Behind the scenes… A trainer’s perspective on what is really entailed when a horse arrives for training.
When I get a call from an owner about a potential horse to participate in training, a lot runs through my mind during the conversation. First I always try to really listen to what the owner is (or in many cases isn’t) saying. Often by the time people find me, if my website hasn’t scared them off, they’ve usually been to several mainstream trainers and have experienced a bit of “what they don’t want,” and now are realizing they have to become more picky about what they do want.
Sadly (for the horse’s sake,) anyone can (and will) hang a sign out that says they are a horse trainer. The horses are the ones who wind up “paying” the real price in the long run. Often there is a set program or training style that is rigid and unforgiving to the horse that doesn’t comply. The consequences and outcome for those horses tend to be fearful, insecure, and a reinforced distrust towards humans.
At that point, the owner realizes the horse they sent to the “professional” has now come home with more issues than when they originally sent them. And that is where people like me come into the picture.
Even the term “horse trainer” makes me feel a bit uncomfortable and isn’t appropriate, though I still use it to help communicate what I do. I think “horse helper,” might be a bit more accurate.
But back to the typical phone conversations of potential clients. I am a realist, which often leads me to see a less than “pretty” picture when I start hearing the details of what someone tells me… Let me explain.
Common Conversations/My Interpretation:
Owner comment (OC): “I’m not completely comfortable riding him. He’s never done anything wrong so far, and he’d never buck or do anything bad, but he doesn’t seem relaxed.”
Interpretation: He is a ticking bomb that is tolerating whatever has been asked of him and it is not a matter of “if” but rather when, he is going to explode if someone doesn’t help him.
OC: “He was really easy to catch and start riding in the beginning of last season, but this year I’m having a much more difficult time with him.”
Interpretation: Whatever you “did” with the horse last year did not make him feel confident, this year therefor he is attempting to prevent that discomfort through being difficult to “catch” or resistant when you work with him.
OC: “He’s very sweet and loves me, he is always rubbing on me, but he can get a bit strong when I ride.”
Interpretation: Starting from the ground the horse is defining who is in charge (him) through physically dominating your personal space by rubbing on you, which then continues with his taking over when you’re in the saddle, hence you feeling him heavy on the bit. His “leaning on the bit” also means no concept of softening to pressure, and my guess is starting when you lead him with a lead rope he is heavy, disrespectful and pushy because he’s never been told otherwise.
OC: “He’s a bit fussy about saddling and mounting but after that he’s fine.”
Interpretation: Anticipation. Defensiveness. Usually, unless there are pain issues- which often there are- saddling and mounting “issues” are the symptom, not the issue. The horse is worried about the upcoming experience and so his mental and emotional concern is reflected through his excessive movement. Put it into people terms, if you’re worried and stress do you sit still relaxed or act physically agitated? Same for the horse. When he is warm and fuzzy on the inside, he’ll stand quiet and relaxed.
So you get the idea. But I also know that most owners have limited experience and exposure whether with horses in general or their own animals. So it is my job to have some honest conversations with the horse.
But in order to hear what the horse is offering, I too must be “clear” and available to honestly see what is going on. Just as I teach my students, if you’re not a 110% present for your horse, you’re going to miss a lot and the horse will recognize your distraction within minutes of interacting with him.
From the horse’s perspective
Not to anthropomorphize what a horse is experiencing, but my interpretation is that they live in the black and white. “I’m okay.” “I’m not okay.”
Humans live in the gray area. They can’t make up their mind about ANYTHING, nor are they often in tune and/or confident enough to give an honest opinion about something.
So when working with a prey animal who is instinctively searching for a leader or will evolve to become the leader of his herd if there isn’t one established, you add an inexperienced/unconfident/unaware human to the “herd,” it isn’t long before that horse takes over. Not motivated through dominance, but rather by survival instincts.
The longer the relationship continues with the horse “taking” the human, rather than vice versa, the more uncomfortable the human will become as they ask more of their horse. Eventually there will come a point where the person gets scared. Then they finally ask for help.
Now being the leader to your horse has NOTHING to do with dominating or physically constraining the horse, though often that is how people interpret being a leader to a 1,000lb animal.
In fact just as with other people, it all comes down to how we communicate with one another. If someone were to just keep screaming at another person all the time, eventually their loudness gets “tuned out.” The same goes with the horses. People are overactive, “busy,” distracted, rough, and clumsy, etc. and eventually the horse just learns to tune them out.
Fork in the road
But what if we came back to the standard that if a horse can feel a fly land on him and twitch in response, how lightly, softly and clearly can we HUMANS communicate with the horse?
And this is where owners arrive at the fork in the road.
Initially it may have appeared that “it” was about bringing your horse for training. And yes often horses need more than the amateur rider can offer education wise to their horse. Even more important than that, it really is about PEOPLE “training,” and I don’t mean the traditional biomechanical lessons or the “do’s and don’ts” of horse management.
