Making the "training" last

I thought I'd share a blurb from recent correspondence with a client. She brought me a horse that was new to her and supposedly had years of riding out in the open, in the mountains, packing animals out, doing everything. After a few unexpected, overreactive, traumatic events at her place, the horse became defensive and dangerous. And so I received him a few weeks ago. There are many factors that go into mentally, emotionally and physically rehabilitating a horse.

Here is a small piece that I think is incredibly important in the transition from me working with a horse to sending one home and the effort being able to show through for the owners and make life better for the horse. Enjoy!

My belief is not that the individual person will affect the horse’s ability to maintain what he has learned, rather it is the quality of the conversation offered by anyone handling the horse, that either supports or “undoes” any training learned here. Obviously if you were violent towards him he’d remember, but more so, in his case, he just wants to know that someone knows what is going on, and will support him.

So to address your concern for him “losing” his evolvement/re-education with me, it will maintain and will last the more you are able to offer the same type of conversation as I’ve been doing. So my goal in your visiting him is to watch how I interact with him and to see/believe the “conversation” he offers through his body language, emotions, behaviors, etc. to better understand how to interpret and recognize the initial, minor behaviors of when he shows concern, defensiveness, etc. and realizing how early you need to “be there” to help him through something, rather than waiting until he commits to a negative or fearful thought, and only reacting after the fact. The goal is the more confidence he regains here with me, the more he’ll be able to “handle” even if with a human who isn’t as aware as I am. But on the flip side, even if he looked “quiet” in the riding videos of him, many, many things have been missed. His jumpy-ness with flyspray, the water hose, stuff touching his sides, that isn’t something that just appears. I’d guess as I opened the door for him to offer his real feelings about the human experience thus far, he has a lot to purge, in order to feel better about being with people.

Today I worked loose with him in the round pen asking him to come over and present himself to have the saddle blanket put on (from both sides), the girth lie across his back, and eventually the saddle. All the while he was loose, so any time he was bothered by the pressure of the gear, he was allowed to leave, sort out his defensiveness, and then he chose to come back over and stand mentally and emotionally quiet, while I put stuff on him again. We got to where he was eventually totally relaxed. He blew and blew and blew his nose. He was the most focused, with the most amount of try I’ve seen thus far.

A lot of this rehabilitation comes from observations too. Like when I experimented with turning out his two pasture mates and leaving him in a round pen loose, on his own, while I went off and did other things. He didn’t scream, he didn’t look dramatic, but he pooped three times in 15 minutes, and was gently “busy” moving the whole time until I returned. While I was still doing other stuff he kept gumming the air like baby horses do, yawning, chewing, sighing, scratching, all signs of being bothered. But because it didn’t look dramatic, most people would have not “seen” it as him being bothered. The good news was, me showing up, made him feel better.

The three most detrimental contributors to failing human/horse partnerships

Horses are beginning to arrive for training at my summer facility. The two most common groups of horses have either had the winter off, and the owners realized they either need some refining/furthering of their education, or there are a lot of young horses that need to be started.

If you’ve spent any time reading my Alternative Horsemanship with Samantha Harvey website, or past Blog entries, you’ll realize that I’m not the “quick fix” kind of horse trainer. The two sites help separate those folks who don’t want to have to sift through information and are looking for quick and easy answers, and those who are committed to learning/participating in the journey they and their horse will be experiencing with me.

I always encourage owners to come and watch, listen as I work with the horse and explain, and I also require that they participate in sessions working with me and their horse, before sending the horse home. By asking this requirement and level of “commitment” from the owner, it sorts out potential quality clients who appreciate the journey, not just the end result, from those folks whose sole focus is the quick accomplishment of the “task.”

Anyhow, I could write a book on my perspectives with horses and how to interpret what I’m seeing, why I’m doing what I am, but in this blog I wanted to address the three main contributors that I find consistently create the most detriment to the horse and human in their partnership, irrelevant of their experience level, training, background, etc.

First, western civilization has created the illusion that the faster you do something by taking the easier route, and multi-tasking will help you achieve “better” results. The words “hurrying” and “horse” are like oil and water. The irony of course is the “slower” a quality conversation is offered to the horse, where the horse has the opportunity to learn how to learn, to think through what is being asked of him, to “try” without reprimand, to offer and sort through any level of fear/worry/insecurity and not be critiqued for it, where effective ways to communicate (not through use of devices/restrictive equipment/physically limiting tack) in the long run, the more the horse can accomplish with confidence and trust towards the rider.

The polar opposite is the popular “30 days/60 days” training method. Who came up with those numbers? People did out of convenience. Every horse is different, so how would someone know how long it will take a horse to learn what he needs to know for the rest of his life? We don’t. So because of human imposed “time limits,” we came up with “training programs.” The problem is what if the horse’s own mental, emotional and physical abilities don’t “fit” with the training program? The horse is sent home as damaged goods and considered a “bad” horse. Then what lies in store for him?

If I had to be honest I spend a LOT of time mentally and emotionally rehabilitating horses whose minds have been “blown” from other “professional” trainers. But what I do isn’t “exciting”- or fast- in fact I never “know” what I’ll do with a horse on any given day, until I show up in the pasture and see where his mind is at.

That sort of perspective, leaves folks really uncomfortable. We’ve been taught by society that unless we have “accomplished” a goal or task, it isn’t worth our time. That our self worth/effort with the horse (and his own) is purely based on task accomplishment. This self-imposed, ego based, perspective has led to more “I should have listened to the voice in my head” moments that lead to negative outcomes for human and horse.

