Many of the riders I know are buying young horses so that they can start and produce their own perfect partners. But, there is one common problem that seems to crop up after a while that I’m often being asked to assist with; their horse is very slow and often ‘planting’, refusing to go forward at all. No amount of leg will get the consistent ‘forward’ that they desire. So, here’s the advice that I’ve been giving them....
Firstly, we need to appreciate how unnatural it is for a horse to carry a rider at all and that he will need to adapt his balance and muscles to be able to do so. This means that even walk can be a challenge but once the horse seems to be walking without much resistance many riders are keen to get up into trot as soon as possible and push the horse forward. This drive for a forward going horse can create a stiff back and tightness in the other muscle and joints as the horse struggles with his lack of balance and straightness. Not only can this lead to problems further down the line, including rushing, leaning and failing to engage properly, but as these riders are discovering, it can also lead to a horse being labelled slow and stubborn.
My advice is to SLOW DOWN! If you want a more forward going horse then go back to walk and some slow exercises to aid your horse’s proprioceptive skills, straightness and balance.
• rein back.
Make sure your horse is relaxed and give him time to work things out. Having someone on the ground, can help if a horse gets stuck to begin with. Try not to rush the walk either.
Once your horse can confidently execute all of the above correctly, you’ll be amazed what a difference it makes to his impulsion in trot. Improved balance will also make him more confident too. Don’t be too hasty to label your horse as lazy because it’s probably just a case of your perfect partner trying to find his feet!
I’d also like to add that I’ve had great results using this approach with older horses too.
For pole work clinics, ideas, information sharing and more, check out Sara's FB group Poll Position Equestrian Coaching
There are so many training methods, so many opinions on how to do the best for our horses, no wonder so many of us are plagued by DOUBT! The problem is that doubt can be, riding and training-wise, our worst enemy. Of course, asking questions and being open to new ideas and methods is never a bad thing but once you introduce anything to your horse, you have to be committed. Let's face it, if you are questioning yourself, why should your horse listen to you?
Horses can sense doubt in our body language on the ground and when riding. Hesitation get's a big 'nah-naah" from them! Sometimes we doubt our horses but often we doubt ourselves and our ability. Doubt often creeps in if we keep switching trainers and end up confused by too many ideas, listen to too many people instead of following our gut instinct, or it can simply be that nagging inner voice that likes to undermine us with limiting thoughts.
It's amazing how some of us just love to hold on to the negative things said about the ability of our horse or ourselves. And once we grab hold of it, it often becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. So, think about some of the negative doubts you have, ask where they came from - it could simply be someone else's thoughtless remark or just a one-off bad experience -then stamp on it and replace it with a new more positive belief.
It's particularly important that you really believe in your method of riding and training. Do your research, find a good trainer and then stick to their methods. Confusing yourself and your horse by chopping and changing will only undermine yours and your horse's confidence. You have to really believe in what you're doing to get your horse to trust you.
It seems to me there are two kinds of rider reactions to a horse who is spooked by something - the look and approach or the look away and ignore. Both camps are trying to instil trust and confidence in their horses and, of course, both think they are right. Like many things in equestrianism it can lead to some heated arguments!
I know this from experience as I'm a believer in not making an issue of something that my mare is shying at and instead make sure she is listening to me, usually with the help of shoulder-in (bending away from the scary object). The two people who I often ride out with, on the other hand, ask their horses to confront what is scaring them, saying things like, 'look at it, it's not scary, go on, see…, come on, get closer…have a good sniff…..' which means I have to hang around, usually harrumphing whilst my own horse usually starts to get wound up too! And equally if I make 'helpful' suggestions whilst they're struggling with a balking side-ways horse, their response is often far from polite!