What I’m referring to, and I wrote more about this in another blog, The Mirror. People often have to set aside their own emotions towards their horse, and get honest with themselves in order to get quality, long lasting changes in their relationship with their horse.
I know, I know, there are plenty of folks who just want to hop on, get “away” from life, enjoy their horse and go home. Which is fine. IF you have a confident, experienced and happy enough horse.
IF you don’t have that kind of horse, you find out rather quickly that the “ride” isn’t JUST about you, but rather you and your horse. And if you don’t start working with your horse and address HIS needs, you’re going to get into trouble pretty fast. But again, most folks don’t believe it’ll go wrong as fast, as big or as dramatic as it does, until the day it actually happens.
“All of a sudden,” is not really a statement I agree with. My thoughts are that the root cause of the “all of a sudden” moment may have started six months, six weeks or six minutes ago. And if the person did nothing to address the initial signs of a problem, the problem will just increase until an unwanted outcome occurs.
I don’t write this to sound negative or to scare you. I write this based on personal experience of working with hundreds of horses over the last twenty plus years. I write this out of a moral obligation that SOMEONE needs to educate horse folks because so many dramatic events for humans and horses, miscommunication, and emotional stress could/can be prevented.
Arriving for training
Horses that arrive for training are offered a clean slate. I don’t care how experienced or proven the horse is (or whatever term you’d like to use,) at this point I no longer am surprised by how many accomplished horses have major holes in their education, understanding and communication. The same goes for the younger, less experienced horses too.
The first few sessions
If you’ve ever had the urge to vent about all of your stresses, worries, etc. that basically is what happens when the horses first arrive. In a safe setting in the round pen, no whips, no gadgets, or preconceived plan, I offer the horse the opportunity to vent.
When turned loose (and I just am standing or sitting in the middle of the round pen) this typically includes some, if not all, of the following behaviors:
Fear (fleeing/racing around the rail)
Trying to escape (moving with his head on the outside of the pen while his body is in it)
Avoidance (find stuff- grass, manure, the gate to be act overly interested in in order to avoid me)
Pushiness (obnoxiously pushing into my personal space and then leaving when I have nothing, such as treat, for him)
Frustration (head tossing, changing of directions a lot of times, kicking out, snorting, bucking, abrupt movements)
Insecurity (calling to the other horses in the pasture)
Stress (general busi-ness, unable to stand still, inconsistent, agitated movement, passing manure multiple times in a short period of time)
Once they let that out of their system, we can begin the journey of them learning how to become mentally available. This is done through liberty work, and is basically an opportunity where the horse is encouraged to have an opinion, but must learn how to try, “let go” of what he thought might happen, learn how to search and ultimately regain his sense of curiosity that he was born with that all too often humans have drained out of him.
The horse’s journey
Each session I view as a stone added to that path that eventually lays the foundation for a quality partnership between horse and human. As I earn his respect and trust, I am able to offer more specifics and a higher standard in which I ask him to participate at. The more the horse learns that he can “tell me” his worry, concerns, fears and I help him sort through each of these, he then can let them go of them, and become mentally clear and open minded to try operating in a different, calmer, and more confident manner.
The more he learns his efforts are recognized, the more he wants to offer and try. The more he participates respectfully, the more confidence he gains that he can “get it right.”
So I use this foundation to initially undo whatever he has been taught, and then as I say “re-start/re-educate” the horse whether it be to basic concepts of pressure, to desensitizing or re-sensitizing, to leading, tying, standing, being groomed/tacked/mounted, all the while the horse must be mentally participating the entire time. Which is a lot to ask of them.
He needs to learn that anything I’d ask for while in the saddle, I should be able to ask for first from the ground. He needs to learn that if I ask him to let go of something he is trying, to not be defensive, or mentally check out, just because I didn’t want what he was doing.
A whole new meaning to “slowing down”
I do admit I have the luxury of not operating by the clock. Working with horses I have no limit as to having to rush or hurry in our session.
This allows anything to happen in the session because there is no sense of “we must accomplish ______________” during our time together.
By slowing down now and allowing the horse to sort out his concerns, fears, insecurities with what I present, often involving him going through an emotional rollercoaster and more venting, we in the long run will accomplish much more with QUALITY rather than more tolerance from the horse.
I’m not trying to teach or expose the horse to everything he might encounter in life, but rather give him the solid foundation to be confident, mentally available towards his rider that if unsure he acts in a reasonable manner (meaning, stop first, ask, then react vs. the natural instinct of flee if unsure, then stop and think.)
Reintroducing the owner
I have a page on my website called “Back to Basics” and sometimes people feel they “must” be beyond that point with all the miles and hours of riding they have done with their horse. But this brings me back to the concept of Quality vs. Quantity.
Without quality in all that you offer your horse, you’re actually unintentionally “training” all the stuff you don’t want into your horse.
