What are you Living with your Horse?

Sometimes when I’m feeling frustrated and like I’m just not getting anywhere I’ll go and spend some time with animals. I do this because I know I can’t take my anger with me, I do this because I am absolutely not willing to take my frustrations out on them. The only way I got to this point of not being willing to take it out on them, is from having made that mistake before. More than once.20170703_110913

Have you ever had one of those days where everything is going wrong, nothing is working, internet is slow, computer is behaving like a halfwit, people are being the opposite of helpful, you ate too much of the thing you told yourself you’d never eat again..? I know I have. I’m having one of those days right now. I have already eaten so much chocolate that I’m surprised I’m not turning brown.

Well I eventually reached a point where I told myself to get all my shit together and deal with it, because I am tired of feeling this way. So, I went outside and played with dogs, then I spent a few minutes doing some groundwork with Chubb, my horse. Chubb is a chestnut thoroughbred that I have just moved to our new home. He’s naturally stressed and trying to fit in with his new herd mates, so I thought that doing a little bit of something he knows well might make him feel a little bit more confident and maybe even relaxed.

I knew that I could not do any of these things if I was going to be angry, most certainly I could not take my frustrations out on Chubb given his current stressed out state (not that taking frustrations out on an animal is ever acceptable!) But this was even more incentive for me to calm myself and put aside all the petty things I’d been indulging in in my thoughts. And they really are petty things – instead of taking the little events of the day and focusing on solutions, I had been focusing on everything that was wrong and bad – which is exactly what I would have done with Chubb if I had allowed myself to bring my frustration into the paddock with me.

Every time my focus has shifted to what the horse is doing wrong, or how they’re behaving ‘badly’, my session with them would be frustrating, unproductive and sometimes downright unpleasant. Naturally, the horse would meet my frustration with an equal force of disagreement, and the combination of those two negative forces made for a pretty crap time. I had sessions where I’d see what I was doing and change who I was in that moment from “I am frustrated, nothing is working” to “how can I help the horse to understand?” – and the difference was almost tangible. Just that seemingly small shift could be enough to turn an unpleasant dynamic into a productive and positive one.

Don’t underestimate the power of who you are with your horse – you may not be aware of it in the moment, but your horse can see clearly what you are living. If you are living frustration, it will show in your actions, your voice, your approach, your reactions. If you, on the other hand, are living words like support, consideration, patience, calm, stability – then that is what will come through in your presence, and that is what will help determine how your horse will respond to you.

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Does Fear have a Place in Learning?

For anyone who has lived or worked with any kind of animals, you will know that fear is an experience that (generally speaking) you will see in an animal now and then. Some animals are braver, while others are more fearful. Because horses are prey animals, their instincts preclude them to access fear quite easily. Because of this, it can be challenging to progress with a horse without them accessing fear on some level.

IMG_5869Can that fear ever be useful to the learning process of a horse? Maybe, especially for those cases where you are helping a previously abused equine to overcome their fears (sometimes in order to help them you have to go to that bad place with them,, and lead them back to calmness and gentleness). However, in order to assess this, we must understand the nature of the learning process – not just for a horse, but for anyone or anything.

When learning something new, there is the inevitable period of uncertainty in the beginning. You don’t know how this works, what to do, or how to do it. But that’s natural – that’s part of the learning process: The beginning is uncomfortable. Now the difference for a humans compared to horses is that we understand (most of the time) what is happening and why it’s happening, whereas the horse doesn’t know why, they have no context for what is going on. The must rely solely on their interpretation of the behaviour of the human, and try to figure out the “right” way to respond.

So, understandably, horses also experience uncertainty when learning something new. A person who focuses on helping the horse to understand in as calm a way as possible will end up with a soft, willing and confident horse (obviously this is assuming that all the other necessary factors are in place). Compare that image to an individual who is pushing their horse into a fearful space, trying to get the horse to comply while they are in that state of mind. As can be expected, the horse seldom understands the exercise and has now also associated the exercise with fear, anxiety and stress. I am sure you can imagine how that horse will be working through the exercise after a fearful introduction to it.

