I am sitting at the ferry terminal on my way home from teaching a clinic. Reflecting about the events of the weekend a few things came to mind about some of the horses I worked. The horses ranged from old faithful geldings to very inexperienced yearlings to a couple that were exhibiting “problem behavior”. I have long been a believer that problem behavior is only an expression or symptom of a deeper rooted problem. The problem for us is to correctly diagnose what is actually going on so we can truly help the horse overcome their seemingly problem expression. I believe that too many horses are unfairly labeled as problems when really they were just miss understood and miss handled. Continue reading
In my last article I wrote about how many horses are developing different behavior patterns because of the affection and lack of effective discipline that they receive. I have been pleasantly surprised at the number of people that I have spoken to that also recognize that their horse fits into the scenario that I presented.
Recognizing the problem is the first step in resolving it.
There are a few things to keep in mind before you attempt to change the behavior of your horse should he behave in a way that is unacceptable. First of all horses are constantly pushing boundaries, and are usually very intelligent. Many of us do not give them credit for their intelligence and their ability to rationalize. Do not take this factor for granted, their intelligence is the only reason that we can change their behavior.
Do not start something you are not prepared to finish, it not about winning or losing but about finding an acceptable resolution to a conflict. That does not mean the problem is fixed. It might only mean that the conflict is less intense. You will not convince a horse in a few lessons to change behavior that has developed and been accepted for a lifetime. It will take time.
Do not take your horses actions personally, he is not behaving the way he is to pick a fight, he is trying to prevent one. Horses are defensive by nature not aggressive. That does not mean that he won’t act defensively aggressive. Even though you may feel you are not threatening him, you are.
Do not be afraid to be physical when correcting your horse. This is the part of all this that causes much of the problem behavior that we now need to change. Many of us as people enjoy horses because they are kind animals. A horse can perceive too much kindness as weakness, and horses do not have much time for weaker horses. Horses are very physical when they correct each other. You are not strong enough to hurt your horse unless you are using a weapon.
Give him responsibilities and let him figure out what his options are. His responsibilities are to pay attention, think about what I have asked of him and come up with a decision about how he should respond. My responsibilities are to keep his attention, give him time to think and let him make up his own mind. He may be wrong most of the time but so what. It is more important for him to know that it is his job to figure things out for himself. Do not punish him for being wrong or he will stop trying, or he will try too hard, either one will lead to the lack of success. You must make sure he is successful, maybe not to the level you would like but incremental success will lead to ultimate success. He will soon learn what his options are, and which ones are ineffective. When he learns what does not work he will start to look for different options and this is where if we are paying attention we can start to encourage him to keep looking. Eventually he will be correct or nearly correct and then it is time to stop asking. Don’t fall into the trap of repeating a correct action over and over and over again. Once he takes responsibility to do it a couple of times give him credit for having learned what you asked.
Like children they need to have consistent boundaries set and enforced. Make up your own boundaries, many people have unclear expectations for the behavior of their horse. If you are not sure what you want, make yourself a list of the things that your horse does, good and bad. And ask yourself do I like it when he behaves that way. If you do not then you should do something about it. If you do like the way he behaves you should let him know that you appreciate what he is doing for you.
If your horse has learned to ignore you and takes offense when you get after him for misbehaving the earlier you address it the easier it will be to change. This does not mean it will be easy. The more established the behavior, the more confident the horse, the harder it can get. This means that he may change his behavior for the worse before anything is resolved. If you are not prepared to see this through to a satisfactory conclusion then do not start. Things are likely to get very intense, so are you prepared to go where he might take you?
It is very important that you are able to remove emotion from any request or correction that you may use to get your horse to perform. Emotion causes unclear thinking. Fear, anger, frustration are all debilitating when trying to teach, or learn. If you can not remove the emotion from the equation it will be difficult to clarify things to your horse, because your horse will feel the same fear, confusion and even anger.
You must always be looking at the things that your horse tries to do for you rather than dwelling on the things that you think that your horse is trying to do to you. I know people that have seen their horse rear up not be able to get the vision of their horse rearing out of their mind. They expect the horse to rear again and they have already set their horse up to fail. Use the power of intention and positive thought to help rather than hinder the process.