Without respecting and believing what your horse is trying to tell you, (even if you think it is unnecessary,) he can only resort to getting more busy, dramatic and sometimes eventually dangerous in his behavior, until you truly believe he is having a problem.
All too often misinformation shared by good intentioned horse folks teach other lessor “experienced” people to have mentalities such as: certain behaviors “aren’t a big deal” (when they are,) that “pushing” the horse through something is okay (you’re only setting him up for a worse outcome the next time you present something,) fussiness is “normal” (it isn’t,) overreacting by the horse will naturally decrease with time (it won’t,) etc.
So, at some point the owner must learn too how to interact with their horse in this “alternative” manner. They must learn how to read the horse’s behavior, how to communicate effectively, how to make real-time decisions, and more importantly, how to put their horse’s needs before their own “wants.”
Once offered the raised level of awareness, a clear understanding of what the horse is offering and tools to communicate clearly, the owner then feels empowered that THEY can help be the fair, honest and supportive leader their horse needs.
My goal is that the owner doesn’t need a trainer for long term success. Yes, continuing lessons to add new thoughts and ideas will help them along their journey, but I want to create independent, thinking owners and mentally available horses that can have their own conversation without needing my direction every step of the way.
In the long term
This approach to horsemanship is a very different perspective and mentality and requires a lot more effort from both human and horse. Most things in life you can bluff through, with the horses, you can’t. And that is why I love what I do for a living. The honesty in our horses is rare to find in humans. Which means by the time your horse is feeling good about life, you know you can believe him. There is nothing comparable to the “high” of that ride where you feel as if you and your horse are operating as “one.” That kind of partnership makes it all worth it; whether you’re a pleasure trail rider or international competitor, it all comes down to the foundation the partnership is based on.
Please enjoy the latest edition of the newsletter!
It had been a long time since I’ve galloped. Literally.
So very often I have people tell me their horse “loves” to gallop, and as I watch the horse move at a faster pace, I often see fear in the horse’s eye and body. In my personal experience more often than not, the horse displaying what is typically interpreted by the human as having the “desire” to run, really is a horse trying to flee the scene.
For me, the more I learned about all the “stuff” I’d missed in regards to my horse’s brain and emotions, the more I realized I had no right galloping for many, many reasons. My priorities have since shifted to the concept that not until the horse is mentally, emotionally and physically with me, do I ask for faster speeds.
Looking back I now would classify most of my galloping experiences as A.) A challenge of my ego vs. doing what was best for my horse, B.) A frightful experience for the horse, and C.) Something I’m surprised I’ve “survived” with as little crash-and-burns as I had for how sort-of out of control I was.
Now you may be imagining me as having been on one “of those” scary riders on “crazy” or “difficult” horses, but I was not. I actually blended in quite well with the rest of the riders. Same strong horse, same strong bits to stop, spurs to go, and devices to help keep the head down, and a hopeful mentality every time I swung a leg over the saddle. No one thought it was odd to exchange equine related ER stories over dinner, to have dramatic rides or heart stopping experiences. We thought that “that” was what it took to prove that you were up to the task. Accomplishing the end goal whether within a certain time frame, over specific obstacles, or just surviving better and faster than anyone else had, was our sole focus.
An ex Chef’d Equipe to the USA Eventing team once told me in a lesson to keep a riding journal. It was some of the best advice I ever received. But it wasn’t until years after most of my entries had been made that I then realized the power of what I’d written at the time. When I read it in present day, it seems as if someone else wrote the journal, as if I can’t even remember how “I” used to be in my approach towards horses.
I have always naturally been analytical, and I believe part of what interested me in teaching others was my “problem solving” mentality. But when I review the old journal entries I realize, as literal as I was in taking the instruction back then, and how much of it (classical) was addressing major and valid points in my riding and my horses, every single instructor no matter their background or discipline had “missed” presenting the pieces that would allow me to mentally connect the whole picture of the whats, hows and whys I was supposed to be do something.
It was like lessons would focus on what seemed (from my student perspective) as to be some random problem, rather than addressing (what I didn’t realize was causing the problems,) which in my (and many other riders) was a weak foundation causing the unwanted results. We kept trying to band aid symptoms, rather than do surgery and fix the foundation.
Most of the instruction was often focused on both what my horse and I were NOT supposed to be doing, rather than creating a clear concept in my mind as to what we were supposed to be accomplishing. No one mentioned that when the little pieces were connected it would create the ideal “ride” we were striving for.
I was basically learning how to ride defensively and in a critical manner towards the horse; critiquing each wrong move, rather than communicating to the horse what I wanted from the start. It was sort of like a game of chess. I’d wait for his move, he’d wait for mine. Then it was a mental challenge to see who’d “win” the round. It was exhausting. To work so hard to get “it” right and feel like I was still grasping at air and even with the compliments never really feeling my horse recognize any relief from my constant demands.
