Do we really want to try to train horses to be unflappable?

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Friday’s Opinion

This whole notion of ‘bomb proofing’ a horse might make sense when circumstances involve city crowds, physically challenged riders or Civil War reenactments, but ‘desensitizing’ has gone way overboard as a general training premise. At Halcyon Acres®, we get a lot of cases where playbook approaches designed to mollify the horse have gone terribly wrong. Think before you leap on a bandwagon.

The desensitizing process, as it’s been driven into the minds of those placing guru status on some of the more notable names in the ‘natural horsemanship’ movement of the moment, ignores the horse as an individual that deserves to be considered in the decisions. Even if you don’t think the horse should be part of the conversation, if you fail to incorporate his personality and issues into your training plans, you’re bound to get hurt. Unknowing handlers and riders trying to follow a formula ‘anyone can implement’ tend to create long-lasting issues that either condition a horse to tune out and/or cause him to explode immediately or later as memory receptors are triggered when frightening early training issues resurface.

For most riding situations, a thinking horse is a safer steed. This holds for basic handling issues as well. If there ever was a topic that called on Horse Sense and Cents™, this is it.

Gaining a horse’s confidence

Instead of throwing tarps or flags or plastic bags at the horse, why not consider building trust instead? Most horses, when introduced to early training and handling in a patient, understanding, consistent and customized manner will flourish as they’re asked to handle new challenges. They’re naturally calm, confident and relaxed with a human who’s taken the time to introduce them to new (real) experiences only when they are ready. They come to see their rider (or handler) as a guide who’s proven they’ll keep them out of harm’s way. It becomes a case where if the human is relaxed and confident about the horse’s ability to handle a task, the horse is too. This approach can work with older horses too – but it takes more time to undo the damage.

Horse training formulas fail to see the individual

Horses are incredibly animals. Part of what makes them so is the fact that they’re all different. Formula approaches promising prescribed results rarely work. If you’re dealing with a horse that’s scared, timid or lacking confidence, forcing him to endure more frightening experiences under the auspices of ‘desensitizing’ certainly isn’t going to make him braver – or cause him to see you as a trustworthy guide. Sure, you can get him to stop spooking at plastic bags being flung all around his body (when will he really need to have this skill?), but you won’t help him be confident (in you or his ability to figure out how to handle a task). Interestingly, most horses, when allowed to be part of the conversation, will come to be unflappable as a matter of course, provided they’ve come to view their trainer as one who considers their welfare and safety and asks in a confident, aware and fair manner.

Have you considered asking your horse for help?

Instead of trying to force your horse to accept what you throw at him (literally and figuratively), try asking him what he likes to do. Focusing on activities that allow the horse to excel with his proclivities will go a lot further toward building mutual trust and a safer riding experience than tricks purported to take the spook out of the horse.

Don’t forget to immediately praise him when he does what you want. Best to find a way to do this that doesn’t involve treats. Most horses will respond more quickly and confidently to recognition for a good deed than they will for punishment when they do wrong, so it makes sense to also spend the time to figure out what he really enjoys. This may be a favorite spot to scratch, voice cues he understands as approval, time spent grazing after a good lesson, buddy time with one of his preferred equine friends, a quick trip on the trails, jumping after he’s done with dressage – figuring out what gives your horse great pleasure is your challenge. Come to recognize what that is and you’ll be amazed at how quickly he strives to please you.

Regardless, your horse will be a lot more eager, less wary and increasingly focused on a partnership mindset to tackling challenges if you approach training activities with an ear toward what he’s trying to tell you. March into the ring (or trail, or course, or stall, or round pen) with a lesson plan and end-game in mind that doesn’t include his input and he’ll likely come to resent your time together (or respond by checking out to save his sanity). Few ‘bombproofing’ methods include the horse as a contributor. How’s he supposed to confidently thrive when you ask him to step up in naturally frightening circumstances if you fail to let him know his opinion has been heard and considered in earlier activities?

What about safety?

Personally, I’d much rather be on a horse that reacts to his situation than one that’s been conditioned to ignore the things that may get you both hurt. In most cases, if you are calm and relaxed about approaching new situations, your horse will be too. If you do find yourself in a situation where you need help from your horse to extricate you from danger, it’s best to have one that has been brought along in a way that encourages him to think as a partner in the problem-solving process.  There have been many occasions where I’ve turned the reins over to the horse to help get me out of trouble. Whether you find yourself bogged down in a swamp or unable to see a good spot as you approach a huge cross-country fence, it’s best to be aboard a horse that has been encouraged to participate in the training process. If you’re on a horse that’s been conditioned to be ‘bombproof’ bailing might be your best option.

What are we really doing to our horses?

So much of what people are calling natural horsemanship today is anything but.  The stuff that’s being recommended as a kind alternative to normal training (whatever that is) verges on cruelty, in some cases. This whole notion of demanding the horse’s respect has gone so far most seem to have forgotten this is a two-way street. Expecting the horse to endure activities that are terrifying to ‘desensitize’ him to new frightening experiences is ludicrous. Forcing the horse into immobile positions where they’re defenseless, with instincts screaming vulnerability to attacks and calling it horsemanship is a misnomer.      Think about it. How can you encourage your horse to tackle new challenges with vigor and glee if your training process teaches him his opinion doesn’t count  and humans are to be feared and resented (or worse, survival instincts kick in and he shuts down his brain to endure the pain then proceeds in a robot fashion to comply with your demands)?

Can novice horse owners apply these concepts?

This isn’t such a complex concept to make it too far removed for novice riders to understand. Geez – books and DVDs being sold claim any level equestrian can work with horses of all ages to make them perfect if they simply follow the formula provided. In my opinion, this borders on criminal in some cases, but what I think we need to focus on is the fallout. Today we have a lot of confused riders and horses struggling with issues they’re ill-equipped to handle without the knowledge to recognize good resources to turn to.

If you’re an inexperienced rider or horse owner trying to ‘bond’ with your horse, time and energy is better spent getting to know him and crafting a strategy that helps him feel good about doing what you want. You can’t do this by following a step-by-step process offered by someone who’s never seen you or your steed. But, you can learn how to interpret what he’s trying to tell you. Sometimes it makes sense to get a professional in to help. You might be amazed at how much you both can learn in a couple of hours for a minimal expenditure. The right trainer or instructor will be focused on teaching you how to do much of this yourself.

For us professionals, it’s time we worked together to help novice riders and new horse owners find good information and resources. We can’t control what others are doing to encourage people toward poor decisions, but we can set our sights on offering good and accessible information to those people who have been left twisting in the wind with problems not entirely their doing.

What do you have to share about horses?

Are you a novice rider or new horse owner struggling with a challenge? Post it here and we’ll try to offer some ideas you can use or resources to check out. Are you a professional frustrated with the cases you’re handed after a ‘natural horsemanship’ start or have ideas on how others can avoid such situations? Please share your stories and advice. Are you an instructor with tips for new riders? Post away in the comments below. Thanks for reading and sharing. I hope we can get the movement going, together, with a new realm that focuses on ideas that include the horse in the conversation.

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