Sometimes, you need to listen to your horse, give him what he needs, use the tools around you, to get to a point where you can train. This was my status update on Facebook yesterday after I worked with a mare that got me thinking (they all seem to get me thinking :).
When I pulled up she was as high as a kite, looking around, out of touch, challenging to communicate with. The owner has been getting lessons for these very reasons, the mare is easily distracted and pulls focus. Huge leaps and bounds have been made over the past 4 weeks, and yesterday was no different. However, when I arrived she was pretty far ‘gone’ I started to move her around a bit (online) and she was jumpy and bolstery. I had 2 choices, 1st one, try to work with what I had, bring her down and spend most of our session trying to communicate, 2, take a step back, look around at what tools I had, and see if I could give her what she needed. Blessed as I am I had a round yard nearby, I decided to head out into the round yard and let her ‘get it out of her system’ – with some level of direction – its not just a ‘free for all’.
So I headed out into the middle, took off her lead and halter, asked her to yield the forequarter, hindquarter, back up etc. Then I asked her to send out onto the circle – and boy she went! Galloping, bucking, head up in the air like a giraffe, I let her go for 3 circles, changed her direction and let her go the other way a few times. When I could see a slight change, I called her in. Up she came and got a rub, happy to stand with me in the middle, we then proceeded to have an awesome session at liberty – her first time ever, where she stuck to me like glue, walk, trot turn etc.
I believe there was no way we would have got there if I hadn’t let her get the ‘play’ or ‘excess energy’ or whatever you want to call it out of her system. I didn’t take offence to it, and all it ‘cost’ me was 5 minutes – and what I gained was more building blocks in our relationship. The next hour and a half was spent doing some quality training.
Sometimes, you need to listen to your horse, give him what he needs, use the tools around you, to get to a point where you can train. We wont always have a round yard, we wont always have an arena, but we always have the ability to step back, think about what is happening, and see if there is a way to make it easier – for us, and the horse.
I don’t often use the term ‘natural’ horsemanship. If you had to categorize what I do, then I suppose most people would put me in there. I prefer to use the term ‘practical’ horsemanship, or just plain old horsemanship.
To me, what I do is simply communicating, talking, and conversing with the horse in a way that he understands, respects and likes. I used to just say ‘in a way that he understands’, but the more horses I work with, the more I realize that they ‘understand’ most of the training methods out there. And understanding is not necessarily a good deal. For example, I worked with a horse today, an ex – racehorse, and when I met him I thought he was quite sweet (which he is), and quiet. What I realized after working with him for a little while is that he is tolerant. And more to the point, he has learnt to ‘shut down’ and accept whatever it is that you are going to ‘do to’ him. I have met a few horses like this, and each comes out of their shell in their own time, the horse from today literally rolls his tongue, bites it between his teeth, and sucks on it, like a baby sucks on a dummy. I believe he does as a coping mechanism. He puts his head down, sucks on his tongue, does what you ask, lets you do whatever you are going to do, and waits for you to leave. At first appearance he seems quiet, what he is – detached.
He ‘understands’ that this is the path of least resistance. So understanding isn’t all its cracked up to be. Respect – I want my horse to respect me and my space to keep me safe, to achieve performance. So understanding and respect together – better, but still not the whole package. I can get understanding and respect from a horse, but he still doesn’t ‘like’ what we are doing. Now I’m not naive enough to think that given a choice my horses wouldn’t just choose ‘eat grass’ most of the time, but I do believe we can train, play, work – whatever the words that you use, in a way that he likes. I want my horse to be engaged and like my company while he is in it.
By the time I finished working with this big boy, he had started to relax and give me some trust, give me a chance to prove that I was who I was telling him I was, he had stopped sucking on his tongue so much and actually began to engage in the skills we were doing. I think he still might be a ‘quiet’ horse – but I want him to be a confident, engaged quiet horse – not a horse that is just waiting to be somewhere else.
At the end of the day, horses just want to ‘get along’, it’s us that create the issues by trying to communicate with them the way we understand, not the way they do.
Excuses Vs. Understanding
Sometimes we might come across a horse that has had a bad experience in its life. It could have been about anything – floating, shoeing, or riding. It is what we do with this knowledge after the experience that can make all the difference to our horses.
Let me try and explain. I have a horse in training at the moment that has been mistreated. She is quiet enough until you put her under pressure (her perception – she sometimes considers being led pressure), once under pressure she reacts badly – pulls back, wants to get away. Now, I understand this – I know the history and I know why she does it – BUT it is not acceptable behavior. So it is my responsibility to help her work through the issues that she has. The worst possible thing I could do is ignore it because she has a reason. For starters she is only 3 years old – so for me to make it ok for her to be reactive, because I know why she is, is going to ruin her life – she will get passed from owner to owner because of her nature.