Never look to punish your horse for any action however extreme you may think it is. Correct him absolutely but NEVER punish. Perhaps it is just a difference in definition but correction is methodical and deliberate, punishment is emotional and reactive.
Do not be afraid to hurt your horse’s feelings, he will like you more after this is resolved.
When trying to change behavior there are stages I use. The first stage I will call “conflict”. I need to cause enough conflict that I cause the poor behavior to be expressed by the horse. I will do my best through methodical correction and reward to have the horse look for better options in dealing with me. This can sometimes set the horse up to anticipate that the next lessons are going to be as intense as the “conflict” stage.
The next stage I will call “clarify”. In this stage I will not be the cause of the conflict. The horse will anticipate enough conflict that I won’t need to initiate it. I will just make requests quietly and deliberately like I know he will be successful. He will often overreact and I will just quietly let him work himself through the conflict stage and clarify to him that he is doing fine. Correctness is unimportant but encouraging him by asking less of him should help him learn not to overreact.
The third stage I will call “support” From this time on I will expect the horse’s behavior to be much improved. Each and every time the horse reverts back to previous behavior I will support him by resolving the issue that comes up. I do not want to look at this as a lesson rather I look at it as life. In his new life he is expected to behave well and he will realize that if he decides to behave badly that there is a consequence. On the other hand life in general is much more enjoyable because we are not dealing with conflict every day.
© 2008 Will Clinging
As a trainer and clinician I am fortunate to be able to work with a wide variety of horses. I also get to work with a lot more horse than most people. As a result of this I see different patterns emerge in equine behavior. Not behavior in the sense of studying wild horses but in behavior patterns that are developed due to interaction and handling with people. I am seeing horses behave in ways that wild horses probably wouldn’t understand. I have written articles in the past on horses that develop “princess complex” and I have written about a variety of behavior problems. What I am seeing is problem behavior developing before the horse has had much or any handling and no training.
It is not because the horse has been bad and in many cases has shown no sign of misbehaving to their owner. It is also not just bad manners because unhandled horses have no concept that we expect them to behave in a certain way.
What I am seeing is horses that are apparently gentle and easy to be around have no understanding of what it is to behave like a horse. These horses are behaving like spoiled children that were just told they can’t have a cookie. Horses are learning how to throw temper tantrums that result is extreme behavior being exhibited not out of fear but out of anger. These horses then learn how to milk the system to get their own way. We are not prepared in many cases to effectively discipline the bad behavior being exhibited. We either over do the correction and get mad at the horse or we try to comfort the horse for being scared. Either scenario only confirms the bad behavior.
When I talk about disciplining the horse for behaving this way I am not talking about punishing it. I mean that we can not allow the bad behavior to lead to a reward for the horse. The horse must come to his own conclusion that such tantrums are not effective and therefore look for a better way to behave before they get what they want. A major factor in how we discipline is EMOTION. We get too emotional about what is happening. We then take it as a personal attack and get scared or we fight back with aggression. It is the emotional factor that changes the horse’s perception of the correction. They are also starting to take what should be simple corrections as personal attacks and exhibiting the same fear and aggression that we presented first.
When one horse scolds another horse there is usually no anger attached therefore any fear. Our barn kept horses never learns how to give or take correction without giving or taking offence.
This problem is not strictly caused by over affectionate handling. Many horses have a lack of horse discipline because of the environments we keep them in. They often get little or no turnout with other horses, so they don’t learn how to behave like a horse. They behave the way we expect them to, and too many people treat them like pets, too much affection and not enough unemotional correction.
When we raise a foal it is not often enough in a natural herd environment, some mares do not know how to scold their offspring because they never had enough interaction with a herd to develop the skills of herd discipline. A mare and her foal do not a herd make. If she was never scolded by her Dam she may have no parenting skills when it comes to disciplining her foal for stepping out of line. The foal will learn to do what ever they want with no consequence attached. If the mare does keep her foal in line it needs to be supported by those involved in the daily handling of that foal. Otherwise the foal could learn to work his authority figures against each other. Not unlike children that are told by one parent that they can not have a cookie go and ask their other parent in case they might say yes. Or they learn which parent is more likely to give them a cookie in the first place.
