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 my website 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 people 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 a bit 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.”
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.”
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.”
Interpretation: Starting from the ground the horse is defining who is in charge (him) through physically dominating your personal space by rubbing on you, which then 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 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.”
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 worried about the upcoming experience and so his mental and emotional concern is reflected through his excessive movement. Put it into people terms, if you’re worried and stress do you sit still relaxed or act physically agitated? Same for the horse. When he is warm and fuzzy on the inside, 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.
But in order to hear what the horse is offering, I too must be “clear” and available to honestly see what is going on. Just as I teach my students, if you’re not a 110% present for your horse, you’re going to miss a lot and the horse will recognize your distraction within minutes of interacting with him.
From the horse’s perspective
Not to anthropomorphize what a horse is experiencing, but my interpretation is that they live in the black and white. “I’m okay.” “I’m not okay.”
Humans live in the gray area. They can’t make up their mind about ANYTHING, nor are they often in tune and/or confident enough to give an honest opinion about something.
So when working with a prey animal who is instinctively searching for a leader or will evolve to become the leader of his herd if there isn’t one established, 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.
Now being the leader to your horse has NOTHING to do with dominating or physically constraining the horse, 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 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 blog, 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 happy enough horse.
IF you don’t have that kind of horse, 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, 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 don’t write this to sound negative or to scare you. I write this based on personal experience of working with hundreds of horses over the last twenty plus years. 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.
Arriving for training
Horses that arrive for training are offered a clean slate. I don’t care how experienced or proven the horse is (or whatever term you’d like to use,) at this point I no longer am surprised by how many accomplished horses have major holes in their education, understanding and communication. The same goes for the younger, less experienced horses too.
The first few sessions
If you’ve ever had the urge to vent about all of your stresses, worries, etc. that basically is what happens when the horses first arrive. In a safe setting in the round pen, no whips, no gadgets, or preconceived plan, I offer the horse the opportunity to vent.
When turned loose (and I just am standing or sitting in the middle of the round pen) this typically includes some, if not all, of the following behaviors:
Fear (fleeing/racing around the rail)
Trying to escape (moving with his head on the outside of the pen while his body is in it)
Avoidance (find stuff- grass, manure, the gate to be act overly interested in in order to avoid me)
Pushiness (obnoxiously pushing into my personal space and then leaving when I have nothing, such as treat, for him)
Frustration (head tossing, changing of directions a lot of times, kicking out, snorting, bucking, abrupt movements)
Insecurity (calling to the other horses in the pasture)
Stress (general busi-ness, unable to stand still, inconsistent, agitated movement, passing manure multiple times in a short period of time)
Once they let that out of their system, we can begin the journey of them learning how to become mentally available. This is done through liberty work, and is basically an opportunity where the horse is encouraged to have an opinion, but must learn how to try, “let go” of what he thought might happen, learn how to search and ultimately regain his sense of curiosity that he was born with that all too often humans have drained out of him.
The horse’s journey
Each session I view as a stone added to that path that eventually lays the foundation for a quality partnership between horse and human. As I earn his respect and trust, I am able to offer more specifics and a higher standard in which I ask him to participate at. The more the horse learns that he can “tell me” his worry, concerns, fears and I help him sort through each of these, he then can let them go of them, and become mentally clear and open minded to try operating in a different, calmer, and more confident manner.
The more he learns his efforts are recognized, the more he wants to offer and try. The more he participates respectfully, the more confidence he gains that he can “get it right.”
So I use this foundation to initially undo whatever he has been taught, and then as I say “re-start/re-educate” the horse whether it be to basic concepts of pressure, to desensitizing or re-sensitizing, to leading, tying, standing, being groomed/tacked/mounted, all the while the horse must be mentally participating the entire time. Which is a lot to ask of them.
He needs to learn that anything I’d ask for while in the saddle, I should be able to ask for first from the ground. He needs to learn that if I ask him to let go of something he is trying, to not be defensive, or mentally check out, just because I didn’t want what he was doing.
A whole new meaning to “slowing down”
I do admit I have the luxury of not operating by the clock. Working with horses I have no limit as to having to rush or hurry in our session.
This allows anything to happen in the session because there is no sense of “we must accomplish ______________” during our time together.
By slowing down now and allowing the horse to sort out his concerns, fears, insecurities with what I present, often involving him going through an emotional rollercoaster and more venting, we in the long run will accomplish much more with QUALITY rather than more tolerance from the horse.
I’m not trying to teach or expose the horse to everything he might encounter in life, but rather give him the solid foundation to be confident, mentally available towards his rider that if unsure he acts in a reasonable manner (meaning, stop first, ask, then react vs. the natural instinct of flee if unsure, then stop and think.)
Reintroducing the owner
I have a page on my website called “Back to Basics” and sometimes people feel they “must” be beyond that point with all the miles and hours of riding they have done with their horse. But this brings me back to the concept of Quality vs. Quantity.
Without quality in all that you offer your horse, you’re actually unintentionally “training” all the stuff you don’t want into your horse.
Without respecting and believing what your horse is trying to tell you, (even if you think it is unnecessary,) he can only resort to getting more busy, dramatic and sometimes eventually dangerous in his behavior, until you truly believe he is having a problem.
All too often misinformation shared by good intentioned horse folks teach other lessor “experienced” people to have mentalities such as: certain behaviors “aren’t a big deal” (when they are,) that “pushing” the horse through something is okay (you’re only setting him up for a worse outcome the next time you present something,) fussiness is “normal” (it isn’t,) overreacting by the horse will naturally decrease with time (it won’t,) etc.
So, at some point the owner must learn too how to interact with their horse in this “alternative” manner. They must learn how to read the horse’s behavior, how to communicate effectively, how to make real-time decisions, and more importantly, how to put their horse’s needs before their own “wants.”
Once offered the raised level of awareness, a clear understanding of what the horse is offering and tools to communicate clearly, the owner then feels empowered that THEY can help be the fair, honest and supportive leader their horse needs.
My goal is that the owner doesn’t need a trainer for long term success. Yes, continuing lessons to add new thoughts and ideas will help them along their journey, but I want to create independent, thinking owners and mentally available horses that can have their own conversation without needing my direction every step of the way.
In the long term
This approach to horsemanship is a very different perspective and mentality and requires a lot more effort from both human and horse. Most things in life you can bluff through, with the horses, you can’t. And that is why I love what I do for a living. The honesty in our horses is rare to find in humans. Which means by the time your horse is feeling good about life, you know you can believe him. There is nothing comparable to the “high” of that ride where you feel as if you and your horse are operating as “one.” That kind of partnership makes it all worth it; whether you’re a pleasure trail rider or international competitor, it all comes down to the foundation the partnership is based on.