This is the very first time anything has ever been placed on this horse's back. He had no traditional saddle training prior to this photo. Note there is no control of his head and he is dropped. How many of us are willing to take the time and patience necessary to help our horses become this relaxed and confident in us, to create this level of foundation to build on?
All tress begin as pure, untainted seeds. They don’t have any life experience, so they view the world with wonder and inquisitiveness. The first expression of a seed is to sprout roots in its immediate environment that will attach to whatever will best support its growth of a solid foundation. How strong and deep these roots grow, are completely dependent on its environment and whether they are provided with the appropriate amount of water, sunlight and nutrients. In the ideal environment, they will grow a solid foundation of roots that will support them through life and minimize other environmental factors. With this strong foundation, the wind will never be able to uproot the tree and the roots are able to sustain the tree through droughts.
Young trees that are exposed to environmental stresses during growth will reflect these imbalances in many different ways. Some will grow crooked, some will have stunted growth and some will have weak root systems that will allow the tree to be uprooted at the slightest wind gust. Others will succumb to insects and diseases because these trees never had an opportunity to build a healthy foundation to sustain them. Does a crooked tree perceive the world any differently than a straight tree, or is it just a product of its environment? Does the rest of nature decide there is something wrong with these trees or are they accepted as they are? Do we blame the tree for growing crooked or do we try to understand the best way to help it grow to its best potential?
It’s humans who decide how they want to perceive the world and they create labels to describe what they consider to be aesthetically pleasing, defiant, lazy or not. Humans are responsible for the foundations they create with horses, regardless of their age or background. A wild horse may be weary of humans, but it does not have any experience yet with which to make judgements, they’re only interested in avoidance. Aggression is only triggered as a result of too much pressure; stunting foundational growth and not building confidence in you.
All babies are born as seedlings looking to soak up all of the exciting new experiences life has to offer. The behaviours horses develop are directly related to their environment and the foundation they receive. It’s important to understand that they don’t only learn physical cues from us, but social and emotional cues as well. As they’re learning to understand and make associations to how things look, sound, feel, smell and taste, they are also experiencing the sensations of how they feel about these things. In our incessant quest for goals and performance, we have lost sight of these basic fundamentals. Our goals are all about our own wants and feelings, where horses desire to remain curious and interactive with their environment throughout their lives. Step-by-step drilling practices knock this out of them. If we take the time to grow these little seedlings with the appropriate foundations, there won’t be any room left for unwanted behaviours.
We have all seen quiet, relaxed, push-button, baby-sitter horses at some point, but why are they so few and far between? These horses are the result of a solid foundation that doesn’t revolve around physical methods or they have shut down from learned helplessness, which will rear its ugly head eventually. Many people are only seeing these horses from a physical perspective, like those who purchase a horse based only on colour and are oblivious to conformation. These horses appear to be standing quietly and relaxed. Many who are looking at these horses aren’t aware of what’s going on at a much deeper level, like when a friend responds to your question of how they’re doing with a smile, but inside they’re falling apart.
There are 3 components to growing a solid foundation with a horse that will produce a push-button, baby-sitter horse 100% of the time in 100% of horses, without the need for force, punishment, gadgets, lunging or learned helplessness. The physical aspect, which we’ve learned to focus on, is only the third component. The mental component affects the emotional component and the combination of these two being balanced, lead to the confident and relaxed horse you can see physically, who will willingly go anywhere without question or hesitation. This horse has trust in you because you have proven that you understand the 3 necessary components and are listening.
The most common statements I hear from people regarding unwanted behaviour is that the horse is being defiant, lazy and they need to be put through hard work or tied for hours on end. People will argue until they’re blue in the face that these horses need to be rode hard, put in hobbles and lunged until they “give in”. They will state that they know for a fact that these aren’t fear-based responses and they aren’t applying too much pressure because THEY KNOW the difference! They will blame tack, movements, sounds, other people and the horses themselves for this “lazy, defiant” behaviour. It’s time we recognize that we have been conditioned to point fingers at horses and place all the blame on them and the previous owners. It’s time we turn those fingers around and start looking at ourselves for causes and solutions.