Now, I have to admit, I was just like them, because their method seems to make sense, doesn't it? If as humans, we have a child or friend who is frightened by something that we know isn't going to harm them, we try and get them to overcome that fear by showing them that it isn't scary. And of course, there are many respected trainers who use this method. But, having taken on quite a few horses who shy, I can definitely say that this method has very rarely made them less spooky and it was actually a relief when I got a trainer who said, ' just keep away from that area of the school for now until we've got his/her attention and they've relaxed.' I also had the benefit of hacking out with another trainer (I can't recommend this enough) who showed me that if you keep your horse focused on what you are asking, and particularly make use of shoulder-in when you approach and go past something that has made them tense up, you actually create a much more confident horse, one that definitely shies less and less.
I feel really heartened by how many of my clients want to embrace a way of training that is based on equine biomechanics but saddened when I hear that someone has opted for the quick fix and lunged their horse in side reins. Side-reins are single straps which attach from bit to girth (or surcingle) and, so their fans claim, will help the horse to flex and achieve a proper outline, encourage straightness and softness and engage the hindquarters to promote balanced, forward movement during training. Right? Wrong!
Just because you pin your horse's head into a vertical position does not mean your horse is flexing throughout his whole body or in a 'correct outline' but unfortunately when i ask many of my new clients what the perfect outline should be, they firstly (and usually only) say 'the head will be on the vertical.' The use of side-reins highlights this popular misconception and the way many people train horses; focusing purely on the front end. I'm sure if you flick through your social media right now, you will see many horses whose heads are beautifully set on the vertical, but if you take a closer look, you'll also see that they have very small hind ends with very little muscle.
The head flexing at the poll toward a more vertical position with an arched neck should occur as a bi-product of the horse shifting his weight onto the hind end. He needs to longitudinally rotate his pelvis whilst at same time flexing his back legs so they step underneath his body which allows the wither to lift, lightening the front end. So, in order to get a biomechanically correct outline, we need to ask the horse to take more weight on the hindquarters to improve the front end, not go straight to the front of the horse and work backwards. And for a horse to learn how to balance himself and use his muscles correctly TAKES TIME!
Even though this is a fit and good looking horse there is still evidence of the negative consequences of using side reins. Note how the horse is leaning on the side reins and hollowing the back causing the saddle to lift up. The muscles on the underside of the neck are overused and tense. A flash noseband is needed to stop the horse opening his mouth and fighting the restraint of the side reins and revealing lack of true balance.
The horse's head and neck are very heavy and therefore the positioning of this part of the body is integral to the overall balance of the whole horse and as a horse works and develops he needs to be able to adjust his neck position. If instead, you use side reins that pin the horse's head and neck in a rigid fixed position, (and elastic inserts aren't any better!) his body which isn't developed enough to carry his head and neck like this naturally will find a way to evade them in ways that many people won't even notice when lunging. For example he may twist his neck and back, drop the base of his neck and back and do no end of distortions to protect his weaker muscles. The one definite outcome of side-reins is that they will force the majority of the horse's weight to be carried on the forelegs, creating the opposite of what most riders are after, a horse that is on it's forehand. Most horses will also become even heavier in the riders hands if they have leant to evade their weaker muscles by leaning on the bit or they will have opted to curl behind the bit so that you can't get a true contact at all. This latter problem is one that is very hard to correct.
Not only will a horse that is pushed onto his forehand this way be more difficult to ride, with a short, choppy stride and likely to trip, he is destined for front end lameness as well. Also, because the horse is often really driven forward so that to the untrained eye the back legs look like they are engaged (see photo above), because the pelvis isn't rotating properly, the back will protect itself by becoming stiff, which means you won't be able to achieve true collection or a good bascule over fences. But, far worse, if the hind legs aren't swinging under coupled with rotation of the pelvis, you could be sending your horse down the slippery slope towards kissing spine, SI injury and stifle problems.
So, whichever end you look at it, side-reins aren't good for your horse!
Side reins don't allow for any stretch, block suppleness and definitely don't encourage a horse to move biomechanically correctly. They also give no relief or release to the horse who is simply trying to work out what is being asked of him. This quick fix outcome will only be an unhappy horse and ultimately an unhappy owner.