To put it in human terms, just because someone has been through a traumatic event, they don’t have a right to erratic, disruptive or dangerous behavior because of it. We can help them, understand them but don’t give them excuses – excuses help no animals or no humans.
What horses do you know that do things ‘because he’ (fill in the blank).
What can we do to help the horse work through the issues?
Work on your relationship – not just your riding,
Time and Consistency are the Mother of Progress
For the past 14 weeks I have been, without fail, working with 3 horses each Wednesday afternoon. Two pregnant mares and one 18month old filly, all with very different personalities and in the mare’s cases, issues to overcome. Initially my time was spent teaching ‘the girls’ the groundwork skills (one of the mares and of course the filly are unridden, the other mare has been started), and as time has passed refining those skills, and using them to progress in the relationship. In between my weekly visits the owner has been dedicated to building her relationship with them, and continuing the groundwork.
Insecurity was a major issue with these girls, whenever you took any of them away from the other, they would be calling out, distressed, and unfocussed. As the relationship between both me and the girls increased, and the owners and the girls relationship built, their ‘need’ to be with each other decreased, up to the point now where we are able to either long rein them, or walk them, alone, down the road, past scary things, without calling out to her mates, and when she does get a little scared – looking to the human for leadership. This may not seem like much to some people, but this will directly translate to when being ridden, they will be confident and happy horses. When we started with one of these girls she was so ‘shut down’ to humans she would just walk into the middle of the arena and let you ‘do’ things – she was completely detached. Another was afraid just of the rope – today we started long reining, ropes all around her and no trouble.
I believe that all horses can grow into confident and happy animals – even those that have suffered abuse. I believe that the only exception to this rule is pain. If a horse is in continuous pain, they will still try for you, but as the pain ‘grabs’ again they can slip back into what we call ‘bad’ habits.
The owner of these horses is committed to their training, their health, and their mental health, and in just 14 short weeks the changes are incredible. They are like 3 different horses, and each week they grow and grow. The owner should be commended on her commitment – we have trained in pouring rain, hot winds, cold and heat. She has allocated the time each week, and the money each week to the growth of these girls, and when it comes to starting them under saddle (and riding the one that is started) she will be rewarded with trusting and willing partners.
Makes me happy,
The Flip Side – Excuses VS Understanding
You may have read my post about Excuses Vs. Understanding, and this is a follow up on the same horse. We got to the about the 6 day mark of her being at my place for starting – she was going really, really well. Her ground manners improved, her confidence rose, everything was coming together nicely.
I decided to introduce her to the saddle. Well, she ‘went off’ like a firecracker. I did plenty of desensitizing with the saddle, the pad, and the rope where the girth was going to be – all went really well. She was a little ‘girthy’ but all in all she handled it. Once that girth was done up, it was a different story – bucked like a rodeo horse. I worked with her until she was lunging around without bucking, took the saddle off and on maybe 3 times to keep the desensitizing going. All good. Day 2 – exactly the same (more bucking). Once I got her going, she would ‘cope’ with the saddle but never really relax. I thought maybe she wasn’t ready, went back to ground skills, perfect – back to the willing horse I know.
Introduce a roller, or just the actual belly part of the roller, thinking I could just desensitize the girth / wither area – no good, back to square 1 (more bucking) – a repeat of day 1 with the saddle, after work get her to a point of no bucking. Next day, try again, still the same result, if not worse. This poor horse is petrified.
I start really assessing the situation – this horse is responding to all the groundwork I am doing – she couldn’t be haltered properly – now she willingly puts her nose in the halter when it is held for her. She was nervous, now she’s building confidence, box after box is being ticked. I call the owner, I find out that when the first attempt was made to ‘break her in’ the previous owner decided to rope her and pull her to the ground. Wrapped one rope around her girth and over her wither, and the other length ways. I’m told she fought and fought, threw herself to the ground. I call the vet and I asked him what damage both permanent or repairable could have been done.
He tells me that the way the spine in our horsey friends works, is essentially about 7 – 9 inches under the wither the spine begins to travel. The spinal processes jut upwards, and if one of these was pulled out of place and onto a nerve, for the horse it is like having a hot wire running through them.
The light bulb goes on. We head back into the round yard to have a ‘feel’ and the reaction is self-explanatory – this horse hurts. A lot.
I call the owner and make arrangements for her to go home until she is ‘fixed’. I am so glad that I trusted my instincts on this one. I knew that her temperament wasn’t in question, I knew that 90% of the time this horse tried her ass off for me – what was the common denominator when she went ballistic – anything that applied pressure to the wither area – saddle, roller, doesn’t matter.
