could effectively use as aids to tell Pico exactly what I wanted, even if we had never done the task before.

So I started from standing on the ground with Pico in a halter and using a lead rope to create first boundaries of where I wanted him to stand.  Then I asked him to be able to lightly shift his weight backwards, and of course that is when he felt the bridge against his rear legs.  I had to allow him to use braille like behavior with his hind legs to get used to edge and height of the bridge. 

Pico wanted to explore his options- swinging out sideways, pushing into my personal space rather than hovering near the bridge, etc.  Most horses will try everything EXCEPT what you’d like them to do.  As mentioned in other blogs, the game of “hot and cold” was presented.  Each time he got “closer, softer or lighter in his response to my aid, I let him stand and rest for a moment so mentally he could start to associate where I wanted him.  After he kept finding the ideal spot I want him in, then he started picking a rear foot up in the air.  This was an awesome effort on his part, even if he wasn’t standing on the bridge yet.  He would lift a rear leg, gently draw it forward, backwards, out to the side, but couldn’t fathom actually “reaching” backwards with it.  Finally I was able to shift his weight while his hind foot was in the air, and then as I relaxed the pressure of my hand on the lead rope, he relaxed his foot and placed it gently down on the bridge.  Breathe, sigh, lick, chew.  Blew his nose.  Blew again.  Dropped his head down towards the ground and took another big breath.

Quietly, we walked away from the bridge and I spent a few minutes picking weeds (literally) so that he had some time to sort out what had just happened.  The second time I lined him up and after just a few tries of other options, offered his hind foot slowly to step up.  Again, we went and picked weeds.  He continued to blow his nose.

Even though in all his searching he never once “blew up”, got aggressive, or acted stressed, but it was a LOT to ask his brain and emotions to address.  REMEMBER to give your horse an acknowledgement and or break when they get “it” right.

Then I hopped on him bareback, in the halter, lined him up, and asked him to step backwards and up.  Light, soft, smooth.  Awesome.

The one thing I will mention when playing games with your horse is not to do so in a manner that will create anticipation in him, causing him to “go through the motions” rather than really addressing what you are offering.  Otherwise, you’ll think that your horse is being “good”, and your horse is really just trying to “hurry up and get it done.”  Too many trick horses can do “all the tricks”, but if you change up the order or try and interfere, they horse can’t handle the change in routine.    When I teach a horse to stand on something, bow, lie down, line up to an object, pick me up off the fence, back into pressure, none of it should seem like a “trained” response.

Have fun,

Sam