It is not what you do to the horse that will make him better. It is what you do for and with the horse that will make him better
I believe that all of us who ride horses, regardless of what discipline or activity we engage in with them, want our horses to function as easily with us on their backs as they can when they are in the pasture by themselves, regardless of the job that we are asking them to perform. However, there is a big difference between the horse tolerating something we are doing with them and willingly accepting it. They may do what is asked of them, but they may hate doing it.
REASONS FOR THE HORSE’S UNWANTED BEHAVIOR
Some reasons that horses may not be happy in their work is mostly due to us either not having the technical knowledge required to teach the horse or sometimes not maintaining enough emotional stability for any length of time in the training process so the horse can find its internal balance.
By this I mean that when the horse acts out and doesn’t perform as we wanted it to, instead of capitalizing on the incident and using it as a teaching moment for the horse, most humans will use disciplinary measures that turn into uncalled for punishment rather than calmly correcting the unwanted behavior and then presenting the horse with a clearer explanation of what they want.
So we can continue to deal with this surface issue, ad infinitum, or we can address the root cause of this unwanted behavior and fix it in a relatively short period of time.
To be fair to the horse however, if the horse did not respond to the request correctly, it could very well be that we were unclear in our presentation as to what we wanted. If this is the case, then the horse presented us with its best interpretation of the request.
The punishment that I just mentioned usually starts because we are experiencing some level of emotional distress stemming from fear, frustration or anger which is caused by a degree of loss of self-control leading to a loss of awareness, i.e.thinking ability, which affects our feel and timing. The result of this irrational tirade could lead the horse to eventually doing what is asked of it but there will be no learning taking place on the part of the horse.
All the little things, seemingly insignificant to us, are important to the horse. For example, in preparing the horse to be mounted, whether from the ground or a mounting block, he must first learn how to stand balanced over all four feet and not move a step until we are securely sitting in the saddle and we ask him to move.
One way this can be accomplished is by taking hold of the horn or pommel and the cantle and pulling the saddle toward us and then pushing it away from us so that the horse has to move its feet and reposition himself so he is balanced over all four feet. Then we would teach the horse to stand solid as we pulled the saddle (or the stirrup) toward us so that he would brace himself and pull against us as we placed a foot in the stirrup.
This is a better method of getting your idea across to the horse because it has more meaning to him than circling the horse every time he moves away from us when we are trying to mount. Thus we will have helped him to learn.
CONSEQUENCES OF INADEQUATE KNOWLEDGE `
Regarding knowledge, it has been my observation that many ‘teachers’ (I use the term loosely given the caliber of most of todays trainers and clinicians) lack clarity of intent when working with riders or their horses.
This is usually caused because their base of knowledge about the logical, progressive complexity of exercises presented in the proper order to correctly develop a horse or rider is lacking, thus resulting in a haphazard approach to the process of educating the horse.
As a result of this rather haphazard method of training the horse he may have bits and pieces of information that are not linked to anything which, in turn, doesn’t make sense to him because there is no connection between any of the pieces of information.
The root cause of this sad situation is the fact that the classical, meaning something that is enduring and proven to be correct, way of developing the horse is no longer taught in todays horse world except in the four classical riding schools in Europe. So it naturally follows that failing to properly prepare the horse will in the long run result in preparing to fail in the education of the horse.
IMPACT FOR THE HORSE OF INADEQUATE TEACHING
Horses and riders learn what they have been exposed to or taught, whether that exposure or teaching was intentional or unintentional, and neither one of them question it. Both generally execute what they have been taught with way more muscular tension than they need to use. In other words, they may have been taught to brace with their body rather than remain supple and this external brace almost always carries with it an emotional (internal) brace as well.
Additionally, if the horse is confused as to what they have been exposed to or taught they will never totally accept their situation. Sometimes, especially regarding older horses, rehabilitation must begin first.
In other words, we can not start teaching new information to the horse until old, unwanted information has been identified which must then be redirected into behavior that is wanted from the horse.and then build on that. However, while the powers of observation, feeling, and sensing are part of our make-up as well as that of the horse, horses are more adept with these things than most of us. So, we need to try and move up to the horse’s level in order to identify what we want to improve upon.
FACTS ABOUT HORSES THAT MUST BE TAKEN INTO CONSIDERATION
Focusing on the horse, the more tension it has in its body the less efficient it becomes. But, strange as it may seem, horses, just like people, need to bring themselves to a higher energy level in order to learn. Little or no energy or total relaxation will not entice them to seek out answers to various situations that they are exposed to.
However, conversely, raising their energy level to a near panic stage is not productive either because it will cause them stop thinking and revert to their natural instincts of fleeing or fighting.
Horses will always act like horses. Their motivation for doing things are different than ours. They see the world through the lens of a horse. We see things through the lens of a human. They are totally different views.
Horse behavior is just that – horse behavior with the reality of cause and effect. When we teach horses a certain behavior, intentionally or unintentionally (cause) they will repeat that behavior (effect). In other words, horses will do what they have been prepared to do and if they are not adequately prepared it may turn into a near-panic or panic situation that will rarely be useful for the rider.
RESPECT AND DISRESPECT
Respect or disrespect are words frequently used by us to describe what the horse is doing or not doing as regards to what we want the horse to do or not do. These words have nothing to do with what is happening with the horse-human relationship. These words are human words, derived from concepts that the horse is incapable of understanding. This is because the horse’s brain is unlike our brain.
In humans the neocortex is the part of the brain that is involved in higher functions such as language, spatial reasoning, abstract thinking, organization, conscious thought, etc. It is the part of the brain that enables us to come up with ideas such as respect and disrespect and other notions. The horse’s brain has a neocortex so small that it has no chance of understanding these concepts. The horse only responds to what it is feeling at any given time.
