Trust and respect are built with balanced, calm leadership. There are many layers of each to develop in the relationship between horse and human.
Trust and respect are built with balanced, calm leadership. There are many layers of each to develop in the relationship between horse and human.
I typed “why does my horse” into the Google search bar and had a look through all the things that people commonly search for. There were a few searches for health related questions, but also quite a bit that had to do with horse behaviour. Questions like “why does my horse paw the ground?” and “why does my horse throw his head?”.
I also am a member of a number of horse-related groups on Facebook, and regularly skim through the posts in these groups. All of these things have informed me of something quite specific: Many horse owners don’t know much about horses. Asking about which bit will make a horse stop is an indication of an under-educated horse person who has not developed an effective understanding of horse behaviour.
Don’t get me wrong – we all had to learn at some point, there’s nothing bad about being a newbie. Sometimes people don’t have the option to have a teacher to guide them through the basics of horsemanship and care taking. However, in this age of information, these reasons are seldom valid. We can so easily reach out and learn 100 different ways to do something, or a 100 different explanations for one specific behaviour. Yes – it is overwhelming at first, and when you don’t know anything, how are you supposed to know which advice is actually good? I’m not saying it’s simple, however, with a little common sense and keeping an open mind, we can quite readily develop a pretty decent horse-sense.
What’s great about the questions I come across is that these questions show that there are people who want to learn and who are willing to let go of how they’ve always thought about something in order to consider different perspectives. It’s truly fantastic, and might I add, it takes guts to put yourself out there in the often cruel world of internet comments.
Unfortunately, there are just as many people who have no interest in doing things differently, even when they are consistently getting signs from their horses that their approach is no good. Horses that develop behavioural (and even some health) issues are not doing that because it’s natural for them, they’re doing it in response to the completely unnatural ways they are being forced to comply to their human handlers (including where and how they are kept).
I have witnessed plenty riders and horses in top level competitions where the rider so very obviously does not have horse-sense, but they have a great seat and can ride a test beautifully. Just because someone rides well doesn’t mean that they are a good horse-person.
Horses throwing their heads are often trying to avoid pressure – though many people respond to that behaviour by applying even more pressure in the form of more tack to try and force the horse to keep their head low. Now the horse is unable to voice their frustration, pain, and/or discontent (and yes, their body language is their language). When I am unable to voice myself, I get even more unhappy and often try find different ways to be heard. So now a horse that used to throw its head but can’t anymore might resort to some other type of behaviour, like bolting and pushing through pressure (not stopping in response to rein aids).
We need to be asking more questions and learning more about our horses and their behaviour. The moment we think we have the answer for something and refuse to ask more questions is the moment we do our horses the greatest disservice. There is much we can learn from them, and from each other. Never stop learning, be a student always – this is the path that will take you to true mastery.
You think your horse lives a life filled with freedom of choice? In the stable or paddocks that they cannot leave. With herd-mates they did not choose. Having (usually) one source of water given to them. Even spending time with you.
Modern day domestic horses have very little in the way of free choice. It mostly comes down to things like “stand over here inside the paddock/stable, as opposed to any other spot.” Or how about this one: walk, trot, canter, or gallop somewhere. Or stand still. Fight or flight. Make it difficult for your human to ride you, or don’t make a fuss.
When we take our horse out of their space (in the paddock or stable) to the arena to accomplish our goals, we are the ones making the choices. We say where to go, how fast, when to stop, when to go again.
It is not within the nature of the average horse to put up a fight. They may resist us, or find small ways to avoid pressure, but at the end of the day it is exceptionally rare to come across a horse that will fight you tooth and nail against everything. Think for a moment on how many horses will absolutely not give up when they get sent to a “breaking-in facility” that practices harsh approaches like tying down the horses. Most horses submit and allow whatever humans decide to do, to be done.
