Unwanted scenarios- opportunities for improving your partnership!
Many times when folks are working with horses, they’d like it to be a relaxing, enjoyable experience. Yet often horses and humans need to build a quality partnership in order to achieve a rewarding ride for the both of them. What most riders forget is that no matter how “trained” a horse is, they are still looking to their rider for guidance, confidence and boundaries. They are a herd animal and they are deciding if they or their rider is the “leader” of their herd.
The horse will question the pecking order of the herd the rider and he create, but it may not seem apparent on calm, ideal days. When circumstances beyond our control arise, and stress levels increase, typically only then do we as riders start to realize that perhaps the quality of the partnership we share with our horse is not as “ideal” as we would like to think.
As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, if you give most riders the option, they will do everything they can to avoid a confrontation or uncomfortable scenario with their horse. Horses often realize this and have mastered becoming fantastic “people trainers” as I say- teaching the human how to work around them in order to avoid any conflict. The ideal for me is that the horse asks “What would you like?,” and learns to work around the human.
The idea to write this blog came up as I went to work a horse this morning. I spend my winters in the desert, where one would think life is a lot more boring than my summers spent in the inland northwest, but actually that is not the case. Down here near North America’s largest sand dunes we have wind, (it took ten years before it occurred to me that ALL of that wind was what built the sand dunes), and when I say wind I mean sand-blasting, scary-discarded-trash blowing, tarps constantly flapping, scary-animal-dashing-from-citrus groves, horse-tails standing straight-out-to-the-side kind of wind.
I’ve experienced wind in other notorious places such as Texas and Wyoming- and of course the ever present wind in Patagonia, but somehow the wind here in the Arizona desert has extra elements of “scariness” in terms of horses. Add in the fact that this is the produce capital of world during the winter, so heavy duty farm equipment randomly appears at various times. There’s also a marine base and I’m near the flight approach/take off path; military personal from all over the world come here to “practice” and so it is very common to have a “Top Gun” show as a daily occurrence. Nothing like getting on a colt for the first time with the horse’s body literally vibrating from the sound of six F18s flying low and overhead.
Then of course there’s the sheep. The town here is a mixture of new and old, traditional and modern. Often after several cuttings of alfalfa hay have been raised, herds of sheep are escorted down the main roads (herded by a few men with flags, a couple of dogs, a ram and a goat,) and will randomly appear in an old hay field with three strands of temporary hotwire fence strung up. A few days later they’ll be moved on to another field. That’ll get every horse in the barn to stand at full attention and often they display physical feats of aerial acrobatics as if trying out for the Spanish Riding School
In this desert, there are no mountains in sight. Any activity happening can often been seen and or heard from miles away; to the A.D.D. horse you can imagine how distracting that might be.
Anyhow one of our wind storms began brewing last night and by this morning the sky was thick with sand and debris, the trees were bent over and the air was heavy with the horses concern. Most people avoid heading out to work with a horse on a day like today, but for me, I see it as an opportunity. Just as when I look to buy a horse I want to see the “worst” side of the horse rather than the sales pitch, when I’m working with a horse, I’m looking for opportunities to create a solid citizen. I’m not striving for the “perfect” ride, but rather to be there to help and support him experience a naturally scary scenario and perhaps influence a change in his brain and emotions as to how he perceives the chaos around him so that he learns to react in a physical respectful, calm and safe manner.
Because the horse is a prey animal, the natural instinct when unsure is to run. But my job is to teach the unnatural response of, “Stop, think, and ask what the rider wants,” then offer a physical movement. This not only decreases the chances of a dramatic reaction from the horse, but also builds confidence in him and the fear switches to a curiosity as to what is happening around him. Changing from the instinctual fleeing to curious mode literally allows more “time” for communication between rider and horse, a mental participation from the horse which in turn creates a physical softness. This builds his confidence emotionally and mentally when a situation isn’t ideal.
So rather than “challenging” the horse to be obedient on a scary day, I would rather break down the “scariness” of it all- starting on the ground. Rather than trying to avoid what may be bothersome, I will break things down and ask the horse to only mentally consider one or two things, and then offer ways for him to find softness in his body, brains and emotions, so that he can figure out how he really feels about something. The more he learns how to think while I’m on the ground working with him, the more this increases his confidence while I’m in the saddle.
The other part of avoiding the less than ideal circumstances is that people are taught that things cannot get “ugly”- by this I mean many people have the goal be striving for the ideal ride. But often the ground work during less than ideal scenarios, such as when a horse mentally and emotionally is falling apart needs to be addressed so that the horse can learn how to let go of feelings of concern, worry and fear. If he is taught to “stuff” those emotions, they will continue to build inside of him, even if on the outside he is appearing as being obedient. It will only be a matter of time before all of those pent up emotions come out physically dramatic.
I on the other hand I would like an honest “response” from the horse for whatever he feels. That being said, there are spatial and behavioral boundaries that need to be established before the scary day along with effective communication aids, so that when the horse becomes brainless and reactive, the person has a way to help the horse work through the stress, rather than reprimanded him for not behaving. As I say, embrace the tantrum, but don’t leave him in it. Help the horse “get” to the other side. Remember the physically dramatic behavior is a reflection of the horse’s brain and emotions. Change how he feels on the inside, the behavior on the outside will decrease in dramatic, dangerous reactivity.
Every time a horse starts to get bothered and a person critiques him or instead uses it as an opportunity to build his confidence can detract or contribute to the quality of long term partnership and physical behavior of the horse. Unwanted behaviors/insecurities/worries/fears do not randomly disappear. Attempting to “desensitize” the horse through repetitious behavior may temporarily work for that scary tarp, but it is only teaching the horse to tolerate the scary tarp, rather than changing how he feels about it. The day you move the tarp, it’ll feel like you’ll have to start all over again. Instead, change how he feels about the tarp, then it will not matter where the tarp is.
So the next time you have an opportunity in a less-than-ideal circumstance, of course prioritizing your safety first, perhaps experiment with approaching your horse’s concern with being a supportive influence, rather than a critical one or just avoiding the situation all together.