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I frequently come across riders who are looking for answers relating to issues with their horse’s behaviour whilst ridden. One of the most common issues I find from early on, (Often from the words they use to describe their horse) is related to the their understanding of how the horse’s natural behaviours affect not only how we interact with him around the stable and paddock, but also how we train him in the arena.
The horse doesn’t cease to be a horse because you got on him in the school. He still possesses all the same instincts and responses, meaning that it’s important to understand how they affect him during training under saddle.
I always encourage riders to view some of these natural behaviours a little differently than previously, and in doing so, discover how they might sometimes be able to take advantage of them in training, rather than fearing them or feeling as if they must be conquered in some way.
Although challenging at times, It’s important to do your best to remain objective when training. Each time you find yourself using emotive words for your horse like ‘naughty’, or ‘Trying it on’ or you resort to any kind of name calling etc. You immediately take away your power to change anything. Those words might express how you feel but they do nothing to diagnose the actual problem and so in turn, help you to fix it.
Horses will always be horses!
Being both flight and prey animals, horses come with an extremely efficient set of hard-wired, reactive responses to their surroundings, all of which are designed for the sole purpose of staying alive. Nothing is more important to a horse or indeed any of us, than staying alive and so it’s little wonder that neither one of us are eager to give those protective responses up. But what do we do when these reactions in the horse seem to prevent us from achieving our goals? How do we deal with them? What do these responses have to do with schooling the horse in the arena?
Well the good news is that the first two concepts to grasp are simple, and they are that the horse’s fear is always legitimate to him, and we must respect that. The second is that fear causes tension and where tension is present, no positive training of the horse’s body or mind can occur.
You can’t help your horse with his fear if you refuse to acknowledge that it is important to him. ‘Oh stupid horse, what are you afraid of?’ At the same time, once the fear has been acknowledged for what it is, we leave it at that. We don’t spend time “joining in”. Instead we set about helping the horse to feel more secure through training better balance and symmetry, the two things that make the biggest difference to the horse’s sense of security whilst carrying a rider.
In our attempts to train the horse we often come across behaviours that seem to block our path to success. For this reason we tend to label them as undesirable. I often hear phrases like “He’s not listening to me”.
At which point the horse is usually showing a range of behaviours, from head-high with an external focus and a body in a degree of tension, to a horse who is point blank refusing to go into one corner or spooking and napping. It is at this critical moment that a shift in thinking is needed by the rider, because ‘what’ and’ how’ we are thinking will always determine our next action.
The horse is always hearing you, his response however, depends on what he is hearing. If this is negative and restrictive then you have just become another part of his problem. (The horse’s natural desire to stay alive will always trump your feeble attempts to wish it didn’t. lol) So now the horse is afraid of the external environment and the rider, who is now appearing to the horse as a possible hindrance to escape should that become necessary. So at this point, no, he probably isn’t ‘listening’ to you, but he can always ‘hear’ you up there.
The rider will often find at this point, that neither soothing or coercion does much to improve the immediate situation and even less for next time. (In fact, when you think about it, patting and soothing could even be interpreted by the horse as praise for his external focus) So what to do? Well firstly we change a statement to a question and ask ourselves. “why is my horse feeling the need to scan the external area for possible dangers?” And “what can I do to change that?” At this point when you examine the facts you will almost always see a relationship between the horse’s levels of imbalance, contraction and asymmetry and his level of undesirable behaviours. Sometimes this may take a more trained eye than your own, but it almost always exists, which is good news because this means it’s fixable.
Horses are not “Naughty” They are however, 100% reactive to their surroundings and always giving us valuable information about how they are feeling in any given moment.
So if we are truly looking for answers, then we must first ask questions, and then be prepared to listen and learn from the answers we receive. We must begin our training of the horse from a place where we understand and respect his natural behaviours. From here we can not only begin to view these responses in a new way, but also use them for our gain during training. Rather than immediately rejecting behaviours by riding in a defensive or restrictive manner, we can learn to blend with and reshape them. The psychologist Carl Jung once said that “What you resist persists” So if in training we find ourselves constantly battling the horse, or feeling that our focus is on ‘preventing’ things, then perhaps some of the resistance we are encountering is also coming from within ourselves, our thinking towards the horse and his motives. To be good trainers we must first be prepared to enter the training relationship with a total acceptance and respect of the horse’s innate behaviours. They may not always suit us, but only from this place of acceptance and understanding can we begin to learn about, and truly help the horse.