We have the tendency to believe that we give our horses the sweet life. We put rugs on them to protect them from the various different elements so that they look great. We clip off their winter coats so that they look shiny at shows. We feed them soy or grain based feeds so that they keep their condition. We keep them in stables so that they don’t hurt themselves. We keep them in small, manicured paddocks so that they don’t hurt themselves. We exercise them regularly since they don’t get to move around as much as they should (in part), but mostly because we have goals we want to reach, and we need them to carry us to those goals. We force them into small, confined spaces to transport them to different places – removing them from their friends and forcing them to start over at some completely new place with completely different horses (if we let them be around other horses in a herd-environment at all). We hit them with sticks when we want them to move faster, or differently. We put things on their faces or in their mouths to control them more easily. And, and, and…
Even though we determine every aspect of our horses’ lives, and even though we often do things that contradict their natures, or that actually harm or traumatise them, they are still willing to forgive us and change with us. When we start to change our approach, so do they.
We each have the ability to give our horses more choices – if not in their location and diet, at least in how we work with them. We have the ability to allow them to express what they think of our requests. We have the ability to show them how to do things in different ways that encourage learning and understanding. We have the ability to have mutually enjoyable and fulfilling relationships and exercises with our equine friends.
We are the ones who must make these choices, for them and for ourselves.
I am one of those people who tends to become a little sucked into tunnel-vision – I find I am often all work and no play, or all play and no work with my horse. Every now and then something happens, or I do something that reminds me to put some ying in my yang (and vice versa) so that I can create a better balance.
In the last, probably couple of years, my focus with my horse has been SHAPE! FITNESS! CORRECTLY STEPPING UNDER! (and so on and so forth.) While things like these are important, they can be dead boring for the horse (and human) especially if we don’t remember to throw in something different every now and then to break up the monotony. Or how’s this – we could try to find a way to make something that was boring, more enjoyable for all involved.
This kind of creativity and use of imagination can actually be quite challenging for many of us. Take me as an example: I like structure. I like following guidelines. I like having a plan. For me to let loose and be spontaneous requires a sort of conscious effort – as paradoxical as that sounds. I have to almost force myself to let go, and sometimes the process of doing so can feel like slowly pulling a giant band-aid off of half of my body. It hurts. It’s uncomfortable. It feels a little wrong. However – even though my experience of going against my grain feels this way, my logical and reasoning self knows that it’s for the best. I know that I’ll benefit from letting go. And this is why I force myself to go through this rather uncomfortable experience.
Think about it – it’s not just with things like our horses and development in riding that we can get stuck in one way of thinking, or one way of doing things. It’s actually quite easy to get stuck into something like that. I know I often struggle in moments when someone suggests that I try doing something differently (like how I wash the dishes) and I immediately want to screech at them to crawl in a hole and die there. I know that I am being unreasonable in those moments, so (usually) I don’t say anything. What I try to do, instead, is to use that moment as a gift to consider that: maybe, just maybe, there is a different and potentially better way to do something that I have only ever done in one way.
I find that especially as I get older, it gets easier for me to lose myself in my ways of thinking, or of doing things. I become less and less willing to think outside the box – outside of MY box. It’s like I cling onto my ways and mannerisms for dear life, out of some irrational fear that I may lose myself if I were to let go.
Well, I may not enjoy the experience of letting go all the time, but not once have I regretted doing so. This is why I always try to have a little fun, to see things differently, to accept and seriously consider advice, and to think outside of my box.
During torture, it is often not the pain that breaks someone. It is the despair within knowing that no matter what you do, there is no escaping the pain and inevitability of the next assault on your body and mind. It is the same for those horses that are physically forced into compliance using pain.
Allow me to paint you a picture: Have you ever heard of school ponies who have “dull” or “dead” eyes, who have lost the spark of life? An average and somewhat typical pony arrives at a riding school. It is routinely subjected to random and harsh aids from children who have no concept of the position of power and control they have over this little pony. Day in and day out kids are yanking on the reins, with no particular purpose in mind a lot of the time. The children are unable to clearly communicate what they want to the pony, and often resort to kicking repeatedly, using a whip repeatedly, or banging on the pony’s mouth with the reins. No matter what the pony does this treatment continues. The pony is not confrontational and so does not respond aggressively to the affronts on its body. As this life continues, the pony resigns itself to the inescapable nature of the inevitable – that no matter what it does, it will be abused by these children (who, to be fair, simply do not know any better).