My advice to any client thinking of using side reins is very clear 'PLEASE DON'T!' The key to good training is to focus firstly on the hind end and when you have the hind end working correctly, the front end will naturally fall into place. I'm a big fan of pole work as a very effective, non invasive schooling technique suitable for all ages and abilities that gets you and your horse to engage in both body and mind. It can be fun too!
Unfortunately, like most things in life, there are no quick fixes. Time, patience and a happy horse is by far the most successful route.
Pressure halters are just collections of webbing, buckles, brass fittings or plastic they are not inherently good or bad. That said people immediately leap to the conclusion that it is the hands that hold them that determine their label. I personally don’t think it is anything to with the hands that hold them that makes them good or bad. For me it is the brain that operates the hands that counts. What I mean is that the perception of the human being involved will determine whether they see pressure halters as good or bad not whether they use them well or badly.
These individual perceptions are determined by personal beliefs about the true nature of horses, how we believe they should be trained or what our personal training ethics are.
If our beliefs are that a horse’s nose is extremely sensitive and that concentrated pressure in this area is unnecessary to communicate with them, and likely to be painful or even just uncomfortable and prevents them from expressing their natural behaviour then we will view any use of the pressure halter as unacceptable. If our view is that it is acceptable to use pressure or pain on the nose of horse to train them, or that due to constraints we have to get the work done as fast as possible, or the horse has to be safe and therefore using pressure in this way is justified, then we will say the pressure halter is a good thing.
The mere mention of pain will cause people to focus on the pressure that is applied and, pressure halter advocates immediately defend their use of the pressure type halter by saying “well I can be really light with a pressure halter” “ pressure halters give me better timing, and are clearer for the horse because the pressure is more concentrated.” What is interesting is that pressure is only a small part of the learning process what is more important to learning is the timing of the release of pressure. A growing awareness of the principles of negative reinforcement has meant horse handlers now have a greater understanding of the importance of the release of pressure during horse training. This release of pressure is what communicates to the horse how to remove or avoid the pressure in future similar situations. This is the crucial factor that everyone knows, but tends to under play in the pressure halter debate, had someone thought about it more carefully perhaps the term release halter ™ would have added more marketing hype to the product.
My personal feeling is that we simply don’t know how sensitive a horse’s nose or poll are. We don’t know how a horse perceives pain or if there are differences in the perceptions of individuals. By relaxing and controlling my thoughts I can personally have the dentist drill my teeth for a filing without any anaesthetic but for other people that would be unbearably painful, is it not plausible that similar variances exist in equines? People will again justify the use of a pressure halter by saying it isn’t pain it is just discomfort or pressure, personally I don’t want to take the risk that I might be using pain to train.
I imagine if I was teaching a simple behaviour to a child, such as shoelace tying I could teach them using a little bit of pressure, now obviously the best way to teach this behaviour is to use reward and praise, which is on the whole what we do. Funny how we use so much positive reinforcement with young children, while they learn to crawl, walk, talk and become potty trained but chose to use negative reinforcement and punishment in so much of the rest of their lives, but that’s a different article. Anyway, say I choose to use the pressure caused by gently prodding the child with a drawing pin and releasing this pressure when they make some right move. I can justify my method by saying well I am very light with my drawing pin and it is not as bad as hitting them and it certainly is very clear when I release the pin. That pressure will be perceived differently by each child and could even distract the child from learning and could even lead to some fear or breakdown of our relationship with the child if they are particularly sensitive. Somehow in this context perhaps this argument for only light pressure does not hold up so well. I know it is an absurd illustration and that is exactly why I use it. When I know a gentler more effective way of training exists, that does not have the potential pitfalls is it not ethically right to avoid using the drawing pin?