As a trainer dealing with a horse with a temper make the job initially more difficult. I have to be prepared to let the horse work through his fits and reestablish better habits in terms of how he deals with frustration or fear. Once the horse learns that he is not in trouble for behaving the way he does he will realize that it is not effective anymore? At that point he is just another horse.
If the horse has been extreme in his tantrums then I must be able to work the horse through his anger to whatever level he decides to go. These are the horses that know exactly how far to push us before we stop asking him to do what we want. These are generally the smarter horses. He learns that if he keeps resisting just a little more that we will give in before he does. It is then my job to go beyond the level that his owner gave in at however extreme until he gives up. Unfortunately he must find this out the hard way and there will usually be several episodes before he gives it up. His behavior will often become even more extreme and he will do all that he can to not give up. As I see the behavior escalating I know I am getting closer to resolution. It is always darkest before the dawn. It is this knowledge that allows me to work through it because it is this part of the job that is not fun to do or to watch.
I used to see very few horses that behaved with such tempers. Unfortunately I believe it is becoming much more common. I have no intention to offend any horse owner but you are not making it easy on your horse to coddle him. In fact you are making his life in training much more difficult for both him and his rider. A horse with a temper will be unpredictable and less reliable than one that is less emotional. I am not saying that there should be no affection because I believe that there should. It is not about balancing affection with discipline but in supplying plenty of both. I may sound like I am ranting and maybe that is the case, I apologize for digressing. I will conclude with a quote from Buck Brannaman “discipline will keep your horse from becoming abused and discipline will keep you from becoming an abuser”.
When I start work with any horse I am never sure what I am faced with. In order to make my training time with that horse more efficient I need to know more about the horse’s personality. There are many factors that influence how teachable a horse may be. I use the first few sessions to help me put together an individual profile on the horse. In order to be accurate I have to look at any and all information I am given about the horse. Age, breed, past experience, the type of home he comes from etc. The owner’s personality will often help me out as well. Are they timid, aggressive, unsure of what they want, I can use this to help me understand if the horse has been over handled, allowed to get away with things, or left to his own devices. When creating a profile I try to remember that the horse’s genetics is only half of the equation. The environment the horse lives in or grew up in is the other half.
By this I mean you could take an exceptionally well bred horse and put him in a neglectful or abusive environment and he will never meet his potential because he has not had the opportunity to do so. Or on the other side you could have a Heinz 57 mutt of a horse and put him in a supportive, nurturing, environment and he may develop beyond what was ever expected of him because he was encouraged and allowed to.
When profiling a horse I then need to actually study what the horse is doing or how he is behaving without me adding any pressure at all. In a round pen I just let him go and watch what he does. I want to see is he is scared, acting threatened, behaving aggressively, running is circles trying to escape, is he trying to distract himself or is he paying attention to me. This will help me roughly establish a self confidence level or lack of self confidence level and a basic understanding of the horse’s threshold for stress and how they respond to that stress. Putting the horse in a strange enclosed environment with a strange handler can be very stressful for a young inexperienced horse. Or in the older horse how they respond may indicate poor past training or an anticipation of being worked a certain way.
I then want to see how he behaves when I do start to apply pressure. Does he get faster, slower, more distracted or more attentive? Does he get more expressive in his movements by kicking or rearing or bucking? This will help me judge the horse’s sensitivity levels and give me an idea about his desire for authority or need for leadership.
By controlling the horse’s movement I can also get an idea about his willingness to learn. Is he a confident horse that just wants to please, a scared horse that just doesn’t want to be hurt or a princess that just wants her own way? These are just three examples of how a profile will contribute to personalizing the approach I take to working with any horse. There are endless combinations of personality traits that if left unaddressed will affect the progress of the training.
I believe that there are three important parts to the training process, philosophy, approach and technique. Philosophy is the general intention about how results are achieved. For example natural horsemanship is a philosophy as is training through force and domination. Approach is how you present yourself when teaching. Do you come on strong and force an issue or do you work quietly and allow the horse time to work through his options. Technique is the specific teaching tool employed at any time. Technique is affected by approach and approach is affected by philosophy.
