It is all in the “whoa…”


I always laugh when I see this cartoon
 by Polly Paintbrush.  (You can order it here.) 

The cartoon reminds me of a time many, many moons ago when I was competing on a super talented off the track Thoroughbred at a Training level horse trials in New Mexico.  It was our first event together and the moment we left the start box, his brain had reverted to racehorse mode.  We actually came to a complete halt twice, in the middle of our cross country test, and we STILL came in under the minimum allotted time.  Of course back then, I was taught that bits gave you “control” and the more equipment you used, the better your “stop” was.  At the end of the course I was immediately informed I needed a more severe bit.

At that time I was riding for my ego.  Really.  The equine experience almost hardly ever considered or focused on my horse; it was about my goals, my wants, my success, and my accomplishments.  Even the sport of Three Day Eventing was considered the “crazy” group of riders, who almost all seemed set on challenging their horses into surviving a cross country course.  I remember years later sitting with a three time Olympic Gold Medalist I worked under, and him telling me about the number of brutal crash-and-burns it required for him to get where he was at present day.

Although there wasn’t what I considered at the time to be “abuse,” I certainly never considered my horse’s brain or emotions.  His tendons and hooves were far more important.  If you saw me among the general populous of riders, you wouldn’t have noticed either greatness or dramatic “flaws.”

Yet now, in thinking back, and as we all know hindsight is 20/20, it shocks me as to what this horse put up with.  Why on earth did he jump- eventually over obstacles the width of pickup trucks, try his heart out during every ride, save me (on numerous occasions) and not just quit on me?

I’ll never forget taking my first “real” Dressage lesson on him with a Dutch gal who was one of the first people to actually instruct me how to ride.  She didn’t mention my horse’s brain or emotions, but she actually taught me in-the-moment aids and tools to communicate with my horse.  Without realizing it, she was the catalyst in a chain of events that still affect me to this day.  She also changed my bit to a much softer, less severe device and showed me that I could still “control” my horse.

The old days of cross country was all about the “go” and survival.  Really.  Anyone who doesn’t believe please take a moment and watch the 1976 Olympics in Bromont, Canada.  Be ready to have your heart in your throat as you watch the following video of the cross country portion of the event.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31dlhFlgmbA

Fast forward to present day and I cannot tell you how often new clients contact me after things have “gone wrong.”  That vague description can range from experiencing literally falling off the side of a cliff while clinging to their horse,  or aggressive behavior that resulted in broken bones, concussions, etc. to just a general feeling of out-of-control-ness. 

I don’t know historically when, how and why westerner’s perception of horses transitioned and our belief that chaos is “normal” in our equine partner along with ill manners, dangerous behavior, etc.  Of course our perspective of our horse being our “pet” or “baby” sets the stage for those sorts of behaviors to evolve.

As people who only have so much time for fun, the general populace’s experience with horses has decreased; instead of spending six hours a day with the horse, maybe one hour twice a week is spent.  Just the time, irrelevant of the quality, allows for people to learn and see more about their horse.

It seems that as the horse transitioned from a tool for our survival to a “pleasure” animal, our standard of what behaviors we would accept, tolerate, etc. has too decreased.  I would hate to guess at the number of people who became involved with horses for fun, and in reality after the romanticized perspective faded, how little fun they actually experienced, and yet they keep pursuing the sport.

As I’ve remarked before, those with no horse experience can often see “more” than those with years of lessons.  Just as many humans unknowingly desensitize their horses (not in a positive manner) and teach the horse to become mentally resistant and eventually physically dangerous, humans teaching other humans can do the same thing to one another. 

I experienced it myself, ignore the “instinct” of wanting things like brakes and steering while riding, instead, just focus on getting over the jump!  Have you ever been around a horse person who uses the words, “Oh, he just does that…”  Why? 

I have heard stories ranging from people unloading their horse, so that they could back the horse trailer, then reloading the horse, to ones who had to put grain into one far corner of the pen in order to distract the horse so that they could quickly access the other side of the pen without being “attacked.”  I’ve witnessed horses having to wear cages (literally) around their muzzle to not attack, I’ve been instructed while riding Grand Prix Dressage horses not to “let go” when I hacked a loop around the barn area in case the horse took off.  I’ve watched people conditioned to crank their horse’s nose to their knee every time they mount, without ever considering WHY they were doing that; which usually is done in case the horse may take off.  To me, the follow up question is then, “Why are you getting on a horse that you think may be ready to bolt?”

Things that have become “basics” in my mind such as my horse coming over and presenting himself to be caught, ground tying irrelevant of where we are, yielding and following any form of pressure, offering to line up to an object so that I could climb aboard, having 10 energies within each gait, being able to accept my “clumsiness” by bumping, banging, and dragging objects all around his body are just a few of the “starting” points for me.

Fussing when led, groomed, tacked, tied, during farrier care, while being mounted, when asked to halt in the middle of a ride, etc. is all unnecessary.  And yet somehow the mentality of, “Oh they just do that,” has saturated the equestrian community.  Horses are fantastic HUMAN TRAINERS.  How many people have learned how to work around their horse? 

               Well I can’t tie him, so I just loop the rope in case he pulls back.

               He doesn’t like the farrier so we sedate him.

               He doesn’t/won’t stand still, so I let him graze while I _____________.

               I get on him in the arena in case he decides to ______________.

               He is a little hard to catch sometimes so I just shake the grain bucket/hide the halter behind my back/catch his buddy first.

You get the idea.  Some of you may be laughing, but in reality it is quite scary how much is done with relatively out-of-control horses.  In my perspective, horses can run away with you at the walk.  Out of control does not mean that your horse is galloping at 35mph and you’re hanging off the side.

Let us put it into human terms.  What is the one thing that will NEVER let us relax?  Internal stress.  It doesn’t matter what the stress is about, the source of where it is coming from, or how much of it we are experiencing.  As long as it is present in our minds, our bodies act different and we can never truly find a “quiet” within ourselves, therefor never feeling a relaxed physical demeanor.  The same goes for horses.

And when we humans are stressed how much patience do we have?  How much physical strength/coordination/ability do we have compared to when we aren’t stress.  How many people do you actually know that experience one stress free hour a day?  A week?  A month?  And as a result our minds get foggy and overloaded and our bodies start to break down.  The same goes for the horses.

Weaving, chewing, pawing, pacing, cribbing, wind sucking, fussiness, etc. are all indicators of stress.  Ulcers, weight issues, etc. can be the physical tolls that stress can take on a horse.  Ask yourself how many moments in a day (whether or not you are interacting with him) does your horse experience as “stress free” time?

