He was a huge gelding with obvious draft blood. I could see white all the way around his eye. It had been months of every little thing being a really big deal. A big deal that he goes into a smaller pen of fence panels. A big deal to let a human in with him. A big, slow deal to get a halter on him. Breathe.
The client had ridden him at his old barn before she bought him. He was very timid, but she thought he’d be easy. It was her first horse and the wrong people encouraged her. It’s possible that the seller wasn’t entirely truthful or that the client didn’t understand the meaning behind what she heard. When he got to the new home, he totally fell apart, meaning she couldn’t get near him, and that’s where I came in.
When I start with a new client, I listen to everything they say. Then I listen to the horse. If the stories don’t match, I believe the horse. It’s common sense; where else could we start?
This gelding, all twelve-hundred-pounds of him, was as frightened a horse as I’ve known. Dangerous, not by being aggressive, but just by his own sheer terror. It was all he could do to stay in his skin. When his poll was tense, and it always was, I couldn’t reach as high as his brow. Horses like this could as easily harm themselves as someone around them. Also, the kind of horse a human could over-romanticize.
One day I was working with him in hand. Every step, he was thoughtful, trying so hard I thought he might spontaneously combust. To say I did a lot of breathing with this horse, well, it was all I could do. Words were too loud. Going slow was too fast. We took a break; I was a few feet away, facing his cheek, breathing. His owner came toward us to ask a question and I turned my head toward her to answer. He blew a long exhale, kind of like mine. I said another sentence to the owner and he blew again, moving so his head was between us, facing me, and he exhaled again, even more insistently. And he was right, we were not done. I could talk to her later.
I’d never been given such a blunt cue, from such an unlikely horse. “Breathe with me, dammit!” Why do I nag about breathing so often? Horses like him have taught me.
After months of the tiniest progress, he had a regression. It happens with most horses, but his was extreme and it was hard on his novice owner. She decided to buy a riding horse. She’ll always keep him, she loves him, but now with no expectations.
This horse was an anomaly. Most horses, even rescues, never feel a fraction of the fear this horse carried. But still, most horses have some bad memories that get in the way.
Horse brains work somewhat like ours but with important differences. They are conscious and aware, but they don’t have creative thought as we understand it. So, they don’t plan a revolt to rule the world, no vendetta against you, your clean clothes, or your plans for the weekend.
Horses do have a very strong memory. They retain their experiences. Take a moment to ponder this. It’s the foundation of their confidence and ability to learn when addressed in an affirmative way. They can learn quickly, remember training, even extrapolate training to different circumstances. Memory is also their worst enemy. Their memories are timeless, keeping bad history just as close and real.
Imagine the bad history a horse has experienced as a stack of papers. Perhaps your horse has a few sheets or perhaps he has a stack as tall as the ceiling. Visualize that stack but know you may never take any papers away. Bad experience is not negated by good training. The best we can do is start a new stack of papers; start to collect good experiences in hopes of overwhelming the bad stack. Eventually.
When the stack of new affirmative experiences is as tall as the stack of bad, is the horse okay? Not usually. It might take three stacks, three times the number of bad memories. It’s up to the horse, some will need ten times. It’s part of the reason there are ups and downs during training. The horse is adjusting, going between present experience and his past or default experience. In other words, on a good day, he might experience a thing that reminds him of a past thing, and he becomes unstuck in the present. He might barely hesitate, or he might have a full-blown PTSD-like episode.
Psychological or physical trauma has no expiration date.
For example, some horses will come out of a trailer wreck and go right back in. Some will never go near a trailer again. Most are in the middle of that continuum. More complicated, there are traditional training methods that are kind, based in brain science, and those that rely on fear and domination. Fear confirms bad memories and damages trust.
As much as we might want to, we can’t take the bad memories away. Pause to understand there is no delete button. We can’t control how they feel. Each individual horse decides what qualifies as abuse, not us. Some will be reactive and some will be stoic, perhaps appearing to go along for a while. There is no facsimile for trust.
Being a trainer is like being a couple’s therapist. It’s about finding common ground between individuals so the relationship can begin to flourish. I don’t usually meet horses at their best, and beyond that, I’ve worked with lots of seriously troubled horses over the years. They never leave me. I keep a stack of memories of them in my mind, a tall stack.
Most of my training approach has come from working with broken horses. I learn in hindsight, just like horses. We have to look at what we are doing and if it doesn’t work, just stop. For instance, in my experience, escalating cues does more harm than good. It creates anxiety that distracts from the cue. It’s like believing shouting resolves a confused or disjointed conversation; that the loudest one wins. It’s our nature to escalate. Our instinct works against us with horses.
We are human. We have bad days, short tempers, hormonal stress. We get late or we listen to bad advice or we fall into a default mode of dominance. We aren’t perfect but we are good at making excuses. Just stop. Know that every interaction with a horse impacts him forever. Discipline yourself to a higher standard.
You cannot subtract from that stack of bad experiences your horse holds. But your horse wants you to know you do have one choice; you can absolutely refuse to add more.