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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,
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!
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…