Re-educating the troubled horse

I recently had someone inquire about a horse who has bucking issues. It was a person who did not have a lot of experience and had sent their horse to a well-known training program. When their horse returned, multiple times the horse started bucking when ridden.

So their question was if I would be able to help the horse, how long it would take, Etc. This is a very common inquiry that I get.

I thought it would be helpful to share my response to the owner as many people seem to have these issues. The following is my answer:

There are several options for rehabilitating a horse that has become troubled and is now physically dangerous.

Every horse is an individual, so when horses arrive for training, the first week is an “Assessment week,” which allows me time to evaluate his current fears, insecurities, ability and willingness to learn, any potential physical/pain issues, and then approach him in a way that rebuilds his trust in humans.

By the time a horse is committed to bucking, his original “quiet” pleas for help from the human have either been missed or ignored; whether intentional or not, most folk’s priorities are to “just go ride”, often not realizing how much “help” the horse needs from the rider.

Also, if you have limited experience, you need to keep in mind that even with a lot of quality training, you will need to “be on the same page” as your horse. Sending your horse to the trainer without understanding how/what he has learned, does the owner no good.

People also often think that once a horse is “trained” it will automatically maintain the knowledge or abilities; they don’t. Every experience with the horse is a “learning” opportunity for the horse; so again, whether you mean to or not, you may be “teaching” your horse many things you don’t realize.

Also many training programs are suited to the human, rather than individualizing the methods so that it is appropriate for that particular horse. Just like humans who all have different learning styles, so do horses. Which means that many horses “go through” training programs and the more training, the worse the horse feels about the “human experience,” he may come out with some knowledge, but often there is a lot of miscommunication and defensiveness felt by the horse if he didn’t naturally fit the “program”. But this typically doesn’t show up until the horse has spent time with a less confident person, and only then, does he offer his honest opinion or show his defensiveness with dramatic and dangerous behaviors.

As far as “how long” it takes to both undo a horse’s fear and defensiveness, and re-educate the horse, all depends on the severity of the horse’s current mental and emotional state. I offer training by the week to best suit the horse’s needs, the first week is assessment week, and then we go from there. I’m big on keeping owners in the loop with weekly email updates as to the progress reports on the horse.

I require all owners to participate for at least a week with me before taking their training horse for at least five sessions.

Once your horse arrives for training, they have priority to stay however long you need.

What can happen at an Alternative Horsemanship with Samantha Harvey clinic?

What can happen at an Alternative Horsemanship with Samantha Harvey clinic?

One person might work with a "broke" performance type horse that has been so ingrained with human expectations and patterns, and who has learned to be obedient in order to not be reprimanded, that just by being in close proximity and changing what the horse had anticipated would happen (such as not catching as soon as you enter his pen) and watch the horse's emotional roller coaster as years of pent up obedience and emotional containment are purged...

Another person might work on the nuances of rebuilding a horse's curiosity and trust after years of the human experience causing that horse to mentally shut down and check out causing the horse to outwardly seem physically quiet, but internally is quite troubled.

Someone else may encourage their horse, while at liberty, to learn to mentally search and make decisions, without being "driven", chased or scared into brainless and reactive physical movement, rather instead offering thoughtful and intentional steps.

Another person might practice learning to refine their feel and time while riding, as they raise their standard of softness and clarity towards the horse...

Someone else may be learning how to recognize from how they're sitting in the saddle, where they're horse's feet are underneath them, to offer the clearest aid to influence the ideal movement.

Another might be working with a young horse building a solid foundation of learning "how to learn" with thoughtful intention as new things are introduced, that will be used in future rides.

The horses breeds, ages, experiences are all varied. The disciplines, participants, experience levels, and their backgrounds are even more diverse.

And all the while, it might be blustery wind gusts, freezing temps, peaceful and warm, sleeting rain... The weather is irrelevant... the location doesn't matter... the "accomplishment" of a task is ignored... rather it is all about the conversation between the human and horse. Soft, clear and intentional.

It is only then that you see the worry and peak lines on the horse's face disappear, the muscles in the horse and human's body relax, and both take a deep, quiet, body-replenishing breath of air, while experiencing a shared peacefulness of being mentally, emotionally and physically present.

Less than ideal circumstances leading to better partnerships

Thought for the day...

Often when weather conditions and circumstances are out of our control or are not ideal, we tend to shy away from spending time with our horses in order to avoid potential conflict or issues. For me I find some of the most successful learning situations is when our surroundings are less than ideal.

Yesterday was a great example. Here in the desert of southwest Arizona we had a blusterous 20 mile an hour windstorm that was sandblasting from all directions. Being close to a Marine base, we also had F-35 Jets flying overhead, so close that you actually vibrate from the Jet's power. Trash and tumbleweeds were blowing everywhere. Palm trees were bent over.

I've included two pics which don't nearly give you a clear enough idea, but to see the flag standing straight out gives you an idea of how strong the wind was.

Two days before, a three-year-old horse had arrived for training. The first day we had just worked on the concept of softening to pressure on the leadrope. We didn't move farther than 40 feet from his stall. I introduced the ideas of being able to first look and think, and then move. Also the concept that he looks where he's going while he moves, rather than looking at everything except where he's going. The concept of personal space and that if he is asked to do something, he needs to try to address what is being asked of him the first time and not that it takes a huge amount of energy to get him to listen. Also the concept that he can stand over grass and wait quietly without constantly trying to lunge for the grass and eat. It was a lot for his young brain. And yet there was no running, no fleeing, no chasing, no driving, no scaring him, in order to help him learn. Just simple conversation creating boundaries of what behaviors worked and those that did not. Lots of blinking, licking, chewing, and yawning from him.

So the second day is when the wind storm hit us. It was so bad you couldn't see 40 feet out because of the sand and debris in the air. And yet I brought him into the round pen to work with him at liberty for the first time. For me the round pen is not a place to chase/run the horse into submission. It is rather a safe setting that allows the horse to learn to search to find what is being asked of him, without scaring him or driving him into giving up. There was distractions of other horses running around, other animals running around the farm, metal roofs flapping, and yet through simple trial and error (communicated through spatial pressure and release w the lead rope hanging at my side), the young horse was able to let go of all of the mental distractions until he could focus on just me. He learned how to be with me without spatially walking on top of me even though he was loose. He learned how to stop and look at the distractions and then bring his attention back to me when I asked him to. And then he learned how to leave me to move around the rail of the pen, without flee or chaotic energy, rather mimicking whatever energy I was offering from the center of the pen. Then when I decreased my energy and moved away from the center of the pen, he learned to come in and be with me respectfully, quietly waiting for whatever I asked of him next. If you had only seen him you'd never know there was so much distraction and Chaos going on around us.

So the next time the weather or situation is less than ideal, remember it might be the perfect opportunity, because you may have to face addressing small issues that in the past you've wanted to mask or smooth over rather than getting to the root cause. Being forced to confront those small issues is a wonderful preventative measure for them not to evolve causing major issues further down the road.