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Just got notice to those folks in the north Idaho vicinity! I'll be doing a live radio interview focusing on Alternative Horsemanship with Samantha Harvey. It will be hosted by Gary Lirette on Tuesday Jan 21 at 12pm PST which will be broadcasted on KSPT 1400 AM and KBFI 1450 AM- be sure to tell all of your horse friends and tune in!
When I come across individuals who are experiencing difficulty in earning their horse’s respect, both when on the ground and when in the saddle I try to review with a student how they catch, lead, go out the gate, groom, mount, etc. their horse, to search for where the unwanted behavior is beginning.
Here are some common remarks:
I let him graze while I shut the gate, so that I can shoo off his pasture mate.
I have to tie him at ___________ so that he won’t paw or worry about _____________.
I have to mount him here; otherwise he might try to __________.
I have to hide the halter/bribe with treat, so that he doesn’t run off.
I have to put him in the horse trailer ______________ so that he doesn’t cause a problem.
You get the idea. In all of these scenarios, the horse through unwanted, dramatic and perhaps dangerous behavior, has “taught” the owner how to avoid a “situation” by pacifying the horse and by limiting the human’s requests or expectations of their horse.
All too often, the horse does not initially “come with” problems; but when trying to be nice to their horse, owners unknowingly are teaching their horse how to take advantage of them. In the beginning the horse’s behavior may not seem “all that bad” but it can soon evolve to the point where the horse has become unreasonable or difficult to deal with. And in many situations, people don’t search for help until the horse has caused harm or scared the human.
A lot of horse owners have limited time with their horses and many people are not exposed to multiple horses and so their perspective and understanding is limited. I on the other hand more often than not am “called in” AFTER worst case scenarios have occurred and see how the inconsistency of owners’ interaction with their horses can create major problems.
I cannot recall how many times over the years as I try to offer students an overview of their behavior (or lack of) and link together the seemingly “separate” incidents their horse has presented, that an owner has commented that they are realizing they are behaving the same towards their dog, children and spouse.
I often use the analogy that if you had a child who asked for something and you replied “No,” but if the child kept persisting until you finally “gave in” and said, “Yes,” you have then taught the child to wear you out with future requests, until you give in to their desires. The same goes for horses and owners.
A combination of a lack of awareness and understanding, not being equipped with quality “tools” to communicate with their horse, and often due to time constraints, rarely do horse folks follow through with an initial request of their horse. So just as with a child, the horse quickly learns how to “wear down” their owner, until the horse gets what it wants.
The following are a few of what I have found to be underlying issues contributing to dangerous horses:
The owner’s initial desire to be their horse’s “friend,” rather than leader. Many cases of trying to be nice, often lead to the human being taken advantage of.
Owners not understanding that they can have a “standard” when they work with their horse, such as the horse being respectful of the human’s personal space, learning to wait patiently, physically responding softly to a human’s communication, etc.
Humans are distracted whether it is from stress of life, work, family, etc. more often than not the person is not mentally present when working with their horse. And the animal senses it immediately.
A lot of people tend to live in the “gray area” rather than operate in the “black and white-ness” of horses. A horse is either mentally and emotionally okay or he isn’t. When he asks for guidance, direction or support, and the human offers a “gray answer” it doesn’t help the horse believe in the human’s leadership, and so the horse takes over in decisions made and with his actions.
Often in dramatic scenarios human try to react passively, this doesn’t help the horse. And many humans don’t believe a situation can get as dramatic or dangerous as quickly as it does.
People often misinterpret what is typically classified as “bad, stubborn, and resistant” behavior displayed by a horse, when really the animal is asking for help.
So the next time you experience or hear of someone complaining about their horse’s unwanted behavior, take a moment to assess both the person and horse from the beginning of their interaction on any given day. You’ll probably start to notice certain behavioral patterns in both the person and horse, which can often hold the answers of what needs to be initially addressed in order to get a change in the horse’s behavior.
The moment to address the unwanted behavior is not when the horse is at his peak of emotional and mental stress, but rather when he is still reasonable and has the mental availability to “hear” what the human is offering.
