I recently had a spellbinding conversation with a brilliant and beautiful mare.
She was very young, not started under saddle, and her human is doing a fine job with her. They do obstacles in hand, hike a bit, have age-appropriate ground manners. Her handler had asked for some advice about the process going forward.
We’d been talking about one of my favorite exercises, leading from behind. It’s standing back by the horse’s flank, well behind the drive-line, and about four feet to the side. In other words, well out of the horse’s space. Once the horse is comfortable moving forward in this position, you can do obstacles, but rather than leading her, you send her from behind. Or more literally, the horse does obstacles in autonomy, volunteering, and out in front like ground driving. The handler walks along, makes suggestions, and cheers.
I asked if I might have her horse’s rope. I’m aware that I’m asking for a privilege. I’ve heard all the trainer horror stories, too. But she trusts her mare to me and I say thank you.
The mare is beautiful and she is quite aware of it. Period. Can I take a moment here and say that if you work with a beautiful mare, it might be more productive to acknowledge your own beauty rather than hers? She already knows, and you will need all your confidence to keep up with her. Says this gray mare with chronic lameness.
We did a few obstacles but she let me know with some sour ears that I was uninteresting. That’s fair.
I thought she was answering by rote, meaning the mechanical or habitual repetition of something. You say sit and the dog sits. Yawn. Pretty dull conversation if that’s all you do.
The mare had been doing the obstacles in the most obvious way. Not only that, she thought repetition is for dolts. Or that humans might be very slow learners. A conversation by rote is beyond boring. And if we just repeat the obstacle the same way each time, then we deserve a sour ear. Any mare will tell you that.
Time to get creative. I asked her to walk on from behind. There was a pair of arches, and I sent her under. But now I wanted to send her between them. It was wide enough for her but not wide enough for both of us side by side. I sent her out on an arc, in front of me, and she stopped at that narrow spot between the arches.
She doesn’t think she can do it. I ask her to hold her own self up.
She is standing right there; she knows what I want. She’s smart; she doesn’t need me to “train” her. She needs confidence.
I let her know when she’s getting warmer. I’m positioned totally back from her head, she’s facing the narrow space between the arches, telling me it might be impossible, and I am happy. I can tell she’s thinking, so I exhale. Good.
This is how obstacles work: She could be standing facing anything: a bridge, a pedestal, or a trailer. (Float to my new friends.) It’s all the same; I get to say what we do, and she gets to say when. Partnership.
I coax her to figure it out. I’m not going to do it for her and I’m not going to bully her. I wait. That means I’ve become interesting and mysterious.
I let her know she’s on the right path. Good girl. I ignore the rest and I breathe. We’re having a conversation. She tries to distract me by suggesting there might be a kangaroo in the bushes. I usually fall for that but not this time. I tell her she’s brave with a big inhale.
Standing to her left, my left hand is on a long lead, toward the clip at her chin and my right hand is near the end of the rope. I might cue her with it, but if I do, it must be so quiet that she takes only one step. I only want small efforts. If she gets over-cued anxious, things will take longer, and she’s paying attention. No reason to escalate. She isn’t refusing; just trying to figure out how to do it. We’re both intelligent people. We whisper and breathe.
Her sour ears have been gone for the last five minutes and I care less about the obstacle and more about her keen mind. We are focused, enjoying each other.
Would you have upped your aids by now? Circled her or disengaged her? Would you have distracted her from her task or she you? Hold steady; there’s time.
Her calming signals are small, with less anxiety than before. She blinks slowly with a large soft eye. She gives me a little lick and chew, and she’s almost ready. Dialing my energy to balance hers. I ask her to move a bit, and then, with no fanfare, she walks through. Onlookers sigh and give her a quiet golf-clap and the young mare is positively glowing with pride.
Can we use positive energy to encourage a horse to push her boundaries, in a good way? Can we have the confidence in her to give her time to figure it out? In the saddle, as well as on the ground? And when she volunteers, let’s celebrate her new-found courage. Confidence is the most important gift we can give our horses, regardless of our riding discipline.
Training rules: You may only say yes to the horse and to yourself. No punishment, just yes. This part is harder than it sounds. Every time you see any calming signal, you listen and go slower or stop. You may not escalate. Keep a friendly tone. Breathe. Acknowledge every tiny try.
Peaceful Persistence:Not aggressive.Not conceding.Not emotional.
We need to pick up our mental game. It’s crazy the way we prattle on about how sensitive our horses are, geniuses at reading our minds, and totally capable of learning anything but then dumb down the training process to learned helplessness, bullying, and answers by rote. It would make my ears go sour, too.