Of course to do this, we must put value to our horse’s brains and emotions.  So as many folks laugh when I say that I “want it boring,” I really mean it.  “It” can be whatever you are asking of your horse; come to be caught, stand to be groomed, hold up for the person behind us on the trail, etc.  Nothing I ask of my horse should look physically busy, chaotic, hurried, choppy, etc.  If it does, I must pause and remind myself the physical behavior is a reflection of the brain and emotions; when my horse is feeling warm and fuzzy on the inside, he’ll show it with relaxed, but not mentally checked, physical behavior.

Often people think the halt is the act of physically not moving.  But if you scanned hundreds of pictures or watched a warm up arena at an event being asked to halt.  You’d be surprised how many horses offer more of a physical “pause” but you can actually see how the horse’s weight is shifted in a manner ready to “leave” and that his brain is elsewhere, rather than seeing a physical and mental commitment to stop in one specific place.

The horse’s body follows his brain.  Wherever his brain may be, his body will try to get to.  So if I can get my horse’s brain to think right here, six inches ahead of us, and keep his brain there, I can “keep” his body from moving, WITHOUT having to “HANG ON” to the reins.

So from ground tying to mounting or halting during a ride, I don’t want to feel like I NEED to “control” my horse.  I’d rather like to influence my horse’s brain and emotions.  The more he tunes in to what I am asking, the softer his physical movement and responses will be.  The softer and more mentally receptive he is to my influence, the less I have to physically do to “get him” to participate in what I want. 

So I also have the last laugh when many new clients are enthusiastically daydreaming out loud about all the “big stuff” they want me to help them accomplish.  I listen quietly and try not to deflate their grandiose ideas.  As their journey begins, their perspectives start to change or evolve into appreciating less movement, but more quality in their rides.  I can’t tell you how many times someone enthusiastically comments, “Wow, look how nice he is standing,” and for all they had previously wanted to accomplish with their horse, are now realizing the importance of the mental, emotional AND physical quiet that must take precedent, before the “exciting” movement is asked of their horse.

So, here is putting a bit more value in your next halt.

Sam
Alternative Horsemanship with Samantha Harvey

Kids and horses... what ALL of us could learn from them.


I haven’t ever really fit “the mold” in the horse world, and to this day people are stumped when they ask what it is that I do, and I answer that “I work with horses and their owners.”  “But what discipline?” they ask.   “All of them,” I say.  Of course this answer usually gets a “so you don’t really specialize in anything or know much about anything” sort of facial response.  Which is fine with me, because it allows me to see someone’s perspective on the “horse world.” 

Opening a horse facility in remote northern Idaho was not exactly a way to attract “big” clientele, but it definitely sorted out those who were “committed” and those that wanted it “easy.”  There is no judgment at the facility, no “keeping up with the Jones’” mentality, just humble horse owners looking to further their horse experience in a positive and safe place.  Last week I had three new students all driving two hours or more just for an hour lesson! 

Yesterday I had a gaited horse learning to jump, a young colt being started, an ex-rope horse learning how to just “be” a horse, and an endurance horse learning that he had really did have brakes and felt better about life if he wasn’t going either 0 or 90mph.

My human students range from youngsters who ride better than they walk to older folks, who now also their bodies are slowing down, also ride better than they can walk!  Students range from those who have never ridden to those with 30+ years in the saddle.  The variation keeps it fresh and exciting for me and I never know what to expect; there is no routine or normal here at my facility, in my lessons or my training.  And I’ve worked very hard to keep stimulating curiosity, commitment, dedication and persistence in both humans and horses.

This brings me to the topic of today’s impromptu blog.  Most adult riders are happy these days just to “keep a leg on either side,” but with kids it can be a very different mentality.  With kids even though most of today’s children don’t know who Annie Oakley was, she seems to have “inspired” their imaginations creating a zeal for horse adventures at high rates of speed, with the child envisioning their horse is loving it as they gallop through the fields.  Of course reality offers a very different version of “going for a ride” for many kids.

Over the past 22 years of teaching I’ve probably taught close to 300+ children.  That is a lot of kids.  What inspires me most about kids is their “black and white-ness” in what information they accept, how they respond to it, and how in turn they communicate it to their horses.

I cannot begin to tell you how many starry eyed pigtailed horse obsessed children I have watched groom, bathe, brush, hug, braid and snuggle with their horses who stand quietly tolerating what the kid thinks the horse “likes.” 

Then not fifteen minutes later, to watch that same docile horse, go from a “dead” walk into a jaw jarring, teeth rattling, wind-up-toy trot dragging their rider in the opposite direction from which the rider was attempting to turn.  No matter how hard the rider tries to pull, that horse (or pony) pushes their nose down, pops their shoulder, and “leans” until ending up in the horse’s desired spot.  Then, the horse stops and looks around with an innocent expression as if saying, “What’s the problem?”  (Think Thelwell pony!)

Then there is the happily trotting steed who decides to “randomly” slam on the brakes to watch their tiny rider flip right off and down their neck as if doing a summersault towards the horse’s ears.

Or the “I didn’t know your leg was there” moments when the horse “accidentally” rubs the rider’s barely foot long leg against the gate or fence.

The blistered tiny palms, the raw legs, the sore backsides and the bruised egos, and yet these kids come back for more, and through it all, they still LOVE their horse.

I am always proud to recognize my students in a crowd; they are the ones who are circling, serpentining, leading if necessary, stopping and letting their horse look at the scary things, but mostly you can recognize them from how often they pat their horses.  I joke and tell them I want to see raw spots on their horse’s necks from patting.

I can’t tell you how many circles some of these children have “put up with” me asking them to do with their horse, I’m sure the whole time they were thinking that they’d never get off a circle or a turn.  Obviously the circle or turn is not the “fix it” but rather a tool to get the horse’s brain back with it’s rider.  I’ve never taught or spoken to kids as if they were any less capable than an adult; and often I find they are MORE capable because they don’t carry a lot of the psychological “what ifs” around in their head as they work with their horse.

Often kids wind up on less than “broke” horses, and have to learn the “hard way;” my theory in teaching is that I teach a person how to work with ALL horses, not just the one they happen to be riding.

So after who knows how many lessons, practice sessions, practice shows, group gatherings, etc. to watch students who at the beginning had to turn or circle literally every five to 10 feet  just to get down the long side of an arena to winning every competition they enter, is awesome.  Of course I could care less about the ribbon or placing, but rather, that the child feels the fulfillment of the hard work, dedication and honest relationship they had to build WITH their horse is awesome. 

The other morning I was teaching two students, both of whom have very young and inexperienced horses.  Their horses still come up with moments of “excitement” but the girls actually gain confidence from helping their horses through those moments, rather than just trying to survive them.  And every once in a while, I am more than pleasantly surprised when the students ask to do something they hadn’t done before.  Below is a picture of what they came up with today:
 
 
So the next time you head out to work with your horse and are feeling a little frustrated, take a moment and try to find that "inner child" whose perspective may allow you and your horse to achieve more than you could have imagined.
 
