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,