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Behind the scenes… A trainer’s perspective on what is really entailed when a horse arrives for training.
When I get a call from an owner about a potential horse to participate in training, a lot runs through my mind during the conversation. First I always try to really listen to what the owner is (or in many cases isn’t) saying. Often by the time people find me, if the depth of my website ( learnhorses.com ) hasn’t scared them off, they’ve usually been to several mainstream trainers and have experienced a bit of “what they don’t want,” and now are realizing they have to become more picky about what they do want. Sadly (for the horse’s sake,) anyone can (and will) hang a sign out that says they are a horse trainer. The horses are the ones who wind up “paying” the real price in the long run. Often there is a set program or training style that is rigid and unforgiving to the horse that doesn’t comply. The consequences and outcome for those horses tend to be fearful, insecure, and a reinforced distrust towards humans. At that point, the owner realizes the horse they sent to the “professional” has now come home with more issues than when they originally sent them. And that is where trainers like me come into the picture. Even the term “horse trainer” makes me feel a bit uncomfortable and isn’t appropriate, though I still use it to help communicate what I do. I think “horse helper” might be more accurate. But back to the typical phone conversations of potential clients. I am a realist, which often leads me to see a less than “pretty” picture when I start hearing the details of what someone tells me… Let me explain. Common Conversations/My Interpretation: Owner comment (OC): “I’m not completely comfortable riding him. He’s never done anything wrong so far, and he’d never buck or do anything bad, but he doesn’t seem relaxed.” My Interpretation: He is a ticking bomb that is tolerating whatever has been asked of him and it is not a matter of “if” but rather when, he is going to explode if someone doesn’t help him. OC: “He was really easy to catch and start riding in the beginning of last season, but this year I’m having a much more difficult time with him.” My Interpretation: Whatever you “did” with the horse last year did not make him feel confident, this year therefor he is attempting to prevent that discomfort through being difficult to “catch” or resistant when you work with him. OC: “He’s very sweet and loves me, he is always rubbing on me, but he can get a bit strong when I ride.” My Interpretation: Starting from the ground the horse is defending himself by spatially dominating your personal space by physically rubbing on you. Hr continues with his taking over when you’re in the saddle, hence you feeling him heavy on the bit. His “leaning on the bit” also means he has no concept of softening to pressure, and my guess is starting when you lead him with a lead rope he is heavy, disrespectful, and pushy because he’s never been told otherwise. OC: “He’s a bit fussy about saddling and mounting but after that he’s fine.” My Interpretation: Anticipation. Defensiveness. Usually, unless there are pain issues- which often there are- saddling and mounting “issues” are the symptom, not the issue. The horse is anticipative about the upcoming experience and so his mental and emotional concern is reflected through his excessive physical movement. Putting it into people terms, if you’re worried and stress do you sit still, relaxed or are physically agitated? Same for the horse. When he is confident, comfortable, and clear, he’ll stand quiet and relaxed. So you get the idea. But I also know that most owners have limited experience and exposure whether with horses in general or their own animals. So it is my job to have some honest conversations with the horse. For a person to hear what the horse is offering, they must be “clear” and available to honestly see what is going on. If they are not a 110% present for their horse, a lot will be missed when interacting with him. Many people live in the grey area. They frequently have difficulty making decisions and lack confidence in establishing boundaries in general, which is reflected in the interactions with their horse. So when working with a herd animal who is instinctively searching for support from a leader,, if you add an inexperienced/unconfident/unaware human to the “herd,” it isn’t long before that horse takes over. Not motivated through dominance, but rather by survival instincts. The longer the relationship continues with the horse “taking” the human, rather than vice versa, the more uncomfortable the human will become as they ask more of their horse. Eventually there will come a point where the person gets scared. Then they finally ask for help. Being the leader to the horse has NOTHING to do with dominating or physically constraining him, though often that is how people interpret being a leader to a 1,000lb animal. In fact just as with other people, it all comes down to how we communicate with one another. If someone were to just keep screaming at another person all the time, eventually their loudness gets “tuned out.” The same goes with the horses. People are overactive, “busy,” distracted, rough, and clumsy, etc. and eventually the horse just learns to tune them out. Fork in the road But what if we came back to the standard that if a horse can feel a fly land on him and twitch in response, how lightly, softly and clearly can we HUMANS communicate with the horse? And this is where owners arrive at the fork in the road. Initially it may have appeared that “it” was about bringing your horse for training. And yes often horses need more than what the amateur rider can offer education wise to their horse. Even more important than that, it really is about PEOPLE “training,” and I don’t mean the traditional biomechanical lessons or the “do’s and don’ts” of horse management. What I’m referring to, and I wrote more about this in another post, The Mirror. People often have to set aside their own emotions towards their horse, and get honest with themselves in order to get quality, long lasting changes in their relationship with their horse. I know, I know, there are plenty of folks who just want to hop on, get “away” from life, enjoy their horse and go home. Which is fine. IF you have a confident, experienced, and curious horse. IF you don’t, you find out rather quickly that the “ride” isn’t JUST about you, but rather you and your horse. And if you don’t start working with your horse and address HIS needs first, you’re going to get into trouble pretty fast. But again, most folks don’t believe it’ll go wrong as fast, as big or as dramatic as it does, until the day it actually happens. “All of a sudden,” is not really a statement I agree with. My thoughts are that the root cause of the “all of a sudden” moment may have started six months, six weeks or six minutes ago. And if the person did nothing to address the initial signs of a problem, the problem will just increase until an unwanted outcome occurs. I write this based on personal experience of working with hundreds of horses over the last three decades. I write this out of a moral obligation that SOMEONE needs to educate horse folks because so many dramatic events for humans and horses, miscommunication, and emotional stress could/can be prevented.