Sam
 

September Full Immersion Clinic Promo


Ok, so here is my “self-promotion” (which I loathe to do) to inspire you to sign up or tell all your friends about the upcoming last Full Immersion Clinic of the summer season, being offered here in gorgeous Sandpoint, ID (voted America’s #3 most beautiful town BTW) at The Equestrian Center, LLC!

My Full Immersion clinics typically cater to all level horses and riders, and don’t have a predetermined lesson plan, but often participants quickly recognize similarities, even between young horses being started and older “been there, done that” equine partners.  I cater to ALL disciplines; often a review of the basics (which is not a NEGATIVE thing even to those who have ridden for years) to help clarify and improve our understanding of the how, what and why’s of our communication, body language, interpretation of the horse’s behavior, etc.

This next FIC I’m going to also prioritize three main focus points.

The first is helping folks recognize, put value to and understand their horse’s behavior.  All too often people accept a horse’s behavior because, “he always does that,” without ever investigating what might be causing the behavior, if it is appropriate and if there needs to be a change in what is acceptable and those behaviors that aren’t. (Rushing out the gate, “leading” the person on the lead rope, taking extra steps as someone is half way mounted, tearing away as the halter is being undone, difficult to catch, fidgeting while grooming and tacking, anticipative during the ride, rushing in his gaits, heavy on the bit, etc.)

The second is learning how to raise the human’s awareness.  This helps people learn to recognize the beginning of “a problem” rather than like most folks who wait until after the horse has become very dramatic and dangerous before they start paying attention to their horse.  Also learning how, when and what you are conveying with your own body language and energy will influence the quality of your communication.  In the long run this will allow you to do “less” and get “more” from your horse.

The third major topic of focus will be learning how to “feel.”  I forget because I work with horses day in and day out, how dull, heavy and physically resistant most people are when they are interacting with their horse.  This topic will help re-sensitize the human participants so that they can become faster at “hearing” the horse, refining what and how they “send” information through use of their hands, seat, legs, etc. to achieve clearer and faster, “black and white” communication.

Plenty of other topics will be discussed and as always, the group of participants will “direct” the clinic, but after this summer season of seeing SO MANY cases of lost riders and horses, I want to re-emphasize offering a portion of equine related education that I find most folks are missing no matter how experienced they may be.  Whether someone is a total novice or has ridden for 20 years, often there are missing “chapters” in their equine education, and I’d like to help fill in the blanks. 

I don’t want to sound egotistical, but often as past participants have stated, “these clinics can be life changing,” and are a great opportunity for a lot of people who never have been offered a safe, supportive, positive environment to literally slow down and learn more about themselves and their equine partner in.  Just a few days really can change everything you thought you knew… and your horse will thank you for it in the long run!

Often it is not what the participants and auditors “came to fix” but more what they didn’t realize they were missing in their horsemanship and equine partnership that they learn most about at these clinics.

Remember, the clinic is limited to eight participants, but there is no limit to the number of auditors.  If you have a self-contained unit you are more than welcome to camp at TEC’s “million dollar views” at no additional charge.

The clinic will be offered Friday September 20th, through Sunday September 22nd.  Each day will begin at 8am and then we will have an hour break for lunch around noon, and then will continue until about 5pm.  All level and discipline horse and riders are welcome.  These are mentally stimulating, not physically exhausting clinics.  Lots of questions, interaction, instruction and laughter!  Please visit the following link for registration and details:  http://www.learnhorses.com/Clinics/camp.htm  

 

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks… But you can offer an older horse an alternative way of operating…

Now first, just as a side note, I disagree with the first part of the title of this blog, but you get you my point…

So recently I had an older horse come in to learn how to change her conditioned behavior, which was to “go” no matter what.  She had no bad manners, you could see the quality in her genetics and “old lineage,” and you could tell someone had put a lot of miles on her in and out of the arena.  She wasn’t spooky, she didn’t have “issues” being caught, tacked, saddled or ridden (bitless), easily trailered, was quiet when bathed, and behaved well for the farrier and vet.  So WHY would a horse like this come to me?

She didn’t think.  Literally.  The only thing this mare knew was to react by “going,” and I believe she was rewarded for “going” because her movement was so fluid and easy to ride, her past owners probably loved it as she galloped through the fields, perhaps unaware that as fun as it was for them, the horse may not be galloping for the same reasons.

The problem was this horse now had a new novice owner.  As the owner was trying to learn about being around and with horses, this mare would lead her owner out the gate.  The mare would walk about two feet in front of the owner on the lead rope, the mare would walk off as the owner was half way into mounting, the mare would move out with more speed, though rideable, than what the novice rider was comfortable with.  The mare would fuss when asked to stand still and wait.  The mare would hover and be spatially disrespectful when being fed.  So even though none of the mare’s intentions were aggressive, dangerous, etc. every interaction was making her new owner very uncomfortable.  Every time the owner would ask her horse to “wait” a minute, the horse would at first comply, and then come up with ten different alternative ways of moving.

So the mare came to me for a two week tune up.  A week into the re-education, the new owners came to my facility to watch a session.  The horse could now walk slowly while loose.  She would drop her head and follow me around the pen as I picked weeds (literally.)  She learned to first look where she was going, then move, AND had learned to ask me “how fast” I wanted to go.  She learned she really could have ten different energies within the walk, and that I really meant “whoa” when I asked, which did not mean taking an extra two or three forward steps or trying to leak one way or the other as to avoid standing.   She learned she could quietly line up for the mounting block, have me mount with the reins loose, and then just stand there for a few minutes after I’d placed myself in the saddle.  She learned she could look towards a new direction and softly offer to turn, without me having to “do a lot” with my legs or seat.  She learned that even though she could easily increase her energy, she needed to quickly and softly decrease her energy when I decreased mine.  She learned how to wait, and ask to go through an obstacle (gate, over a pole, step in a tire) one step at a time.  After establishing “boundaries” she learned I would totally ride on the buckle (huge loop in my reins) and that just wiggling my index finger was enough to redirect her thought.  She learned that she could move with her topline relaxed and stretched out.

And her biggest accomplishment was that she also learned to breathe.  I’m not kidding.  Every time she’d offer a try, I ask her to stop for a moment, because initially the horse couldn’t move, think and breathe at the same time.  So I’d break everything I asked of her into small attainable “baby steps” so that she could mentally process, physically offer quality and emotionally relax as she was being ridden.  Her normal way of operating was she’d become a  “shrinking” accordion in her physical stature as a ride progressed due to her stress levels increasing, which in turn would cause her rushing and chaotic movement.

At the end of my rides, every time I dismounted, she’d literally turn and look at me with a, “Is that all?” expression upon her face.  It was as if she was totally shocked that I didn’t try to physically wear her out to get her to slow down.

