|Dogs from years past gearing up for a ride out!|
Dogs from years past gearing up for a ride out!
Filling in the Holes in our Horsemanship
I’ve had a new horse come in for training fitting in sessions with him in between this crazy ongoing bizarre "summer" weather. He is a four-year-old that has had a lot of handling, though his owner’s experience is limited, she has gone “slow” with him…
It is my job when a horse first comes in to evaluate “where the horse is at,” mentally, physically, emotionally, and experience-wise. So I thought I’d share with you some of the more common “holes” I tend to find in working with horses of all ages… I believe a majority of the time the holes are present because owners and horses learn to get comfortable with how or what they present in a scenario. The horse learns what is expected of them and then can comply. The problem occurs when the “rules” or expectations change.
One of the most basic and common initial scenarios is a horse that is total “light” on the lead rope when you are walking him in the “normal” position (standing somewhere near his head and drawing him forward with the lead rope.) The problem appears when you attempt to stand ahead, or off to the side and are about a lead rope length away. When attempting to “draw” the horse forward without physically walking off. “All of a sudden” there is a brace (meaning the horse stands rigid and leaning back against the rope). The horse has no concept to “follow the feel” of the pressure the lead is creating, instead, it is a game of “tug of war.” This basic resistance towards pressure affects all “tools” the person from the ground and while riding must-have. Many horses that have issues with “brakes” while ridden are completely resistant to any pressure with the lead rope.
Another leading “issue” is the horse is walking at a reasonable pace next to you, and you ask him to increase or decrease his energy in time with you increasing or decreasing your physical movement and using the lead rope to encourage him to walk faster or slower. Perhaps as you walk faster, the horse just stretches his nose and neck as far forward as he can and gets “heavy” leaning on the lead rope because he has made no change in his walk speed; or as you slow down, he plows on past you because he has “only one walk speed.” Again, while sitting in the saddle I ask my horses to have ten different energy levels within each gait, so why not establish that standard from the ground first.
In their attempt to desensitize their horse many people have offered to “touch” their horses all over their bodies, etc. to get them used to stuff rubbing on them such as a saddle pad. The problem arises when “movement” occurs, rather than when the human “quietly” presents something to a horse.
In the case of the saddle pad, many people walk up as close to the horse as possible, take their pad, and gently place it on the horse’s back. No problem, the horse stands quietly. But when someone approaches and from about a foot away “swings” the saddle pad up towards the horse’s back, a lot of times the horse may elevate his posture or even jump forward, sideways, or brace up with anxiety.
Why is he okay one way and not the other? Is it about the pad? No. It is about pressure and how the horse feels about unexpected movement. You can translate this into future events, such as when you are in the middle of mounting (and if you are wearing something different, such as a raincoat) and suddenly when mounting you create unintentional “excess” movement. Or think of if you were riding through the woods and having an unexpected movement such as a branch swing against/towards/away from the rider or horse's body can trigger a flight reaction in the horse. Or if the rider leans over to pass something to someone standing on the ground or another horse, the movement from the horse's blind spot into view can trigger flee. These are just a few of the many scenarios that can occur. Why not address your horse’s concerns about unexpected movement beyond his vision while your feet are still firmly planted on the ground? Rather than desensitizing a horse to an object or creating a conditioned response, learn how to teach the horse to look at, think through, and check-in with you, when he is unsure.
Speaking of saddling many people initially try to “sneak” the saddle on the first few times without enough preparation to physical pressure before strapping the saddle to him, and then "leave" the horse to sort out how he feels about it (i.e. fleeing around the pen, bucking for five minutes, etc.) creating an avoidable fear-inducing experience and the potential for long term bother in the horse. I cannot tell you how many "broke" horses are tolerating being saddled, but fearful and stressed the entire time. When given the choice to be saddled loose, they will run as far away as possible. This is a clear indicator of how they feel towards saddling. And if they are that concerned with the saddle, how do you think about you mounting up?
For me, I’d rather initially have “tools” or options established in how I communicate with the horse, that way when he shows concern, insecurity, fear, etc. as I expand his experiences in the world, I have a “safe” and previously established common language to help support and influence his brain and emotions as he sorts out and learns how to accept the saddle, and still be able to let go of potential emotional stress…
The amazing thing with horses, is they are such a clear reflection of oneself… And they are honest about when they “get it”. If they make an emotional/mental change in how they feel about something, it sticks. So when I hear people tell me, “Every time I present __________, it just feels like we are starting over each time.” That translates to me that the horse may be “tolerating” the stressful scenario, such as passing/walking on the ________(tarp, water, loading into the trailer, etc.) but he has never changed how he FELT about doing such activity, therefore every time the scenario is presented, it is still an “issue.” Change how he feels about the issue, and the task at hand will be “easy” for the horse to accomplish with quality and confidence.
Another common mentality in working with young horses is the “no distractions” theory. Meaning that while working with a young horse often people want to be “away” from any activity, possible distractions, etc. To me, this is just “sneaking” by asking the horse to mentally be with you. I often joke young horses have ADD and their ability to focus is for very short periods as they can often and easily be distracted by anything. I once had an OTTB that would get distracted by small 2-4 seater planes flying overhead (you couldn’t even hear them.)