There was a time when I rode race horses from 6am-10am, then headed to ride for a Dressage international USA representative and judge for three hours, then early afternoons were spent at an internationally competitive jumper facility and finally evenings with my own horses. I was riding a LOT of horses. Ranging from mediocre racing lines to hundreds of thousands dollar “super-star” steeds.
And I approached each place as if it were a completely “separate” world from the previous one. Why? Because that’s what I’d been taught. “These” are ______________ (discipline) and this is how we _____________ ride these _______________(breed) kind of horses. And I believed what I was told.
Never, ever, ever, EVER did I consider the horse was still a horse, no matter the breed, background, discipline or experience level. I was taught to consider lots of things ABOUT the horse, such as if the swelling I felt in the leg was new or a result of an old injury. I considered the level of “excitement” the horse would have if he was turned out too long or not lunged enough. I was taught a lap of walking around the barn as equivalent to a “hack” or let down time for the horse. I was told trotting on the side of a narrow European back country road in the pouring rain with cars flying past as “quality training” to teach the horse to be reasonable.
But I didn’t give a second thought towards the fidgeting, fussy horses. Or ones that had vices, didn’t like to be groomed or tacked, and were a bit “hot” to start or ones that I had to do things a certain way in order to get the horse to comply. I didn’t realize that a horse could be respectful when led out of the stall or gate, could stand while being mounted or that his pinning of his ears when I applied leg pressure was not a fluke. I didn’t worry if he swished his tail, or couldn’t halt in the middle of a “work” session. I laughed at the horse and all the things he was scared of and “forced” him through those scenarios. The ones that were difficult I was taught you just had to sedate to shoe or load into the trailer, and these were just normal occurrences. “That” was just how it was, and I had lots of other things to hurry up and do.
Now you might be thinking, sheesh, maybe I just wasn’t “getting it,” and that it had nothing to do with the quality of the instruction. Over the years my learning experience has ranged from Pony Club volunteers to Gold Medalist Olympians to the dying breed of what I call “real world horsemen.” It is very, very, very rare to have someone who can communicate in a way that makes sense to “everyone,” and who can offer both the detail oriented instruction and still offer the big-picture perspective all the while prioritizing the horse’s needs first.
Way back then I could rattle off all of theoretical cliché dos and don’ts of “classical” riding. But I had no feel. I had no timing. I had no rhythm. I had no finesse. I had no awareness toward’s my horse’s brain, emotions and body. I had no sensitivity in how I used my energy. I had no concept of pressure, whether it was physical or spatial.
And yet I was still going through the motions of appearing to have somewhat successful rides on a multitude of horses.
As most people would agree, the horse is usually the best teacher of all. The problem is most people (not purposely- such was the case for me) are completely unavailable to honestly hear and/or consider the horse. I know that may sound funny, but it is true.
Give the person the option of A.) Sneaking past the “scary” object and continuing on as if it didn’t exist, or B.) Stopping and addressing what was bothering the horse and nine out of 10 folks would (and do) pick option A.
Are they trying to avoid a conflict? A blow up? A potentially dangerous ride? Yes. And smart of them to think that. But I mostly believe they choose option A. because they don’t have enough effective “tools to communicate”, they don’t have enough tools to give them options in how they communicate, and they don’t connect the dots that if something is bothering the horse now, that he will not just “let it go” and move on, but rather he will continue to carry that emotion and stress and it will increase as the ride continues if it is not addressed.
So it wasn’t until one day at some low level competition where I was grooming that I started for some reason to look around me. I saw stressed out riders. I saw stressed out horses. I didn’t see anyone smiling. Even the rare pat offered to a horse for a good performance was perfunctory rather than heartfelt. I saw injured horses being asked to do things too soon in their healing process. I saw horses still willing to try, even with injury or fear or both. I saw how much “masking” was going on, all for the sake of the “end result.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I think competition can be awesome. But what I was finding was that more often than not, the end goal became such a focus point that the quality of the journey to get there was lost. Perspective was nonexistent. Why was I having to hand walk a soaking wet (with sweat) horse at 8pm on a cold winter night after a top level rider/instructor decided the horse wasn’t “getting it” and rode the horse for three, yes THREE, hours for the horse to “better understand.” Hmmm. You may say, “oh bad trainer.” Well this same person is currently coaching top level competitors worldwide. For me, that was the beginning of the breaking point. Or to prep horses for photographing the “ideal "ride" to go along with the idealistic and inspiring magazine article by another big name trainer, and the next day to have the same horse run into the ground to “teach him a lesson.”
I also started realizing the more “soft” I was getting towards the horses, the more severe the judgment, criticism and harsh instruction was directed towards me. And as with anything, once you start questioning the fundamental “basics” of a specific belief, the rest of the thoughts and things you thought you knew start coming crashing down at a rapid pace.