Of course for me, the real “reward” was at the end of the ride when I went to turn her out in the big infield to graze, and she didn’t want to leave my side to go graze.  The point of my working with horses is to try and help a horse feel better about life, and although each horse I work with has varying levels of improvement, my guess was after a lifetime of “complying” with people, this mare was for the first time feeling better about being around them.

So, as we all know hind sight is 20/20, but I wish more people would put their own agendas (and usually egos) aside, and just as this novice owner realized there was a problem, although she initially couldn’t explain what exactly the problem was, other than she was becoming more uncomfortable being around her horse, I believe because she hadn’t had years of “brain washing” from the horse world, where she most likely would have been taught to ignore what her horse was trying to communicate, she was able instead to recognize she needed help before things escalated even more.

All too often clients with the most “horse experience” tend to bring me the worst “problem horses,” and I think because of all the “horse experts” out there, people often get  persuaded into trying to change their horses, even if they person knows they don’t have the knowledge, capability or understanding to do so.  Only when the horse’s behavior becomes extreme, do they tend to ask for help.

I think if more people trusted that little voice in their head, and asked for help sooner than later, often accidents and traumatic events for both human and horse could be preventable.  So even if you don’t think you have a specific problem, maybe assess the quality of what you are getting from your horse.  If it seems like there is resistance, stress, distraction, hurried behavior, anticipation, please don’t ignore what your horse is trying to convey.  They only have so many ways of trying to “reasonably” show you that they need help. 

And no, in most cases, it is not too late to ever start helping your horse find an alternative way of operating.

To happier horses,

Sam

A simple misunderstanding...

Although I teach throughout the USA, because of the rural location where I am based for the summer, there tends to be limited interaction of horse owners here in the inland northwest.  Often people are living on larger properties and are able to keep their equine partners at home rather than boarded at a facility, and most people only have a few “nice months” to enjoy quality time with their horse without weather being an issue.  As nice as it is for owners to look out the window and see their horse happily munching in the field, the lack of interaction with other horsey folks often creates an isolated feel.  Although most people would prefer riding with other equine enthusiasts, they end up working/riding their horse alone.  Or all too commonly a horse owner ends up riding with a group of horse people because they are the “only” option of people to ride with.  The group may not be respectful or sensitive to someone else’s (or their horse’s) ability, needs, etc. and can often over face a member of their group in how (speed, etc.) or where the ride occurs.

Most clients who find me are not weekly students, but rather bring their horses for periods of time, then go home and work on they had been learning with me.  The problem is more often than not, most clients don’t find me until AFTER something has gone terribly wrong with their horse.  And I’m not talking about “a little bit wrong,” but like major, literal bone breaking, life-flashing-before –their-eyes sort of experiences.  Then they call someone like me, hoping us horse professionals can “fix” their horse problem.

There are a few “old jokes” among horse professionals, one of which is, “It isn’t people with horse problems, but rather horses with people problems.”  And that is the subject of this blog.

If you’ve read any of my past writings, you’ll hear an endless theme, “Get the horse’s brain, and you’ll have his body.”  BUT when people call looking for help, often in attempting to understand why the dangerous scenario happened with their horse, they have considered everything EXCEPT their horse’s brain.

 It is hard to remember back to a time when I wasn’t prioritizing creating mental availability in the horses I worked with, but as I replay in slow motion most accidents I survived years ago when I rode with the sole focus of “me doing well”,  not once did I ever think about my horse’s brain.  This is really scary when I think back to what I was asking of the horses I was riding and to imagine we were “brainless” the whole time…  If only I could give them a big pat now and thank them for putting up with me.

Nowadays when I start either a ground work or riding session with a new student I often use this analogy, “If you got into a vehicle and only had the gas pedal to direct the car, how far would you get?” Most people smile and obviously recognize they’d probably crash pretty quickly.  Yet somehow, when it comes to horses, riders are often ONLY focused or using the “gas pedal” to communicate.

When a young horse is started under saddle a common question is, “How soon can you ride out?”  Or with a green horse I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard owners having this conversation, “How much have you done with him?” asks one young horse owner “comparing” with another who has the same age horse.  With a new horse often people just want to “go out” and ride, without spending any time to create any sort of relationship with their new partner, and often just end up (literally) hanging on for the ride.  Then there are those folks who are riding “experienced horses” but start to realize over time they are just “surviving” the ride and the horse is getting more dramatic and less responsive with each ride.  All too often the goal of “getting there” overrides the quality of a ride, and starts to set the “tone” for each following ride.  Not to be cliché, but “It isn’t the destination, but rather the journey.”

In the human world, time is money and we often rush around like chickens with our heads cut off.  Often we create a lot of chaos and not a lot of efficiency or productivity for the amount of energy we put into something.  This mentality and lack of clarity in us humans of course affects our horse/human relationships.

So without people literally “leaving reality at the door” when they go to work or ride their horse, they bring all of their pent up emotional “garbage” and without realizing put upon their horse.  I instruct people that their ride STARTS when they THINK about going a ride, and they need to start “letting go” of all the other things bothering them before they head out to work with their horse.

The emotional angst humans often drag around with them can affect all aspects of their interaction with their horse.  Peoples lack of intention (aimlessly riding somewhere- letting the horse take them for the ride,) their lack of awareness (they rush- even when their horse shows signs he needs to slow down and look or stand for a moment,) their lack of sensitivity (not paying attention to where their horse’s brain is and what their horse is physically doing,) their lack of clarity (if the human isn’t aware, how can they clearly communicate with effective aids what exactly it is that they want with their horse?,) lack of patience (rushing, not helping their horse in a troubled moment, not believing their horse when the horse is showing signs of agitation, stress, worry or fear,) etc.  The list goes on and on.

So getting back to my car analogy; the whole point of blinkers (in most western countries) is to indicate a plan, i.e. you’re telling everyone around you that you are about to turn.  In order to put on your blinker, you had to have a literal direction you made a mental decision to turn towards- this means you had to have clarity, directions, intention and communicates through use of your blinker.  Then you have to assess the car’s speed, perhaps use the BRAKE to achieve appropriate speed for the severity of the turn, i.e. no screeching around those corners!  Then you had to slowly turn the steering wheel in relation to how your car travels, relative to the terrain and speed you are driving at.  You wouldn’t just dramatically crank the wheel as far as you could and then “wait and see” what may happen.  You’d have to adjust the wheel depending to the circumstances.  Then, once the car is where you want it to be, you may add gas.

