With my blog, I have to ability to review visitor “stats” on the I’ve written about. In the last few years I’ve had over 2,000 hits on my “My horse won’t lead,” entry, and the top search words folks have entered on the blog are “horse will not lead, resistant horse, stubborn horse, how to get a horse to move forward.” Visitors have mostly been from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada and the USA.
In the first “half” of my riding career, the horse’s brain, emotions or just plain considering the horse wasn’t ever mentioned. What always amazes me is how much I was STILL able to physically “accomplish” with horses, even if I was completely unaware/ignorant of just how troubled my horse(s) were. I was taught to focus on the “end results” not prioritizing quality relationships with my equine partners. I often wonder how many dangerous scenarios could have been avoided if I’d been taught a different approach; in those days it was almost a bit of a “brag fest” about what you survived.
Fast forward to my current training theories and philosophies and the underlining concept of everything I teach is that the goal be to have a mentally available horse. I sometimes feel a sense of guilt that a problem that so many folks and horses struggle with worldwide, in my mind seems like such an obvious “case” of connecting the dots.
Most horses with human handling experience typically offer what I call a “teenager” mentality in response towards people. They offer a “Why should I?” attitude which to me is a defensive and resistant mind set. But what if instead we were able to influence our horse to start with a “What would you like?” mind set so that as we presented tasks, “jobs,” etc. the horse had an interest in participating, rather than being tolerant and “prodded” through what we asked of them.
If you have a horse that from the moment you attempt to “catch” him (rather than having him come over in a respectful manner and present himself to YOU to be haltered,) shows resistance, such as running away, turning his hindquarters to you, hiding behind other horses/objects in the pasture, turns his head away from you as you attempt to halter, sticks his head straight up in the air if you try to halter, what do you think he will be like when you finally manage to lead him? Basically you’ll feel that you are “towing” 1,000lbs of horse flesh. Have you ever had a horse that either “drags” on the lead rope, rushes past you out the gate, hovers/crowds your personal space, follows you “fine” as long as you don’t ask him to speed up/slow down his energy or stop when he doesn’t expect it, etc…
So if you start with a horse that is resistant to being caught, resistant to being led/takes over when led, has no concept of following the pressure of the lead rope and respect towards your personal space, is this horse going to be the one who “stands quietly” while tied, groomed, tacked and mounted? No. And often people will tell me the horse has “bridling issues, saddling issues, problems when they attempt to mount, etc.” and in my mind – if any pain issues have been ruled out- the best defensive is a good offense.
If everything you’re doing is making the horse uncomfortable, and his behavior shows signs from the start that he is having a problem, unsure, lacking confidence and mentally unavailable, if you keep asking ‘more’ of him, what do you think he will do? You are forcing him to act more resistant and increasingly dramatic in his response towards every time you ask something else of him. You are setting him up to fail.
If you still continue to ignore his pleas for help (yes, that really is what his actions are saying) and attempt to have a “relaxing trail ride,” or successful “schooling session” and you’re starting with a horse that is in “survival mode” because he is defensive about how uncomfortable you may (unintentionally) make him by what you might ask next, what sort of response do you think you will get if you keep asking more and more and more until one day the horse can no longer reasonably “handle” what you’re presenting?
There are only so many ways a horse can ask for help. Often “shut down” horses give the illusion that they are “fine” because they are physically dull and slow and classified as “stubborn.” Other horses that wear their emotions on their sleeve and leave no question as to when they are having a problem are categorized as “crazy” or “bad” because they don’t “comply” with someone’s training style that are unable/unwilling to attempt to learn how to work with the horse.
Bear with me for a moment while I use the analogy of a wildfire. Let’s say there is a severe drought. There hasn’t been rain for a long, long time. You are walking through a field of dry grass that has no moisture due to months of no rain. For some reason you see a spark in the grass. A little red spark the size of a pea. And as the wind gently blows, you realize that ember is growing into a larger red dot on the ground. Knowing that you are standing in thousands of acres of dried grass, do you A.) Wait and see what is going to happen, B.) Attempt to “stomp out” the spark, but don’t check when you’re done stomping if it is actually out, or C.) use a pile of dirt to cover and completely obliterate any signs of heat. The last option requiring to divert from your originally planned path you intended on taking.