Everyone accepts that the pressure exerted from a pressure or a rope halter is greater from the same pressure on a flat head collar. It has to be, if we apply the same amount of pressure to both, the pressure is spread over the area in contact with the horse’s nose, so the wider the area, the less the pressure, the narrower the area the more pressure per square centimetre, and this is not taking into account the closing or restricting nature of some pressure halters.
It seems to me this might be why people claim their communication with the horse is clearer with the horse if they use the pressure halter lightly, because as I have previously said it is the release of pressure that communicates with the horse, and the greater the pressure the more the horse will want a release from it. What happens is the horse makes a choice, they want to avoid the pressure they feel on their poll or nose and therefore they choose a different set of actions, and this choice is magnified by the application of higher levels of pressure. A pressure halter puts on say, 10 on the applied pressure scale, whatever that might mean in real terms does not matter, just that the light applied pressure to be a reading of 10 on a scale that could range between 10 and a 1000, the harder you pull the higher up the scale we go. When the pressure is released and the applied pressure goes to zero. So we have pressure release cycle that goes ten- zero, ten – zero, ten – zero. There is big difference in the horse between 10 and zero which is what causes them to choose between pressure and no pressure. The scale starts at ten as even the lightest touch on the rope has to scientifically exert more pressure than a flat head collar with the same pull.
With a flat head collar we might be putting on a pressure of 2, on a scale of 1 to 500. Again the release cycle pattern we get is, two – zero, two – zero. So this lower level of pressure is not as convincing to the horse that they have to modify their behaviour to avoid it. This is why pressure halter and rope halters work, there is the greater difference between even the lightest pressure and the release, than there is with a flat head collar. Yes you can put on a considerable amount of pressure with a flat head collar too, but it will never be a severe as a pressure halter at the same level of pull applied to the rope.
We accept that using a thinner bit causes more pressure and discomfort to the mouth compared to a wider rounder bit, and most horse trainers who consider themselves emphatic or natural would hopefully not advocate the use of a thinner harsher bit to solve a ridden problem.
If a horse is fearful of the trailer or kicks because it hurts to pick up their feet, obviously as the pressure goes to ten on the scale the horse is more motivated to seek no pressure. If they do the required behaviour and the pressure comes off the desire to seek that release will have to override their fear or pain or excitement which already exists. For that to happen you have to believe that the discomfort felt by the horse is quite considerable. I have seen a horse that had not loaded for 15 years, ridden 25 miles to a demonstration load using a pressure halter in under 15 minutes. Given that in 15 years everyone and their dog is likely to have tried to load the animal and failed, to me this demonstrates the higher level of force that a pressure halter can apply albeit at a much higher level of force on the rope. To cause the horse to choose to deal with the terror of the trailer and years of fearful experiences rather than feel the pressure on their poll and nose must surely show how forceful pressure halters can be. Imagine your own fear or phobia and how much pressure would be required to make you pick up the spider or snake or perhaps climb to the top of a ladder within 15 minutes? I know we can argue it was in the best interests of the horse in case they ever needed to go to the vet, I am not at this point saying it was right or wrong only that the pressure applied must have been considerable for the horse to choose the trailer.
The flat head collar used lightly is a choice between zero and two that’s not a major discomfort compared to the choice between ten and zero so the horse will perhaps choose to ignore the pressure, at this lower level they can deal with it and so seeking the release is not so motivating for the horse to change their behaviour as it does not over ride their fear or pain.
However, my argument is this; the pressure halter interferes with our thinking and our learning. The pressure halter becomes for many people the one solution to ten problems. I think they stop us from asking the two most important questions, why and how. Why is my horse behaving this way and how can I best help him to learn a more suitable behaviour. It is possible to justify the use of the pressure halter because “the horse has to be safe, we don’t have the time, they are dangerous without it” and if that is an individual’s choice that is up to them. However, I don’t what to hear owners keep saying “oh in the real world….” This is just an outdated defence, we create our world and, we choose what is acceptable and what is not so when enough people choose that force in not acceptable the real world changes.