Philosophy is fairly constant but approach and technique must be flexible to achieve success. The more horses I work the more I believe in the necessity to modify any and all techniques based on the personality of the individual horse I am working. Being adaptable as a trainer is important. I have learned many things from many people and sometimes the technique just isn’t working the way it should. I try to adapt techniques that are fundamentally sound but just aren’t working. Sometimes by changing things it makes it easier for the horse to grasp the concept.
The horse personality will help me decide if I need to change and how if it is necessary. With the very withdrawn horse I may need to get louder or for the hyper reactive horse I may need to be smoother. I try not to over look anything about the horse when trying to figure out my approach. Things like facial expression, muscle tension, the comfort in how they move and the speed of departures and transitions all mean something. It is then trying to interpret what they mean in terms of training. A single gesture could mean many different things so it is important not to jump to conclusions. Look at the whole horse and even better SEE the whole horse. If what you are doing is not working do some research? Get too strong, get very quiet, move faster, move slower move smoother. Watch how the horse responds differently when you do something differently. If things change for the better you have successfully modified your technique. If things stay the same or get worse don’t quit, just keep changing. I am sure I have said this before but I will say it any way. The best piece of advice I was ever given about training horses was from Ray Hunt and he just said”think”.
&2008; Will clinging
When working with a green horse progress is not always consistent. The horse will plateau as he becomes confidant performing what he has been taught. How much we expect from the horse, his physical and mental ability to handle increased expectations for performance will be major factors in how quickly he improves. There are times when the horse can scare himself by doing something he did not fully understand. Movement can get bigger or faster than the horse is capable of handling with the level of training he has. The power that they have can get away from them and send them out of control. You could equate it to learning how to drive in a grand prix race car. An uneducated driver will not know how to handle the speed and sensitivity of the car, and will likely be out of control.
Riding a green horse should not be taken lightly. It is very easy to get beyond the horses and or the riders comfort level. Patience and preparation are very important to ensure every ride is successful. Success is a relative thing and should not be yet measured by correctness or performance. Success is building confidence and encouraging the effort to perform. Improvement is inevitable with effort, support and patience.
In practical terms, When I am working a green horse from the ground I am trying to prepare him for what I will ask him for later in the lesson when I ride him. I try not to jump too far ahead and teach maneuvers that he does not have all the tools to perform successfully every time I ask. For example if the horse I am riding only has a few rides I am still working at the walk. Eventually I want to have a comfortable canter. If I only concentrate on the canter and overlook more fundamental skills I may be able to get the horse to canter before he is prepared properly. The canter will not be of good quality. The departure will not be smooth, he may scare himself because he is off balance and I can not steer, or stop him because I overlooked developing the confidence and skills he needed to canter. What also happens is that the horse develops tension and anxiety while being ridden because he was not prepared for what happened.
If I can develop a nice forward walk, and work on the skills he needs to trot the transition to trot will be easy. The same is true from trot to canter. Forward, soft, straight, with comfortable transitions from walk to trot and back to walk, then canter is just around the corner.
A way that I evaluate the quality of the movement in preparation for an increase in movement is done on the longe line. In the early lessons I taught him how to longe in a basic way. Introducing the side reins and the concept of contact and straightness makes the longing more difficult. I try to encourage mechanical correctness as much as I can and evaluate the comfort in the movement more than the quality. If the transition from walk to trot is comfortable and he is comfortable maintaining the trot I will ask for canter. If things fall apart and he starts to race or bulge out or drop in excessively on the circle then the canter needs some work. I try to think to my self “would that feel comfortable to ride”? If my answer is no then I will not ask him when I am riding to do something that he can not do on the longe line.
Each ride should build on the last ride and lead to the next ride. I may work on the trot on the longe line for a couple of weeks before I ask for it under saddle. I should be able to give a specific aid and get a consistent response. Then when I ask under saddle I know what to expect from the horse and I am more likely to get a comfortable departure with a calm relaxed trot. It is much more important to have that consistence when going to canter. There should be no guess work if you want to have things work out the way you hoped. Actually if you are hoping it will work I will bet that the horse is not ready. You should KNOW that the horse is ready. This is a lesson that I have learned the hard way. Teaching the quality in movement on the longe line however slow is faster and safer than the weeks or month of trying to teach it to a scared horse after things have gotten out of control.
© 2008 Will Clinging