With horses, all too often when there is the initial spark of a problem, people are often “hopeful” (whether due to lack of understanding, lack of “effective tools to communicate” or are oblivious) and respond with option A of the wildfire scenario. Then, they act completely surprised when the “fire” erupts from their horse.
Others who may recognize the behavior but perhaps are not respectful of their horse enough to follow through until they get a change in their horse, so they go through the motions of “correcting” the horse (option B of the wildfire example) but never check to see if they are influencing a QUALITY change in their horse, or if they are just temporarily delaying the unwanted behavior.
But what if we all approached our “horse sessions” being open minded. Even if we had a specific intention when we went out to work with our horse, what if we were open minded enough to HEAR, SEE and RESPECT what our horse was trying to tell us. What if we had the capacity to forget about our original goal for the session and do what was best for our horse? How many times of showing the horse that you were available to address, clearly communicate and then help him through his worries, fears, defensive, insecurity and other issues do you think it would take before he started to trust you? Before he started to realize that if he tried to do what you asked, he, the horse, would feel better afterward? How long would it be before your horse would start to take an interest in what you were presenting rather than defensive towards it? How long would it be before you started to see a curiosity about “life” in your horse and your time together that would start to make the sessions really rewarding for both of you? How soon before your horse would start to offer more effort and try without you having to ask as much?
So the list below all share one thing in common- the root cause is a mentally unavailable horse, which makes him unable to “hear” what you are communicating, unclear of your intention, defensive towards your aids, resistant to “changing” what he thought was being asked of him and usually leading to physically dramatic and dangerous scenarios in the long run.
My horse won’t be caught
My horse won’t lead
My horse won’t stand still
My horse only has one speed
My horse is heavy on the bit
My horse is herd bound
My horse won’t cross water/pass the tarp/walk on the bridge/etc.
My horse won’t load into a trailer
My horse has to walk in the ____________ of a group on a trail ride
My horse always has to ______________
My horse bucks when I ____________
My horse doesn’t like to leave ____________
My horse is spooky all the time
My horse has to be worked (“lunged”) for 20 minutes before I ride
My horse is good after the first ________ min/miles when I ride out
You can only use this “method” to get a response from my horse
You get the idea. It is all connected like the string on the grain bag. You start pulling at one end and the whole thing quickly unravels. Yet somehow people are hopeful when working with their horses. They don’t believe how big and fast things can go wrong. I can’t tell you how many folks have voiced their shock when their scared horse went straight down the cliff, or when their “baby” turned around and bit them in the shoulder/chest/etc., or when their stubborn horse who never liked to go forward “suddenly” has a bucking/bolting fit.
Was the moment when the horse started acted in a way that could no longer be ignored the true cause of the unwanted behavior? Not at all. The resistance may have started last week, last month or last year. The point is not “if” but “when” the consequences from not addressing our horse’s brains will appear. And yet people are hopeful that “it” will solve itself on its own. A horse only has so many ways of telling you he is having a problem, and whether you think it is appropriate or not, you MUST believe what he is telling you.
You really do have the ability to influence a long term, quality change in your horse. But people have a hard time getting out of their own way- it is on YOU to realize “people problems” forced upon the horse are only adding fuel to fire. Things such as:
Not having enough time and rushing how, what and why you are asking your horse to do something
Being distracted by work/family/stress/others at the barn leaving you not mentally present when working with your horse
Having unrealistic and inappropriate goals for both you and the horse
Getting so distracted by the end goal that you are unable to see what is happening in front of you
Focusing on quantity rather than quality
Challenging the horse to “get it right” rather than helping him be successful
So the next time you experience a bit of resistance from a horse, perhaps re-evaluate how you’re interpreting what you think your horse is doing. Remember, his physical behavior is a reflection of his mental and emotional state. If you could change how he feels about what you’re presenting, what sort of physical change might follow and imagine what you might be able to accomplish with quality in the long run!