For me personally, I never say never, if it was purely in the best interests of the horse, such as emergency veterinary treatment, that a pressure halter is something I might consider with great hesitation if it was impossible to control the horse or sedate them and other options had failed first, but only if it was best for the horse not because it was easiest for me.
I also think pressure halters stop us developing our own skills as a horse person and our horses’ potential. For me I want to develop lightness based on not being able to force the horse to seek the release of pressure but rather allowing it to learn they can deal with the situation and to build their confidence while developing problem solving abilities. People talk about willingness and wanting their horse to want to be with them. This willingness is difficult to achieve if the choice is between discomfort and no release. They use pressure heavily and then get lighter not accepting the horse is quite capable of understanding that if they do not respond to lightness they will feel increased pressure, and so are still in fact responding, all be it psychologically, to the original heavy pressure that conditioned the response.
If trainers want to use pressure halters that choice is theirs, I would prefer for the sake of horses they didn’t, but it is the choice of the individual based on their ethical beliefs. However, at least people should be honest about the how and why pressure type halters work. If pressure halters didn’t apply more pressure than a flat head collar at the same contact, pressure halters would be no more effective than a flat head collar. People justify their use of a pressure halter by saying they use it lightly, and when I say ten on the pressure scale that is lightly but it is still not as light as two on the scale. Using a flat head collar is not an excuse to pull harder because it doesn’t hurt the horse much, putting more pressure on with a flat head collar is also destructive to lightness.
It is important for me to give any horse I work with options, and that the motivation or persuasion I use to overcome fears and problems actually relies on positive reinforcement or the minimum pressure I can use with a flat head collar which will be less than a pressure halter. I prefer to use a flat head collar because I think it increases the choices between pressure and no pressure. More than that having taken away the element of increasing pressure the trainer develops a great sense of timing to apply the lightest pressure, and we do horses a disservice if we think they can not feel the change in pressure between two and zero on our imaginary scale. Further more, not using pressure increases the trainers imagination and their reliance on their ability to shape behaviour. With less force we have to invent smaller steps which our animal will find easier to achieve while working towards the desired goal. This process of successful shaping is what creates a relationship, confidence and trust and ultimately to safety and willingness. We shouldn’t be putting our horses in situations where they react so big trainers justify the use of a pressure halter for control.
I am not saying if you use a pressure halter you are not a good trainer, I am saying that I don’t think the regular use of pressure halters encourages trainers to be as light as they can be and I think that reliance on the pressure halter to solve equine problems such as leading and loading stops the trainer from thinking to their full potential. I think if we use a pressure halter it can lead to the application of the law of the hammer – “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” the routine use of pressure halters stops trainers using their imagination and creative abilities to find more positive solutions to problems. When we know we can load the horse with the pressure halter why explore any other possibilities?
If a trainer feels the need to use a pressure halter because of the situation they find themselves in that is their choice but they shouldn’t pretend it is ok because they only use it lightly and it isn’t really causing any discomfort. The reason pressure halters work is because they cause more discomfort or potential pain however you measure and categorise that, than a flat head collar causes when used at the same level.
“The Dog Whisperer” is under massive investigation by leading welfare organisations for the adverse training methods he is reported to use, including such items as pronged collars. Yet pressure halters, heavy handed use of whips and spurs are used in full view of every welfare organisation and apparently are acceptable forms of training for equines. Yet if I started training dogs using a whip or perhaps a spur device or a pressure halter with brass studs on, I suspect there would be an immediate investigation and outcry. Why do we treat the two species so differently? Behavioural ignorance is no longer a defence.
I don’t think for one moment the vast majority of advocates of pressure halters would endorse the harsh use of whips, spurs and harsher bits as a solution to problems and I think that is because the marketing of the pressure halter has been such that it has been sold as a tool that if used effectively is very quick and therefore the horse “teaches himself.” The name given to some pressure halters has even been mistaken for being nice to our horses, rather than making our horse be nice!
