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Tracy Courtney

Replacing Lunging & Round Pens

What are the two most common tools it is widely believed are imperative when it comes to working effectively with horses? There is an unshakable belief that we must use these tools if we want to achieve success. Many have stated that it is impossible to achieve higher levels of "training" without these tools. On the surface, these types of responses are given without the consideration of the possibility for a new open door to be explored. They are a quick shutting & padlocking of the new door the horses are trying to open. When asked if these beliefs are rooted in experiential truths or a product of what others have said & done, many will end the discussion. But for those who are willing to enter & explore these new doors, the possibilities are endless & our horses have been patiently waiting for these new opportunities with us.


One of the things I advocate, is the elimination of gadgets, including lunging & round penning. I consider these to be impersonal tools of force & coercion, whereby the conditioning received through our peers has unintentionally misled us into creating the opposite effect of what we're actually trying to achieve. The impersonal quality of these gadgets prevents the ability to create a true connection. They can be a great tool for higher communication, but not when used through current applications, without a solid foundation of true connection. True connection cannot be achieved by chasing horses around until they decide to give in & comply to our demands, without choices & opinions.


We are taught to consistently drive our horses away from us which forces compliance, not a willing connection. We are led to believe we are creating communication & understanding, but on deeper analysis, we would find that the only choices being offered are whether our horse can say yes or no to our demands. We are led to believe horses are seeking a leader through dominance, when in fact, they are seeking a connection through intimacy & personal expression, which is earned & not dictated. When our horse attempts to express an opinion or emotion that doesn't fit into our pre-planned agenda of what we want to achieve, we drive them further & further away, not allowing these personal choices to be expressed or heard. Too many use these gadgets as a means to tire a horse out, so they can be more easily forced to do what we decide they should do.


There is a common saying in the horse world, "pressure motivates & release teaches". Do we take time to deeply analyze these types of statements or do we just accept them because someone else told us we should? I equate the word pressure with force. Why do we feel our horses need to be motivated? If we feel they aren't motivated, then maybe we need to look at ourselves as the cause of this lacking motivation? I equate the word release with control & bondage. I equate the word teach with a mutual exploration, discussion & inclusion. If we feel we need to motivate our horses using pressure that must later be reversed in order to elicit what we consider to be a correct response, then I consider this to be nothing more than force, dominance, control & micromanagement. Where does a mutual communication & connection play into this line of thinking? So, is it possible to move beyond these concepts & gadgets to achieve even higher connection, communication & understanding in a mutually beneficial way?


What if we could set our agendas & goals aside & begin to ask our horse what they feel is most important to understand & provide assistance with in any given moment? Would our horse need motivation for this? I'm not saying to give up our goals completely but to be prepared to listen to how our horses feel about these goals? Horses are extremely willing to comply with what we ask of them but sometimes they need our help to build confidence in these situations & we are too quick to dismiss their asking for help in understanding & forcing them to "just do it". This is the reason I never arrive with a plan & people are shocked or retain the services of another "trainer" who is also unwilling to listen to their horse & will force them to do what the human wants them to do.


I will provide a recent event to help facilitate this concept. It was decided prior to my arrival that we would be fitting a particular horse with a few different saddle trials. Just bringing the saddles into the barn created a lot of anxiety to well up in this horse, who was loose & had the opportunity to come in & out of the barn as he pleased. He immediately went from a relaxed horse munching on hay in the barn, to running around outside like a maniac. He refused to go anywhere near the barn & remained at the end of the paddock, as far away from the barn as possible. His owner went out to get him & brought him in several times. Every time he was brought in, he would bolt, rip the lead out of her hands & run back to the end of the paddock.


As we walked out to get him together, I began to ask questions to help her begin replacing her perceived thoughts that this horse was being a jerk, defiant & any other number of negative labels that were used. We discussed how intention can't be faked & we are either impatient & judgmental or we aren't & how this intention clearly shows in our body language. Once she realized that this horse was showing us he was genuinely afraid of what might happen, as a result of past trauma, her view of the situation changed. She understood that this horse was expressing his own personal emotions in relation to this situation & we must allow & listen without judgement & labels.


After hooking my rope to his halter, we expanded the discussion & she was asked what she felt most trainers would do in this situation? In taking control of the horse myself, this allowed her the freedom to deeply consider & respond to this discussion without distraction. Her answer was that most would force him to lunge, round pen or do other physical actions outside, on or off the rope. I then asked if this problem had anything to do with being outside, how he responded to the rope or if it was of a personal nature that she felt was directed toward her? She concluded that doing anything outside was not going to solve the problem & that he has indicated that the problem is inside the barn. 


We then took the time to listen & help this horse through what he decided was the most important goal in this moment & placed our goal of the saddles on hold briefly. If the horse isn't willing to come & stand quietly in the barn, then what is the point in trying to force him to accept the saddles against his will? 


This was a tremendous opportunity for her to learn to understand how to listen to her horse & to help him & herself build confidence, communication & deeper understanding in this situation. I took this opportunity to discuss this common phrase of "pressure motivates & release teaches" & then replaced it with "allowing our horses to lead the discussion, so we can ask the right questions". We compared examples of how these two phrases are commonly carried out & achieved, & how the first denotes making a horse respond to a stimuli as opposed our responding to a stimuli initiated by the horse. 


She was able to shift her perceptions of this situation from a negative to a positive & conducive, inclusive line of thinking which opened new doors of exploration at many different levels. By taking the time to listen to her horse without judgement, frustration or an immediate agenda, she was very quickly able to understand the real root cause of the issue & solve it in a patient & relaxed manner. Her horse soon made the choice to ground tie in the barn & accept the saddles without issue.