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,