I’m looking forward to working with this horse when she is not in pain – I think the results will be great.
So the flip side of making ‘excuses’ or ‘understanding’ our horses is diagnosis – most horses just want to ‘get along’ so if yours isn’t – have you eliminated the pain question?
Is your horse ready for his ‘party clothes’ ?
I think it was my 3rd Ken Faulkner Clinic, back in 05 or 06 when a lady walked in with a stunning black horse, I mean, stop what you are doing and put both eyes on this mare because she demands your attention – and that was just in looks.
Within 5 minutes she had demanded our attention in a lot of other ways – she was dancing on the end of her lead, leaving the owner without much control. The horse wanted to be at the stalls, to see the other horses, to eat grass – basically the mare wanted to do anything but stand quietly and wait for the clinic to start. So the owner handed the lead over to Ken and we ended up watching an impromptu demo of basically the program we were there to study over the coming 4 days.
After Ken had finished running through ground skills and asking the horse to ‘put her manners back in’ they walked to the group together – both a little more tired, and a lot more sweaty than when the day had started. And don’t get me wrong – that horse wanted to go on the end of that lead – all Ken did while he was working with her was channel the energy that she needed to expend, in order to get her to a place where she could be spoken to.
But this is an article about feed vs. energy – not about training, though the 2 intertwine a lot more than we give much thought to.
When Ken arrived back to our group, and invited questions and asked us what we had learned, someone asked a question in regards to the temperament of the horse. Kens response was – “there is nothing wrong with the horse, she is just in her party clothes and she’s not ready for them”.
I have since heard Ken say that about a million times – and it still resonates with me. I come from the school of thought where you fed your horse twice a day (whether he needed it or not), and you didn’t really make the connection with your horse behaving badly and what you put in its mouth. Of course while growing up we heard ‘oats will make him crazy’ and other tidbits of knowledge – but nothing really concrete. When I was younger I fed my horse twice a day and he was fine – looking back now I realize that his workload (me riding every day after school and all day each day on the weekend) required him to be fed that much.
As I got older and my commitments changed, I got a new horse and started competing in dressage. Tank was a lovely boy, but had his share of ‘issues’ and it was probably around this time I started meeting people who spoke to me about what impact feed had on him and his behavior. I remember him getting to a point where he would really ‘jack up’ and I called an acupuncturist – she had a chat with me about feeds and asked me to feed a certain way for a week – a ‘detox’ if you will. She explained to me that the show feeds I was feeding him were high in protein, and if I wasn’t working him enough to use the protein, it could lead to problems like him ‘tying up’.
I still didn’t really ‘get it’ (that comes much later in the story!). I remember heading to the feed store and they were out of my normal feed – so they sold me a different product, assuring me it was ‘pretty much the same’. It wasn’t – my horse went ‘off the wall’ nuts. And, you know what ? I still didn’t make the connection – I went back to the acupuncturist, the chiropractor, you name it I did it – because my horse was usually so ‘quiet’ that this behavior surely had to be a pain factor (in my mind). Then my instructor asked me what I was feeding him – and nearly strangled me when I told her. I took the feed off him and within a week or so he went back to his usual self. This is an extreme case and one that you may, or may not relate to, but the more time I spend training horses and their people, the more understanding I have of horses and their dietary requirements and how they relate to behavior.
So, back to our ‘party clothes’. I start young horses under saddle, and I have had them arrive in all sorts of conditions – grass fed, hand fed, stabled and fed, overfed. I have had them dropped off in their ‘party clothes’ and I have had them dropped off just ‘looking like a horse’. I can tell you now – the ones that ‘look like a horse’ get further, faster than the ones who are dropped off looking like they could head to a royal show. The reason for this is – horses are not designed to be fed and digest synthetic feeds.
STOP! – Before you get defensive let me try and explain where I am coming from.
I feed all of the horses in my care – mine, and the ones here for training. They are in no way starved so they perform, or so they are quiet or anything like that – these are methods that I do not believe in, and quite frankly don’t work. What I am saying is that the horses that are in their ‘party clothes’ are generally more reactive and less thoughtful, than those that are not. I believe the reason for this is that they have an excess of energy in their body, which hinders their ability to have rational thought instead of ‘reactions’.
