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As I meet a new horse, one of the first things on my "checklist of assessment" is if the horse's brain and body are softly influenced and directable forward, left, right and backward.
In my initial presentation, I might hold the lead rope with just my thumb and index finger, gently sending energy from the connection point of the lead and halter, towards the horse's chest.
The ideal response is for the horse to soften his jaw, relax his neck muscles, deflate his chest muscles, bend his hocks to prepare to take a step backward. He will lift his back as he steps back, there will be no leaning or pushing forward in his shoulders, neck, or nose. It will be a slow, intentional, thoughtful movement, with consistent, steady breathing on his end.
More often then not, instead folks are amazed at how many horses go rigid or stock still the minute they are asked even just to mentally consider to take a step back. The horse's head goes straight up in the air, the front legs lock up and seem to be pushing straight up towards the sky with the inability to bend at the knee. The horse hollows its back, standing with his hocks spread wide, braced and seemingly locked.
How do you stop playing/exuberant behaviour from turning into a fight or flight reaction without eradicating the fun aspect?
"It is okay that you aren't the horse trainer, your horse still recognizes your efforts."
I was recently discussing with a long time clinic host the evolving journey of self-growth and awareness folks unintentionally experience as they strive to be better partners for their horses.
So here are a few ideas I hope people can carry with them:
You don't know what you don't know. As you learn more, don't judge your past decisions and interactions with your horse. Simply learn what caused you to make them and how you could make improved decisions in the future.
You aren't a horse trainer, and that is okay. There is a fine line between inspiring folks as to what can be, and not overwhelming them with what currently is. I find the challenge is keeping folks inspired to keep trying to learn how to refine and improve the conversations and support they offer to their horse, without overwhelming them because they will never be as capable as "the trainer."
As long as you are trying, your horse will recognize your efforts. Unfortunately society has created the idea of the "trained" horse. This illusion gets a lot of riders into sticky situations as they constantly rely on the horse to take care of them offering limited support in return. Eventually the horse reaches a point of being unable to handle their job solo and then unwanted behaviors occur as they ask and show they need support from the rider.
I suggest appreciating what the horse is willing to offer in the areas the rider may be unsure, BUT in other aspects when the person has clarity and capability, to offer guidance to the horse.
Instead, I suggest people think of the partnership with their horse as a continually evolving journey. There is no "end point" for anyone involved with the horses; every horse has something to teach everyone who is willing to hear them.
Riders should appreciate wherever they may be currently in their own journey of horsemanship AND still be open for improvement. Because there is no "end point" in how folks raise their awareness, improve their communication and refine their skill set, it can easy to get swept into the vicious cycle of self doubt with a stifling effect on the relationship with their horse.
I'd rather people recognize what they currently CAN do to help their horse, and see self-growth as a positive opportunity and not wallowing in self-critique of what "they aren't good enough" to do.
Every moment is an opportunity to learn with the horse. Unfortunately folks who allow their emotions to filter their interpretation of an experience limit their ability to take the "feedback" from the horse as vital information that can help them make different decisions in how they approach their horsemanship.
Frequently though through good intention, usually in an attempt to show kindness, folks try to pacify, mask and cloak unwanted interactions with the horse. Unfortunately, by not "digging in" to what is contributing to the horse's unwanted behaviors, and instead "going along with the horse" tends to teach the horse to "take over" in situations he is unsure about.
Not many professionals tend to discuss "it" in mainstream lessons, but the mental approach of the rider/handler needs to be addressed. This affects the human's emotional reaction and interpretation of real-time interactions they experience with their horse. Which in turn affects how the quality of their physical communication with the horse.
I know many times in our hectic lives time seems to fly by. We have a variety of things that demand our focus and attention, and sometimes we lose track of when and what things have happened with our horse.
I suggest keeping a horse-related journal. This does not mean writing down everything that has happened during every interaction with your horse.
Over the years as different horse owners have sought my help I have discovered that horses are the best people trainers ever.
On numerous occasions, I have heard things such as:
I have to feed in a certain manner or location or time so that my horse will eat.
I have to catch my horse by doing XY and Z first.
My horse loads into the trailer just fine as long as his body goes in first.
I have to get on at this location in the facility so that my horse doesn't get distracted or call to his pasture mates.
My horse ties just fine as long as he can see me but if he doesn't then he will pull back.
You get the idea.
For many years, folks can learn to work around their horse in order to avoid conflict, feel like they were accomplishing things and having a certain level of success.
But at some point, usually under circumstances out of their control, they could not present things as their horse expected.