Now from the above example which “steps” in driving do you add gas?  THE LAST ONE.  And this is when we are talking about a vehicle, that doesn’t have a brain or emotions that you have to take into consideration.  So why when it comes to horses, whose emotions and physical abilities we have to think about do people tend to ONLY use gas???  When in a scary or dangerous situation has speed ever helped a horse or rider?  (Other than the trail guide in Montana a few years back who had a bear chasing her group of riders…)

So what if we approached how we interacted with our horse (from both the ground and in the saddle) by first using blinkers.  Let’s inform our horse’s brain of where it is that we want to go.  Now let’s turn the wheel, if our horse isn’t looking or thinking about where we want to go, how “soft” and compliant will his body be in getting there?  If we can’t direct our horse’s brain to think towards what we want (i.e. look at the water, think about the trailer, look at the scary object,) how are we going to influence where is body moves to next? 

So once we can “tell our horse the plan ahead of time,” through use of our blinkers, direct his brain exactly where we are going to ask his body to go through use of the steering wheel, then let’s assess and find the speed we want our horse to move at- FIRST WITHIN OUR OWN ENERGY.  Nine out of 10 riders sit on their horse like a sack of potatoes, offering no indication as to what speed they want their horse to move at, and only critique the horse when the horse offers the “wrong” speed.   If you can increase and decrease your horse’s speed through changes in your own energy, you have BRAKES!  So to review, you told your horse the plan, you directed his brain to where he needs to be thinking so he can prepare to move there, then you offered a specific energy and intention with your own energy, now let’s add some GAS and get there!

If someone were to “follow” this overly simplistic analogy, and the person maintained a mental availability within themselves during the “process,” they’d be able to start to notice the signs of when their horse may be ignoring them, tuning them out, slow in responding, worried, fearful, agitated, rushing in their movement, anticipative, reactive, etc. which all are REAL indicators that the horse is having a problem.

I remind people, that just because you don’t think your horse should be having a problem, if he is showing signs that he is having a problem you must BELIEVE him.   The horse only has so many ways to communicate his worry, fear, insecurity, and all too often people’s egos get in the way of their ability to literally see what their horse is trying to communicate.  The horse doesn’t have the ability to “psych” the human out and “fake it” when he is having a problem.  And the “He’s fine, he’s just lazy, dull, dim-witted, slow, dead sided, etc.” comments are responses HUMANS have taught the horse to have, without realizing it.

A lot of “trainers” like to start colts because they have a clean slate with a bunch of people creating a lot baggage in the horse.  But sadly a lot of enthusiastic, curious colts turn into mentality shut down horse tolerating people just a few years later.

So instead of saying statements like, “My horse doesn’t _______________,” or, “My horse can’t ___________,” or “My horse has to ___________________,” stop for a moment and mentally backtrack (if you can) to all the behaviors your horse displayed leading up to the unwanted or dangerous behavior he is now doing.  Did you offer QUALITY blinkers, steering wheel, brakes and gas in your communication?  Or did you “put it all” on your horse to figure out?

So the next time you go to head out for a ride, after you’ve taken a moment or two to conscientiously “let go” of reality, take a few deep breaths and chant, “I am taking my horse for the ride.”  That means you are in the DRIVERS seat, you are NOT a passenger at the mercy of “whatever” your horse comes up with but rather need to be mentally, emotionally and physically present in order to offer clear communication to your horse.  You’ll be amazed at the immediate changes in his responses, enthusiasm and curiosity.

To simple misunderstandings and an even more simplistic solution!

Sam

Keeping it simple...


Letting go of “stuff” in order to find clear communication.

Recently I’ve had a few horses come in for training or an assessment that all share a common theme in their background.  All of their owners had ridden years ago, and then after an absence from the sport, re-immersed themselves in the last year by buying a horse.  None of the owners had ever “done” ground work in their previous equine experiences, and each owner had recently been taught a different “method” for doing ground work.  The one common factor being that each owner had been encouraged to buy DVDs, books, and “equipment” to learn work with their horse on the ground.

In each scenario, the new owner felt confidence and believed that they had a “connection” with their new horse while at lessons, clinics, etc., until they brought their horse home and had unexpected scenarios arise.  Then things started to fall apart. 

I don’t believe there is a “right or wrong” way to teach horses or people, my personal style is to try and keep things as simple and straight forward as possible, using a simplistic train of thought in how, what and why we “do” something, so that when owners are home alone with their horses, they can “think through” how to help their horse even when I’m not around.

In fact I constantly adapt how and what I present depending on who is on the receiving end.  I just got done teaching a clinic few weeks back where one of the students on day four of the clinic asked, “What are we going to do today?,” and was shocked when I explained that each group of riders and their horses dictated during each session what “we accomplished” or learned for the day.

When a horse comes in for training, I offer the horse a clean slate, with no assumptions no matter the age, experience, etc. of the horse.  As I’ve mentioned in many of my other blogs, there are usually some major holes in the initial education of the horse.

So back to the recent horses that came in for training.  I could basically quickly distinguish what “method” each horse had been taught by their conditioned, non-thinking responses and brainless movement when I asked something of them.  They each had to re-learn with me what they thought they knew, and rather than offering me a movement first, I wanted to see their thought BEFORE they moved.   See their thought?  Yes.  I wanted to see their eyes and ears focused towards wherever I directed, I wanted to see a relaxed physical state, I wanted to see consistent breathing, and only then, would I believe the horse was mentally available to “hear” what I was physically going to ask of him.

I have found that the simpler I keep my communication with horses the easier it is for the horse to trust, believe and try.  I am only 5’2” and have worked everything from heavy draft horses to Warmbloods, from Arabians to ponies to mules.  I CANNOT “manhandle” any animal into doing what I want.  But I CAN “talk” to his brain, but first I must get the animal’s brain willing to “hear” me. 

Going through what may seem to some people as very simplistic ways of communication through either spatial pressure or physical pressure using just a lead rope, the initial “conversation” with the horse is to establish concepts such as yielding to pressure, following pressure, being able to clearly offer a left, right, forward and back- with any of the animal’s four feet, establishing “personal space”, desensitizing the horse from being defensive when something new is presented, and last but not least, teaching the horse how to “search” for what I am asking of him, rather than trying one or two things and then mentally shutting down if he didn’t figure out what I wanted.

Instead of lots of movement from either me or the horse, “driving”, micromanaging, repetition, patternized routines, etc. my goal is to simply be able to ask the horse’s brain to focus on something specific, then depending on how much “energy” I offer using the lead (NOT swinging  the end of it- that is driving,) to have the horse move mimicking the energy I’ve offered.   From lining up to the mounting block, crossing a tarp or puddle, or stepping into a horse trailer, it is not about the “task” at hand, but rather for the conversation to begin with the horse being mentally present and ready to “hear” where I direct his brain, and then for his body to gently respond.

