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July 20, 2021 3 Comments
This story is inspired by one not so brave horse named Star. Star is an athlete, like most horses. Only Star can really turn it on when she's in the right mood. And by "turn it on," I mean buck, buck, buck, rear, slide, jump, buck, rear, buck, buck, bolt, run, slide, spin, buck, bolt, freeze, and do it all again. Have you ever met a horse like that?
In natural horsemanship, it's common practice to allow a horse like Star to fully express themselves in a small, contained space, until the pattern slowly wears out. In other words, if they get tired of doing all that... they'll stop doing it. However, it's important to know that some horses take too long to get tired of it, and inadvertently learn bad behaviors. Star, was one of those horses. Her energy level was so high in those circumstances that she could "turn it on" and "leave it on" for twenty minutes before tiring out. Then, the next day, she'd do it again.
Whenever you see a horse starting to learn the wrong thing as a pattern, it's important to find a way to interrupt that pattern. You don't want a horse to learn to bolt, or buck, or rear, or bite, etc. How would a horse learn that? Simple. They get away with it. Like I said before, some horses give it up, while others don't. I always allow for the former because I think it's a more graceful way to enter the horses psyche. But if it becomes apparent that the horse isn't giving it up on their own, it becomes imperative they get the immediate support to stop that behavior.
One obvious solution is to avoid high energy situations. Just walk on eggshells around your horse for the rest of his life. I don't recommend that solution. A better solutions is to introduce high energy situations and teach your horse to overcome the habit of over-reaction. The phrase I often use while teaching a horse to stop reacting under pressure is in the title, "Pull yourself together man!"
I will literally ask the horse to stop doing what she's doing, if what she's doing isn't what I ultimately want. In the case of Star, I'd asked her to carry the saddle in a walk, trot, and canter. As a pattern, she'd learned to buck, buck, buck, bolt... you get the point. Once it became an obvious pattern, I started shutting her down. I would put pressure in front of him, blocking forward motion, then she'd spin and go the other way, then I'd put pressure in front of her in that direction too. Each time she'd try to find a gap and push through to express herself, at points, even considering jumping through me, and each time I'd shut her down with my lead rope. Finally, she stood there, frozen, unwilling to move (not ideal either). So after a few moments I asked her to move again, at which point she would try it all on again. And again I'd shut her down and she'd freeze. Then after a few moments we tried again. And again I had to shut her down and she'd freeze. Then again, and on that fourth try, she tried something I hadn't seen her to do date. She walked calmly, responsibly, carrying the saddle nicely with blinking eyes, and licking lips. I found myself rewarding her within moments and celebrating, because a new pattern was about to emerge.
For the first time I could see a brighter future. And sure enough, within a few days she could walk, trot, canter and even carry without any signs of bucking, bolting, or rearing. So the moral of the story is... sometimes, you can't leave it up to the horse to pull themselves together in moments of stress. Sometimes you have to ask them, even tell them, to pull it together and behave like partners. If you reward good behavior and interrupt the bad patterns, you'll end up with the horse of your dreams. That might mean stopping your horse on the trail when they start prancing and dancing, and really taking the time to make a lesson of it. It might mean shutting the horse down before he explodes and really making a lesson of it. It might mean you need a few sessions to make the impression, but make no mistake, it's worth it. It's important, and it's a priority. Don't allow your horses to take over and develop bad habits. Remember, it's okay for a horse to jump or spook, it's just not okay when they can't control what happens after. Teach them to pull themselves together and you'll join an elite class of upper level horsemen and horsewomen.
Thanks for reading, post and share this with your friends, and comment below. I love to hear from you all.
May the horse be with you
PS. Buy my new book. Inspiration and Leadership
July 22, 2021
I absolutely love what you said. It affirms my way of interacting with my horse. I believe that every moment you are with your horse you are teaching them something weather it’s something good or unknowingly something bad. Horses are creatures on habit, use that to your advantage when working with them.
A year ago I started boarding a couple horses at my farm which gave me a front row seat to some not so good horse – human interactions. These interactions were causing behavioral issues with the horses and the owners didn’t even know they were the cause of these problems. My job in caring for these animal is directly impacted by this. I have even been asked by an owner why doesn’t my horse behave that way with you. I try to help but in most cases it goes in one ear and out the other. The horse is the loser in this scenario.
Thank you for sharing your insight with us!
July 21, 2021
ReAlly good article. My problem is sometimes don’t catch in time and sometimes don’t know what to do or how to correct….
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July 26, 2021
Great article Don.
I was just thinking about how I have succeeded in helping my very reactive horse to become less reactive by slowing everything down to a snail’s pace. Now I feel I need to increase the pressure so his life isn’t so insulated, the egg shells need to be eliminated. The issue is how to do it without undoing the confidence he has developed in himself and our relationship. Thank you for your insight.