Horsemanship and The moment of chaos… Philosophies, assessments and concepts

f you’ve read past blog entries of mine, you’ll see there are certain themes, such as focusing on the horse’s brain and emotions, raising the human’s level of awareness to better understand what the horse is trying to communicate, experimenting with the “concepts” that we often abide by but not always for a clear or appropriate reason, and so forth.

Some times when I make a blog entry it is due to an “ongoing” thought in my head that I let mill about until it starts to become clear and other times it is inspired by a particular experience.  In the following entry, it is a combination of both!  I truly hope this entry can help some folks “connect the dots” as to some of the scenarios they may be or have experienced with their horse, and offer perhaps an alternative perspective in addressing their horse.

When resistant, unwanted, and/or dramatic behavior occurs in the horse the person gets distracted by the big-ness of the horse.  In my mind, the “big” is an after-the-fact response by the horse.  The root of the problem has occurred or began to occur anywhere from minutes to months before the horse finally resorted to undeniably dramatic behavior. 

Typically it is not until the horse is flamboyant in his response, that people really believe there is a problem.  At the peak moment of the frustrated/fearful/insecure/defensive horse’s behavior, the rider/handler will experience the most honest responses from the horse towards the person’s attempt at communication.  Basically, if there are any “holes” in the manner, effectiveness, and timing of your communication with your horse, it will become abundantly clear at the peak of his stress.

I will attempt to break down how I see the “pieces of the puzzle” that wind up falling into place causing the rider to feel helpless in the moment of the horse’s panic.  It took years between my background in classical riding, spending time with true the horseman on ranches throughout the west, working with international trainers/clinicians, etc. and then two outright “dangerous” horses (by most people’s accounts) to start to re-interpret and put value to what I was seeing/experiencing.  To no longer just go through the “motions” of communicating, but learning how to understand why I was offering certain communication both before and in the “big” moments.  I had to learn how my horse “handled” the scene was influenced by his emotional/mental/physical availability BEFORE the meltdown to the moment of explosion, and then to reaching the “calm” on the other side.

Over the years I have had to learn to translate not only words were spoken by humans, but also what horses have been attempting to communicate.  As with any attempt of translation, there is room for much misinterpretation of what is happening, which can greatly affect the quality of the final outcome after a horse has become dramatic.

In my original “world” of riding terms such as “contact, connection, and engagement” were common terminology.  In another avenue of horses words such as “direct and indirect rein, disengaging the hindquarters,” became common lingo.  Then there were concepts offered such as, “following a feel, having my horse mimic my energy, influencing a horse’s thought.”  It took years to realize that for all the different sounding words, what everybody was telling me was actually the same thing.  But, and I’m not 100% sure, I’m not even sure “they” (the teachers) would agree with that assessment.  Because for me, it seemed each person was offering one piece of the puzzle that was to become a giant collage of my current horsemanship theories and concepts.

Most people would agree the moment of “explosion” is not the time to find out if your aids are effective.  But often that tends to be the time folks shift from “passenger mode” to “leader mode” when working with their horse.  For a horse that has never had its human make decisions “before the fact” rather than always “reacting” after the horse did something, this is a new concept for the horse.  For it to be “used”  for the first time when the horse is totally stressed and distracted, will probably not have the desired result and would be a bit like adding gasoline to an already burning fire.

So before addressing the moment of panic in the horse, let’s take a few steps back and revisit a few concepts and aids that we use to communicate with the horse.

In regards to a bridle…

Contact, accepting the bit, not ‘leaning’ on the bit, following a feel, softening to pressure…

Each of the above concepts is used throughout various disciplines.  You may have heard some of these, others maybe not.  To me, they all are attempting to reach the same end goal.  A horse respectful of the bit, that maintains a light and willing responsiveness towards the bit.

Now in reality, in any given year of my teaching throughout the United States with students ranging from novice riders to novice horses, to internationally competitive students on top-level horses, EVERYONE suffers from the same “issues” with the bridle.

First and foremost many horses are defensive towards the pressure of the bit. (Ruling out physical/pain issues.) Next, very few riders address the horse’s thoughts and emotions when riding, often being distracted by the physical response/lack of and movement of the horse.  The “physical” I see in a horse tends to be a reflection of his emotional and mental state.

So if in general, under seemingly “non” stressful times a horse has a tendency to “pull” on the bit, to ignore or push against pressure offered by the bit, to be heavy on the forehand, what happens in the moment of chaos when the rider attempts to use the bit to “control” the horse? The sudden increase of physical pressure of the bit tends to add to the horse’s problem rather than helping him through it.

I don’t know how many times have I heard, “I tried to stop him, but he just dragged/bolted/bucked me off, the reins were useless.”  As people recount dramatic events, I always feel like I’m playing detective at not only listening to the words they are telling me, but to how they’re saying, and what they are not saying too.  These are all indicators as to things that may have happened that the person may not have even realized were going on.

