When we work with horses there are a few situations we are bound to run into. We have all had a horse refuse to do something we asked him to do. When we do run into this situation how should we deal with it? There are different forms of refusal and they should be dealt with differently. There is the confused horse that did not understand what you asked or the resistant horse that does understand but refuses to perform. For the scope of this article I will concentrate on the confused horse.
Confusion is an emotion that we do not always allow our horses to feel. When you work with your horse I want you to think about your horse as being always right. Most horses want to please us so when they respond to a cue they are responding the way they thought we wanted them to. If your horse does not respond the way you wanted him to then you gave him the wrong cue. Think of horse training as a game of Jeopardy, your horse always has the right answer and you need to come up with the right question. When we do not have the right question and the horse is not doing what we want we can get frustrated. This frustration can cause us to get stronger with the same cue and the horse still will not perform. The stronger we ask the stronger the horse becomes in his resistance until we either force him to perform with gadgets or we overpower him.
Sometimes a confused horse will respond with aggression and that must be dealt with before finding a new question. There are some horses that have never had to make a decision. They are often horses low in the pecking order and ones that have never had any responsibility. There are horses that have had little or no handling and horses that have learned how to evade. Some of these horses when faced with the stress of training refuse to think their way through a situation. There is the potential for these horses to lash out aggressively at the source of the stress. Changing the way you ask for a response will not always change the way a horse in this frame of mind reacts. The aggressive behavior can not be overlooked; if it is not effectively dealt with and we put the horse away we could be confirming that the aggressive behavior was acceptable. When we resume the training on another occasion the horse will continue to be aggressive and the behavior will be more difficult to deal with each time it does not have a satisfactory end. Although this a rare reaction it is something to be aware of as aggressive tendencies require different solutions.
Horses have the ability to think and make simple informed decisions. Horses need to be encouraged to think because they rely mainly on their instincts to get through life. When they are thinking they need to be positively reinforced or they will stop thinking and continue to rely on instinct. This is another reason a horse needs a strong herd leader. The leader is the one that thinks and the rest just rely on her ability to do so. If we allow our horses to feel confused and encourage them to think their way through confusion we will develop a horse that feels good about trying to do what we want.
Encouraging a horse to work through confusion is not difficult. There are a few things that we need to be prepared to do in order to help our horse. We need to be aware of his emotional state and I like to do this by watching and acknowledging his expressions. The look in his eye and the posture he shows. Does he look confused, or mad or scared? If we trust our own instinct about how he feels we can adjust how we are asking to help him be right. The confused horse will be indecisive about what to do. The mad horse will intentionally resist and the scared horse will instinctively react in a way that will ensure his escape. A horse will not stay confused for long before he turns his brain off and he quits trying to be correct. If you see the indecisive behavior that is when you need to change the question you are asking and lower your expectations in regards to what you are asking for. Back off and give your horse some time to stop and think. He will either be correct, incorrect or he will do nothing, it could be that in doing nothing he is processing the cue you gave him. Allow him to make the commitment to be right or wrong. The more indecisive he is the more you may need to change what you are doing. If you do not change you will not get a better answer from him. If confusion is not noticed and allowed to work itself out we will create increased resistance in the horse. If we have increased resistance it is only a matter of time until we have complete refusal. If you are in doubt don’t get stronger, wait longer.
The more horses and people I work with the more I am convinced that personal awareness is extremely important. By being aware of our mental outlook, emotional state and physical well being we can become more aware of our horses. There is a lot more that goes into training a horse that just physical exercises and maneuvers. Without the right balance of mind and body the task of training the mind and body of a horse can be more difficult than it needs to be.