As the year is coming to an end, I find myself looking back towards my equine related experiences. This year in particular I’ve enjoyed a balanced blend between new and past students, their horses and participating in their ongoing journey. As I mentally started to review different teaching and training highlights, the most common theme throughout the year has been the “mirror” one. I know have stated many times that often our horse is a mirror of ourselves, and we don’t always like what we see.
The statement above sounds a bit basic, and everybody says, “Yeah, yeah,” when they hear it, but rarely do folks put what I feel is the necessary effort in addressing “the mirror” by asking themselves, “Well, what is my horse “seeing” in what I’m offering him?”
So rather than writing my typical “on going thoughts” on one topic, this time around I’m just going to offer basic thoughts I’ve had, things that have come up in lessons or clinics, or just overall assessments I’ve made in this past year all related to the “mirror” concept. These are written in no particular order.
Each person will have a different interpretation of my thoughts written below, based on their own experiences, but I encourage you to perhaps explore some of them with a bit more energy rather than just accepting your initial reaction as you read them. As with most things, the light bulb moments often happen days, weeks or months down the road. Something you’ve heard many times, somehow suddenly makes sense, perhaps some of my thoughts can help you too!
Your ride begins when you THINK about going for a ride and it does not end until you have turned your horse loose in his stall or paddock. All the time in between you are communicating with him, whether or not you realize it.
Carrying anticipation from “what happened last time” prevents you from remaining mentally present while with your horse.
I ask my students to ride in “real time,” this means there is no pause button when things don’t go as expected with the horse.
A majority of riders do not maintain a “standard” in their life outside of horses, but when it comes to their horse, they are expecting/hoping for the best possible outcome in the worst possible scenarios.
Reactive riding versus proactive communication with the horse; always having to fix/correct after the unwanted behavior occurs rather than clearly telling the horse what the plan is ahead of time.
Fear. Horses have it. People have it. The horse cannot rationalize his way through a fearful scenario without the help and active support of the human. Most humans hope that by being “nice” and doing nothing, the horse will figure out how to get over his fear, and then the human will start interacting with him again once he is more reasonable.
90% mental, 10% physical. There is a reason why a daunting, scary scenario presented often by the “child who doesn’t know better” turns out with horse and rider fine, unscathed and feeling confident, whereas the “experienced” rider often has premeditated everything that could possibly go wrong and ends up having a very dramatic experience with their horse in the same exact scenario.
The more people “know” the less they actually see what is happening with their horse.
A majority of pleasure riders initially get involved with horses thinking it will be their “outlet” and time to let down from the rest of their life (stress, drama, work, kids, etc.) Few realize how much the “modern day horse” often needs them to be at their BEST to help the horse feel better about life.
Working with horses requires a continual adaptability within us. For humans, this is often a struggle because complacency, routines and patterns require both less mental presence and less physical effort.
More than half of the horse owners I encounter are not partnered with the correct horse, but continue to maintain a relationship with their horse based primarily on guilt and a sense of “I owe it to the horse.” What few realize is how dangerous this sort of partnership can be.
People do not realize how “light switch” a horse’s emotions can be; even if a person is not getting the changes they want in their horse, it all can change for better or worse as fast as the flip of a light switch.
Rarely do people believe they can A.) Get a change in their horse, or B.) Realize how little physically effort and more clear communication it takes to get a big emotional, mental and physical change.
The “That’s good enough,” mentality that occurs when people try to be “nice” to their horse often leaves the horse in the gray area, with the horse lacking understanding, rather than when the person follows through until the horse really understands the emotional, mental and physical change that is being asked of him.
Most folks are hopeful. “I hope he slows down.” “I hope he doesn’t spook.” “I hope we have a good ride today.” “I hope he goes over that jump.” You can decrease the “hopefulness” and increase both you and your horse’s confidence based on how you help prepare your horse for the upcoming scenario.
If you are carrying a “Let’s see what he does…” mentality, please stop and ask yourself would you challenge your horse to getting “it” right, rather than helping him be successful.
Often people have an initial specific interest in what “type” of riding they will do, rarely do they realize that if they are going to prioritize helping their horse, it will be the horse that is going to “direct” what their “interest” will be.
Just because you may not agree with your horse’s resistance, does not mean you cannot believe it.
The moment of the dramatic behavior is often the symptom and not the issue.