Honestly, that ADD is a survival tool for the horse, it isn't to irritate the rider. The horse is feeling the need to be aware or perhaps hyper-alert for the sole sake of self-preservation. But humans don't tend to interpret behavior that way. (This came up at a recent clinic and someone post clinic shared an article that extensively considered the ADD factor- you can read it here-http://bit.ly/32Rfps3 )
BUT if you’ve ever had the opportunity to watch a young horse in the herd, as much as he may “mess around” and cause havoc, when the leader of the herd communicates with that young horse, he is at total attention because that leader offers support, guidance, and safety.
So in my mind, the same standard should apply when I’m working with a youngster. When he is with me, my interaction and conversation need to support him to mentally commit to addressing me, and then physically respond.
I find it is easier to set the quality of the conversation from the start, rather than to wait and see what the horse decides to do, and then attempt to ask for just “some of his focus”. If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “Let’s see how he does,” this usually comes from the horse’s brain not addressing what is being presented and the rider just “sneaking” through the scenario without effective tools in communication to influence the horse's thought or behavior. It is safer and easier, to establish from the ground the standard and clear communication before you get in the saddle.
Speaking of the “real world,” I find many times horses learn the “pattern” of focusing while in a training scenario, such as being worked in the round pen, but in the time of being handled between the pasture and the pen, all “quality” in regards to respect, communication, etc. towards the human disappears… It is the human’s responsibility to mentally participate if they expect their horse to participate.
All too often the human is distracted, and during the catching, leading, (grooming, tacking, etc.) are brainless and do not ask their horse to participate (so you see behaviors in the horse such as hard to catch, the horse “leading” the human, fussiness/fidgeting while being groomed tacked, etc.) As the person and horse enter the “magic gates” of the arena or round pen, the human “suddenly” expects their horse to be attentive, focused, participative, and up to par. As with most things in life, but certainly with horses, the phrase, “Expect the unexpected,” is all too true. So why would someone “only” have a standard for what they would like of their horse in one scenario but not another? You never know what unforeseen scenario may arise as you are working with your horse, why not always have the same standard for his brain and body when you are around him?
“Whew… the session is over!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed a “great” training session, and as soon as the “magic gate” swings open, the human and the horse’s brain is gone. I’ve heard about so many accidents that have occurred when least expected after a ride that had gone “so well…” At all times, whether from the ground or the saddle, humans, and horses need to participate and remain present. People are quick to blame their horses for the inattentiveness, but as an instructor, I find the horses focus way easier than most people do. It is the person’s job to constantly assess what/how/why they are communicating with their horse before they critique the horse; in 90% of the scenarios I see, once the person makes a change within themselves, you can see the immediate change in the horse.
Routines, or what I call “patterned” behavior… As people, in general, become more open-minded to working with their horses from the ground first to assess where their horse is “at” mentally, emotionally, and physically, before climbing into the saddle, they need to “keep it fresh” in what and how they ask something of their horse. (As a side note I’d like to mention in my definition, working from the ground can occur during something as simple as leading your horse from the pasture to the grooming area, it doesn’t have to involve a “40-minute session in the round pen.”)
Sometimes depending on the facility, the person’s schedule, etc., people get into the habit of always presenting the same thing in the same place at the same time. Same time of day rides, the same area to groom and tack, same spot you mount your horse, same direction you start off riding in the arena, etc. these all create “patterned behavior.”
When a pattern has been established, the horse appears to “be listening” and “respectful.” The problem is, as mentioned at the beginning of this blog, horses easily learn routines or patterns, and therefore can often “offer” something before the person has asked. Often people will say, “Look how good he is by doing that, and I didn’t even ask.” Well, it might seem like “good behavior,” but the problem is if a horse learns to “take over” and make decisions before asked by the person handling/riding him, what happens in an unforeseen scenario? The most natural defense a horse has is to run. So if the horse has learned to “take over”, and something that bothers, scares, etc. him, will he really stop and ask his rider, “How would you like me to respond?” or will he most likely make the decision on his own in how he reacts with a “Flee the scene,” mentality? Again, the standards you establish during the calm, quiet moments solidify the quality of the relationship (which will affect both you and your horse’s safety) during the “eventful” moments. The time to “fix” or set a standard in your relationship is not in the moment of panic or emergency.
There are many other “holes”, but the above are the most “common” ones I initially come across. So the next time you head out to work with your horse, take a few minutes to assess your standards, communication, possible routines, or other “he just always does” scenarios to clarify just how quality is the foundation of you and your horse’s relationship.
I frequently have people jokingly tell me what I teach in the sessions with their horse, my philosophies and approaches, could be used in other aspects of their life.
|Watch the video HERE|
One of the challenges in offering instruction is to communicate clearly with students AND horses. As I overhear, read or watch many “horse training” sessions/clinics I find that there’s a general lack of “connection” in the student’s ability to understand how the “here and now,” especially in how the quality of their ground work relates to their future ride.
Often new students are able to “talk the lingo,” sounding like they’ve seen a lot, and attempt to go through the steps or concepts they've been taught, but are still experiencing problems with their horse.
After watching other riders or professionals, too many students want to imitate “how it’s supposed to look,” or a specific exercise, task, etc. with no concept as to what the point is of what they are asking their horse to do.