Our mental outlook covers many different things. As it applies to horse training it is the way we perceive the training process. The attitudes we take into the process will to a large degree dictate our success. If the mental attitude is positive it will be reinforced with positive physical responses. Combining a positive attitude and positive physical aids can help us be pro active in our training. A negative attitude will cause more reactive physical responses. Being aware mentally will allow you the opportunity to notice what your horse has done for you or to you. You can then make a decision to respond with an appropriate reward or reprimand rather than reacting negatively to the situation. Mental outlook will also be a factor in the mental discipline that you take into your training program. Discipline is necessary to be consistent and consistency is important to achieve positive results.
Emotional state is essentially how you feel about what you are doing. Horse training can be a very dangerous process depending on what point of the training you and your horse are at. Green horses or horses that are not well behaved can seriously affect your emotional state. We can not easily control our emotional state and although you should not dwell on it do not ignore it. Before I get on any horse I try to be aware of how I feel at that particular moment with my thoughts on riding that particular horse. If I get a sense that things are ok I continue with my ride. Since I ride many young horses at various stages of training if I feel that the horse is not ready for whatever reason I do not get on. I make the focus of my lesson to help the horse deal with what is stressing it and leave the ride for later or another day. I am not prepared to sacrifice my emotional state and my physical being for the sake of one ride. If I get on and the ride does not go well apart from the physical risk there is a confidence issue. There is the possible destruction of confidence to consider, mine and the horses. Confidence is a fragile thing and once lost it is a very slow rebuilding process. Confidence is the mastery of fear, not the absence of fear.
Physical well being is just as important as the mental and emotional aspects. As I get older I seem to be more aware of where I hurt. If I am more sore than usual I will take this into consideration. I may feel well enough to ride some horses but too slow in my physical responses to be safe and effective riding a very green or sensitive horse that cannot compensate for small errors on my part. The better I know my horse the easier this decision is to make. The more I am aware of my physical limitations and abilities the safer I will stay.
After you take the time to consider your mental, emotional and physical factors take another minute and consider the mental, emotional and physical state of your horse.
What attitude does he bring to the picture? Is he scared, mad or happy? Is he as stiff and sore as you are? These things should help you decide on how to approach the day’s lessons. There is more to training than just the physical body of the horse. The techniques you employ are not nearly as important as the way you approach them. If you are honest and sincere with yourself about how you approach the process mentally, emotionally and physically then you will be just as sincere with your horse.
The behavior and learning patterns of a horse play a major role in the training process. These patterns are established by instincts, genetic makeup, and environment. We are not in total control of these patterns but we can to some degree help or hinder the direction they go in. These patterns are set at an early age but I believe that we can affect how they develop if we are aware of what they are and how we can use them in our daily training.
A horses behavior patterns are based on the horse’s natural instincts for survival and his ability to process information. A horse is a prey animal that uses flight, as it’s primary survival mechanism, and horses are defensive by nature. The horses lack of desire for confrontation tells us that he does not deal well with stress. He would rather run now and think later. We can encourage the horses decision making ability by employing the horses motivating factors as stimulus. We present something to a horse and we either encourage or discourage his response.
Learning patterns are established through the environment a horse lives in. This is where the quality and quantity of handling or training will directly affect how a horse behaves. The herd establishes these learning patterns initially, and it is continually developing as a horse matures. When we train a horse we can use the patterns that have been established if we understand what motivates a horse to act the way they do, and can we change that behavior if we understand how to motivate them in different ways?
Horses are motivated by fear and by comfort. There are other things like food and libido that do motivate some horses but they are not motivators that we can use effectively in an average training program.
As a prey animal a horse is always aware of potential danger and given a choice will remove itself from a fearful situation. Many domestic horses do not have that choice as a viable option. If a horse has no way to deal with fear they learn less effectively because they are sincerely afraid and nothing learns well under that kind of stress. Horses that form a fear based learning pattern will be more reactive and often become over achievers. They learn not because they feel good but because they are afraid of what might happen to them if they do not perform. They are essentially working under duress.
A horse that has comfort as a motivator will often be more confident, and more deliberate in him movements. If there is always a reward when they try to perform a horse will continue to try. When the horse is motivated to try it is only a matter of time until he performs correctly because he has been encouraged to feel good about what he is doing.