This is a common occurrence in the typical riding yard. Some instructors simply do not take the horse into consideration when teaching exuberant children who as yet lack the physical awareness to recognise the pain they cause.
An even more egregious abuse of the horse happens with techniques meant to “break” the horse, such as tying up their limbs, rendering them physically unable to move. The “philosophy” behind this type of approach is to exert a complete control over the horse’s body, following which MOST horses will give up entirely and simply allow anything to be done to them. A small percentage of horses will continue fighting, tooth and hoof, until the very end (which often is a very final end for the horse).
So why am I writing all this awful stuff about how badly horses are treated? Surely this is not news to anyone. I decided to write this post after reading this article: http://horsesciencehorsesense.com/index.php/learned-helplessness/
As horrible and extreme as all of the above is, the reality is that most of us (myself included!) have, or are still, applied some degree of these approaches with our horses. Our mentality is “Do what I say or else.” There is still that part of us that wants to resort to force, dominance, and control in order to achieve the result we want from our horses.
Let’s face it – the society we live in does not honour things like communication, respect, consideration, patience. We are taught by our parents, teachers, bosses – to obey “or else!” It’s no wonder that we bring this mentality with us into other parts of our lives.
As with all things, awareness is the first step to change. We must acknowledge to ourselves that we are in fact allowing certain types of opinions, beliefs, perceptions, philosophies within ourselves, and that these things have a direct effect on how we interact with all the beings and things in our lives. Once we start seeing when, where, and how we are manifesting these internal states onto the world around us, we can start planning how we can do things differently instead. We must will ourselves into changing that which we do not want to continue living any longer. Sometimes our force of habit is difficult to change – in these moments we must FORCE ourselves to change anyway, so that we can create ourselves to be the people and horsepeople we know we can be, someone we can be proud of.
If you are familiar with what it takes to practically care for and manage horses on a daily basis you will know the importance of teaching horses to have good manners. Good manners meaning things like:
Horses are big animals, so aside from the basic consideration for safety, teaching your horse to have good manners will benefit the horse in situations where it is being handled by someone other than you. Imagine the horse has to be moved to a different home and the new handlers get a big, unruly brute. The chances of a badly behaved horse being sold on (usually to worse and worse homes, or even eventually some place like a kill pen) are much higher than a well behaved horse.
As cruel and unusual that may be – we must face the reality that we as handlers shape our horses, and many (if not most) people who handle horses very easily resort to very harsh methods of punishment, or the other extreme of allowing bad behaviour to get worse. Horses are the ones who inevitably pay the price for how we teach them to behave.
Yes, we are the ones who shape our horses to a very large degree – at least in terms of how they behave with people. Our behaviour with them is what will be reflected back to us in their behaviour with us. Horses very quickly and accurately show us who we are.
Have you ever heard your farrier or equine dentist talking about that one owner who has a yard full of nutty horses? A horse arrives there being an angel, but 6 months later it’s just as much of a hooligan as all the other horses there. This is not a coincidence. We don’t realise how much out actions and inactions shape our horses.
They take advantage when we are not practicing awareness of ourselves and our surroundings. Maybe they’ll creep ever closer, until they’re practically standing on top of us. Or maybe they’ll push us over slowly and subtly until the big circle we started off walking on has turned into a tiny circle in the middle of the arena. Maybe they’ll bolt through a gate we left open just for a few seconds to pick something up.
They learn what they can get away with in order to avoid being handled or doing work (because they’d really rather be eating grass with their friends most of the time). They learn they can cut hoof cleaning time short by snatching their hoof out of our hand. They learn they can avoid anything at all in the stable by keeping their butt closest to us. They learn they can get out of lunging by kicking out at us.
Often, it is the small behaviours that we don’t bother to correct that turn into big problems over time. I have learned to be absolutely specific and meticulous about what I am asking for from my horse, and about what I will allow and not allow him to do. When I am with him and handling him, I am the one who tells him where to stand, where to go, how fast to go, if he can eat or not, how much distance there must be between us, how to place his hooves when he comes to a halt – all of this has helped me to shape my horse to not be pushy, to respect my space, to walk calmly with me, to listen to my aids.