I believe that pressure and thin rope halters are a barrier to more ethical training for equines and so I want to call on trainers around the world to stop using such equipment as routine and prove that their methods work when they don’t have the option to apply this level or type of pressure to the nose, if it is about the horse, about good timing about being natural and about learning then this shouldn’t be a problem should it?
The very desire to only use pressure halters lightly indicates people want the best for their horses and I think the best for a horse is not a pressure halter but for a horse to have choices, with a trainer who has soft open hands, a creative imagination and the ability to shape behaviour effectively while thinking with the horse’s brain not their own.
We've all had those days where we dismount, untack and wonder why on earth we just wasted an hour of our lives getting disheartened and frustrated because our horse is not doing anything that we’ve asked On days like these we feel that we aren't connecting with our horse at all. We ask ourselves “Doesn’t she like me? Doesn’t he like being ridden? Or is she simply being 'naughty'?”
Well here are a few key things to remember when we enter the ménage and expect our beloved friends to fulfil our expectations.
Firstly, the key to being on the same wavelength as our horse is accepting that we won't always be on the same wavelength. Remember our horses are living, breathing beings just like us and it's ok for them to have an 'off' day. When we are not feeling it, we simply don't tack up that day, but if the horse isn't feeling it, we continue to push until we have a fight on our hands. I am a big believer that if you feel the horse is not on form on a particular day, change your plans and try again another day.
Secondly, and I think something that can never be said too much, is that as riders we are always expecting the horse to know the answer to the questions we are putting to them through our seat, leg and rein aids. Now, if we asked a child in school a question, that we know the correct answer to, but they can’t get it right, how do we make changes to help them get to the correct answer? We can keep repeating the same question over and over until the child gets frustrated, anxious and shuts down, or we can readdress the way in which we ask the question. The same applies for a horse that’s learning. If they are not cooperating, are evading the aids or displaying undesirable behaviour, we should turn our attention to ourselves and how we are riding. For instance, if our reins are saying 'slow down' but our seat is tense with shoulders and elbows locked in a fixed manner and our pelvis rotating forward causing the spine to arch, we are actually saying quite clearly 'move on forward and lean on my reins please'. Then before we know it, we are labelling our horse strong, a bolter or out of control. So before we repeat this consistently until we lose the will to live, let's simply take a moment to think about how we can change the way we ask. By making just a few minor changes such as drawing in through our core, losing the arch in our lower back, rolling the shoulders back and down, keeping the wrists and elbow supple and and relaxing the power grip of our thighs, we can discover what a big difference we can make to the answers that our horse gives us!
And remember, when the horse answers correctly, make sure you immediately praise her and go straight onto an easy exercise such as a simple walk before returning to ask the question again. If you do not do this, you are in danger of the horse assuming that she’s given you the wrong answer and so she will try to answer in different ways and you will lose that perfect response.
Finally, it's no secret that I am not a fan of gadgets such as side reins and draw reins which pin, force and restrict the horse. I am also not a fan of flash or tight nosebands, unnecessarily strong bits, spurs and standing martingales. These are all silencing tools and I do not believe the horse’s communication should ever be silenced. We all talk of how much easier our lives would be if our horses could talk but when they communicate with us, we ignore it. Let's take the flash noseband for instance; It’s purpose is to stop the mouth from opening and unfortunately too many riders use them because 'my instructor told me I needed one!' And this is ok because they are a professional and it worked. Very few people challenge and ask ‘why does my horse want to open his mouth?’ What is he saying? How can I make changes so my horse doesn't want to open his mouth?
Any good instructor should welcome questions and have an array of different potential avenues to go down which don't include silencing the only line of communication the horse has. Usually the answer is that the horse is experiencing discomfort, maybe from the bit, saddle, back, bad riding or evasion of gadgets. A good instructor should be able to offer guidance from a static and dynamic assessment of the horse and rider during lessons. I think the reason we see so many 'naughty' or 'broken' horses nowadays is because we expect the horse to listen to us 100% of the time but we never take the time to listen back.