A horses ability to make a decision is often over ridden by his instinct to react first and think second. The more afraid a horse becomes the less capable he is of making a decision about how best to deal with the situation he finds himself in. The decision making process needs to be developed as it is not a tool that horses rely on to keep them alive.
The speed of horse training differs from horse to horse and from trainer to trainer. As a trainer I am convinced that the slower you train the faster horses learn. Not only do they learn faster, they learn with confidence. In my last article “what to expect when sending your horse for training” published in Aug 2005 I talked about many factors that influence the speed of the training process. These factors will contribute to or detract from the progress your horse makes when in training. When sending a horse out for training there is usually an established time frame within which the trainer should be able to show a reasonable amount of progress. Is it realistic to expect the same amount of progress if you are training your own horse? Is it important to see the same kind of progress?
There are trainers that perform demonstrations that are amazing in how much they get accomplished in a single session. These demonstrations are often with young horses with fragile minds. During the demonstrations that I do I try to qualify that there is sometimes several weeks worth of training that occurs in 90 minutes. It is important to note that although the horse performed what was asked of him there are often short cuts taken to achieve the perception that a horse can be safely started in one lesson. Sometimes the lessons introduced during a demonstration can take weeks or even months to become consistent. It is unrealistic to expect a horse to continue to learn at that pace without mentally shutting down.
I see many people frustrated because their horse is not coming along quickly. I see other people missing important basics to get a maneuver accomplished. Some people feel obligated to try and achieve too much in a lesson because they have seen a professional accomplish “miracles” in an hour.
Training a horse should take a lifetime. It is the continuous process of accepting and rejecting information that at times will be rewarding and other times very frustrating. What is the rush to get your horse broke, and really what is a broke horse?
If you enjoy the exercise of training and encourage your horse to try to be a little better each day one day he will do all you ask of him. If you employ coercive methods or overwhelm your horse with information however kindly presented the training will develop holes. The horse will learn only bits and pieces of everything you taught and there will be situations that he cannot reliably deal with.
Slowing the process down to a pace that is honestly achievable by you and your horse will usually produce longer lasting results. There should be no pressure to teach your horse things at the same pace as any other trainer. Enjoy the training process for what it is. Remember that improvement is just that improvement. Be encouraged by the little things that your horse does for you.
Every maneuver a horse performs for us has several parts. If the parts are taught slowly and correctly when they are assembled the maneuver as a whole will take care of itself. If the polished maneuver is not working, correcting the maneuver itself will not fix it. It is one or more of the parts that is not working and therefore causes the finished product to be less than perfect. When the maneuver is taught too quickly that the horse’s confidence will suffer. A horse that lacks confidence will continue to be incorrect. Allow the horse to feel good about accomplishing something. Lowering your expectations may encourage your horse to continue trying, and a horse that tries is a horse that will learn. If things are too difficult because the end result is more important than the process your horse might quit. When things are never good enough they can get discouraged and start to make more mistakes. Rushing your goals will make them unrealistic. Unrealistic goals will become unattainable.
When you are training your horse take the time to evaluate his progress. Is he better than he was? Is he worse than he was? Either one will be because of you. Are you discouraged by his lack of progress or pleased with his effort. If you can keep your approach slow and steady you are more likely to be satisfied with slow and steady progress. If you want it all right now there are not too many horses out there that will satisfy you. Enjoy the process!
Many horse owners have thought about sending their beloved and sometimes not so beloved horse to a professional trainer. This can be a difficult decision for some but it should be a rewarding experience for horse and owner. Unfortunately this is not always the case. The reasons that things do not always work out are as individual as the horse himself but sometimes people do not know what to expect. Problem horses, green horses, abused or neglected horses, the age and breed of the horse, inexperienced owners and trainers and the length of time the trainer has the horse are all major factors. Before you send your horse out for training, prepare yourself for a realistic result.