Attempting to finally address and “fix things” at the peak of stress, worry or fear in your horse should not be the first time you start participating in the relationship.
You can be actively supportive without the partnership feeling like a dictatorship.
The more gear, equipment, and tack a person has to communicate with their horse, the less they actually convey.
Talk to the horse, rather than shout at him.
Making a decision to do something is better than doing nothing.
Breathing and smiling while working with the horse are two of the most undervalued behaviors a human can offer. It affects the person mentally, physically and emotionally. It affects the horse mentally, physically and emotionally. Breathe, smile, breathe, smile. Seriously.
Often people are aware of their own behaviors/personality (amped up, high strung, talkative, introvert, etc.) but just accept that that is how they are, rather than attempting to learn how to be adaptable in the way in which they communicate with their horse.
Often when the horse needs us the most, we humans attempt to avoid the situation entirely.
There are only so many ways a horse can ask for help, and more often than not he is ignored, not addressed, or forced into scenarios where his behavior has to increase dramatically until the person can no longer ignore that the horse is having a problem.
Don’t leave your horse in the tantrum, don’t avoid the tantrum. Embrace the tantrum, but help your horse get to a better spot on the other side.
And the most major theme, for all riders, for all disciplines, for all experience levels, is:
Slow down. Mentally, physically, emotionally. Slow down. What is the rush? What MUST you accomplish? The slower you go the more time you have to influence what is about to happen, to help both you and your horse think through a scenario, to be present to feel what is happening, to be able to learn to have a real time, ongoing conversation with your horse rather than a shouting match. You will accomplish so much more by slowing down and achieving quality, than rushing with brainlessness behaviors in you and your horse.
My hope would be that you take a while let this all sink in. It is a lot. Then come back and review it, a week from now, a month from now, a year from now…
Looking forward to more fun with the horses in the upcoming year!
Today I was catching up with a student who I hadn’t seen in a few years, we wound up having a conversation that was all too familiar. Irrelevant of the discipline, level of “competition” or desired end goals, I believe the human student is often “failed” by their equine instructor.
The focus of today’s blog, which honestly I really was going to write as just a quick FB quip, but I couldn’t bear “to leave so much out,” is to address the modern day student- teacher relationship. Through my experience as a student in various disciplines under the guidance of instructors ranging from Pony Club students to Olympic Gold Medalist, to international superstar trainers to the “dying” breed of quality horsemen roaming ranches throughout the west, I have experienced ALL kinds of “treatment” from my trainers/instructors.
I’ve encountered positive and supportive to almost noncommittal/aloof, from vulgar and abusive to aggressive and belittling, from patient and kind to tolerant teachers. Some instructors I believe cared about my well-being, but with others, I was just another “hopeful” student with big dreams/ideas and they were just waiting for their paycheck. Some really wanted me to understand what they were teaching, but could not communicate verbally in a way for me (and other) students to understand and resorted to bullying or aggressive tactics. Others at times were frustrating to work with because of the LACK of direct communication, but who forced me to search for answers within my current understanding; often the "aha" moments would come at a later time triggered by something they had said in the past...
All in all it has been quite the journey, and still is an ongoing one. I suggest to my students in reference to all of the opinionated horse folks they’ll encounter, “take what you like, and leave what you don’t.” I had to do the same with my own experiences as a student, in order to hopefully become a quality instructor for my students.
I know in today’s western society, we are very “goal” orientated. Somehow people have been led to believe that if we achieve something by a certain point in time that it will translate into us being “successful.” These time pressures are then felt by trainers and instructors to help hurry up and “get the job done” with a seemingly at-all-cost mentality, towards both the student and their horse, which in the long run can cause frustration and major consequences.
As I’ve written in other blogs, humans tend to put enormous mental pressure upon ourselves. The negative impact it has on everything we do therein after, actually creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of what we originally DIDN’T want to happen, rather than having the self-inflicted time pressure be a tool to help motivate/ improve performances with our horses. This isn’t to say I don’t believe in mental discipline, I do and most folks have to work incredibly hard to achieve this, but I want healthy mental discipline based on rational clarity rather than emotional chaos.