In looking at this concept of a dramatic event occurring and attempting to use the bridle to “control” the horse, people often start at what I’d call point “G” in their storytelling (this is how far along things have happened before the person realized how bad something was going to get.)  Then the person tends to react at point “R” in the story.

So what was the horse doing between point A and G, how was the rider addressing/or not the behavior, and then I ask the same thing between point G and R?  Usually the horse is slowly increasing his physical signs of distress, worry, agitation, fear, insecurity, while the most common response I find from riders is to A) do nothing and wait and see if the horse will calm down on his own, or B) not believe the “snowballing” effect his emotions are going to have on the physical outburst that is about to occur. 

By the time the rider tries to pull back, turn, etc. with the rein, which initially had never been established as an effective and quality aid prior to the horse’s stress, now, it seems is a useless tool in the moment of chaos.

So a few questions I’d like you to mull over in your head:

Have you ever thought/attempted to direct your horse’s thought, before you asked him to move?

If you pick up your reins while at a halt, what is your horse’s initial response?

How immediately does your horse look, turn or halt if you use just your reins?

Does your horse ever lean on the bit/get “heavy” on your hands as the ride progress?

Have you had to change to more severe bits over the course of riding your horse?

Can you move your horse’s nostril, head, neck, shoulder, and hindquarters all separately based solely on a difference in how you use your reins? (With no leg pressure.)

Can you use different energy “levels” within your fingertips and get different responses from your horse?

In my mind, the bridle, whether with a bit or not, should be used as a fair, respectful tool to communicate with my horse’s brain and body.

Next Concept…

In regard to leg pressure.

Yielding to pressure, lateral work, bumping, creating boundaries, energy, etc.

I do not want to feel like I’m “driving” my horse forward with my leg, instead, I want to feel that the energy I offer with my seat should be reflective in the energy my horse has in his movement.  AFTER that I will use my legs to finesse, fine-tune, and ask for a more specific movement.

I find a lot of unintentional “nagging” on the horse’s sides when people use their legs.  A majority of riders rely solely on their leg to get their horse to “go” and sit like a passenger sack of potatoes in the saddle. 

The leg to me should offer varying degrees of energy, be able to influence the horse’s front end (from the shoulder forward,) ribcage, and hindquarters together and separately.  It should be able to create a definitive “boundary” (not one the horse leans on) or it should be able to encourage the horse to yield a specific body part.  It should be a supportive aid to what the rider’s seat communicates and not a random “kicking” aid.

As we all know, the horse can feel a fly land on him.  So why when a majority of riders, whether with spurs or not, lay a leg into their horse’s side, does the horse ignore or more often than not, they actually “bulge” their ribcage out in resistance to the pressure the rider’s leg has created?

Because it has not been established as an effective aid.

Fast forward to the horse “melting down,” let’s say in a “restrictive” spot (side of the cliff, near a fence/dangerous object) and the rider attempts to “move” the horse away from danger by adding their leg to either “block” or laterally yield the horse?  What does the horse do?  Push back against the leg and head straight towards the danger.

Let’s say the horse is worried about something ahead of him, and so he responds by slowing down/slamming to a halt.  The rider responds by kicking him to get him going forward.  Too many times, this extra “pressure” causes the horse to go flying backward or make a dramatic spin-and-bolt move.  Then there is also the “completely” ignoring the leg when the horse halts and seemingly is unwilling to budge no matter how hard the rider kicks.

Here are a few more questions for you to think about:

How often do you use your leg in a ride?

What part of your leg and where on your horse’s body do you use it, and with how much energy?

What is your horse’s response to your leg pressure if he isn’t stressed?

If you ride a circle does your horse always feel like he is leaking and that you have to put continuous leg pressure on him to prevent him from doing so?

Can you move specific body parts of your horse, or does his entire body move at one time no matter where you apply your leg?

How many times do you have to use your leg before your horse responds?

Do you ever feel like your horse will only offer a limited amount of “forward” if you use your leg?

Have you had to increase from no spur/mild to more severe overtime?

Does your horse pin his ears as you use your leg or ride at a faster pace?

Does your horse “throw” his __________ (shoulder/hip/ribcage)?

For me, the leg should be a tool that I can soften, yield, stop, and create boundaries with.  It can create a positive pressure to help support my other aids to communicate with the horse.

Obviously, there are many other aids I could address, but for right now, since a majority of people use a bridle and their legs when riding, we’ll stick to these two tools.

Here’s the scenario:

Riding down a wide sand trail (no cliffs, mountains, no traffic, etc.) the horse sees something in the distance and perks her ears.