For the scope of this article I will focus on the green or problem horse and not one at intermediate or advanced stages of training. I also want to qualify that all of these observations are generalizations and each horse should be considered an individual that may not fit these scenarios.
What is a realistic amount of training to expect from a green or problem horse? This is a bit of a loaded question, and one that I am frequently asked. My answer is usually “it depends on your horse”. I might also add “it depends on how much training I need to undo and replace”.
“It depends on your horse” is referring to the individual personality of your horse. The age, breed and sex of the horse are also considerations. Personality of the horse determines how teachable the horse is. A confident relaxed horse will usually learn faster than a scared nervous horse or the bold resistant horse.
The older the horse the slower they are to accept new or different ideas and methods. If they are very young they can easily be overwhelmed by information. This limits the sessions in duration and content before the horse stops learning. But young horses will generally learn or accept things more quickly than older horses so long it is in limited quantities.
The breed can help determine how sensitive a horse is and can help establish guidelines about how much pressure they can handle. For example a Thoroughbred or an Arab are generally very sensitive and reactive, on the other hand a Canadian is more stubborn and needs more time to accept things.
The sex of the horse might be a factor in the length of their attention span. It can also be a factor in establishing teachability. Geldings, mares and stallions in that order from easiest to most difficult to teach.
“How much training I need to undo and replace” refers mostly to problem horses but it also touches on the green or un-started horse. Problem behavior is all too often taught to horses from inexperienced owners. In most cases this is unintentional so I am not pointing fingers, but it does not change things. In these cases I need to find the problem areas and help the horse re learn how to behave appropriately. In the case of the green or un-started horse the training process is usually initiated by the owner with the help of unlimited sources of horse training information. This is often a big help in the early stages but sometimes things get lost in interpretation and imperfect technique can confuse a young horse into making mistakes the handler does not notice until the damage is done.
The length of time you are prepared to send a horse for will directly impact on the outcome. As a horse owner I know how expensive it is to board and train a horse. I appreciate that economics play a role in the length of time that I have to train a horse. I also know that when I have a horse in to be trained that there needs to be progress. I adjust my program for the horse based on many of the things I have already mentioned, personalities of the horse and owner, breed, age, sex, level of existing training, and time commitment from the owner. The longer I have a horse the slower I teach the horse. This is not because I am getting paid by the hour but because I want to develop good behavior patterns that will become habits given enough time. The slower I teach the more confident the horse becomes and the more reliable he will be when he does go home. A horse that I have for training for 2 months will essentially be taught the same things as a horse in for 1 month, all things being equal. The difference is that after 2 month that horse will be confident performing the movements I have taught him. He will be more reliable than the horse with only one month of training. The horse with only a month on him has been taught faster with less time to get comfortable with what he has learned. He has not yet transferred the lessons into habits. The slower and less stressful the first month of training is the faster the horse will learn in subsequent months.
The experience of the owner is also something I consider before I take a horse for training. If the owner is an accomplished rider they will be safer with a greener horse. This can help dictate how long the horse is sent out for. That same horse could be a time bomb for a less confident handler that is not able to compensate for the horses inability to deal with mistakes. If I know that a horse has to go home to a less experienced rider I will alter the program the horse is on. I will introduce less to a horse in this situation hoping that he will become confident in the things he does learn so he can deal with the inexperience of the handler. For example I will maybe spend more time de sensitizing the horse so it is less apt to spook and less time working on leg cues or lateral work. I want these horses a little dull and less responsive so they do not put their owners into situations that the owner can not deal with. Unfortunately these horses may be put into situations by their owners that they must deal with.
The experience of the trainer you send your horse too is something else to consider when setting realistic goals for your horses training. There are many young trainers that can do a wonderful job given the chance. Do not discount them as trainers on the grounds that they are young or inexperienced but you may need to give them more time to do a good job. All experienced trainers were inexperienced at one time. The trainer is only one factor in the education of your horse.