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I have to ability to review visitor “stats” on my blog entries. In the last few years I’ve had over 2,000 hits on my “My horse won’t lead,” topic, and the most common search words folks have entered on the blog are “horse will not lead, resistant horse, stubborn horse, how to get a horse to move forward.” Visitors have mostly been from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada and the USA.
In the first “half” of my riding career, the horse’s brain, emotions or just plain considering the horse wasn’t ever mentioned. What always amazes me is how much I was STILL able to physically “accomplish” with horses, even if I was completely unaware/ignorant of just how troubled my horse(s) were. I was taught to focus on the “end results” not prioritizing quality relationships with my equine partners. I often wonder how many dangerous scenarios could have been avoided if I’d been taught a different approach; in those days it was almost a bit of a “brag fest” about what you survived.
Fast forward to my current training theories and philosophies and the underlining concept of everything I teach is that the goal be to have a mentally available horse. I sometimes feel a sense of guilt that a problem so many folks and horses struggle with worldwide, in my mind seems like such an obvious “case” of connecting the dots.
Most horses with human handling experience typically offer what I call a “teenager” mentality in response towards people. They offer a “Why should I?” attitude which to me is a defensive and resistant mind set. But what if instead we were able to influence our horse to start with a “What would you like?” mind set so that as we presented tasks, “jobs,” etc. the horse had an interest in participating, rather than being tolerant and “prodded” through what we asked of them.
If you have a horse that from the moment you attempt to “catch” him (rather than having him approach and present himself in a respectful manner to be haltered,) shows resistance, such as running away, turning his hindquarters to you, hiding behind other horses/objects in the pasture, turns his head away from you as you attempt to halter, sticks his head straight up in the air if you try to halter, what do you think he will be like when you finally manage to lead him? Basically you’ll feel that you are “towing” 1,000lbs of horse flesh. Have you ever had a horse that either “drags” on the lead rope, rushes past you out the gate, hovers/crowds your personal space, follows you “fine” as long as you don’t ask him to speed up/slow down his energy or stop when he doesn’t expect it, etc.?
If you start with a horse that is resistant to being caught, resistant to being led/takes over when led, has no concept of following the pressure of the lead rope and respect towards your personal space, ask yourself, is this horse going to be the one who “stands quietly” while tied, groomed, tacked and mounted? No. And often people will tell me the horse has “bridling issues, saddling issues, problems when they attempt to mount, etc.” in my mind – if all possibilities of any pain issues have been ruled out- the horse's approach seems to be that the "best defensive is a good offense."
If everything you’re doing is making the horse uncomfortable, and his behavior shows signs from the start that he is having a problem, unsure, lacking confidence and mentally unavailable, if you keep asking ‘more’ of him, what do you think he will do? You are forcing him to act more resistant and increasingly dramatic in his response towards you every time you ask something else of him. You are setting him up to fail.
If you continue to ignore his pleas for help (yes, that really is what his actions are saying when he is fidgeting, looking around at everything except where he is going/what he is doing, crowding you, etc.) and attempt to have a “relaxing trail ride,” or successful “schooling session” and you’re starting with a horse that is in “survival mode.” He is defensive about how uncomfortable you may (unintentionally) make him by what you might ask next. How much quality will your ride have if you keep asking more and more and more until one day the horse can no longer reasonably “handle” what you’re presenting?
There are only so many ways a horse can ask for help. Often “shut down” horses give the illusion that they are “fine” because they are physically dull and slow and classified as “stubborn.” Other horses that wear their emotions on their sleeve and leave no question as to when they are having a problem are categorized as “crazy” or “bad” because they don’t “comply” with someone’s training style that are unable/unwilling to attempt to learn how to work with the horse.
Bear with me for a moment while I use the analogy of a wildfire. Let’s say there is a severe drought. There hasn’t been rain for a long, long time. You are walking through a field of dry grass that has no moisture due to months of no rain. For some reason you see a spark in the grass. A little red spark the size of a pea. And as the wind gently blows, you realize that ember is growing into a larger red dot on the ground. Knowing that you are standing in thousands of acres of dried grass, do you A.) Wait and see what is going to happen, B.) Attempt to “stomp out” the spark, but don’t check when you’re done stomping to see if it the ember is actually out, or C.) use a pile of dirt to cover and completely obliterate any signs of heat. The last option requiring you to divert from your originally planned path you had intended on taking.