That’s why you can feed a paddock horse hard feed or grain and see no outward signs of behavioral issues – until you do. What I mean by that is, you may be able to do many things with your horse – groom him, lead him around, even ride him with ‘no pressure’ and not notice anything – and then you may ask him to perform something new, something he doesn’t understand, or a ‘pressure’ situation (horses perceived pressure – not yours) and all of a sudden you have an (in human terms) irrational fire breathing dragon on your hands. This is because they are too ‘hot’ to think. And it’s not about the type of feed that you feed either – cool feeds, hot feeds, pellets, whatever – it is all additional energy.
Think about it in human terms – if I fed you a body builders diet for a couple of weeks and you did nothing to increase your energy output, you would just get fat. Horses don’t only just get fat – they get reactive. Watch them in the paddock for a while – are they on edge ? Spooky ? Reactive to the slightest thing ? Maybe they do have their ‘blood up’. How do you think they are going to react when you sit up on top and ask them to do something ? This article mainly refers to a younger or inexperienced / uneducated horse. The older and more educated they get the more easily they are able to control their reactive side.
Think about kids – you are having a sleepover or party or whatever, and at some point you decide to give them lollies, chips and soft drink. Are you a) going to give it to them half an hour before you want to put a movie on and have them quiet down and start going to sleep ? Or are you going to give it to them half an hour before they are heading outside to play games for an hour or so ? I know that those of you with kids are laughing right now at trying to get a bunch of ‘sugared up’ kids to sleep! Your horse is the same! It is energy input vs. energy output – every days feed should be different! Yes – different! What energy did your horse expend today ? none ? Don’t feed him a hard feed – just hay! What energy is he going to expend tomorrow ? A big endurance ride ? Then feed him extra! How much energy is he truly expending when you ride ? Are you riding for an hour at trot and canter ? or are you just meandering through the trail for 20 minutes ?
It is not always going to be that way – I am not saying ‘never feed your horses hard feed’, what I am saying is make sure the training is in there before you do. He has plenty of time to look like a stunning show horse – but make sure everyone is looking at you for the right reasons. Generally during the first week of a horse being here they get lots of hay and a small hard feed, and by the time they go home they may be up to a couple of hard feeds a day – because I ride them every day, and I mean ride them – not just walk around. I know a few older horse trainers who think I am truly mad for feeding any hard feed – young horses simply are not ready for it – but I do, mainly because I have limited grass, and I also know that they are going to go home to be hard fed – so I want them to be able to ‘handle it’ as much as they can.
I know a lot of people who just feed their horses hay. That’s it – and to be honest it is probably the best thing for them. It makes us feel good to buy the shiny bags with the yummy smelling feed, and we love how our horse whinny’s out when we are feeding them – but the truth is – he is a forager – he is designed to eat grass. Plain old, grows in the ground boring grass. Heaps of it!
When someone calls me with a behavioral issue one of the first questions I ask ‘what are you feeding ?’ I just worked with a mare today that had been on the skinny side just a few weeks ago when the owner bought her – and has put on tens of kilos in a very short time, and is now a fire breathing dragon. I worked with her at liberty for a while, and after getting through the squeals and the kicks at me, and the ears back, I found a really sweet little horse – who is ‘sugared up’ to the eyeballs – which the owner had already come to the conclusion that it may be the feed as she was a sweet and kind mare when she bought her. In fact the trainer that worked with the horse before me said that it was ‘the meanest horse he had ever worked with’. I did not see a horse that was mean – I saw a horse whose diet made her irrational.
I could make this article go on forever – the debates will come in about ‘cool feeds’ etc. etc. I want to stress that I am not against feeding in anyway – in fact I feed my horses oats (gasp!). However my horses are trained before I introduce extra energy into their systems.
The reason I write this article is because maybe it may save you or someone you know an injury one day – it sounds really dramatic, I know, but Phil and I were talking the other day about some of the truly dumb stuff you see people doing with horses, and Phil said “its because 30 years ago everyone knew someone who had died in a horse accident”. And that’s probably true – years ago we knew, and accepted how dangerous horses could be (the horse always kicks, the gun is always loaded) and somewhere along the way it’s turned into “I trust her with my life”. I am going to finish the article with a few facts on feeding horses that I think we sometimes forget.
Fact; Horses are foraging animals. Designed to eat and digest primarily grass.
Fact; Horses are prey animals. They are designed to move many miles each day, grazing on grass and other foliage, which they will get different nutrients and minerals from.
Fact; when we domesticated horses, we put them to work, and they worked all day. Hard. And got a cup of oats or cracked corn and plenty of hay/chaff (white) at the end of it. If they were lucky.
Fact; We have bred horses to be better ‘doers’ than ever before – and we still feed them like they are stick thin.
the biggest issues with horses in this day are.
I do not advocate keeping horses thin – come and check mine out they are all ‘well covered’
The message I am trying to get across – train them – and then put the feed into them.
