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…