So long story short, I extracted myself from the horse world as I knew it. I had to reintroduce myself to the horse. The most basic fundamentals of being around an animal, showing it respect, offering my own availability to actually recognize what the animal was trying to communicate. For the first time EVER I had no agenda, other than trying to figure out how to get my fire-breathing-red-head-thoroughbred to keep all four feet on the ground when stressed. And oh how my world changed.
Every time I thought I’d tried, offered and experimented “enough” to get a change in that horse, he’d demand more of me. I think he was my karma horse for all I’d unintentionally “done” to past horses I’d worked with. EVERYTHING was a big deal. He was either 100% okay or 110% not, and there was NO middle ground. You couldn’t manhandle his athleticism, you couldn’t “make” him do anything and I certainly was not someone he trusted. I tried everything I knew, and nothing worked. At all. In fact it just made things worse. So I finally had to ask for help.
I remember laughing when I reminisced about the “old” galloping I used to do at a break neck speed, and here I was just trying to get this darn chestnut to walk a straight line at a reasonable pace without rearing, bucking or _____________.
On one hand I was in awe of him because of his acute awareness, his infallible timing, his athleticism and his persistence at not becoming “submissive” towards me. On the other hand it was overwhelming to feel no progress, and only a worsening in his fear, worry and discontent.
With nothing to lose, I reconnected with an old timer who wasn’t fazed by much. When I unloaded my red steed, the cowboy straightened up by about four inches. His eyes danced with enthusiasm at my “project.” I was open to trying anything, so we started at what should have been the “very” beginning of establishing a connection with the horse in order to create a mental availability.
I was standing in the middle of a round pen while my horse was having a nervous breakdown over something happening a mile away (literally), when that cowboy stood up and asked if he could go in the pen. Ever have that feeling where you can’t wait to “get away” from your own horse? I had it. And then I watched.
It didn’t even take a full two minutes and there was this HUGE but almost unintelligible conversation happening between my horse and the cowboy, courtesy of using the lead rope. He’d wiggled the rope with a finger. He’d shift his hand ever so slightly; he’d pick up the energy in his fingers just a notch. My horse hadn’t moved; no circles, no fleeing, no dramatic behavior other than what at first appeared to be just a few nods of his head. And suddenly, he was blowing his nose. Over and over again, dropped his head and let all tension out of his body, passed manure, sighed, breathed, relaxed his eyes, and cocked a hind foot. The worry peaks over his eye were gone; there was a softness and alertness in his body, rather than defensiveness.
I wanted to scream, “Why hadn’t anyone told me about …. About… THIS?” How had no one ever, EVER offered me the idea that my horse’s emotions could change everything? I mean, we talked about stressed out horses, and how to contain them, sedate them, wear them down, etc. but never had anyone I known even considered that we could influence a mental and emotional CHANGE by doing so LITTLE if we were specific and clear. And then to imagine what we could ask physically of a mentally and emotionally happy horse? Wow.
So that week I had to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew. Years after the fact, I was still having epiphanies about what had happened that day. And from there everything gradually became clear. There was NO option for me to NOT address my horse’s mental and emotional availability in order to accomplish the physical tasks I presented.
Which brings me to my most recent present day galloping. With a refined sense of awareness and understanding of the horse, as I increase my horse’s speed, I want it to be a reflection of his brain. Although the steps may be larger and faster, there still needs to be softness, lightness and balance. If at any moment I drain all my energy, my horse needs to immediately halt balanced on his hindquarters, WITHOUT me pulling on his face. If while cantering I feel him asking to drain into a slower gait, I need him to relax if my aid asks him to go forward, rather than pinning his ears or becoming defensive towards me. The irony is the faster you go with quality, the slower it feels, and the more time it seems you have.
So I spend a lot of time going slow nowadays. Very, very slow. I mean slower than you’ve probably ever imagined asking your horse to go. As in, one-step-at-a-time slow. I always joke it takes me forever to go nowhere.
In the long run, by the time I’m asking a horse to move forward, my goal is that the horse offers to do so with a willingness, confidence and availability, and perhaps that carefree romanticized version we all have in our heads of what galloping across a field felt like as a kid.
And the other day it happened. I hadn’t planned on it, it hadn’t been my goal. But there I was working with a horse that had come a long ways from his shut down, fearful, insecure self that I’d met a while back. As we rolled up into a light canter, there was a moment, almost indescribable, but where you can “hear” the horse reaffirming he is okay. So I asked for a larger stride, and as my seat instinctively lifted out of the saddle and I lowered my upper body, almost floating above the horse, I could feel us shift gears and we were off… He stretched out all 17 hands of himself and all I could feel was the lightness of the gigantic stride below me. Time stops in those moments. Nothing else exists. It is why we all ride. It is the ultimate escape and emotional release for us humans.