When my horse “misbehaves” or does not do what I wanted, I always check myself first: What was my body language saying to him in that moment? Have I been allowing small moments of bad habits to form? What was my equipment saying to him in that moment? Have I been practicing the same relationship dynamic and principles with him in every encounter, or have I been allowing him to lead in some moments (which breaks the basic principle of consistency with your horse – being the same every moment).
It’s up to us to make sure that our horses are as safe as is reasonably possible, not just for our own safety, but for their futures as well.
Do you know where you’re headed? Do you know where you want to go? Do you know what you want to do when you get there? Do you know how you want to get there? Do you know how fast you want to move?
All of these things are what the horse looks for in a leader. They want the comfort of knowing that there is someone looking after them, who knows where they’re going. If you observe the behaviour of a herd of horses you will see only one or two horses moving the rest of the herd. Typically the top mare will be leading out in front (she knows where they’re going, how fast they need to move and when they need to move) and the top stallion will be at the back, herding the stragglers and the ones stepping out of line.
We are actually quite similar to horses in that way. We like having someone to tell us what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how fast to do it. We find comfort in feeling that we are not entirely responsible for our actions, because we are being told what to do by our chosen leaders. You might try to deny it, but if you are an average human then chances are that you are much more comfortable following the crowd or a leader than stepping out of the crowd and being a leader.
This places us in a bit of a conundrum when it comes to now having to be our horses’ leader. We know intellectually that that is the role we must take, but often our insecurity and discomfort within the role of leadership shines through our attempts to actually be the leader. Our body language, especially when we are learning, is self-conscious, unsure and often withdrawn. What often happens when we are in this inferior and withdrawn state is that our aids to the horse are unclear.
Our body language will sometimes contradict what we are asking the horse to do, such as looking in a direction different to the one you are actually wanting the horse to move in. The horse is naturally going to read your body language, so your body is saying to move in one direction, but the aids are saying something different. The confusion of the horse can very easily be misinterpreted as bad behaviour. So to make matters worse, we punish the horse for “not listening” – when in fact we are the ones being unclear and even contradictory in our communication to the horse.
When I first started learning about horsemanship my teacher emphasized over-emphasizing my aids (especially in ground work. She reminded me to not only lead the horse with a contact in the lead rope in the direction that I wanted him to move in, but to also look in that direction, turn my body to face that direction (even my feet). She even suggested to point in that direction. I felt like an idiot at the time, but you can be sure that I was in no way being ambiguous to the horse. When I had myself set up right, the rest was focused on different ways to ask the horse to move, and learning how to follow through.
What’s important to note is that there is a difference between making sure that our body language is clear and being rude. If we walk up to a horse we don’t know and immediately try to make it clear to them that we own them, they might not appreciate us very much. There is a certain degree of politeness that will serve us well. However, don’t confuse politeness with taking a submissive or weak stance – we can have manners while at the same time maintaining safe boundaries with our horse.
Next time your horse is not doing what you want, make sure that you check yourself first. Are you feeling uncertain, insecure, anxious? Those feelings will shine through your behaviour if you’re not careful (and yes, if you are feeling these things then you can fake it till you make it! Be sure to be aware of your body language!). Something as simple as not knowing where you want to go, or which exercise you want to do, can be seen by your horse. They are incredibly perceptive – make sure to have a plan. I don’t mean that you need to plan every step of your session with your horse, flexibility is just as important as having a clear vision. Read your horse’s body language, interpret their behaviour, their level of competence in completing the exercise, physical flexibility and their mental/emotional response to your aids to determine which exercise would be beneficial for you to take them through next.
Always, always, always check yourself before blaming the horse. Most of the time we can make huge changes in our horses by making little changes in ourselves.
We all know (and maybe some of us are) at least one person who follows a riding philosophy or training method religiously. There is no room for any other kind of horsemanship to be even considered. We could call it horsemanship-extremism.
This extremism can actually show itself in a number of ways – it’s not always about big things like “natural horsemanship is the BEST way and all other forms of working with horses is ABUSE” or “my horse is the instrument through which I will succeed and become rich and famous, it better do what I tell it”. Sometimes we get stuck in believing things like only this type of bit should be used, or only bitless should be practiced, or only this type of feeding program should be followed, or only this teacher/instructor knows what they’re talking about.