My mission in life (profound I know) is for horses and humans to have wonderful lives together – safe, confident, and happy.
Question – why do we want skinny humans and fat horses ? As humans we are often ‘offended’ by obesity in our own kind, whether this is cosmetic, or for health reasons – but we are happy for our horses to be obese – they face the same issues fat humans do – heart disease, diabetes, laminitis – we are slowly killing our horses because it makes us feel good to look out into the paddock and see them big and fat.
Its all about trust
This week I had 2 very different experiences with 2 horses I work with. One is in training with me – he has been here for 2 weeks and was sent as he is ‘spooky’ – I am re-building his confidence in the rider. The owner tells me that he was always a confident horse, and that in the 6 months prior to ‘the incident’ he had begun to lose confidence – he no longer wanted to be the lead horse, and things like that. ‘The incident’ that happened was a group was out on a ride, several ‘things’ spooked the horses all at once, 3 people fell off, and the horses galloped home rider less. If he was losing confidence before that – then he sure would have none left after it.
The other horse is a mare that I have been working with weekly for about 5 months. I took both of them on trail rides this week. The gelding, the spooky one, is still building trust with me, and we had to navigate several ‘scary’ scenarios. His response ranged from ‘I’m outta here’ to ‘ok ill try’. When he got his leg stuck in a vine, and I had to try and get him out of it – his trust went out the window, and he started to panic. I had to work with him to keep him focused on me. We got out of the situation, and the rest of the ride was a lot better – I showed him that I was a partner – and one worthy of his trust.
On the other ride the mare got a large stick caught in her tail – and I didn’t know about it until the owner pointed it out – she was just so cool, calm and collected about it she didn’t even react – but she has had weeks of training with me, and knows that she can trust me.
There is no way to expose your horse to everything that he might be scared of in his life – but you can desensitize him to things (having things in and around his legs, yielding to pressure etc.) and you can also build his confidence so he is better able to cope in a situation. I am working with several ‘spooky’ horses at the moment and it is so rewarding watching them grow into confident horses from the timid horses they were when I first met them. You can improve your horse’s confidence.
Thinking outside the square.
I think outside the square when it comes to my horsemanship. I approach and assess each horse as an individual, and apply the ground skills to build the confidence, trust and partnership that I am looking for.
A lot of horses come my way that need to build confidence – some may have been mistreated, some may have had a traumatic experience, and it is somewhat a specialty of mine – building confidence in these horses. I recently had an experience with one that caused me to think outside the square – that is outside the square that you are thinking of. This is where Epiphany’s are born.
The horse in question has learnt to bolt from the handler, and I had to work around this built in response as we were getting nowhere fast (well she was when she bolted!). Firstly, I realized that I may have to get a little busy with this horse in order for her to realize that she was ok – a lot of times with timid horses you need to slow down – with this one I needed to speed up.
Second, I had to take out the forward (just for a minute). Every time I tried to lunge her in a certain direction, even with 1 foot of lead, she turned and ran, so I started working with the exercise I wanted to do (forequarter yield), but I did it with her going in reverse. Epiphany strikes.
It is important to not give up on your horse. Don’t accept mediocre behavior because your training method is not working. Just pick another one.
Food for thought.
Is it time to slap your horse?
I don’t mean physically slapping him – it’s more of a metaphorical slap. I met a mare over the weekend that had a separation issue. On the Saturday we took her paddock mate out on a short ride – still on the property, and they could still hear each other and see each other most of the time. By the time we got back (30 minutes) she was in such a state that she was bashing herself up against the stable gate, in a lather of sweat, and calling uncontrollably.
Even when we returned, and her paddock mate was no more than 10 meters away – she continued this behavior – a danger to herself, her handler and the other horses around.
This is not normal behavior. In a wild mob situation, this mare would probably not develop such attachment issues – but if she did – she would be killed for it. Her herd would not be able to take the risk of such detrimental behavior – think about it – a mare calling out constantly? The predators would soon know where you were. A mare that thrashed about? She would soon injure herself or another horse nearby. The herd would either abandon her, or attack her.
I’m not going to take such drastic action. But I am going to work with her on the ground, in a safe environment, while her mate gets taken away – so I can prove to her that she is ok.
I call it a slap because its like when you watch a horror movie – and the damsel starts screaming uncontrollably, and inevitably someone walks up and slaps her – this ‘brings her round’ so she is once again a valuable member of the group.
This is what we need to do with our horse that lacks confidence – we need to work her physically and mentally, to let her know “hey – you’re ok”.
Your horse doesn’t want to behave like this – it’s not normal or natural, so help them feel good about themselves. That’s what support is all about.