As with all aspects of our lives, it’s important to strive to maintain balance in everything we do with our horses. We try to provide a balanced diet and exercise regime, but don’t often consider the possibilities of creating mental and emotional balances as well. We are always trying to control their motions, without consideration of their emotions. Motion is an expression of feeling in horses, their only way of verbal communication and while we typically take time to observe and find humour in the silly little things they do while playing, we become impatient and frustrated when we decide it’s time for them to do something. In these situations, they are merely expressing an opinion, a feeling, an emotion and asking you for help in building their confidence in the situation or telling you there is a deeper issue. This isn’t defiant or stubborn behaviour and how we choose to respond will dictate their future actions.
Teaching tricks, Variables and working on puzzles and games are a way of showing your horse good habits, acceptable behaviour and the parameters of your new relationship, but they are much more than that. They create a calming and tiring effect that is much more effective than exercise. They are a way to begin to teach the A, B, C’s of our language, to establish an understanding, communication, to build confidence and competence. Creating a basic alphabet of tricks, games and puzzles will lead to single words, then full sentences of good habits and better understanding.
Imagine going to a foreign country where you can’t speak the language, and every time you tried to ask for a glass of water, you were beaten and thrown in jail. This would create feelings of confusion and fear, where you would quit trying to ask and divert your focus inward to minimize the anxiety. You would try to avoid contact with your captors all together. Your outlook would change dramatically if you attempted 3 gestures and received a glass of water after the third gesture. This would motivate you to try more gestures and open the door to further communication. This is a great example of why we need to take the time to observe behaviour and allow our horses to express their emotions through different gestures to keep learning fun and progressive, instead of perceiving behaviour as defiant, stubborn personal attacks.
Where tricks and Variables are used to establish a method of communication and understanding of acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour, games and puzzles have the added benefit of keeping overactive minds busy, while creating relaxation and an emotionally calming effect. Games and puzzles teach your horse how to begin to be pro-active instead of reactive, creating reasoning skills, self-control and finding solutions to situations. They are also used as a way of allowing the release of confusing and unhealthy emotions and being able to redirect them in a constructive manner. If you begin to feel frustrated because your horse is needing more variety or challenge during your sessions, adding a puzzle or game or creating Variables will require your horse to utilize more multi-sensory focus and limit the pre-established habits of reverting to fight or flight responses.
Physical exertion can have the effect of stimulating emotional output making you feel energized, increasing focus and concentration, where mental exertion has a calming and tiring effect. This isn’t beneficial when horses are disconnected and unbalanced mentally and emotionally. You’re adding diesel to a runaway engine. If you feel you are becoming frustrated, ignore your horse until you are both in a better frame of emotional balance. When choosing to ignore, always remember to observe passively and be prepared to reward immediately for the right behaviour at the very first opportunity, even if you didn’t ask for anything, to give your horse a direction to open communication and begin to offer more gestures.
People commonly think that the only way to release excess energy in horses is through lunging, round penning, tying for extended periods and riding hard. Variables, puzzles and games are a great way to tire and relax a horse and limit the need for excessive physical exertion which can be detrimental for growing bodies and minds. Overexertion can damage the skeletal and soft tissue structures. Physical exercise is still important to the mental, emotional, social and physical growth of horses, but better health and balance can be achieved through adding mental exertion as well.
For those of you who have worked in an office, you can relate to the fact that it’s more exhausting to work hard with your mental body than your physical body. Physical exertion has the effect of stimulating emotional output, making you feel energized and increasing your concentration, where mental exertion has a calming and tiring effect. Tricks, variables, puzzles and games are vital to helping your horse develop mental, emotional and physical balance.
You are only limited by your imagination. You can expand the use of tricks, puzzles and games to create potential life-saving opportunities with your horse. Something I often observe while people are working with their horse, is constantly stopping to readjust the lead. I intentionally allow the lead to drag on the ground, so they will step on it and get it wrapped around themselves. Some horses are physically hypersensitive to touch, so rather than having to take extra time to create conditioning sessions, I allow the lead to do the bulk of the job for me, while it has the added benefit of creating a puzzle for the horse to solve. I focus on helping horses begin to think for themselves and problem solve, without dictation and micromanagement. They can’t be too distracted by other things if they’re investing their focus on how to avoid being tangled and replacing the fear association.
Another benefit to this exercise is if your horse were to become tangled in a restrictive manner in the future. If we use a barb-wire fence as an example, the average horse would struggle with the potential of causing significant injury that could lead to euthanasia. However, a horse that has learned to relax and give to this type of pressure, would wait patiently for release. I was informed by a boarding facility at one time, that my horse had got his leg wrapped in some ground level barb wire that they were unaware of. The owner explained that my horse was the only one who didn’t show up at feeding time. When they went to search for him, they found him waiting patiently for someone to come and release him. With amazement, she stated that he couldn’t have been more relaxed and he didn’t have a single scratch on his leg.
Variables and tricks can be used to form games and puzzles by combining and alternating their order. Once a good concept is achieved, you can begin to add more and alternate the order to help build more confidence and problem-solving skills. It’s like an obstacle course for the mind.