If we really look at this pattern, we’ll start to see how it pops up in a lot of different areas of our lives – sometimes in big ways, sometimes little ways, sometimes more extreme and other times less extreme. For me, I characterise the experience of being stuck in an extreme by how I feel when my belief system is challenged. I get tense, I automatically want to disagree or walk away, I want to fight for my point of view and MAKE the other person agree with me. Sometimes it’s really subtle too, I might politely disagree with someone after hearing them out, but the truth is that i didn’t really LISTEN to them. I closed myself off to anything outside of what I feel is best, or right.
What is being nurtured in that space of extremism that we sometimes allow ourselves to go to? Not much. It’s restrictive. It’s repressive. It’s filled with self justification and self validation. We tend to only speak with those people who validate our views. So no, there is not much space for growth.
WHY do we do this? And don’t try to tell me that you’ve never done this in one way or another – I’ll know you’re lying. Well for me, I’ve done it in moments in my life where I invested a lot of me into something. A lot of the time it was where I invested my self definition into a particular belief system (like “I’ll only ever do natural horsemanship!”) . I saw myself as a cool natural horsemanship person, and judged other forms of horsemanship as being cruel or ignorant or dismissive of the horse. My judgements of the various forms of horsemanship were intense enough that I was simply not willing to investigate anything other than what I believed was the right way. There has even been a point of me believing that my horse only goes well in a certain piece of equipment, contrary to the signs he was showing telling me that he was not happy with it. It took someone pointing it out to me for me to even think about it in an objective way, without my opinions clouding my judgement.
A lot has changed since then. But also I find myself getting stuck now and then. It’s not like I can make the choice to be open minded, and now suddenly I see everything in this clear and unbiased light. I have to force myself to consider alternatives at times, force myself to properly investigate a different approach. It can be challenging, especially with those subtle points where someone has to very obviously point it out to me, but I endeavor to keep practicing flexibility and openness to every approach, philosophy, suggestion, etc that I encounter.
Learning can be difficult. Just think of a subject or skill that you had a particularly hard time getting the hang of – and that’s assuming you didn’t give up when it got tough. ‘Cos let’s face it – giving up is way easier that pushing through that initial learning curve.
Now take a moment to imagine what it is like for a horse. You’re just minding your own business, grazing or having a nap in the sun, when here comes this human who unceremoniously puts all this stuff on your face and takes you away from whatever you were doing. Not only that, they are poking and prodding and pushing and shoving and GETTING ON YOUR BACK omg what’s happening.
Horses cannot speak the way we can. We cannot say to them “this is what we’ll be doing, this is how I’d like you to do it please.” We have to use other forms of communication to send instructions. Something that we often completely miss, is that learning is a process, especially for the horse who doesn’t know what is going on until you find an effective way to show them.
Something invaluable that my teacher (Patsy Devine, of Triple H Horsemanship) taught me, and Philip Nye taught to her (he also developed this, so thank you Philip for this nugget of gold), is what is called the Learning Zone Model – and this has helped me enormously to put into context the process of learning that the horse (and us too) goes through. Or at least, what they should go through when they are not being pushed too hard, too fast.
Learning is a process, it cannot be rushed. When we are not learning, you could say that we are comfortable, we’re in our comfort zone. Nothing is being asked of us, nothing is happening that is forcing us to do something unfamiliar. Now, when we start learning something new, we get a little uncomfortable, this is pretty much inevitable. We are doing something we’ve never done before. We are awkward, clumsy, we get it wrong, we make mistakes, we struggle to understand – this is all part of the learning process. Our horses go through exactly the same! Too often will we rush them through this important first step to learning something new, and they end up not understanding, being uncertain, being anxious, and often doing the task incorrectly.
One of the principles within the Learning Zone Model is to gently move the horse through that period of uncertainty (learning), so that BEFORE they get anxious confused, stressed – you are already removing the pressure and allowing them to go back to their comfort zone. In practice this would look like: start to take the horse through a new exercise, allow them to fumble and make mistakes, let them get just one or two steps right, and then reward them by stopping. This also is done at a “low energy”, such as in halt or in walk. Then once the horse has had a moment to process, or in the following session, you again teach the exercise and ask for a little bit more (maybe one more “correct” step).