Over and over among all competitive athletes, not just in the horse world, it seems to “come down” to mental clarity and focus. So I always wonder what a negative, critical, aggressive, personally-attacking coach adds to a student’s ability to ride in the show arena or at any give point in time?
Literally so many students come away totally stressed out, emotionally worn out and overwhelmed, from something that was supposed to be fun. Can a rider have FUN and be competitive? Of course.
My approach towards humans is similar as to when I’m working with a new horse, if I don’t establish trust and boundaries near the beginning of our relationship, the horse and my students will be lacking focus and unable to “hear” what I’m saying and unable to get the most out of our sessions together. They are very few other activities that require such an honest and “real time” approach where every single minute matters.
If someone, anyone, at any level/experience is willing to “show up” mentally, physically and emotionally, and is willingly to try, then I’m happy to teach. But that isn’t always the case.
Just like my “lectures” in regards to riding with intention, I remind folks the more accurate they ride the less “fast” they have to ride and can still have a competitive time, the same goes for mental clarity. The more mental clarity a person has, the more specific, direct and effective their communication is with their horse. This in turn makes them “believable” which allows their horse to both “know the plan ahead of time” and trust that their rider is “taking them” rather than just sitting in the saddle reacting after the fact.
I think the teacher/student relationship in the horse world needs to become a respected and treasured partnership, rather than the often “holier than thou” mentality some instructors seem to evolve into.
I want instructors to be held accountable to be mentally present, supportive, clear and sensitive to what their student is experiencing. Often I hear “coaching” from “successful” (which in most people’s minds means they’ve placed well in the competitive world) top level professionals, who would make even the most seasoned sailors cringe at their language and insinuations.
Just as you can earn a horse’s trust and lose it in a heartbeat, so can you too with a human student.
I believe most folks whether professional or amateur initially have the best of intentions when they are first involved with the sport, but somehow time and “experience” seem to cloud a lot of people’s perspectives, standards, self-respect, tolerance and goals.
As the “unguaranteed lifestyle of a horse trainer/instructor” takes its toll, many instructors after a while get burned out and are teaching for the dollar, and are so distracted and overwhelmed by the work/financial strains/etc. that often they lose the love for doing it. Those that do so, also tend to bring a lot of “personal baggage” to their student’s sessions which can have ongoing negative effects.
So how does an instructor’s personal “issues” affect their student? 110% in either positive or negative ways. Whether or not they realize/recognize/are intentional in how they present themselves, from how they dress, how they speak, how they approach teaching, etc. completely affects the human student.
I wish more professionals recognized that what works, is healthy, appropriate and suitable for one student may not be for another, of course the same can certainly can be said for a horse’s training program too. Even at a competitive barn, there does not need to be an instructor creating chaos or turbulence among students by setting an unhealthy undertone.
Students can often suffer from staying with the same trainer out of “guilt” that often has nothing to do with a rational assessment of what the instructor is really offering the student.
So whether you’re an instructor, or in a position of “influence,” or a student, perhaps take a few minutes and ask yourself these questions:
When I take/offer a lesson what is my more-often-than-not feeling I have afterward?
Is any part of what I’m doing allowing me to laugh, smile and enjoy?
Am I feeling a sense of overwhelming emotions every time I teach/learn?
Is my horse happy when I take a lesson?
What have I learned in the recent short term (three months) and the relative long term (year)?
When I think of taking/teaching a lesson what do I feel?
Do I feel the lessons help me and my horse be successful even when the instructor isn’t around?
Do I treat my trainer/student with respect?
What are my goals for working with this trainer? Are they rational or emotional? Are they reasonable to be asking of both myself and my horse?
Of course the list could go on and on. But what it comes down to is often people get “comfortable” in their relationships, including those with their horse trainers. It really isn’t ever a “convenient” time to take some time to honestly assess the quality of relationship/information/instruction you are receiving as a student.
Because of “big names” students can feel paralyzed or worried about judgments from others within the equine community who would be critical of a “lowly student” leaving/questioning an “established trainer.”