Most of us have only been taught to focus on the physical aspect by working the body and that’s why there is a more limited rate of success. There are many horses who will give in and accept the force and pressure, but the ones who won’t are labeled as untrainable and dangerous and need to be euthanized. These horses that give in, give us a false sense that what we’re doing works and is appropriate. It’s not difficult to see the truth if we look at these horses and see anything other than a babysitter. When I am called to assist with a horse, in 99% of the cases, what the owner perceives and what’s really happening couldn’t be more different. Many people have said that they can’t understand how they always happen to purchase horses who end up having the same behaviour problems. They discard these unruly horses and keep replacing them with new horses and somehow, they always seem to have the same issues. I even worked with someone who was so convinced of this that she began breeding her own babies. She was convinced that if she started from scratch and nobody else ever handled these babies, she wouldn’t have the same behaviour problems. Every baby she raised had the exact same behaviour problems. This is not a coincidence.
Horses can only communicate through a physical language, therefore any type of movement is a clear statement to us that there is a problem. Any horse that is not standing still and relaxed is asking you for help. How are you going to choose to respond? By getting angry and deciding they are being defiant; blaming? By putting them to work; learned helplessness? By ignoring it; telling them to shut up and you don’t care? By stopping what you’re doing in that moment, clearing your mind of judgement and blame, to observe what your horse is trying to tell you; listening? By slowing down what you’re trying to achieve; relieve pressure? By redirecting the thoughts/worries in a constructive manner to give your horse coping tools for future use; guidance? By offering support to help them balance their worries and fears; understanding? By becoming more informed about subjects you might not be aware of; open minded?
I encourage you to open your mind and other senses to analyze what really might be happening. Avoid what others have to offer just for a little while, and let your horse teach you something new. Try to compare any movement by your horse to other people. People who pace, chew their nails, avoid situations, balk at entering uncomfortable environments, etc are all showing signs of stress and a lack of confidence in these situations. Consider how this knowledge might translate into what your horse is trying to tell you.
We may end up with horses that are new to us and have come with some significant behaviour problems, but it’s our responsibility to become informed so we can provide the necessary assistance, without adding more trauma. Sympathy is destructive, where empathy is constructive. But’s are excuses and a way of putting barriers between you and change. Sympathy means you have feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Empathy means the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. We tend to make emotional decisions based on how we feel in the moment, rather than what’s in the best future interest of our horses. I’m going to use a common example of puppy crate training to illustrate my point. The sympathetic view is that kennels are cruel and unnecessary, based on an emotional belief that they are a device used for punishment. The empathetic view is that they are a great tool for peripherally shaping the correct behaviours and avoiding much of the anger, frustration and vet bills associated with unwanted behaviours. They are also viewed empathetically as a short-term investment for a long-term goal of not having to use them forever. When we were placed in a crib as babies, we weren’t left with traumatic, emotional scaring as a result.
People will often let a puppy out of the kennel when they whine or cry. They will justify these decisions by stating that “they just can’t stand to hear them cry” and that “it’s cruel”. Although it may make you feel better in that moment, it sets your puppy up for anger and punishment from you in the future. Rewarding the behaviour increases it, and after experiencing several sleepless nights, you will revert to anger and punishment as a last resort because you don’t know what else to do. Some will even send the puppy to a new home. What’s in the best future interest of the puppy, ignoring them for short periods and rewarding quiet behaviour over a couple of days to eliminate the problem completely, or spending 10 to 15 years of sleepless nights filled with anger and frustration? I ask that you try to approach all decisions from the perspective of what’s in the best future interest of your horse, and with the question of what’s worse? Having a puppy in a kennel where they can’t get into trouble while you’re away or arriving home to find your couch destroyed or they have ingested a foreign substance that will require a $3000 surgery to survive? I would much rather see a puppy in a kennel instead of being beaten, abused and looking for a new home, just to continue the cycle because the behaviours have already been well established, and many people don’t have the resources to help them.