So as a recent owner went to load up her horse the “old” way with attempting to put pressure on the horse’s hindquarters, never noticing the fact that the horse wasn’t even looking at the horse trailer he was supposed to be getting into, I offered instead to stand to the side of the trailer, and through being able to help narrow down the horse’s thoughts from looking at everything EXCEPT the trailer to directing them to thinking into the trailer.  After the horse quietly and thinking into the trailer, I asked that he offer first one foot, then pause, then the second front foot, and then to stand half way in the trailer, which is when he took a deep breath, dropped his head and emotionally let down.  We stood, we breathed, and we relaxed.  He stepped out, then I asked him to “think in the trailer” and again he gently loaded his front end, paused, then when I asked him to think “further” into the trailer, he loaded all four feet, quietly waited for me to ask him to move up to the front and stood nicely while tied. 

The horse’s owner was sort of shocked.  I simply explained how adding “gas” or “driving” the hind end of the horse with more and more pressure, without having a “steering wheel” was just going to create chaos to the horse’s brain and body in an insecure animal.  Instead, ask him to slow down his thoughts until he focused on just one simple, attainable task, such as “think straight.”  Then add, “think straight, take one step.”  And to slowly increase in increments what you want, you remove the “scariness” of the task.

I explained it wasn’t about the horse loading, lining up for the mounting block, or crossing the tarp, it was about the horse learning to be available to “hear” what I was asking, and to learn, that I would SUPPORT him through ever physical step I asked, that every time he tried, I'd acknowledge his effort, rather than take advantage of it, and that afterwards he would feel more confident for trying.

I think back over the years as to the many scenarios when I’ve gently taken away lunge lines, whips, “training aids,” and other gadgets that people truly believed would help improve their horsemanship and help their horse “overcome” a problem. The shock from the owners of how they accomplished more with doing less, using less stuff, and being more clear what exactly they wanted, are the "light bulb" moments that keep me inspired to teach humans.

In the end I hope that through teaching both human and horse students to literally think through a scenario first, rather than react, and to teach them simple tools in how to communicate effectively and clearly that both can come away from each scenario with a calmer, safer and more satisfying experience.

Here is to keeping it simple…

Sam

Jump Starting your Riding Season


Spring is here, now what?

For those who are not competition motivated, or who have to address “obvious” advancement with their horse, such as working with a baby and teaching them ground manners, I find often find pleasure horse owners reach a plateau with their equine partner, and often lack a direction, which in turn can create patternized routines and rides, lack of motivation, lace of mental presence from human towards their horse.

Up here in the pacific northwest, many horse owners are lucky enough to keep their horses at home, and have the opportunity to “just ride” whenever; though the ease of accessibility is awesome, it can often become a “lonely” experience without another equine enthusiast to share ideas, thoughts or experiences with.

Of course then there are sometimes the horror stories of folks trying to expand their equine associated friends, but large groups of all levels and mentalities in varies levels of dangerous scenarios can often turn someone off from participating in group gatherings.

So what can you do?  Here are a few ideas…

1.)           Every two weeks “add” one small new concept, idea, or thought to YOUR knowledge base regarding any equine related.  This can be read, watched, heard.  You don’t have to either “totally get it, understand it or want to use it.”  But it will be something new to think about.  It often can take a long time of “mulling something over” before you can have an opinion about it.

In this day and age media allows us a lot of opportunity to see, hear and read things we would have never had access to in the past.  Take advantage of it.  Even if you just sit back and watch all of the amateur horse lover videos on YouTube, audit a local competition or other horse related gathering.

2.)           Go take a lesson or audit a lesson.  Even the “top” horse people in the world take lessons or continue to expand their knowledge through learning from others.  Lessons often can be associated with “having a problem,” but really they may just be a way to get another person’s assessment of “where” you and your horse are at, with some ideas and suggestions for future improvement.  To get the “most” for your money, if you can find someone to video you (to film in close proximity to the instructor so you can hear what they are saying), you’ll be able to watch the video in the future, and some of the things you may have missed while riding, you might be able to address after watching yourself in the lesson and reminded of the instruction offered.

3.)           Find a riding buddy.  I don’t mean someone who you will brainlessly gossip with when you ride out on the trail, but rather someone with similar horse related interests who might share and/or motivate you.  There are always notice boards at the local feed store, and often online there are plenty of websites (horse and non horse related) where people can freely advertise or search for other people with the same similar interest.  It might take a little time, you may have some “misses” but eventually you’ll find at least one person who you can share you appreciation for the sport with. 

I was reminded yet again just a week ago, how clients who live quite far apart, but who met at one of my clinics a year ago, are still in touch and have on several occasions done horse activities together.

There are plenty more ideas but, these few can offer you an affordable jump start to your riding season.

Because I offer training by the week, I find many folks who come for a week or two as a “spring tune up” to get them and their horse on the “same page” in order to go home with some realistic and plausible future goals and ideas.

Good Luck,

Sam

 

The "Foreign" Horse

Several times now in the past few weeks a topic has come up in regards to the misconception people have about horses and their expectations and disappointments due to their totally unfounded preconceived notions.
I was having a conversation with one of the country’s top ropers the other day, and as I was giving my quick "run down" and assessments of a few horses we were sending with him to promote in the competition arena, I casually commented as to my disbelief of how many Texas horses were "missing" major portions of what I’d consider a basic education.

He laughed and quickly listed off the same major gray areas that I’d noticed as I was assessing the ranch’s "proven" show horses. And that was the spark of inspiration for this blog.
As I began to think back over the years I’ve spent involved in all aspects of the horse industry, I started realizing how many people I’d encountered that had "gotten into trouble" because of their belief that "foreign is better."

It does not seem to matter what equine discipline you are involved with, each one over time has acquired certain "assumptions" or "idealisms" in regards to stereotyping horses from certain places on the planet! Not to be cliché but, the grass does seem greener for a majority of equine enthusiasts as for the opportunity to pick that "perfect" horse for their sport from some far off land.

For show jumping, South America has been a huge hotspot; for Dressage, Germany still holds the "golden ticket" horse that will offer the perfect passage riders are striving for. In Three Day Eventing New Zealand long ago was put on a pedestal for producing bold, safe, sane and sound horses that would carry their riders to the top of the sport. Those in the south or southwest USA have long let their imaginations carry them away with romantic images flashing through their mind when imagining that perfect "ranch horse" that was smart enough to carry their rider safely, sturdy enough to navigate the most treacherous terrain and had the old time "authentic" working horse look; if you were anywhere else in the USA, Montana hands down carried that "romantic concept" of a person working cattle, covering vast amounts of land, and camping out under the stars with their trusty steed.

But then there is reality… And the reality in my opinion is there are multiple factors that are proving "wrong" the preconceived notions.

NOTE: My opinions are based on my experiences and although I will use generalizations, I know there are always exceptions to every "general" statement I may make.