With horses, all too often when there is the initial spark of a problem, people are often “hopeful” (whether due to lack of understanding, lack of “effective tools to communicate” or are oblivious) and respond with option A of the wildfire scenario. Then, they act completely surprised when the “fire” erupts from their horse.
Others who may recognize the behavior but perhaps are not able/willing to follow through until they get a mental and emotional change in their horse, so they go through the motions of “correcting” the horse (option B of the wildfire example) but never check to see if they are influencing a QUALITY change in their horse, or if they are perhaps just temporarily delaying the unwanted behavior by addressing the symptoms and not the root cause.
But what if we all approached our “horse sessions” being open minded. Even if we had a specific intention when we went out to work with our horse, what if we were present enough to HEAR, SEE and RESPECT what our horse was trying to tell us. What if we had the capacity to forget about our original goal for the session and do what was best for our horse? How many times of showing the horse that you were available to address, clearly communicate and then help him through his worries, fears, defensive, insecurity and other issues do you think it would take before he started to trust you? Before he started to realize that if he tried to do what you asked, he, the horse, would feel better afterward? How long would it be before your horse would start to take an interest in what you were presenting rather than always being defensive towards it? How long would it be before he displayed a curiosity about “life” and your time together that would make the sessions really rewarding for both of you? How soon before your horse would offer more effort and "try" without you having to ask as much or get into an "argument?"
So the list below all share one thing in common- the root cause is a mentally unavailable horse, which makes him unable to “hear” what you are communicating, unclear of your intention, defensive towards your aids, resistant to “changing” what he thought was being asked of him and usually leading to physically dramatic and dangerous scenarios in the long run.
My horse won’t be caught
My horse won’t lead
My horse won’t stand still
My horse only has one speed
My horse is heavy on the bit
My horse is herd bound
My horse won’t cross water/pass the tarp/walk on the bridge/etc.
My horse won’t load into a trailer
My horse has to walk in the ____________ of a group on a trail ride
My horse always has to ______________
My horse bucks when I ____________
My horse doesn’t like to leave ____________
My horse is spooky all the time
My horse has to be worked (“lunged”) for 20 minutes before I ride
My horse is good after the first ________ min/miles when I ride out
You can only use this “method” to get a response from my horse
You get the idea. It is all connected like the string on the grain bag. You start pulling at one end and the whole thing quickly unravels. Yet somehow people are hopeful when working with their horses. They don’t believe how big and fast things can go wrong. I can’t tell you how many folks have voiced their shock when their scared horse went straight down the cliff, or when their “baby” turned around and bit them in the shoulder/chest/etc., or when their "stubborn" horse who never liked to go forward “suddenly” had a bucking/bolting fit.
Was the moment the horse started acting in a way that could no longer be ignored the true cause of the unwanted behavior? Not at all. The resistance may have started last week, last month or last year. The point is not “if” but “when” the consequences from not addressing our horse’s brains will appear. And yet people are hopeful that “it” will solve itself on its own. A horse only has so many ways of telling you he is having a problem, and whether you think it is appropriate or not, you MUST believe what he is telling you.
You really do have the ability to influence a long term, quality change in your horse. But people have a hard time getting out of their own way- it is on YOU to realize “people problems” forced upon the horse are only adding fuel to fire. Things such as:
Not having enough time and rushing how, what and why you are asking your horse to do something
Being distracted by work/family/stress/others at the barn leaving you not mentally present when working with your horse
Having unrealistic and inappropriate goals for both you and the horse
Getting distracted by the end goal that you are unable to see what is happening in front of you
Focusing on quantity rather than quality
Challenging the horse to “get it right” rather than helping him be successful
So the next time you experience a bit of resistance from a horse, perhaps re-evaluate how you’re interpreting what you think your horse is doing. Remember, his physical behavior is a reflection of his mental and emotional state. If you could change how he feels on the inside bout what you’re presenting, what sort of physical change might follow and imagine what you might be able to accomplish with quality in the long run!