So this respect and disrespect problem really amounts to, at least on the ground, spatial relationships, meaning the horse either invades our space or pulls away from us when asked to step towards us.
Horses will repeat a behavior that benefits them. As an example of this, if the horse benefits from learning to stay a specific distance from us he will do just that – although it may take a while with a determined, knowledgable person who has the right attitude and aptitude to accomplish the task. This example is what establishing clear, enforceable boundaries is all about.
It involves us having clarity of intent and then establishing and reinforcing the specific distance where we want the horse to stand. Once the horse has an understanding of what is wanted of him and executes it, then its benefit will be a release from pressure – providing we know when to release that pressure as the horse searches for the relief and makes the slightest try to comply. Get the try and then build on it until full comprehension by the horse is achieved.
So all of this is about clearing up a misunderstanding. Thus the problem is solved – as long as we are vigilant for any attempted transgression on the part of the horse and immediately correct it.
THINGS TO BE AWARE OF REGARDING TEACHING THE HORSE TO LEARN
Horses, like people, develop their knowledge base similar to how one would put a string of pearls together – one pearl at a time correctly placed on the string.
Horses look for just a few things during their interaction with us: clear boundaries, leadership from a reliable leader, and emotional stability.
Helping the horse to learn is a slow, methodical process because they are leery of almost anything new or unfamiliar to them and will generally move or shy away from what they don’t know until that object or motion, in their mind, is perceived to them as being non-threatening. Then their curiosity takes over, and they will slowly approach and examine it through smell and touch until they are satisfied that it will do them no harm. So everything we do with horses must be presented in very small steps until he gets comfortable with it.
We, on the other hand, want to accomplish everything at a much faster rate because we are impatient. And therein lies the principal issue. We will, generally, train the horse to the point where it can maybe perform a task, but with not too much understanding or quality and mostly from fear of reprisal if he doesn’t perform it.
GUIDELINES TO ENSURE A POSITIVE LEARNING PROCESS FOR THE HORSE
Three of the most important attributes that we should possess in order to be successful in helping the horse to learn are: feel, timing and patience.
Feel can be described as sensing what the horse is doing relative to what you are asking him to do on the ground or in the saddle. Is the horse acceding to your requests or is he resisting your efforts?
Timing can can be described as knowing when to apply more or less effort when asking the horse to do something and when do you do it in relation to where the horse’s feet and mind are.
A lot of folks ride or work the horse on the ground in a mechanical fashion meaning they do what they have been taught from others without question, or have been influenced by viewing DVDs, Utube videos, etc. never realizing that always do or never do situations are not part of the process of developing the horse. By this I mean that they are doing things mechanically without feeling what the horse is telling them.
This is different than riding the horse technically by knowing what, when, how much, and what kind of aids are needed in a particular situation to guide the horse into a shape or form or to raise or lower his energy level.
Feel and timing are important because the horse’s learning process starts when pressure of whatever kind is applied to him, meaning an uncomfortable feeling which he wants to get relief from, so therefore he must activate his seek system to find a solution to the pressure problem.
When the horse, through trial and error, gives to the pressure (even if it is momentary) we, using feel and timing, must recognize the try in the horse (there may also be a slight change in its body) and immediately release the pressure. If we are late in releasing the pressure or we keep the pressure on after the horse has responded, the horse will eventually start to disregard the pressure we place on him and he will get dull to the aids.
When the horse feels the relief from that pressure he gets a shot of dopamine which makes him feel better so that then he will seek to replicate the behavior again to make him feel better.
So it is the relief that the horse gets that triggers his learning. It is not just the release from the pressure that is critical for the horse it learn. But it is critical for us to provide that release from pressure quickly.
But in order for that to occur, we must give the horse a little time before repeating the request. If the horse does not receive a release of pressure from us after an honest try, he, most likely will then defend against it by thrusting into it.
It should be mentioned here that when we first begin to develop this feel and timing of applying and decreasing pressure more power will be applied to the aids that are used than is needed until we realize that less power will get the job done with less stress for both the horse and ourselves.
When the horse gives to the pressure and experiences relief we should give him a break, pet him, and let him relax for a few moments. In other words, do nothing which can be very hard for some of us to do. Nevertheless if we can do this it will benefit the horse. We must give the horse time to process what has just occurred. This is called dwell time in some circles.
So the lesson for us is that the slower we go in teaching a task the faster the horse will learn the task. This means that we must develop patience which translates as developing self-control and self-discipline. Now that does not mean that the horse will necessarily learn in a day what is being asked of him, but, over the next few days of correct, patient teaching, he will get better – if we repeat the process as was done on the first day and if we do not get impatient.
For us, it means having a positive attitude and an approach and presentation which puts the horse in a learning frame of mind. In other words, ask often, accept little at first, repeat the request and always reflect on the results given by the horse – looking for quality rather than doing it.
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A TEACHER
We are the teachers. It is hard work to become a teacher and even harder work to maintain being one. One must be able to read (feel) the student (horses) and through good timing be able to direct its feet and ultimately, its mind.
A teacher imparts knowledge to students. They facilitate learning, monitor and evaluate students, and guide them onto the path of learning.
An instructor tells us what steps to take in order to accomplish a specific task which may or may not have any connection to any other skills.
In order to be a teacher, we must devote ourselves to understanding first of all ourselves and then, understand the needs of the student. As we progress on our journey of acquiring a better understanding, so the student will also flourish in their understanding.
There are way more people who are instructors than there are teachers. It is your choice as to which one you want to become.
ONE FINAL THOUGHT
In the final analysis, nobody actually knows what the horse is really thinking.