As I slowed him back to a lovely trot, I realized my adrenaline had kicked in. When I sat back down in the saddle I instantly felt my fatigued muscles in my lower back and legs reminding of just how long it’d been since my last gallop. So even if for the rest of the day my legs felt like Jello, I was still grinning, and so was the horse. And to me, that is what the gallop is all about.
f you’ve read past blog entries of mine, you’ll see there are certain themes, such as focusing on the horse’s brain and emotions, raising the human’s level of awareness to better understand what the horse is trying to communicate, experimenting with the “concepts” that we often abide by but not always for a clear or appropriate reason, and so forth.
Some times when I make a blog entry it is due to an “ongoing” thought in my head that I let mill about until it starts to become clear and other times it is inspired by a particular experience. In the following entry it is a combination of both! I truly hope this entry can help some folks “connect the dots” as to some of the scenarios they may be or have experienced with their horse, and offer perhaps an alternative perspective in addressing their horse.
When resistant, unwanted, and/or dramatic behavior occurs in the horse the person gets distracted by the big-ness of the horse. In my mind the “big” is an after-the-fact response by the horse. The root of the problem has occurred or began to occur anywhere from minutes to months before the horse finally resorted to undeniably dramatic behavior.
Typically it is not until the horse is flamboyant in his response, that people really believe there is a problem. At the peak moment of the frustrated/fearful/insecure/defensive horse’s behavior the rider/handler will experience the most honest responses from the horse towards the person’s attempt at communication. Basically, if there are any “holes” in the manner, effectiveness and timing of your communication with your horse, it will become abundantly clear at the peak of his stress.
I will attempt to break down how I see the “pieces of the puzzle” that wind up falling into place causing the rider to feel helpless in the moment of the horse’s panic. It took years between my background in classical riding, spending time with true horseman on ranches throughout the west, working with international trainers/clinicians, etc. and then two outright “dangerous” horses (by most people’s accounts) to start to re-interpret and put value to what I was seeing/experiencing. To no longer just go through the “motions” of communicating, but learning how to understand why I was offering certain communication both before and in the “big” moments. I had to learn how my horse “handled” the scenario was influenced by his emotional/mental/physical availability BEFORE the melt down to the moment of explosion, and then to reaching the “calm” on the other side.
Over the years I have had to learn to translate not only words spoken by humans, but also what horses have been attempting to communicate. As with any attempt of translation, there is room for much misinterpretation of what is happening, which can greatly affect the quality of the final outcome after a horse has become dramatic.
In my original “world” of riding terms such as “contact, connection, and engagement” were common terminology. In another avenue of horses words such as “direct and indirect rein, disengaging the hindquarters,” became common lingo. Then there were concepts offered such as, “following a feel, having my horse mimic my energy, influencing a horse’s thought.” It took years to realize that for all the different sounding words, what everybody was telling me was actually the same thing. But, and I’m not 100% sure, I’m not even sure “they” (the teachers) would agree with that assessment. Because for me, it seemed each person was offering one piece of the puzzle that was to become a giant collage of my current horsemanship theories and concepts.
I could write a book with pages and pages of detail and experiences, but I’ll keep this to “blog length” offering the “cliff notes” version of my assessment.
Most people would agree the moment of “explosion” is the not the time to find out if your aids are affective. But often that tends to be the time folks shift from “passenger mode” to “leader mode” when working with their horse. For a horse that has never had its human make decisions “before the fact” rather than always “reacting” after the horse did something, this is a new concept for the horse. For it to be “used” for the first time when the horse is totally stressed and distracted, will probably not have the desired result and would be a bit like adding gasoline to an already burning fire.
So before addressing the moment of panic in the horse, let’s take a few steps back and revisit a few concepts and aids that we use to communicate with the horse.
In regards to a bridle…
Contact, accepting the bit, not ‘leaning’ on the bit, following a feel, softening to pressure…
Each of the above concepts is used throughout various disciplines. You may have heard some of these, others maybe not. To me, they all are attempting to reach the same end goal. A horse respectful of the bit, that maintains a light and willing responsiveness towards the bit.
Now in reality, in any given year of me teaching throughout the United States with students ranging from novice riders to novice horses, to internationally competitive students on top level horses, EVERYONE suffers from the same “issues” with the bridle.
First and foremost many horses are defensive towards the pressure of the bit. (Ruling out physical/pain issues.) Next, very few riders address the horse’s thoughts and emotions when riding, often being distracted by the physical response/lack of and movement of the horse. The “physical” I see in a horse tends to be a reflections of his emotional and mental state.
So if in general, under seemingly “non” stressful times a horse has a tendency to “pull” on the bit, to ignore or push against pressure offered by the bit, to be heavy on the forehand, what happens in the moment of chaos when the rider attempts to use the bit to “control” the horse? The sudden increase of physical pressure of the bit tends to add to the horse’s problem rather than help him through it.