People will use sympathy as an emotional crutch for themselves and what they feel is lacking in their own lives. They will project these emotions onto horses in order to make excuses for why particular horses should receive less guidance and be allowed to do whatever they want. It’s too easy to point the finger at other people and use them to justify our failure to do what’s necessary to rehabilitate these horses and stop coddling them. We can’t fix stress, anxiety, excitement or fear with force, anger or coddling because it will only increase unwanted behaviour. Many people believe that allowing these horses to do whatever they want is what makes them happy and they will dismiss unwanted behaviour with phrases like, “that’s just the way he is”. All behaviour are learned habits and all habits can be changed. In fact, this is the opposite of what horses need to be happy. Not addressing behaviours will increase them because they can be perceived as a reward for the action. What we allow, is what we get, and any behaviour can be created or changed with a little forethought, time and patience.
I will use a puppy to further illustrate. When a puppy begins to chew on your shoes and you choose to simply move the shoes out of reach, what has your puppy learned from this interaction? Only that they will receive a small level of mental stimulation/reward if they chew on your shoes. You did not give your puppy an opportunity to learn that this behaviour was unacceptable and then show your puppy how to replace the behaviour with an acceptable behaviour. This is a great opportunity for redirection, to quietly walk over and introduce an incompatible behaviour, and then spend some quality time playing with a toy or asking for Variables and rewarding with treats. In this way, you have patiently begun to replace unwanted behaviour with wanted behaviour and are giving your puppy a kind way of learning the difference between right and wrong.
To illustrate further, I want you to really examine how you have been conditioned to perceive and react to horses. Continuing with this example, when you found your puppy chewing on your shoe, many people would have become angry, yelled at the puppy and punished it in one of many possible ways. This equates to you “choosing” to perceive your horse as being defiant for chewing on your shoe. This puppy most likely has many toys that it is accustomed to having on the floor. This puppy would automatically assume that anything left on the floor is a new toy. We allow horses to demonstrate behaviour every day that isn’t redirected, therefore is rewarded and will escalate. Punishment in this case is the equivalent to lunging, hobbles, riding hard, tying for hours and any other number of possible examples. What is this punishment teaching horses? That we are unwilling to “help” them work through things, redirect behaviour constructively and to avoid contact with us as much as possible.
Some people who rescue horses will compensate and do more for a particular horse, for the things they think they had to go without in the past, or for the treatment they received. They will make more excuses for their behaviour and tend to be less consistent with following through on redirection, consistency and boundaries. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle where the horse is never given an opportunity to experience what confidence and a calm, relaxed state of mind feels like. Horses live in the moment and don’t think about the past, but we can actually force them to remain in these unbalanced emotional states by holding onto these beliefs of sympathy and pity by not helping them to release this baggage and replace it with confidence and relaxation. We must have a clear concept and be prepared to follow through with what we consider acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour and redirect, not correct, with patience and consistency.
One of the hardest things for people to grasp in my teachings is that the past doesn’t matter. I tell people to stop feeding the story. Remaining in the past and wanting to know what happened to cause the current behaviour is futile. It causes us to remain in a state of concern and upset over circumstances that are beyond our control and that we can’t change. Horses don’t dwell on particular events that consume their thoughts, feelings and actions. All they know is what they’re feeling right now and that they have had unpleasant experiences with humans. They will remain weary and mistrustful of us unless we can show them that we’re different and are listening. Our efforts and emotions are better spent on doing the best we can to move forward, become more informed about what’s happen now and to grow with confidence and a renewed interest in our horses.
It’s time for us to stop looking to external sources for explanations and blame. We have been fed many misconceptions and mistruths about horses and forced these techniques down their throats in return. It’s time we took responsibility for our part and make the necessary changes needed to be more informed equestrians. It’s time to start listening to our horses, understanding how they feel, allow them to express opinions and give them tools to redirect and balance all 3 aspects. It is considered normal for horses to regress in their training if left for extended periods. This is what happens when we don’t do what’s needed to build a solid foundation because we’re pushing too hard too fast. Don’t dwell on your own foundational structure of horse knowledge. Do whatever you can to nurture what you have learned and to expand and build it stronger, to support you and your horses moving forward. It’s time to grow.