All the right ingredients...

Temps quickly dropped in the Pacific Northwest and summer is over... still enjoying the slightly warmer days now that the smoke has mostly cleared out from a night of rain.

The pictures below summarize some of what I do by NOT following trends, disciplines or otherwise... sidepull, ranch roping saddle, helmet, English saddle on ponied horse, Dressage arena, woods?!?

They are horses first, then focus on a specific discipline. Clear communication first, then refine the specific task asked of the horse.
Someone yesterday asked me to Define what exactly it is that makes it different in what I do compared to everybody else.

I explained it this way:
I'm looking to create mentally available horses, so that they participate in a physically soft and willing manner in all that we may ask of them.
Many horses are taught to go through the motions, are taught conditioned responses through endless repetition, but there is a lack of mental presence or willingness. Whether it is a pleasure horse or competitive horse, if the animal is always mentally checked out, how soft will he be towards your aids, how willing will he be to do things that are asked of him, and how quickly will he constantly be looking for an "escape" option if mentally he wants nothing to do with the human?
It is an ongoing journey to work towards refining ourselves and creating a partnership with the horse.

An analogy I like to use:
Let's say you were going to bake a cake. If you did not have all the correct ingredients and the proper measurements of those ingredients, no matter how many times you put the cake mixture in the oven, it would never baked as it should.

The end product would never come out as you wanted. And if the only thing you did was keep adjusting the temperature at which you were baking a cake, you would keep getting different unwanted outcomes.

But what if instead you went back and checked your ingredients list and realized you had missed something.
Even something that seemed minor such as baking powder, and yet had such a massive effect on the rise of the cake, the texture of the cake, you'd realize how such a small amount of said ingredient would have such a big influence on the final outcome of the cake.

The same goes for our partnership with our horses.

So perhaps the next time you head out to see your horse you might review if you have all the necessary ingredients to create that ideal ride.

Pressure and release… The missing language of a quality partnership

A majority of unwanted horse behavior stems from the animal responding with defensiveness towards any form of pressure.  Spatial and physical are the most common types of pressure people use to communicate with horses. If there is a physical resistance and mental distrust towards pressure, this can lead to a wary partnership between horse and human.

The horse presenting himself to be haltered, working at liberty, walking past a scary location or object are all forms of spatial pressure. Tasks such as standing tied, tacking up, being mounted, and rein/seat/leg aids are all examples of physical pressure.

An overlooked factor in creating a quality partnership is the rider recognizing the horse’s efforts by offering a release. Think of the release as an acknowledgement or “thank you” towards the horse for his effort. It is the only encouragement the rider can offer to horse to inspire him to keep trying.

The timing of the release is crucial and can be offered in a multitude of ways. It can be physical, such as decreasing the use of an aid or slowing the pace; a spatial release could be encouraging a horse to “think through” a scenario. A rider lacking sensitivity and awareness, unintentionally creates constant pressure towards their horse.

Mistrust can begin when the horse complies with the initial pressure, and a rider continues to “take” or demand more of the horse.  Eventually the constant pressure with no release is too much for the horse, who begins displaying resistant (fussy, busy, defensive) behavior.  If the horse’s movement still appears “manageable,” his concerns tend to be ignored, or worse, the rider’s response is to create MORE pressure in an attempt to “make him” do something or to contain his resistance. 

What does this vicious cycle teach the horse? That every time he displays he has a problem, he is going to have more pressure applied to him. Eventually the horse has had “enough” and uses his size and muscle to get bigger, stronger or perhaps more intimidating. The obvious unwanted physical behavior is often the symptom, rather than the root cause. 

A common practice is to mask the unwanted behavior, with quick and easy “fixes” such as using more severe tack. Adding equipment, working the horse harder and longer, all forms of pressure, lead to increased resistance from the horse.

Instead it should feel like a respectful conversation between the rider and their horse, not a screaming match.  The rider should ask something of the horse with minimal energy and effort, through clear and specific communication.  The horse can and should respond in a polite and willing manner. 

The reality is that many riders feel like they are begging for the horse to acknowledge them. Other folks’ approach is to “make” the horse do something through physical dominance; this fuels the horse’s defensiveness. Then there are riders who learn to work “around” the horse, limiting what they ask of them to avoid potential resistance or conflict.

None of these methods contribute to the horse or rider’s confidence, trust, respect or partnership.  So how do we fix it?  With young or inexperienced horses, my philosophy is it is easier to prevent something from happening, than trying to fix it after-the-fact.

Horses are born sensitive, alert, aware and curious.  But often by the time you see a horse that has been ridden for a few years they have “lost” a lot of those traits. So what happened? Through no ill will or bad intention, rather a lack of quality equine education, many folks have handled their horses in a manner that has unintentionally taught the horse to ignore them, to be fearful of the human, and to feel defensive towards people in general.

How does this happen? Contributors that tend to quickly create mistrust, misunderstanding and concern for the horse can include but are not limited to:
Professionals who prioritize quantity of task-accomplishment with the horse, rather than quality and confidence-building training practices.
 Trainers who feel time/financial/ego pressure to produce results and rush colts or inexperienced horses too fast or hard in their initial education, creating a fear of the unknown.
 Trainers sending inexperienced horses home to inexperienced riders who “don’t know what they don’t know,” therefore the rider asks things of the horse that are overwhelming or over-face the horse.
 A rider’s general lack of correct usage of aids, creating a constant heaviness (all pressure and no release) combined with continual mixed signals and passive communication.

A lack of physical release from the rider contributes to a mental disengagement from the horse. This is what I consider as overly desensitized horses or mentally “shut down.”  They aren’t interested in participating, and they are only tolerating the human, leading to continual resistance towards the rider.

So what if you aren’t working a young horse, but an older experienced one, can he “come back” from the mental stress and physical pressures created by people? Absolutely. It does not take long for the horse to recognize the immediate difference in a “conversation” focusing on refining his interpretation of pressure and release, defining clear boundaries and standards as to what behaviors will work and those that don’t. The more the horse realizes his efforts lead to a release, the more curious he becomes about what is being presented.

Horses can be incredibly forgiving animals, and can quickly adapt to positive, clear and specific communication. Re-sensitizing the horse to being soft on the lead rope, leads to a softer response to the rein.  Following-the-feel and softening to pressure, should feel like the horse is “melting” towards wherever you first direct his thought, then his body, whether you’re on the ground or in the saddle. The horse should feel like putty, waiting for you to mold him however you’d like. Being a herd animal, he can be very willing to comply and adapt, if the rider is willing to educate themselves and learn how to support the horse through scenarios, rather than solely critique his efforts. 

Could you and your benefit from a Remote Coaching Session with Sam? Find out more HERE