I don’t know how many times have I heard, “I tried to stop him, but he just dragged/bolted/bucked me off, the reins were useless.” As people recount dramatic events, I always feel like I’m playing detective at not only listening to the words they are telling me, but to how they’re saying, and what they are not saying too. These are all indicators as to things that may have happened that the person may not have even realized were going on.
In looking at this concept of a dramatic event occurring and attempting to use the bridle to “control” the horse, people often start at what I’d call point “G” in their story telling (this is how far along things have happened before the person realized how bad something was going to get.) Then the person tends to react at point “R” in the story.
So what was the horse doing between point A and G, how was the rider addressing/or not the behavior, and then I ask the same thing between point G and R? Usually the horse is slowly increasing his physical signs of distress, worry, agitation, fear, insecurity, while the most common response I find from riders is to A) do nothing and wait and see if the horse will calm down on his own, or B) not believe the “snowballing” effect his emotions are going to have on the physical outburst that is about to occur.
By the time the rider tries to pull back, turn, etc. with the rein, which initially had never been established as an effective and quality aid prior to the horse’s stress, now, it seems is a useless tool in the moment of chaos.
So a few questions I’d like you mull over in your head:
Have you ever thought/attempted to direct your horse’s thought, before you asked him to move?
If you pick up your reins while at a halt, what is your horse’s initial response?
How immediate does your horse look, turn or halt if you use just your reins?
Does your horse ever lean on the bit/get “heavy” on your hands as the ride progresses?
Have you had to change to more severe bits over the course of riding your horse?
Can you move your horse’s nostril, head, neck, shoulder, and hindquarters all separately based solely in a difference in how you use your reins? (With no leg pressure.)
Can you use different energy “levels” within your fingertips and get different responses from your horse?
In my mind the bridle, whether with a bit or not, should be used as a fair, respectful tool to communicate with my horse’s brain and body.
In regard to leg pressure.
Yielding to pressure, lateral work, bumping, creating boundaries, energy, etc.
I do not want to feel like I’m “driving” my horse forward with my leg, instead I want to feel that the energy I offer with my seat should be reflective in the energy my horse has in his movement. AFTER that I will use my legs to finesse, fine-tune, and ask for more specific movement.
I find a lot of unintentional “nagging” on the horse’s sides when people use their legs. A majority of riders rely solely on their leg to get their horse to “go” and sit like a passenger sack of potatoes in the saddle.
The leg to me should offer varying degrees of energy, be able to influence the horse’s front end (from the shoulder forward,) ribcage, and hindquarters together and separately. It should be able to create a definitive “boundary” (not one the horse leans on) or it should be able to encourage the horse to yield a specific body part. It should be a supportive aid to what the rider’s seat communicates, and not a random “kicking” aid.
As we all know, the horse can feel a fly land on him. So why when a majority of riders, whether with spurs or not, lay a leg into their horse’s side, does the horse ignore or more often than not, actually “bulge” their ribcage out in resistance to the pressure the rider’s leg has created?
Because it has not been established as an effective aid.
Fast forward to the horse “melting down,” let’s say in a “restrictive” spot (side of the cliff, near a fence/dangerous object) and the rider attempts to “move” the horse away from danger by adding their leg to either “block” or laterally yield the horse? What does the horse do? Push back against the leg and head straight towards the danger.
Let’s say the horse is worried about something ahead of him, and so he responds by slowing down/slamming to a halt. The rider responds by kicking him to get him going forward. Too many times, this extra “pressure” causes the horse to go flying backwards or make a dramatic spin-and-bolt move. Then there is also the “completely” ignoring the leg when the horse halts and seemingly is unwilling to budge no matter how hard the rider kicks.
Here are a few more questions for you to think about:
How often do you use your leg in a ride?
What part of your leg and where on your horse’s body do you use it, and with how much energy?
What is your horse’s response to your leg pressure if he isn’t stressed?
If you ride a circle does your horse always feel like he is leaking and that you have to put continuous leg pressure on him to prevent him from doing so?
Can you move specific body parts of your horse, or does his entire body move at one time no matter where you apply your leg?
How many times do you have to use your leg before your horse responds?
Do you ever feel like your horse will only offer a limited amount of “forward” if you use your leg?
Have you had to increase from no spur/mild to more severe over time?
Does your horse pin his ears as you use your leg or ride at a faster pace?
Does your horse “throw” his __________ (shoulder/hip/ribcage)?
For me, the leg should be a tool that I can soften, yield, stop and create boundaries with. It can create a positive pressure to help support my other aids to communicate with the horse.
Obviously there are many other aids I could address, but for right now, since a majority of people use a bridle and their legs when riding, we’ll stick to these two tools.
Here’s the scenario:
Riding down a wide sand trail (no cliffs, mountains, no traffic, etc.) the horse sees something in the distance and perks her ears.