The only thing that a horse will learn when they are fearful is what they must do in order to avoid that which causes the fear. So if we use a whip in such a way that it inflicts fear, the horse will learn to avoid the whip, rather than to listen to the whip. Another side effect of allowing a horse to remain in a state of fear while teaching them is the high level of tension that the fear will create in their bodies – this creates the opposite of a soft horse.

It is our tendency to believe that kicking up a lot of dirt and dust is required to “put the horse in its place” – again, I am not saying that it is absolutely never ever necessary, or that it will never happen, but it is most certainly not a good first approach to try. It is our responsibility to not fall into that all-too familiar human tendency of wanting to dominate and control everything around us.

Creating a relationship with your horse that is based on communication, patience, understanding and mutual respect requires that these be the principles that you focus on creating during those crucial learning phases where things can so easily go wrong. Now I’m not saying that it may be possible to avoid a fearful horse completely – sometimes their backgrounds, breeds or simply the environment can trigger their fear response. Sometimes we must help our horse move from that place of fear towards confidence, trust and softness.

This brings us to the real question: how do we help the horse to learn something new without that uncertainty, or discomfort, of learning something new turning into full blown fear?

As to the specific techniques – there are many that can be tried and tested on any individual horse – it’s about finding what works for you and your individual horse.  There is no “one size fits all” method. Flexibility is just about the only thing that remains consistent in a good horseperson – our ability to assess a situation and adapt ourselves with the goal of helping the horse.

Are we Oblivious to our own Ignorance?

A friend of mine is visiting with her 2 daughters from the Netherlands. These 2 girls are your typical horse crazy 10 and 12 year olds. They go for one riding lesson a week and spend all their spare time watching horse videos on YouTube.320252_10150999297831160_1971471090_n

Now with me being the person I am, I want to teach these girls everything I know about horses, and in the process of doing this I am learning exactly how little they have been taught when it comes to the basic stuff that one really should know when one owns or looks after a horse – and I’m not saying that this is unusual, it is sadly very common for “Horse people” to be woefully ignorant of the creatures they have spent so much time obsessing over.

Looking back to when I was a child, I also was not taught very much in the way of practical information. I didn’t learn much about horse behaviour and body language. I didn’t learn much about the anatomy of the horse. I didn’t learn much about what a balanced hoof looks like. I basically learned how to tack a horse up, get up on the horse and then make it do things.

In my opinion these things that are so commonly ignored in the average riding school are among the most important things that a horse person should know – so why is it not being taught to the next generation of horse obsessed kids? Why is ignorance so common in the horse-people community? On the one hand it really doesn’t make sense, because the more we know about our horses and the better we are able to understand and care for them, the better our working relationships with them will be and the healthier they will be. But then on the other hand, if you have a look at how we as humanity live in every other part of our lives, it’s really not all that surprising.

Now I’m not saying that there isn’t a shift of awareness (or whatever you want to call it) happening – because people do seem to be developing more consideration, open-mindedness and compassion. However, this is not something that will happen overnight, and even for those who do decide to develop their awareness of and consideration for other living beings, mistakes will be made. It’s certainly not a smooth ride.

In my personal experience, I met my teacher having basically zero practical knowledge about horses. I could ride and tack up, but that was it (I couldn’t even ride well – I knew only what I was taught as a child – kick to go and pull to stop!). After having met her, my eyes were opened – but not all the way opened (and still not, maybe I will never reach that point). I started looking at horses differently, seeking out different methods and philosophies. My perspective started to shift, and I make it a point to continue shifting it every day even now. I went through phases where I thought I knew everything, I thought I knew the right way, the best way. It was over a period of years that I developed the humbleness to recognise how little I actually know.

Being humble is not easy for most of us – it wasn’t for me. I liked feeling like I knew everything. I liked feeling in control. I liked feeling powerful. I liked all these feelings – but the feelings didn’t make my horsemanship any better, or improve my ability to keep my horse healthy. I was blind for a moment to the truth of how I was with horses, and when I started being willing to really reflect on who I was, I really didn’t like what I saw.

We may not be able to change every person’s perspective and approach to working with horses, but we can make a difference in our lives, with the people who see and learn from us, whether directly or indirectly. We can be part of the growing change to bring awareness and self-directed learning to all areas of our lives, so that as we grow and learn, we stand as examples to those around us.