What Does You Horse Understand?
I whole heartedly agree with the idea that Dressage is for all horses and is first and foremost therapeutic and rehabilitative, meaning that all horses benefit from it when it’s conducted in a manner which respects both their body and mind. In fact I’d go so far as to say that it’s essential for them to practise all elements of it to some degree in order to live a fully comfortable life with us.
In a previous post Making Changes I talked about creating the essential changes in the horse needed to ensure we make progress. As I was writing that it got me thinking about the whole process again and some of the obstacles that appear to stand in the way. I say that because I don’t see enough well trained, emotionally and physically balanced horses out there and it doesn’t have to be that way.
What I do see are far too many people struggling to live a truly harmonious life with their horses. It almost seems as if degrees of “bad behaviour” are a general expectation when dealing with horses and that if we have a whole day when the horse does as he’s asked in a peaceful manner we are winning and dare I say, even grateful. I rarely go to a yard where I’m not hearing tales of someones naughty horse or watching people being dragged around, pushed about or generally albeit politely trampled on by their horse to some degree. It seems that it’s only when the behaviour has escalated to a degree that it’s become so loud and disruptive to the human that he/she can no longer ignore it, the horse is then reprimanded, only for the behaviour to be repeated seconds later and the whole process repeated. I hear tales of ‘Oh thats just the way he is’ or ‘he’s just a bit fresh today’. In fact it never has to be that way.
Note: Horse’s do not learn, either in-hand or ridden by being punished for something they did a second ago. In fact this approach actually punishes the “bad behaviour” for having ceased. Whether you are using positive or negative reinforcement training methods, post episode punishment is not only confusing for the horse it is also totally ineffective. Because if it worked you wouldn’t be having to repeat it again and again? So if you find you’re having to reprimand your horse often for the same behaviours it’s just because you haven’t taught him how to do something different yet.
So what’s this got to do with Dressage training? Well because training is training and it starts the moment you enter the horse’s space. If you are not teaching your horse how to be balanced when you are standing by his side you won’t be teaching him how to be balanced when you are on his back.
It can be easy to feel as if Dressage is a ‘thing’ that’s for other people to do or be good at, or that your horse is not a dressage horse or that dressage training is just not for you, or it’s even something boring you have to do in the school. In fact the word Dressage is really just a word. If you look up its meaning you’ll find quite a few subtly differing definitions, which I think is what allows people to make up their own interpretation of it, especially these days. When you Google it the first description that comes up is “The art of riding and training a horse in a manner that develops obedience, flexibility, and balance” I like this one.
So each time you enter your horse’s space and help him understand how to be balanced in body and mind, it could be said that you are doing Dressage. Each time you sit on his back and adopt good equation to help him carry you with ease, you are doing Dressage. Each time you help him correct his asymmetry so he can
release his stiff back or strengthen a weak hind leg you are doing Dressage, each time you practise carrying the bit upwards in his mouth rather than squashing his tongue with it you are doing Dressage. Because if we are going to sit on our horse’s back or just expect him to live in harmony with us in the humans world then we owe it to him to do some Dressage.
It’s my feeling that it would be helpful to horses if people viewed Dressage as less of separate discipline and instead something to integrate into their every day practise. There are those of course who have made it a separate thing. I would prefer not to call that stuff Dressage though and it could probably do with having a new word invented for it.
Dressage in its truest sense has nothing to do with competition and everything to do with making your horse’s life better. Sure, if you want to go out and bare the fruits of your training endeavours to the world then that’s great and often a useful test of your training, but the word Dressage is just that. A word. It’s what you actually do that matters. And what you are supposed to do is help. Help the horse to live and function in our human world by teaching him how to feel calm and taken care of by teaching him what you expect of him when he’s in our presence. Then by strengthening, suppling, straightening, rehabilitating and gymnasticizing him to carry you, and this begins with your first job, which is to take away the his worry.
“Badly Behaved” horses are always worried. And until you have removed this uncertainty for the horse you will always be struggling to achieve anything other than trouble shooting the symptoms of that worry.
There are lots of different ideas on what constitutes a ‘successful outcome’ in training depending on what methodology you follow and I won’t get into that here but put simply, when we train the horse we ‘do stuff’ based on our belief of whats required for the outcome we desire, and then hope to get stuff back from the horse, which aligns with that preconceived idea. But how often does that happen in your training and what happens when it doesn’t? What’s your next move?
Goal setting is important. We need a clear destination, or how will we know where we are going? And we need to know where we are going otherwise how will we know if we got there? This is often obvious to people and most times we have our eye firmly set on the destination. The problem is that our horse does not share this ability to look into the future nor does he give hoot about it. Added to that, he has absolutely no idea what the point is. What he does know and is always acutely aware of is how he feels in this moment.