Sam’s response: Using a rein I ask my horse’s brain to focus on an object (rock, plant, footprint) that is within a foot of my horse’s nose.  I want to see her eyeballs look at wherever I’m asking her to look.  I assess her gait, and will probably decrease my energy to a “creeping” walk.

Horse’s response: She looks at the object, but immediately goes back to perking their ears forward, raising their head, and mildly tightening her body.

My thought is that she didn’t “let go” of the distraction down the road, so now I’ll ask her to look at an object close to us and move perhaps on a circle.  Does the circle “fix” anything?  No, but it allows me an opportunity to assess.  Does she quicken her pace?  If she does and I decrease my energy and she goes to push through/lean on the bit, this tells me her “physical forward movement” is stemming from her pushing through my energy with her hocks.  So I need to use an indirect rein to disengage her hindquarters to shift all of her weight from being heavy on the forehand to balance on the hindquarters.   Once her body slows for a moment, I have an opportunity to influence her brain.

Now that she is slowing down as she walks on the circle, is she falling in/leaking out with shoulders or hips?  If so, this tells me her body is trying to follow the direction her brain is thinking about.  So with my rein, I need to redirect her thought to perhaps a more “opposite direction” until she is mentally closer to where she is physically at.  Now that she is looking and thinking about where she is moving, her body starts to relax and she walks a bit straighter. 

Now I’m assessing the quality of her steps; she’s a little “locked up” (falling in) with her inside hock- lack of bend in the hock= resistance and heaviness towards the bit.  I might use my lower leg and ask her to spiral out (move laterally onto a larger circle) a few steps on the circle.  I create pressure with my lower leg asking her to yield one step at a time, as soon as she gives one step, I decrease the pressure of my leg.  So she learns if she quickly and softly yields, my leg pressure decreases.  I’m looking for several slow, intentional steps, not a “fast” reaction to avoid my leg pressure. 

She did yield laterally on my circle, but she rushed and attempted to continue yielding even after I quit asking.  This tells me she is anticipative and not thinking through what I’m asking her.  The more mentally distracted a horse is, the greater the chance of a bigger “reaction” when surprised.  I decrease the forward energy to get better quality in the lateral steps.   I establish a bit more dramatic “end” point with my outside lower leg when I quit asking for the lateral movement.

The horse slows her energy, steps laterally, and continues straight on the new circle.  I halt as the “reward” for her effort and to give her time to mentally process what just happened.  I breathe.  She breathes.  As we’re standing she wants to glance back towards the original distraction.  I use the rein on the opposite side of the distraction and using just my third and fourth finger squeeze like a sponge.  As if the pressure of my fingers on the rein is a string to her brain, she draws her attention away from distraction and redirects her thoughts towards where I asked, then she drops her head, sighs, and blows her nose.  This tells me she has “let go” of the distraction.

As we continue down the trail, she glances at the distraction, but with softness in her eye, body, breathing, and energy, so I allow her to look.  I do NOT want to “take“ the horse out of the horse, but I also do NOT want to no longer “exist” if my horse gets distracted by something. 

I need my horse to be mentally available to “hear” what I’m offering through my aids, in order to support her through a time of worry, fear, insecurity, etc.  The more she realizes I can help her “let go” of what is bothering her, the more she will offer to stop and “hear” my aids, rather than to do what is most natural to horses, which is to flee the scene, then stop and think.  Each time we come out “better” after a possibly stressful time, the horse gains confidence, which in turn decreases the amount of initial stress the horse experiences every time something new is presented.

Whew.  It may seem like a lot of “work” for what appeared as an insignificant “look” by my horse.  But after working with enough “dangerous horses”- all results of lack of understanding between human and horse, it is never too early to start helping your horse.   I’m not sure why but so often people become very hopeful around their horses rather than proactive.  None of the unwanted behavior your horse displays will disappear on its own.  If the behavior or resistance seems minor now, and you don’t address it, it will only evolve until you can no longer ignore it.  Why wait and see? 

This blog entry isn’t supposed to be used as an instructional “how to fix” manual, but rather to share from my perspective an example of a “journey” with a horse.  With a different horse, I might use a different mental/physical task, but the point is the philosophy behind what I’m doing.

Over time it should take “less” from me to get “more” from the horse as her confidence increases.  Our partnership should be a continually evolving and respectful relationship.

This blog entry isn’t just for trail riders, young horse riders, or folks who have “problem” horses.  This is for all horses, all ages, all breeds, and all disciplines.  So rather than “challenging” your horse to “survive” the next thing that bothers him and physically attempts to “push” him through/past, it, perhaps experiment with playing detective in learning how to help your horse through a scenario BEFORE a stressful scenario occurs.  It will also shine a light on any “holes” in your communication and give you homework to refine and finesse how what and when you communicate with your horse.
Good luck and have fun,

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