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!


Hoofprints & Happenings Fall/ Winter 2012

Please enjoy the latest copy of my newseltter!