Sam’s response: Using a rein I ask my horse’s brain to focus on an object (rock, plant, foot print) that is within a foot of my horse’s nose. I want to see her eyeballs look at wherever I’m asking her to look. I assess her gait, and will probably decrease my energy to a “creeping” walk.
Horse’s response: She looks at the object, but immediately goes back to perking ears forward, raising head and mildly tightening her body.
My thought is that she didn’t “let go” of the distraction down the road, so now I’ll ask her to look at an object close to us and move perhaps on a circle. Does the circle “fix” anything? No, but it allows me an opportunity to assess. Does she quicken her pace? If she does and I decrease my energy and she goes to push through/lean on the bit, this tells me her “physical forward movement” is stemming from her pushing through my energy with her hocks. So I need to use an indirect rein to disengage her hindquarters to shift all of her weight from being heavy on the forehand to balance on the hindquarters. Once her body slows for a moment, I have an opportunity to influence her brain.
Now that she is slowing down as she walks on the circle, is she falling in/leaking out with shoulders or hips? If so, this tells me her body is trying to follow towards the direction her brain is thinking about. So with my rein I need to redirect her thought to perhaps a more “opposite direction” until she is mentally closer to where she is physically at. Now that she is looking and thinking about where she is moving, her body starts to relax and she walks a bit straighter.
Now I’m assessing the quality of her steps; she’s a little “locked up” (falling in) with her inside hock- lack of bend in the hock= resistance and heaviness towards to the bit. I might use my lower leg and ask her to spiral out (move laterally onto a larger circle) a few steps on the circle. I create pressure with my lower leg asking her to yield one step at a time, as soon as she gives one step, I decrease pressure of my leg. So she learns if she quickly and softly yields, my leg pressure decreases. I’m looking for several slow, intentional steps, not a “fast” reaction to avoid my leg pressure.
She did yield laterally on my circle, but she rushed and attempted to continue yielding even after I quit asking. This tells me she is anticipative and not thinking through what I’m asking her. The more mentally distracted a horse is, the greater the chance of a bigger “reaction” when surprised. I decrease the forward energy to get better quality in the lateral steps. I establish a bit more dramatic “end” point with my outside lower leg when I quit asking for the lateral movement.
The horse slows her energy, steps laterally, and continues straight on new circle. I halt as the “reward” for her effort and to give her time to mentally process what just happened. I breathe. She breathes. As we’re standing she wants to glance back towards original distraction. I use the rein on opposite side of the distraction and using just my third and fourth finger squeeze like a sponge. As if the pressure of my fingers on the rein is a string to her brain, she draws her attention away from distraction and redirects her thoughts towards where I asked, then she drops her head, sighs, and blows her nose. This tells me she has “let go” of the distraction.
As we continue down the trail, she glances at the distraction, but with softness in her eye, body, breathing and energy, so I allow her to look. I do NOT want to “take“ the horse out of the horse, but I also do NOT want to no longer “exist” if my horse gets distracted by something.
I need my horse to be mentally available to “hear” what I’m offering through my aids, in order to support her through a time of worry, fear, insecurity, etc. The more she realizes I can help her “let go” of what is bothering her, the more she will offer to stop and “hear” my aids, rather than to do what is most natural to horses, which is to flee the scene, then stop and think. Each time we come out “better” after a possible stressful time, the horse gains confidence, which in turn decreases the amount of initial stress the horse experiences every time something new is presented.
Whew. It may seem like a lot of “work” for what appeared as an insignificant “look” by my horse. But after working with enough “dangerous horses”- all results of lack of understanding between human and horse, it is never too early to start helping your horse. I’m not sure why but so often people become very hopeful around their horses rather than proactive. None of the unwanted behavior your horse displays will disappear on its own. If the behavior or resistance seems minor now, and you don’t address it, it will only evolve until you can no longer ignore. Why wait and see?
This blog entry isn’t supposed to be used an instructional “how to fix” manual, but rather to share from my perspective an example of a “journey” with a horse. With a different horse, I might use a different mental/physical task, but the point is the philosophy behind what I’m doing.
Over time it should take “less” from me to get “more” from horse as her confidence increases. Our partnership should be a continually evolving and respectful relationship.
This blog entry isn’t just for trail riders, young horse riders, or folks who have “problem” horses. This is for all horses, all ages, all breeds and all disciplines. So rather than “challenging” your horse to “survive” the next thing that bothers him and physically attempt to “push” him through/past it, perhaps experiment with playing detective in learning how to help your horse through a scenario BEFORE a stressful scenario occurs. It will also shine a light on any “holes” in your communication and give you homework to refine and finesse how, what and when you communicate with your horse.Good luck and have fun,
Posted by SamanthaHarvey
Why do we put so much effort into focusing on teaching the "unnatural" response of stop, ask for direction and then react in the horse? Here is a 10 min Budweiser demo gone wrong- if you watch from 4:30-8:40, it is the ultimate display of trust... would your horse handle this in the same way? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUt1c_2v0fw