This is a really interesting topic and It’s one that is quite complicated.
A lot of the ideas that come to mind when we start talking about listening to the horse or watching its body or following it cues seems to bring up in people the idea that we are pandering to the horse. Or, more often than not that we are training the horse wherein he does something negative and we stop doing what we’re doing, reinforcing the behavior. Basically teaching the horse to continue doing the negative behavior because it will stop us from going forward with what we were going to do.
Of course, this is absolutely something that can happen and I won’t for a minute pretend that it can’t. With appropriate timing and the ability to read your horses body language intimately, you are able to use the information that you get, to show the horse that you’re listening and that you will slow down and you will help him be more confident in what is happening.
Here is a little horse that I worked with over the 5 day weekend that had suffered some trauma. He was a fairly green horse and purchased only a few months ago. His new owner had ridden him at a clinic and out and about on her property with no issue, and on a particular day the moon and the stars aligned for a challenging situation in which the horse could not cope. Upon mounting, the horse had reached his tolerance level and bucked causing the owner to have a significant fall.
As a result of the incident, he hasn’t been ridden in quite sometime and the last experience was the accident.
We are now ready to bring him back into work and wanted to make sure that it was done in a calm confident and supportive environment, for both him and the owner. She had been doing some ground work with him and saddling at home and when I started working with him he was already saddled and we began there. As I started to do ground work I noticed he was quite tense reactive and holding his breath, so my first priority was getting him comfortable moving around on the ground at all three gaits.
This doesn’t mean simply asking him to walk, trot and canter both directions. It’s vital to read his body.
The reason that it’s so important to watch this horses body language is because he’s very proficient on the ground in understanding what it is that you’re asking of him. So while normally with a green horse or a younger horse you may be able to use a simple walk trot and canter both directions to confirm whether they are okay or not this horse is able to hold himself together emotionally, even if he’s not okay because he understands what it is that you’re asking him.
So a simple walk trot and Canter in both directions is not enough to keep me or anyone else safe. What I need to do is ask for transitions; ask for turnarounds, changes of direction -- which change the eye that he’s looking at me through and most importantly, observe his body language.
My approach included changing the pace within a gait, so having the requirement of him going faster or slower within walk trot and canter. This helped to make sure that he was able to listen and execute cues even in movement. It included me causing the saddle to move, and checking to make sure that he was able to follow energy cues even while he was moving. Eg. if he was able to come to a stop despite a rope swinging etc.
One of the most crucial factors of this exercise and this ground work is the multiple rest periods that I allowed the horse to experience. It’s not just about going out there and running him around and changing directions and getting him moving and turning and switching because again he’s able to reactively do what I’m asking him to do. At the end of the day, I don’t want to get on a reactive horse I want to get on a thinking horse.
The thinking horse is created when we increase pressure to a level that the horse can emotionally and mentally handle and decreasing the pressure to allow thought and processing of that experience. I cannot stress how important it is to remain within the tolerance level of the horse.
Otherwise we are simply tormenting them and we may be lucky enough so to speak to get them tired enough or overwhelmed enough to ride that day but eventually that tired and overwhelm will wear out and we will find ourselves in a dangerous situation.
In the photos you can see that what I have done after I felt the horse was safe enough to Mount or to at least to proceed to working with the idea of mounting, that I used a colt starting technique of bouncing in the Stirrup and then stepping down to communicate to the horse that we were heading towards mounting and riding. What this allowed was, the horse can display his concern and worry, (he demonstrates through teeth grinding worried eyes, pursed lips, tongue rolling) and then allowed me time to show him that “I see that you’re worried, let me step down and give you some time”.
Once I had done this a few times he became more relaxed with the process and I was able to proceed with putting weight in the Stirrup. I did this a couple of times, again showing him that I recognised his concern, allowing him time to relax. When I felt safe I stepped up into the saddle.
You can see in the photos that when I first mounted he was quite tense, but because I had spent time showing him that I was listening, he didn’t feel it necessary to react. Instead he allowed me to bend him and talk to him and show him he was okay. We were able to step off in the walk without issue. I stayed on him for a short session of walk and a little bit of trot to allow him to become confident in the ride and then I dismounted, took all the gear off and allowed him to roll in the sand. It left him with a great experience for his most recent ride, hopefully replacing the idea that being ridden was scary.
We essentially repeated this on day two and the process was a lot quicker. The owner has gone home now to continue building his confidence in being ridden again.
Taking time doesn’t mean that you aren’t going do something and it doesn’t mean that you’re pandering, it means you’re listening, you care and you are there to help your horse be more confident in what is happening.
Horses do not enjoy being reactive, it is a last resort or reaction when they are ill-equipped to manage their worry any longer. For us to take the time to help them through this process builds trust and demonstrates to the horse he can look to us for guidance.