So any future outcome you achieve with your horse will always and only ever be based on the accumulation of many many moments of how your horse felt and what he learned in each of those moments. That thought can feel a little daunting at first but once you’ve got over that it can also be a very liberating and enlightening one that will help your training progress much faster, as it will enable you and your horse to arrive at some pretty astonishing places by way of seemingly small and doable bite sized chunks.
Realistic Goal Setting:
So your goal might be to train your horse to advanced level before you’re both 90. This would be your long term goal. Then it might be half-pass by Christmas and this would be your medium term goal. Within this time frame though you will need some shorter term goals. Goals for the session and then those goals for the moment. Progress can very quickly stall however if you attempt to practice or achieve the long term goals in short term goal time frames. This is when you will often experience misunderstanding or lack of ability from the horse which can lead to resistance and frustration for both. For many riders this just feels like a simple ‘no’ from the horse. Then what? How do you assess what your horse needs to progress and succeed?
A good place to start is firstly to assume that the horse is more or less always generous and tolerant by nature. Evidence would suggest this, seeing as how they allow us up there in the first place. Just like us though some are more academic than others, some more athletic and so on, but essentially they are all just doing their best within who and what they are. It’s important to chose a horse that matches your ability and personality as a trainer but that’s another post perhaps 🙂 At the end of the day horses are primarily only interested in eating and not being eaten, preferring a quiet life. So when you’re experiencing a lack of harmony, resistance, or anything other than the outcome you’d hoped for, you must assume that your horse has either a pain issue or a simple lack of understanding or ability to carry out what is being asked of him.
It costs nothing to stop and ask!
Hands up, if you’ve ever got on a horse and without really thinking about it assumed that he knows what he should be doing? Hands up if you’ve ever had a horse not do as asked and described him as being difficult or naughty? Hands up if you’ve ever just repeated the same question louder and louder assuming the horse was either deaf or stupid? To whatever degree you are able to relate to any of the above, It’s worth a think about anyway…
It often fascinates me that however intelligent we humans are as a species, and able to apply logic to so many things in our day to day lives, throw a horse into the equation and suddenly people can literally seem to loose their minds!
If a young child was struggling to understand his times-table, would you repeatedly shout the same question louder, or even chastise him for getting the answer wrong? That would be unkind and confidence shattering surely? Instead might you stop, and endeavour to find out what the problem was? Perhaps find out what he does understand and work out ways in which to help from there? Most people I know would absolutely adopt this attitude with a child so why should it be different for a horse? Well the answer is, it shouldn’t.
Teaching vs. Training:
At first glance these two words might seem like the same thing but I like to separate them and here’s why. Before you can train the horse’s body without force you need to develop a set of aids or communication tools. An interactive vocabulary between both your bodies and minds, that over time becomes predictable and helpful to the horse. The horse needs to understand how to respond to and comply with requests that you make of his body such as, ‘move away from this’ or ‘yield to that’ Put simply the horse must learn to comply to our physical requests in order for us to be able to influence the his body parts as we need to. But there’s a word I dropped in up there which was ‘comply’ If you look it up in the dictionary it comes attached to other words like ‘submit’ and ‘conform’ which can and often does lead to misunderstanding. But when all is said and done the horse must at some point willingly ‘comply’ with our physical requests or positive training cannot occur.
So if I have taught the horse that when I touch this part of his body he moves away, then the next time I ask that in a dynamic situation he will more likely comply with my request willingly and with ease, enabling me to help him train his body. So what when that moment arrives? I ask and get a what feels like a blank response or worse still something completely ‘other’? Well remembering the nature of the horse as being one of general compliance and peace I must in that case assume that either he is unable for some reason or that he simply doesn’t understand the request. This is where we humans need to become the brains of the operation, as expecting the horse to provide this part will leave you with a long and disappointing wait. News flash! They aren’t that clever. And when fear and confusion sets in, absolutely no positive learning can occur.
So before you start shouting louder <insert harsher aiding, stronger equipment etc> Wouldn’t it be first useful to ask the horse the question. ‘Do you understand what I assumed you did?’ We humans often like to think that we know best when it comes to our relationships with animals and no more so than when it comes to training horses I find. There tends to be a sense of ‘do as you’re told’ and I think this
comes from the idea that yes, they must comply with our wishes if they are to be safe and enjoyable to ride and be around, however we must not get lost in that so far up our own backsides that we forget it’s also a relationship of respect and trust that must work both ways.
When my horse doesn’t doesn’t comply to my request after a couple of asks my first action is to stop and discover whether he understood the question and how I was putting it to him. If I have repeated the same question three times and the answer is still ‘no’ or something ‘other’ then I need to assume the horse has a problem that needs my help remembering that I am supposed to be the brains of the operation.
