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!