But if we have generations of horses and humans who have no clue of the fundamental basics and understanding in working with the horse, who are unable to communicate effectively, and unable to correctly interpret behaviors, it often becomes the blind leading the blind. And it doesn’t work. Yes, short cuts and quick fixes can make horses “manageable” for a time; but it isn’t a matter of “if” but rather “when” those quick fixes will quit working. Then it’ll take more “stuff” to “control” the resistant horse, leading to more defensive and dangerous behavior. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Second, many folks tend to compound their own personal and emotional issues/tendencies/insecurities/fears/worries into their interpretation of the horse’s personality traits and behaviors, therefore anthropomorphizing, (according to Wikipedia - the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities), i.e. “He’s so stubborn,” “Oh he is so ornery,” “He’s just having fun.”

This both inaccurate and selfish perspective causes a clouded ability to literally see the thought and emotional behind the physical behaviors in the horse. I always tell folks the least “educated” (traditionally) horse person can often see the most, because they have not been “taught” to ‘not see’ what is really happening.

No, your horse did not decide today was the day he’d wreck your day by choosing to ___________ (not be caught, pull back when tied, fuss when saddled, unable to stand still while you are mounting, bolt on the ride, jig the entire ride, spooky as something he’s seen a million times, not load in the trailer, etc.), rather, today was the day it ALL became too much.

The multiple occasions that he asked for help in the past, that he showed his concern, that he displayed fear and emotional distress, and you either ignored it, didn’t recognize it, or bullied him through it, has now become too much and what appears as an “all of a sudden behavior” is really an accumulation of the sessions/days/years he’s been containing his issues, until he no longer can, and the only thing he can do, is act dramatic and flamboyant enough to no longer be ignored. But to the unknowing human, these events are seen as a one-time, independent occurrence, rather than understanding everything the horse does is related, and nothing is by accident.

And third, neither horses nor humans are “the same” as they “used to be”- mentally, emotionally and physically. The human’s reliance on the horse has devolved from survival/livelihood to pleasure/hobby. Therefore, many people have become removed from horses and ignorant of animal behavior and their own physical energy, mental focus and emotional centeredness in general.

Backyard breeding tactics, lack of quality horse handling, and limited interaction outside of where a horse is stalled/pastured/etc. limits his exposure to the “real world.” The things “we” used to ask of horses can no longer be assumed that they can “handle” the same tasks, without the support of an educated handler.

This means that the illusion bubble of “I can buy it, therefore it’ll do what I want,” often gets burst with dramatic, dangerous events that arise from inexperienced, undereducated horses who’ve lived in a very “small world” and undereducated folks who assume that “it’ll be fine” because _____________ (they were told so by another horse person, their horse’s previous owner said so, a “trainer” told them ‘this is how it is’, etc.)

Present day (quality) “horse trainers” now have clients who don’t have the experience or know-how to recognize what they don’t know or understand. Everything is interwoven in the cause/effect cycle; it isn’t “just” about the behavior of the horse anymore. As a professional, that trainer has to be able to address all things horse related; tack fitting, farrier care, dentistry, chiropractic, veterinarian care, feeding program, AND have the ability to educate/communicate not only with the horse but the human too!

And so folks who’ve “gotten in over their head” often seek help; the problem is anybody can be a horse a trainer. The unknowing client doesn’t realize how much damage or danger they could be putting both themselves and their horse in from trusting the person who seems to act the part of the professional, but in all reality may have limited ability, exposure, understanding, etc.

So for the sake of you, your horse, or your horsey friends, please take a few minutes and consider the three factors I’ve mentioned in this blog. The most dangerous thing people can be when around horses is to be “hopeful.” I always say folks don’t find me until all the mainstream ways of doing things quit working. I wish that weren’t the case, because so many of the “damaged horses” I see really could have had a totally different outcome if there had been a clearer understanding and more respectful handling with people.

Be honest about your own goals, expectations, standards, abilities, and those of your horse. The best aspect with horses is there is never a “limit” as to how much we can accomplish with them if the foundation is based on a solid, respectful partnership.

Someone recently sent me a blurb from an article written on Ray Hunt 23 years ago. I’ll close with his words:

In an interview, Ray was presented with this statement – “You’ve said that people come to your clinics, then go home and sometimes make the horse worse. They hear what you say, but not what you mean."

To which Ray replied - "Correct. When I met Tom Dorrance he told me what to do and I did it, but it didn't work. I can ask 10 people the same question and get 10 wrong answers and they'll say; "Oh I thought you meant this" or "I thought you meant that."

For 10 years I rode a lot of horses people couldn't get along with. My kids could end up riding them and I could ride them, but the horses went back home and in a few days they'd be back. I would tell the people what to do, but it wouldn't work.

So I doubled my price. I didn't get half as many horses. But when people did bring horses, they were pretty sure something REALLY needed to be done. The next time I'd see them, they'd say; "Hey Ray, that works."

I tried to give it away and they wouldn't pay any attention, but when I started charging, they began to listen.

What I'm trying to teach to the human, I'd give my life to share. It's everything to me."" - Ray Hunt.

From an article that appeared in the June 2004 edition of the 'Western Horseman' titled 'Ray Hunt's Mission' by Susan Smith.

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