So to summarise - how do we get the best out of our horses? The answer is simple: Take time! Take time to listen, take time to take a step back, take time to teach slowly and correctly and take time to try new things. A happy horse is the best version of your horse!
First, last, and always, make sure your horse is sound.
That’s the warning that any decent equine professional gives before practically anything we do. It’s the common disclaimer; we almost skim over it as a formality before getting on to the training issues. In other words, we get complacent to chronic pain messages because it’s easier to train sometimes than it is to track down some nebulous pain. We should know better.
It’s the first question every rider should ask from the ground every day. Is my horse sound? Learning to read pain takes perception; it’s complicated in the beginning. It isn’t that we don’t care. We might not be sure and that means a vet call. We usually have a plan that day. Even if it’s a trail ride, we don’t want to cancel. If it’s something that involves money or hauling or inconveniencing other people, we usually think it’s not so bad and go ahead. We should do better.
There’s also a disclaimer that we should hear from horses –first, last and always. They are prey animals. Their instinct is so interwoven into their behavior and personality, that it’s inseparable. Prey animals aren’t forthcoming about pain.
If your horse is stoic, he’ll grit his teeth, sometimes literally, and keep trudging on acting like he’s fine, until it’s too late. If your horse is more reactive than stoic, he’ll act aggressively hoping that bravado will pass for strength. They aren’t okay.
It’s common sense if you’re a horse. Prey animals hide their pain to survive. They are born knowing that the wolves kill the slow, lame members of the herd. Showing weakness, even within the herd, could mean less access to hay. It isn’t good or bad; it’s nature’s plan that the fit survive. We throw a wrench into that cycle when we domesticate animals so, at the very least, we must listen much more carefully.
Most of us can read enough herd dynamics to know that shy old gelding might need to eat separately. We proudly list each horse’s position in the herd as an affirmation that we know our horses. As if it’s some kind of equine astrology and now that we know the horse is a Sagittarius that explains everything.
I’ve been teaching calming signals for the last few years as a way of understanding small messages from our horses before they become huge issues. It’s fun to have a non-verbal conversation with a horse. I always give the reminder about soundness but often we’d rather have a conversation about challenges, like standing still at the mounting block. What if the mounting block represents the beginning of what hurts and your horse resists it because he’s smart? Not a training issue at all.
It’s about now that we have to ask the hard question: Is it my lousy hands or is he in pain for another reason?
How is his saddle fit? If you aren’t having that checked at the very least once a year, things have changed and he feels it. Maybe he has a rib out or his withers are a bit jammed and he needs a chiropractic adjustment. Maybe he’s in his teens and you have repressed the idea that his back might be getting arthritic.
I don’t blame people. Checking for soundness is an affirmation of our horse’s mortality. Ick. Lameness can be hard to diagnose, even with radiographs and ultrasound. And I think there are pains that horses feel that we just can’t find, even with the best help. Vet science is still an art.
If lameness weren’t complicated enough, the existence of ulcers can distract us from questions of soundness. Ulcers are a huge issue for horses. Between 60% and 90% of horses have them, and worse, they sometimes mask lameness issues. It isn’t uncommon to treat a horse for ulcers and then perhaps find a stifle problem underneath them.
For all our horse’s anxiety about pain and not showing it, and for all our anxiety about the same, we have to start by getting past our emotions, fear, and love for a moment. Stand away from your horse, take a breath, and watch with quiet eyes. These are calming signals that could also be signs of pain:
• A tense poll, elevated head.
• Ears back or one ear back and one forward.
• Tight muscles around the eye.
• Exposed white of the eye.
• Intense stare or partially closed eyes.
• Clenched lips or nostrils.
You’re right. Those are symptoms so common. Some are even contradictory. We see them all the time, it’s easy to be complacent about them. They could be calming signals to ask you to cue quieter or that they need a moment to think. Or they could be signs of pain.
