You know the scene, where the horse and the person both end up sweaty and out of breath from running in circles, or running backwards, or wrestling over a leg or hoof… In the beginning I spent a lot of time fighting with horses. I was taught that when a horse isn’t giving you the response you want, “you can’t let them get away with it” so you are supposed to hang in there until you get it. This meant sometimes knock down drag out fights over silly things like walking through a mud puddle, standing to be clipped, etc. I won many fights, but I also lost more often than I care to admit, resulting in the horse learning a bad habit that I then had to correct.
I quickly realized that if I wanted to be a trainer I couldn’t lose these fights, so I devoted a lot of energy to learning how to make sure I won those fights. I learned a lot about timing, (I can slip a bridle on before the horse knows it’s coming!) rope handling, coordination (i.e. not getting my feet tangled in the ropes) body language, etc. I learned that some horses would rather work themselves into a lather than step foot into a trailer, and that some horses will hurt themselves before they give in. I learned that even a quiet, kid’s safe horse might kick you (and rightfully so) if you stand right next to it and whip it in the butt. (It took twice to learn that one unfortunately.)
I became pretty good at avoiding these mistakes, but I realized two things.
1.Fighting isn’t good. It isn’t good for the horse, and it isn’t good for the rider. Both are at risk of injury, the horse usually from exhaustion or being taken off balance, and the person from the flying horse limbs. The horse doesn’t enjoy it, the person doesn’t enjoy it, and it seems silly to go through all of that over a principle of “you can’t let them get away with it” or “you need to do what I say when I say”.
2.I can’t win every fight. Most of the horse owners I work with don’t have the same experience and won’t win the fights I win. If I don’t come up with a different solution eventually things are going to go badly, and there is a good chance someone will get hurt.
A horse doesn’t need to be taught that they can’t win in a fight, so they shouldn’t try. They need to be taught that they don’t need to fight. Horse and rider are a team.. Mark and I went to a marriage conference early on in our marriage, and I will never forget, they taught us that in an argument you have to remind yourself that your spouse is not your enemy. It is not I win/you lose. If one of you loses you both lose, because you are a team. They suggested tongue in cheek that if you really struggle with the idea to put a post it on your spouse’s forehead that says “you are not my enemy”. I think we need to do this with our horses. Don’t set out to conquer your horse, teach your horse.
I had someone schedule a lesson to look at how they can get their horse to move faster on the trail. It was very evident to me that this horse had a physical problem. His muscling on one side of his pelvis was half the size of the muscling on the right. He had compensated for a bad joint in his pelvis for so long that his muscle had atrophied on one side and built up on the other. They didn’t realize the horse had a physical issue and had thus spent 2 years trying to force the horse down the trail at a speed that he was incapable of maintaining. Imagine the pain that horse went through. It is amazing that he didn’t blow up and hurt someone. Many horses in that situation do, especially those with nerve pain. They are called dangerous and usually end up being sent down the road. It happens way more often than you would think. Instead this horse patiently endured repeated mistreatment (totally unintended, but that doesn’t change the impact on the horse) and continued to do the job he was trained to do to the best of his ability. He deserves a good retirement and a lot of carrots.
” Where understanding and communication end, violence begins” – unknown
“The horse is doing one of two things: he’s doing what he thinks he’s supposed to do, or he’s doing what he thinks he has to do to survive.” – Ray Hunt
A new training horse came in this week, a very sweet young gelding. He is very good, until something is scary or more interesting than me, then he is not so good. I try not to “punish” horses when they are frightened, because it just seems to add to the anxiety and makes me the enemy, or someone to get away from. However when there is a training problem with a horse it tends to show up in different ways at different levels of energy. This horse who jumps on top of me when he hears a noise outside the arena also walks a bit too close when I am leading him. He doesn’t stop or back well, he crowds me and the gate when I am trying to lead him through it. These are all symptoms of him not understanding my personal space, and not being responsive enough when I ask him to back off. The more nervous he gets the more obvious the behavior is, eventually leading him to run over his owner when he is being asked to do something that is a bit scary. To fix the problem I will start at the basics. Stop when I say, back when I say, stay where I put you until I ask for something else. That is where I will fix the problem of him jumping on top of me. I will make it very clear to him that I expect him to move away from me quickly whenever I ask. This will eventually fix the nervous crowding problem without me ever having to try to work through a big blow up. I end up with a horse that is pleasant to stand next to. They enjoy attention, and usually meet me at the gate. They know I am a comfortable safe place to be, but at the same time they know that they do not want to push me or step on me or crowd me because there are consequences.
My mare Bella is an example of the effectiveness of this approach. The other day I was grooming her in her stall and a noise outside the barn spooked her. (She has a sensitive/anxious personality so her spooks can be big.) I felt her foot touch the top of my foot as she was coming my way, but before she applied enough pressure for me to feel discomfort she was back moving the opposite direction. The spook ended with her standing in exactly the same spot she started, and a little scuff of mud on the top of my boot from where her hoof had been. (And my heart pounding in my chest a little. She is not really a “look out for your rider” kind of horse, and not so long ago she would have gone right over top of me.)
I find that it works so much better to approach training problems this way. I break the problem behavior down to its simplest form. I then find the easiest ways I can come up with to work on it and I do those first, gradually increasing the difficulty as they improve. I set myself up for success that way, because the horse learns better when they are calm, and I don’t find myself in a physical battle with a frightened horse that I am bound to lose.