In so doing, you are slowly moving the horse in and out of their comfort zone (into the learning zone), and each venture into the learning zone is a tiny bit longer than before (do not expect or push for more than a 2% improvement from last time!). As you do this, you will see your horse slowly becoming more comfortable within the exercise. You could even say that their comfort zone is expanding to include or envelop that exercise. Once they have mastered it in halt or walk (whichever is applicable), teach it again in a higher energy (eg walk or trot). We often assume that because the horse has mastered the exercise in walk, they will immediately be able to master it in trot or canter – but this is very seldom the case, and it is unfair to expect that from them. The same exercise at a different gait can be a completely different process and experience for the horse, so we must be patient in taking them through the learning process once more in order to solidify their confidence and performance of an exercise.
In the Learning Zone Model above you will see the red line, which represents the initially very brief visits into the learning zone, and then as the horse’s understanding and confidence grows you ask for more and more. Eventually, the comfort zone expands, and your horse becomes more confident and less anxious in similar situations (most of the time!). You’ll see that beyond the Learning Zone is the Wild Zone – and that is a place you (almost) never want to go. There is nothing constructive that takes place there, as the horse is acting purely from it’s instinct to survive. In some rare cases (such as an abused horse), you may find that their comfort zone and learning zone is very small – in other words, it doesn’t take much to send them into the wild zone. These cases require patient, confident and practiced support.
Please do let me know if anything didn’t come through clearly, I will gladly expand on it.
Thank you for reading.
Pretty much everyone I know who has wanted to do some form of horsemanship has come up against the question of how to get the horse to do what they want. I know I spent a looooong time in this partial uncertainty of how to develop a partnership with my horse, without dominating or controlling him. When I first started learning about horsemanship it was very much within the category of “natural horsemanship” – which was all about becoming the leader through being willing to follow through in your ‘asks’. I learned how to stand my ground and push past the point of only ever wanting to be nice to my horse. However, part of the nature in which I was working with my horse at that time sacrificed partnership and friendship for obedience, and that was part of why I changed my approach to working with horses.
I’m not saying that all natural horsemanship is the same – what I have learned is that any kind of approach or philosophy can be abused or twisted – it’s always about who we are within what we are doing that will determine the nature and outcomes of our approach. Every philosophy and discipline has those rare Master Horsepeople – this alone indicates that the discipline/philosophy is not the only determining factor of how good someone is with horses or how well they do.
When I first started learning about horsemanship, all I wanted to do was to be my horse’s friend. I didn’t want to “make” him do anything. I just wanted to stand in the shade with him and bask in his presence. However, I also wanted to be able to ride off into the sunset – on purpose. My purpose, not his. It took time for me to recognise that while we are both independent individuals, I stand within the position of visionary / goal setter / leader in our partnership. If I left that up to him, we’d just be out grazing in the field all day.
What I also came to realise is that in developing a partnership, we may both need to face some resistance within ourselves. Neither of us might always feel like working on something, so there is that element of sometimes having to almost force myself or the horse into doing something together. What also made a difference for me was that within everything I do with my horse, my main objective must include the betterment of the horse in one way or another – either physical strengthening or emotional and mental strengthening and stimulation.
What I saw developing over time was that within our partnership, we were both enjoying our time together more and more. I was helping my horse to feel proud, strong and confident in himself, and he was allowing me to enjoy that journey with him.
I do not dominate him, yet I am firm within what I ask. If I see he is struggling to understand, I will not force him to complete the task – I will find a different way to show him the exercise. If he is refusing my requests, I will not blame him for being naughty – I will first check myself to see if my communication is clear, and then I will check if there is anything going on with him that might be causing his behaviour. I do not control his actions, I guide him with the goal of creating a dance of harmony together.
All of this took me years to develop within myself. I made many mistakes in order to find this path, and I am sure I will make many more on our journey together. I know that no matter what, I will always embrace learning and growth.