But as I tell most folks, it is okay to take care of you and your horse. YOU are his only voice. No matter your experience level, if that little voice in your head is questioning a scenario, trust your gut instinct, and DO something about it. It is OKAY to say “no,” to not “do” what everyone else is doing/saying, etc. You are supposed to be having fun; yes it can be “serious and intense” but if you’re not having fun, your horse certainly won’t enjoy the session either, which only sets the tone for the next time you go to take a lesson.
Be proactive as a student, take time and explore, audit lessons/clinics, DON’T get distracted by someone’s credentials, and remember just because someone can ride well does not mean they can teach well. Feel that your communication with your instructor is a two way, respectful relationship. If you have concerns, fears, and issues or questions, your instructor should be a “safe” person to consult with. If you feel intimidated, overwhelmed or stressed at the thought of “discussing” anything with your trainer, I’d suggest stepping back and re-evaluating.
Here’s to seeking quality teacher/student relationships and fun learning!
For me personally one of the things that keep me “motivated” in working with horses is their honesty. Even if I don’t like “what they are telling me,” they are keeping things very real. If they are having a problem, behavioral issues, insecurity, fear or are feeling “quiet” it is real.
I was talking with an older farrier and a vet over the last several days and a common theme of owners not wanting to admit what has been going on with their horses came up in our discussions. Whether it is an obvious physical issue or an emotional one, if you are willing to listen, the horse will often tell you his story.
The question I pose to most clients, and yes most wait until it has “gone wrong” before they seek out someone like me to help, is “what is your underlining goal with having/riding horses?” The initial response is usually a self-centered based thought, i.e. I want to relax and trail ride, I want to compete, etc. And often it is not until owners find themselves with a horse that is not able to “tolerate” what humans are asking/presenting to him, that they realize, the relationship between human and horse cannot be a one way interaction and reach a rewarding and successful partnership.
So what is considered “successful”? Depends on who you ask. For some it is the ribbon won in the competition for others it can be as simple as “surviving the ride.” (You may laugh at the later, but I cannot tell you how many people are riding in constant fear due to the “survival” approach.)
Successful to me means a mentally, emotionally and physically happy/comfortable horse. What is “done” with the horse (trail riding, working cattle, competing) I believe should be an after affect, rather than the sole focus.
If you took a vehicle that had mechanical problems, or even something as simple as a flat tire, and used it to “perform” (drive, haul a trailer, etc.) you may be able to cover some ground or get to some destination. But without addressing the problems the vehicle has, you’d always carry some worry, stress and concern about whether you’d make it without breaking down, having an accident, etc.
And yet so often with our horses, we get easily distracted by our goals and wants, that our vision becomes clouded as to “what is really going on” with the horse. Sometimes we “see” but don’t want or know how to deal with what our horse is experiencing.
I believe it all comes down to time. I know in past blogs I’ve mentioned time and not rushing interaction with your horse, but I cannot stress enough the mental “urgency” we as humans tend to carry with us when we don’t even realize it. Why are we really “rushing” and not addressing what the horse is doing? Is whatever we had planned so important that we cannot take an extra few minutes to address the horse, or perhaps even “change” what we’d planned on doing with our horse that day? For most riders, there are lots of “old wives tales” that seemed to have misdirected and influenced their intentions.
Often I believe the biggest “gift” I can give to students and their horses is allowing them the opportunity to slow down. Literally explaining that they don’t “have” to do anything, letting them experiment with searching for how to help create a change in their horse’s mental and emotionally state. With the removed self-inflicted mental “urgency” so many people get so much more “done” with their horse.
The irony is often in the rushing chaos, little is accomplished, and as soon as a student’s mental chaos is slowed down, they immediately see changes in their horse, and are usually shocked at how quickly they can influence a change. But most folks don’t know how or even recognize to pursue helping their horse until the horse reaches that point of change for the better. Often they accidentally leave the horse in an uncomfortable state, only setting up the horse to be more defensive/worried/anticipative during their next encounter.
So whether anyone else around you is doing it or not, even if you’ve owned your horse for years, please recognize any excessive movement, chaos, busy-ness, distraction, anticipation, or other behaviors are not an accident. The horse is being honest in what he is showing, so please be proactive and see if you can mentally and physically slow down to start to address your horse, in the end what you’ll “accomplish” will be rewarding to BOTH you and your horse’s well-being!Sam