It does take thought, effort and experimentation to learn how to influence changes in our horses which people tend to resist trying. But if you keep offering the same communication in the same way, your horse is going to keep “answering” with unwanted responses.
Over the years of teaching, I have had to get very, very creative at times with lesson “formats.” Whether it was due to weather conditions, arena footing problems/access, and so forth while working with one or sometimes as many as 12 or 13 students, I’ve learned to “roll with” whatever a scenario presented and make the best learning situation out of it. I call it Real World Riding.
From working while riding down 15’ wide canals next to huge irrigation ditches, to working on literally the side of a hill with fallen timbers, to meandering through woods or orange groves, to lessons on the beach (tough I know,) to having a lesson evolve in the “in-between area” when trying to just get from point A to point B and something unexpected comes up.
I wince when I arrive at a facility and see grooves around the rail of the arena. I try to remind and ask my human students about how quickly they can get bored if they are “brainlessly” repeating an exercise over, and over and over again, how quickly do they think their horse will get bored?
In my own initial riding lessons as a student, there were the traditional “rules,” which do have value, but I find they often hinder people’s creativity and a horse’s enthusiasm the more often the similar lessons are taught.
People and horses easily fall into patterned routines, such as tacking up in the same spot, mounting in the same place, initially always riding off in the same direction, without even realizing what they are doing. And often, as long as they keep asking a task of their horse in the same pattern, the horse will offer what seems to be a complacent response, but what really is a conditioned response, which then can lead to a lot of problems.
Horses have their brain and emotions. So learning how to work with the horse’s brain, creating a mental availability within him so that he can then be influenced will then increase his confidence when the unknown or unexpected is presented.
One of the factors that contribute to this is keeping the horse's mind focused, rather than just addressing his physical movement. The more creative sessions are, often the better a horse responds.
How many times have you been in the shower thinking about something and suddenly stopped and asked yourself, “Did I already put conditioner in my hair?” You can quickly get used to a routine, and you can physically accomplish the task at hand, but often be mentally somewhere else. This is often the case with horses.
Stories regarding a horse’s undesired behavior frequently start with, “All of a sudden, he just…” Unfortunately, this is the human's perception, but not usually an accurate assessment. More often than not, the initial, minor resistance or defensiveness from the horse has been ignored because it was still "manageable," or the person was able to contain the symptom, but did not address the source of distress. Therefore when something unexpected arises that finally causes the horse's proverbial emotional cup to "overflow," the horse reacts in a "suddenly" more drastic and dramatic manner, which is his only defense in a scenario that reflects his level of insecurity.
Because horses can get comfortable with routine, they can seem very willing when they have repeatedly been shown what will be asked of them. This gives the human the false illusion that everything is fine with the horse. And then comes the day when there is a change in the routine, and the saint of a horse turns into a fire breathing dragon. Frequently it isn’t until the day of a sudden emergency, or unplanned change, when the person really needs their horse to comply, that they find out how little adaptability, or mental availability the horse has towards trying something different.
So the next time you head out to work with your four-legged friend, take some time to experiment with how, what, and the why’s of your interaction with your horse. Slow down during the “normal” or “basics” and start to notice if you ask something different than the norm of your horse, how does he respond? It will give you a starting place as to what needs to address to help him learn how to willingly participate, rather than TOLERATE working with you.
The more clear the communication is, the more that can be accomplished with quality. So yes, you can work on leg yields in just a 15’ wide path, or you can practice flying changes as you weave through the orange groves, you can focus on riding straight as you approach the narrow opening between the two fallen trees, and you can practice increasing and decreasing energy levels or shortening and lengthening strides as you navigate the holes in the open field.
The physical boundaries of the fencing in an arena, are really just mental boundaries for the human and horse, and more often than not, handicap what we could really be accomplished with our horses. Why not start the New Year by getting creative to better support your horse’s mental and emotional needs in order to improve his physical willingness to participate?
So head out and start breaking the boundaries…