These are two of my favorite topics and I write about them often, but this post is about how calming signals and gastric ulcers can relate to each other.
First, are you informed about gastric ulcers? Its knowledge that every horse owner should have–no different from hoof care or dental floats. Horses have a rather delicate digestive system and when a certain series of events happens (it’s different for each horse) gastric ulcers can form. Causes include trailering, unnatural feeding and management, training stress, or even a change in the herd. Worst of all, 50% of the diagnosed ulcers were found on horses who showed no symptoms. There’s a proven link between ulcers and colic, and sadly, the conditions have too many things in common–like extreme pain. It’s no surprise that ulcers are usually first recognized as a negative change in behavior. (Update: statistics are higher in 2018.)
First, we must resolve the ulcers and any underlying issues. Get veterinary help and adjust to more natural ways of keeping horses: less stall time and more social time, free feeding to mimic grazing, and digestive supplements and ulcer remedies when needed.
Then evaluate the training side. If our handling of horses can cause ulcers, then is it possible that positive training could help alleviate them as well? When your horse struggles, does your presence support him or do you reprimand him for telling you he has a loss of confidence?
No one proudly admits that they train with violence and intimidation; we all use the same positive words, but our actions don’t necessarily match. Too many horses who are fearful and stressed terribly, are then forced to submit to training aids that cause panic, while their owners refer to them as hot. Or lazy or crazy or just bad.
This week a new client complained that after years of working with trainers, no one had ever taught her methods to actually communicate with her horses. How is that even possible?
Some of us treat our horses as if we’re drill sergeants at a military school, barking out orders and demanding immediate obedience. Others behave like indulgent parents of a toddler crying in the candy aisle of the grocery store–whining, cajoling, and nagging endlessly. Both approaches are alike: they both attempt to dominate the horse into submission with no real understanding of the horse. Both ends of the continuum need to find a listening middle ground. (Yes, I think both methods, in the extreme, are equally cruel. Killing a horse with kindness is just as crazy-making to a horse as badly used whips and spurs.)
Can we just be real? Horses are honest for the most part and giving the best answer they know. Can we lay down our egos long enough to connect with our horses; instead of barking out a lecture, can we just have a conversation? Can we give them a chance to volunteer? Maybe we would get more respect if we offered some trust first.
Mutual peace and partnership depends on our understanding of horse’s calming signals. Calming signals are the way horses (and dogs, the term coined by Turid Rugaas, refers to both species) communicate. Most of us know what ears pinned flat means, but just like us, horses have plenty of feelings before they reach anger.
The horse in the photo is looking away. She isn’t bored or distracted; she’s telling me that she needs a moment. That I’m being a bit loud in my body language and I don’t need to push since she isn’t resisting. She’s giving me a cue to go slower; be more polite. Is civil herd behavior too much to ask?
When your horse turns his head away, do you pull it back? That can be the same as answering his request for peace by starting a fight. Remind yourself, for the millionth time, that horses have much keener senses than we do, that they react 7 times faster than we do. What we mistake for dullness is actually them asking us to use our indoor voice and if we want better relationship with our horses, we need to pick up our game.
We must improve our listening skills because our horse’s well-being and health are at stake. We may not be able to end the natural causes for ulcers, but we can mitigate them. We can train relaxation and confidence–and be rewarded with a smooth canter depart as a by-product. Too many of us train for result and not relationship.
Whether his physical discomfort is from extreme weather changes or moving to a new barn or trailering to a show, it’s your job to help him. And as the supposedly evolved species, it’s up to us to be worthy–not the other way around. Leadership and confidence requires us offering to listen and then negotiating the best answer for everyone. If you want to be a dictator you’ll limit yourself to fighting and never get to dance; you’ll never get his best ride.
If you do aspire to better communication, it can be a slow process to wait and allow horses to volunteer, especially if it hasn’t been encouraged in the past.
Want to know a secret shortcut; a way to listen to calming signals even if you aren’t sure what your horse’s resistance is saying? The secret is that you don’t have to know each intellectual detail; you don’t have to define each signal in human terms to acknowledge it. Just slow down, judge less, and keep an open mind. Then take the advice of Maestro Nuno Oliviera, “Ask often, be content with little, and reward greatly.”
And when your horse finally offers you his full heart, when you are finally gifted with his honest trust and confidence at last, know that he benefits physically, mentally, and emotionally, even more than you. The other word for that is leadership.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.