Friday’s Opinion

“A gun gives you the body, not the bird.” -Henry David Thoreau, naturalist and author (1817-1862)

Getting a horse to do what you want is usually a pretty easy task. Most horses succumb to treats, threats, routine or demands if they understand your message. Still, there’s a difference between compliance and engagement. Today, there are a lot of training systems being touted as universal. Sadly, when template solutions are applied without regard to the particular horse’s needs, they tend to diminish the equine soul. Do you want a horse that responds to your demands, or a partner that is ready, eager and able to jump in and protect you when you face trouble or err? If your goal is building a partnership, consider how you can make your horse feel a part of the team.

Is it really a good thing to have a horse licking and chewing prior to turning on the training juice?

Kudos must go to those who have spent time with wild herds and offered to share their observations and experiences. They’ve given us valuable information to apply as we interact with our horses.

Domesticated equines, however, seem to have a different dynamic than those born free – at least when it comes to rapport building with humans and horses. Certainly, it’s valuable and useful to look at what others have learned from integrating with wild herds, but what seems to be missing from these teachings and lessons is the realization that each horse is different in how he learns and responds to human interaction. Sure, you can model training around creating a submissive horse that will respond to you demands, but is that the best way to develop outstanding team-players and performers?

The most respected domesticated alpha mare seems to earn a following with an understanding, protective and fair approach through a calm confidence that earns vs. demands respect.
It’s a rare moment when she asserts her prowess – usually done only to intervene if another is being victimized or to respond definitively when being attacked – as kindness and wisdom is her norm. Those that rule by violence and or intimidation and achieve submission get their way when it comes to first dibs on feed and water, but they’re avoided, usually feared and rarely followed.

This begs the question – what kind of horse do you want to develop? Sure, you can gain compliance with techniques designed to present you as an inflexible, hostile, demanding alpha – but do you really want to train your horse to drearily accept your demands? Wouldn’t it be better to foster a relationship that responds to the horse’s indicated needs and learning preferences? It might take a little more time, but the associated mutual respect you build will last for the lifetime of your equine partnership.

I see young foals licking and chewing when they approach some of the older horses in the herd (certainly not all – it’s the aggressive ones they feel a need to placate), but don’t see this from horses after they reach a year or two of maturity. Of course, one of my rules for permanent tenants here is that they get with the program – and part of that includes getting along with the gang. So, if a new member decides to be unnecessarily violent and the herd isn’t able to force a behaviorial correction, this critter is the last to be brought in from the paddock and the last to go out. If that doesn’t send the message and they continue to harass unnecessarily, they’re provided walking papers. It’s a rare equine that doesn’t get the message and come around quickly between the herd help and the human ‘alpha’ component.

Dominating trainers will sometimes prevail

Granted, some seem to go too far in the horse consciousness mantra, but those who continue to see violence, pain and domination as a good way to create willing and effective equine performers hit the other extreme. There’s a big difference between standing your ground and getting a horse to comply through fear, pain or immobilization.

Sadly, some who see horses as an animal to be conquered and beaten into submission are successful equine professionals. Some horses will succumb to mean handling and go on to be standout performers. Of course, this begs the question, how special could they have been if handled with kindness and understanding?

Do you click to deliver equine treats?

Few horses wag their tails in anticipation of a food reward. Most will, however, learn to do your bidding once conditioned to expect a treat for a trick. Sure, this provides a quick and easy way to ‘train’ your horse to ‘perform,’ but at what cost?

Domesticated dogs seem to relish the idea of begging for food, but horses tend to prefer to choose to bond with a human that offers some understanding and allows the horse to decide they’ve earned respect. Personally, I’ve found there’s few greater rewards than those that come from allowing a horse to be heard and understood in a way that makes them part of the conversation and associated training decisions. I’m not suggesting letting the horse walk all over you (far from it – few horses respect a push-over, let alone one who defers the decision making to the horse due to fear), but, instead, an approach where the human is steadfast, yet observant enough to respond to what the horse is trying to tell him. Sometimes, with the more challenging cases, the message may be ‘I’ve been taught to hate humans and want to hurt you,’ but even with those extreme scenarios, treats and clicks may gain compliance, but they won’t create a partnership that’s reciprocal. You need to decide if you want to ‘break’ a horse or ‘find’ him.

Do you want to really hear your horse?

There are a lot of books, DVDs, television programs and clinics that boast a method that will work for all horses and all people – if you do it right (experience a failure and it’s your onus).  What I’ve found in working with various horses over the years (and sure, I’ve logged a lot of mistakes along the way), is that the best training approach for every equine is customized. Some horses are timid. Others are scared, confused, frustrated, bored – whatever. It seems the majority that come to Halcyon Acres deemed dangerous are merely alphas that have either been permitted to rule by intimidation and/or misunderstood. In each case, spending time on the ground getting to know the horse and building a rapport pays huge dividends once you hop in the saddle. It’s important to try to recognize the issues your horse may be carrying as baggage from prior experiences along with developing a keen eye for concerns and issues he may be facing. Be a firm, kind, confident and responsive leader and you’ll find your horse may surprise you with how talented he can be once appreciated as an individual and given the opportunity to express his penchants.

The next time you feel the need to preach to another (or your horse) a proven method that is universal, consider hearing what your horse may be trying to tell you. Listen a little bit and you may find a gem you never imagined.

You can possess the horse fully – but do you want just a body with an empty heart? Some like trophies that allow them to boast dominating accomplishments. Those who strive for horsemanship, however, understand the greatness that can come from encouraging and engaging the personality of the particular horse with approaches that let him live fully and individually with a human partner that listens and understands.

2 Responses

  1. Nanette,
    I recently had a discussion, in “I Ride” group and noticed that some tactics are controversial. The question was about leaving a bit in a horse’s mouth for a couple of days and under a saddle for the horse to get use to these things. What I come to realize is, trainers and other show persons have a deadline to meet. In some clinics, the clinician almost portrays him/herself as a miracle worker. I think submission is earned and a true trainer will pay close attention to the horse’s signs of acceptance. Licking of the lips, relaxing a hind leg and taking a deep breath is only a portion of acceptance. Trainers get paid good money for a clinic and if a horse is lacking cooperation than another horse may be brought in. Time is the essence and patience is a virtue for a well mannered horse.

    1. Mark, thank you for your thoughtful comments. Honestly, there’s only one case where I’ve encountered someone who believed leaving tack on a horse overnight was an appropriate way to “break” her – undoing the damage landed in my lap and the resulting issues this horse had were considerable. The damage done scrambled her brain so much she never recovered sufficiently to be safe. I did an interview with Denny Emerson last year and he made an insightful commement concerning deadlines. Basically he indicated that good trainers make their decisions about competitions based on the horse’s readiness and not the dates on which the events fall, although some riders do not exhibit such patience. Maybe if some trainers summoned the tolerance and understanding they expect from horses, it would be a happier experience for both the equines and the humans involved.

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