Natural reactions and trained reactions:
In training there are certain things the horse will do more naturally than others. For example the horse is more or less obliged to follow or step under your weight so the better you are at presenting a predictable and balanced weight across the him, the more ease and success you will have in training. (Keep working on this. It can never be practiced enough) Other things however, do not come so naturally for him and need to be taught, such as the rein aids, how to interact with the bit, or what your leg aids mean. The horse isn’t born knowing this stuff, and so when the response to these things is not as you’d hoped you must assume he doesn’t understand first and the answer to this is always firstly your understanding and best efforts at assistance. Your horse isn’t out to get his own way and pit himself against you and he always has a valid reason in his mind for expressing whatever opinion he has to your requests. However afraid or confused you are, presume your horse is having double the trouble in this moment. It’s your job to find out what the problem is and help him with it. Your horse is never wrong. Annoying? possibly. Frustrating? Sometimes. (We are all human after all) But wrong, never! Because all he is ever doing is giving you moment by moment feedback on how he feels about whats happening right now.
The good news is that if you are always present and consistent when you are around your horse, as well as getting the occasional “two fingers up” you will also get instant positive feedback on your improved efforts to understand and help him with his dilemmas. As the horse begins to learn and feel that your intervention more often than not helps rather than hinders he will begin to welcome your ideas and look to you when things get tricky as they inevitably can during training. Although it can take time, especially when you are not an experienced trainer yet, when you take the time to build this relationship with your horse it is truly the most rewarding thing and is a large part of unlocking the door to the joy that is training horses.
But here’s the thing… This vocabulary has to be taught to the horse. Only then can it be returned to with confidence again and again as you move through the levels. So in order to train the body you must teach
the aids, together with what is expected from the horse when he is the presence of Human.
The horse’s comfort and happiness is always your responsibility, not the other way around. It Isn’t your fault that your horse has stiffness, imbalance and hasn’t read the book but it is your responsibility to help with that the best you can. As much as you love your horse in a squishy way, only sound logic and understanding will result in a truly healthy, balanced, well trained horse, so that is where you must always start and return to as you come across the inevitable training dilemmas.
Teaching The Aids:
IF we get on and everything is easy, our end-goal accomplished in one session then we can assume that we are an exceptionally accomplished rider astride an impeccably trained horse who understands all of the aids. Job done! And then, for most of us there’s reality. lol
When you meet with training issues you should never be afraid to take it back as far as it needs to go in order to discover where the confusion is because it will be there somewhere and you might be surprised at what you find.
One of the most important things I have learned over the years, sometimes the hard way, is to never assume anything! Working on anything based around a false assumption can lead to hours of wasted time and energy.
So the first thing to do is check! What does my horse understand? The very best way to go about this in the beginning is in-hand as it gives you a chance to assess the horse’s balance, propreoception and understanding of the aids without the added complication of the riders weight. It can and should of course also be done under saddle.
So the little bit of homework for this post is first to think of something you’d like to check your horse understands. A simple one is whether when you stand by his shoulder or chest and apply the lightest touch with your fingers does he yield or move away? If not then this is a great place to start your teaching. If you find that you always have to push your horse out of your space with physicality, perhaps when entering the stable for instance then he doesn’t understand that he should yield to your touch and you will then find it difficult to train the horse to do things which require any kind of herding or yielding to you.
When you get good at this end you can try the other end. Stand by your horse with a long whip and with a tap, ask him to move a hind leg. Any manner of movement of that leg without 300 other body parts at the same time would be considered a success at this stage.
And this is the fun part. It’s quite possible that you won’t get the isolated response from the hind leg that you hoped and planned for so then what? Well if the object of the exercise was to find out what your horse does understand then here is your answer. Whatever the horse offers you at this point is what they think you wanted, or the only answer they feel they currently have.
It’s so simple really but often here, that the misunderstanding begins. So instead of feeling disappointed or that your horse is disregarding your request, instead you might say ‘Ah so thats what you think that means’. ‘OK thanks for that offer’, ‘Now let me show you how to do it like this’. Adopting this mind set not only enables you to discover how your horse thinks and uses his body it will also help you to train him from a positive starting place. Discovering what he can do first rather than what he can’t.
If you want your horse to move away from the slightest touch or never pass you when being led or stand quietly while you chat then you have to be absolute and consistent in teaching him that this is what’s required at all times, (He wont mind. What he does mind is when he isn’t sure what he is or isn’t expected to do.) And for this to be effective it has to be made clear to him at all times not just when you “remember” When you are with your horse all the things are are being trained because your your horse doesn’t know the difference. You then have to teach him how to do it, taking it as far back as you need to until you find the place to begin where he didn’t understand.
The sad thing is that I often see horses that are labelled as ‘difficult’ who are in fact just trying so hard to work out what you wanted that they are literally throwing any answer that comes to mind at the problem, and when this is attached to 500Kg’s it can come across as unreasonable and daunting. Remember that when you are daunted, confused or afraid, your horse is experiencing the same thing amplified. So by helping him in a manner that promotes his understanding, balance, flexibility and in turn, his peace of mind you are not only helping him you are helping you.
Have a Merry Christmas 🙂