It’s that experience where you type a couple of your own symptoms into Google to try to self-diagnose, only to find you could have one of twenty life-threatening issues. How many times do we think we’re just depressed but it turns out that depression is a symptom of twenty other terrifying life-threatening issues?
And suddenly playing with calming signals is less fun. If you have a stoic horse, then cut that minimal fun in half. Can we ever trust what a stoic horse relates? Are so many nebulous and negative unknowns looming large enough now that you doubt everything you used to think you knew?
Perfect. You’re not supposed to think you know everything.
Instead, work on having an open mind and good intention. We must be willing to see “bad behavior” as a message and not a training issue. Be willing to listen, but also be willing to hear things we don’t want to hear. Even embrace the idea that our horses might be in pain. I don’t mean that we all become equine hypochondriacs but how can we help them if we don’t almost welcome the idea?
Positive training, asking a horse to volunteer, is more than kind. It has a distinct advantage for the horse. He gets what he wants from a leader. He gets to be heard when he hurts.
First, last, and always, make sure your horse is sound.
Anna Blake is a horse advocate, equine professional, award-winning author, and proud member of the herd at Infinity Farm, on the Colorado prairie. She trains horses and riders equine communication skills and dressage, and writes parables about horses and life. | Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog
Ben Hart hates injustice and wasted potential, and he has a mission to help people understand the true nature of equines by using the honesty of the science of behaviour to help both animals and their people unlock their true potential. He firmly believes working with equines doesn't have to be complicated, dangerous or stressful and by helping people to understand the true and amazing behaviour of equines, he wants them to better understand each other to make life better for horses, donkeys and Mules. Ben removes the myths and dependence on dominance and forceful training methods and focuses on positive, safe effective solutions that centre on both the animal and the human. Ben's delivery of training is unique, ensuring an outstanding experience that is enjoyable and life changing.
Ben Hart's Online Learning Opportunities - Hart's Horsemanship Courses
The body has its own wisdom and responds to the world in a very sensitive way, learning to listen to the wisdom of the body is very important in the development of training skills. The body sends sensations to our brain. We usually experience them as a vague sense of knowing, a gut feeling, a tension, a nervousness or a feeling of peace and happiness.
Listening to the body is very important as the spend and subconscious level it works on can be very accurate compared to the over analytical brain. The little voice is your body's wisdom, it will speak to you just before you eat another cake for instance, saying you are full but we have become so used to overriding the brain that we stop listening and allow the thoughts in our head drive us, I want cake, I deserve cake, just one more won’t hurt. But they are so good, I have eaten two and blown it any way so what difference does a third make, I’ll start healthy eating tomorrow.
This sense we get from the animal and situation relies on our resonance circuitry, our mirror neurons fire when we see behaviour in others causing us to have a sense of another’s experience this is the beginnings of empathy. The more we experience another’s behaviour the better our resonance circuitry is at reproducing what they feel.
Often handlers “know” if their animal is having a bad day, how do they know, do they think it, no they feel it first, a combination of body language, movement, posture, action and reaction, previous experience and behaviour give us a sense of knowing the emotional states of others. Then these feelings connect to the brain and we know and rationalise the feeling to a state of knowing the animal is having a bad day.
Many handlers have a feeling about what they should or should not do, especially when it comes to getting on to go for a ride on a nervous horse, they may experience a sense of fear, nervousness apprehension, it is natural we say, but it is the little voice that is representing our feeling in the body that we actually haven’t done enough work to be sure of the animal’s behaviour, we can trust their behaviour, we are not sure we have the skills to cope. But our analytical brain over rides this again much like when we get to the third piece of cake, don’t be silly you will be fine, don’t be such a whimp, I have to do more otherwise he is going to waste, everyone else will think I am a chicken, I would get on and ride if I was any good. And so we ride. Unfortunately far too often our little voice was right and we shouldn’t be riding and accidents or fearful incidences that make the situation worse do occur.