First let’s just look at the quality of horses these days. I believe there are really only a handful of places nowadays producing mentally, physically and emotionally durable horses; most of these have "let nature take its course" and allow their broodmare bands and babies to be raised in "real" country, realizing that keeping the horse’s natural instincts intact will only help produce a better riding partner in the future.

But just as with most other things man has attempted to "improve" (i.e. look at the dog breeding situation) horses nowadays don’t even resemble what they once looked like. If you ever have the opportunity, try and find some pictures of breeds such as Morgans, Walkers, Thoroughbreds, and Quarter Horses, from the 1950s, then the 1970s, the 1990s and then present day to compare the general physical features.

In most cases, I don’t think that we have improved the breeds, and just as we have diminished bone quality and hoof size, I believe too we have decreased the production of "thinking" horses, by ignoring mental genetics and prioritizing breeding genetically for whatever the popular "look of the moment" may be without considering what sort of "brain" our horses were passing on to their babies.

Next, lifestyle has obviously changed from WWII on to diminish the percentage of our demand for working horses and replaced a majority of those with "pleasure" horses. As our lifestyles changed and agriculture became increasingly reliant on mechanized equipment, horses had less and less time spent with them.

Nowadays, a majority of horse owners in the US have their horse as a "hobby", which sadly and all too often causes the horse to be low on the list of priorities for the time spent with it. This also means that with less time with the human, there is less exposure to "the real world."

So in the past the plough horse was also commonly a family’s only mode of transportation whether it be hitched to a wagon or ridden by all family members. Irrelevant of the quality of what it’s owners taught it, the horse had miles and miles of exposure and therefor had better chances of becoming that "take anywhere, do anything with" kind of equine.

Fast forward even to just twenty or thirty years ago, folks who were die hard equine enthusiasts but without supportive parents, had to figure out "how to make it work." By the time they finally found someone’s leftover, half broke, goofy looking equine, they were so obsessed and committed, it didn’t matter how many times the "crazy" animal unseated them, mashed them against the trees, bit, kick or stomped on them… Eventually they and that same mount were the ones who would ride three miles to the local horse show, compete in every single class irrelevant of their knowledge, lack of proper equipment or training, and then ride home at the end of the day.

Society today has for one become so built up, that it is almost impossible to ride from point A to point B without serious planning and permission from private property owners, and second, people these days just don’t have the same level of "die hard commitment" in their horse endeavors. I believe a lot of the "instant gratification" our westernized society promotes is a huge problem in how we approach our horsemanship and riding.

When I lived in Europe 16 years ago, riding under two Gold Medal Olympians, their early successes (one was from the land down under) was mostly due to their perseverance, the fact that he rode a Kiwi horse had nothing to do with winning the Olympics, rather back then, Eventers were certifiable insane (click the Bromont Three Day Event from 1970s on YouTube and your heart will be in your mouth every moment watching the cross country rides). They crashed, they got beat up, they had many, many mishaps, but through sheer perseverance and the horse managing to stay sound, 10 years later, he was an Olympic champion.

In the Dressage world too, for decades it was a "known fact" that if you were real about following your Olympic dream, you had to go and be "slave labor" in Germany where for the first six months you would ride on a lunge line after a long day of grueling labor and "abuse". It was sort of like a "survival" challenge and if you made it through the first six months, then maybe, just maybe you’d get some real instruction.

Obviously Europe due to historical reasons will have a lot more variation and longer lineage of horses they produce, but I truly believe it is not the horse that "makes" the rider, but rather the rider that "makes the horse."

What I mean is that in the example above, part of where the Germans excel in "self-discipline" will obviously affect their level of commitment to their horses, and although it may seem like a far reach in comparison, that die hard kid with the backyard pony who rides every moment of every day, has to some degree the same perseverance as the classically trained rider from Europe.

Let’s also look at the Texas or Montana romanticized ranch horse. Obviously stories, legends and folk lore over the years associated with certain "looks" or dress codes, mannerism and adventures of the "Wild, Wild West," have caught the imagination of even the most deeply rooted city folk.
Hollywood has attempted to offer its version, though often I find they are totally missing the most basic foundation for their characters. Through the various folks I’ve met, worked with and had the opportunity to just "sit on the fence and watch", it is not about the location or "unspoken codes" or traditions of the Wild West. It is more about the simple truth that if a person is relying on a horse for their survival and livelihood, if they do not take the time to thoroughly offer a quality education to their horse, they are greatly decreasing the chances of their success and well-being. It is as simple as that.

Those true horsemen and horsewomen have nothing to prove, no one watching them, no statements about making statements whether it be through fancy gear or attire, but who do it because they know it is the "right" way to create a lasting and rewarding partnership with their horses.

Somehow once in a while an "outsider" may see one of these folks riding one of their finished horses, and it makes the outsider almost salivate! The horseman and their horse work as one, the communication is subtle, their work with livestock is efficient and effective. And thus, the legend of the "ranch horse" is born, and spreads like wild fire.

So just as I myself have "suffered" from believing the clichés different sports carry, I have realized over the years that although you can obviously find a more quality horse mentally, physically and emotionally over another, what it really all comes down to is YOU!

What do you offer the horse? How available are you to "growing" with your horse? How committed are you to your horsemanship and riding? Every answer will be reflected in your horse’s performance and learning.

Good Luck,
Sam

Assessment of a Trick Horse- Addressing the "holes"


As part of my duties here on the ranch in Texas, I have been asked to evaluate different horses… One horse in particular recently came up as an interesting “case and point” to my continually trying to show people just how many “holes” are present in most horse’s education. 

This particular horse was a half draft and half Quarter Horse, and for any little girl with romantic ideas of a horse galloping across the pasture with the wind blowing through its mane and tail, this was that horse, with her blond 2’ long mane and flowing tail…

I had been told this horse was bought because she was a “trick horse,” and the gal that mostly rode her in the past used her as a turn back horse for cutting, rode her on trails, etc.  Most other folks who knew the mare rolled their eyes at the mention of her and her “issues.”

I had seen a young gal ride the mare for a few weeks and said she was a little “looky” when riding out and about in the pastures, but never did anything bad.  That was about all I knew of the horse.

The first time I rode her I treated her like the rest of the horses here, not assessing her from my standards, but more from a mainstream rider’s perspective, the difference being the latter is solely focused on what the horse does for them, rather than what they can do for their horse.

I caught her (with grain,) led her (with her hanging on the lead rope walking very, very slowly with no regard as to how fast I wanted to walk.)  She stood quietly while I groomed her (but she did dramatically swing her head away anytime I got half way up her neck with a brush or my hand,) she was quiet while I saddled her, and stood while I mounted. 

She was relatively quiet as we rode out in the front pasture, and she was okay in general for not being ridden in a few weeks. She was bit heavy clamping her jaw down on the bit, didn’t really look where she was going, but would turn, walk, jog, lope, halt, etc. without much issue.  But asking her to stand for more than ten seconds really bothered her.  In the course of my 20 minute ride she blew her nose 27 times.  No joke.

A few days later, when the weather was warm and I had time, I decided to start working with her on “my terms.”  This meant asking her to be caught (in a several acre pasture with other loose horses around) without the bribery of grain.  She had just been switched with this “new herd” that clearly had no interest in having her be a part of their herd.

Often people ask me how catching a horse in the pasture differs from how I would work to get one’s attention in the round, and there is no difference other than the cardio workout I get!  Through spatial pressure, every time the mare focused on or tried something I did not want, I created just enough pressure to get her to quit doing whatever she was doing.  So she searched and searched… At first it was all “brainless” movement, meaning she’d gallop off, then stop and stare and try and think about what happened.  She was shocked the herd wouldn’t accept her, and she was shocked at my behavior, or lack thereof.  I would create just enough pressure to influence her, but was not “busy” with lots of moving or walking around the pasture.  I wasn’t trying to “corner her” into submission to be caught, and I wasn’t trying to micromanage her every movement.  I wanted her to take responsibility to come up with the “right” answer, in this case, presenting herself to me to be caught.

Galloping off, snorting, pawing, and rolling, whinnying, passing manure twice, her emotionally charged reactions showed just how bothered this horse was.  Eventually after circling closer and closer to me, turning and facing me, creeping in behind me, blowing her nose, licking her lips and chewing and dropping her head, she finally came over and stood quietly next to me.

Instead of haltering her I just stood, not touching her, but allowing her to recognize that when she “found” what behavior I wanted, that I offered a quiet in my energy and behavior, allowing her time to “let down” and mentally process that it felt good to “be with me.”

Still without touching her I walked a few steps to my right and would pause, she’d turn and face and then creep a few steps following, though not convinced being with me was really going to be “okay” for her.  A few steps to the left… same thing.  Lots of pausing, and still not touching or haltering her to avoid me creating any physical pressure towards her. 

At this point something spooked the rest of the herd and off they bolted a mere 20’ from where we were.  The mare just stood calmly and watched, showing now desire to go flee with the herd.

Eventually I haltered her.  Then we just stood.  She breathed.  She licked.  She sighed.  She sighed again.  Blew her nose.  Then cocked a rear foot and dropped her head. 

Using the lead rope I asked her to look to her right, she looked shocked and confused.  I asked her to yield to the pressure of the rope when I drew her forward towards me or to step back.  She responded with a brace and locking up her entire body.  I asked her to drop her head by drawing the lead rope down towards the ground, she responded by trying to pop her head straight up in the air.  Hmm, some major basics in her initial education had been clearly missed.

Having no idea how she had been “trained” to do tricks, I thought I’d experiment for the moment and tapped her front left leg above her knee, with no response from her other than the whites of her eyes showing.  Then I picked up her same front leg, as if I were to clean her hoof, and as soon as I did I felt her relax, so I turned with my body facing her shoulder, and then held her cannon bone in my right hand, and used barely any pressure with the fingertips of my left hand to touch her left shoulder, and like putty, she quietly and quickly melted to the ground, folding her head between her front legs and gave me a deep bow dropping her left shoulder until it touched the ground.  She quietly waited until I released my hands and then stood up.  She blew her nose, and then looked at me with this expression that seemed to say “Finally you figured it out human!”

I removed her halter and she just stood there.  So I scratched at her withers until her muzzle wiggled showing her pleasure.  Then I walked off a few steps, and she followed.  We just stood for a while, and eventually I walked off and left her. 

The next day because weather and time permitted, I went out to the pasture, where she met me standing at the gate.  I caught her and headed over to the round pen, where I let her go, and as I had done on the previous day, offered her the opportunity to decide to be with me, even with the distraction of other turned out horses running around, tractors working nearby and dogs chasing one another.

She quickly sorted through her options and was happy to turn and face me, but closing the four foot “gap” between us, was a whole other issue.  Every time she stopped, she’d always have an “escape option”- meaning if I created too much pressure, she could whip around and leave.  So even though it looked like she was “with me,” she was still tolerating addressing me, rather than offering to be with me.  As the session progressed I communicated using basic spatial pressure, without a lot of running around by the mare, and she mentally and emotionally realized she had a choice to be with me.  She gradually offered more of herself, creeping in closer and closer.  Finally she offered to follow me all over the pen and stand quietly.

I knew touching her created a bit of anticipation and stress, just by barely touching her shoulder and watching her skin twitch and her entire body tense up.  So through physical pressure of my hand touching her a few seconds than removing it, then me walking off, I allowed her to make the choice to continue to be with me.  We continued this and I was able to touch more and more of her with more confidence from her that “it” would be okay.

Eventually I haltered her and we worked on looking left and right, yielding to the pressure of the lead rope as I drew her forward, backwards, or asked her head to come down.  Each response she offered had a softer and more thoughtful action. 

By the end of the session the wrinkles that had been above her eyes were gone, her head was low, and she was finally breathing at a normal rate.  She seemed totally shocked that the session ended when it did.

The funny part was there were two other horses I’d started working with in the past few weeks, and they were in a turnout next to us.  As my session progressed, the two loose horses kept coming over and leaving and coming over and leaving after watching for a few minutes.  By the last quarter of the session the loose horses stood at full attention quietly watching what I was doing with the mare in the round pen…  I wonder what they were thinking.

My approach when working with horses irreverent of their age or experience, is to offer the horse a clean slate no matter how much they have “done” or been trained because in my experience behavioral issues arise due to a lack of solid foundation and communication.  I am always amazed at “how much” stress horses experience on a regular basis caused by people who demand things of the animal all the while having a complete disregard towards what the horse is thinking or feeling.

At some point, the horse reaches their “breaking point” and although he may have tolerated doing a task that was asked of him, once he is pushed beyond his comfort zone, the dramatic responses appear, from an unwillingness to be caught, to a lack of ability to stand still, to spookiness, to dangerous behaviors.  There are only so many ways a horse can tell a person he is having a problem, and often the initial “quiet” ways the horse tries to convey his concern, fear or worry is ignored, and so he has to magnify his behavior until he can no longer be ignored.

So in the case of the mare I was working with, obviously a human had their own “agenda” without considering the horse or what she needed from the human to “feel better.”  Why did she “yield” and do the tricks?  I don’t know.  I still don’t understand why as many horses put up with people hammering away on them as they do.  But the real point here is to assess as I work with this horse and decipher what she needs from me, in order help her get mentally and emotionally quiet, so that she can physically relax when being worked with.

One last point that you may ask is, if she is so jumpy and tense, why would she get so quiet when she bowed?  My thought is that she probably discovered the only time she was “left alone” was when she complied by doing a trick.  So her willingness to do them is probably her way of finding an “okay” moment when near a human.