Humans can be such dullish boors to horses. Not that we would ever actually admit that.
Some of us need to pad our confidence by controlling horses, we take the loud and obnoxious path. We act like training aids give us a moral advantage and love to recite theories about herd dominance that were junk science in the first place. We’re aggressive and loud, mimicking other cultures through history, more interested in techniques than personality. Stoic horses might tolerate our noise and rattle by shutting down, which we confuse for training. The horses aren’t stoic, might get tossed like trash.
Some of us love horses so much that we clutch and cling, holding onto them as if they’re childhood teddy bears. We don’t ask for much under saddle, because we want to be kind but end up being boring. Then we press ourselves into them, stare into their eyes from an inch away, coo and mash, our hands gripping their faces. Many times, the horses have their eyes closed and we imagine that it’s a sign of peaceful commitment, that they love us back. We conveniently forget that narrowing or closing eyes is a calming signal.
These are generalizations, no offense intended. Sometimes an extreme example gives some space to not feel defensive, knowing we aren’t pink-faced monsters, and allows a different view of a way to find the middle path on the training continuum.
There’s a problem with training too hard or too soft. We’re still boring to horses. Too often it’s all about us. We have a plan and it doesn’t matter if our horse understands it. We only see what we want to see, and anthropomorphize their answers. We chant either mantra: Horses want strong leadership. Horses want love.
These are opinions of course. We’re talking about theories and feelings that keep our self-aware minds as busy as rats on wheels, instead of actually being engaged in the moment, having a spontaneous conversation. We’re talking about our horses behind their backs, instead of including them. We use training to shut horses down, filling in their half of the dialog instead of listening to their calming signals, as clear and blunt as nouns and verbs. We humans like control, so we answer for them in the soul-killing way that we might do with children. We don’t trust horses to be intelligent enough to hold their own as partners. And then the other problem with a partner is they get a say in what happens.
Beyond our noise and chatter, the horse’s opinion should matter more than what we want to think they think. How to find the middle path of communication with a horse, without too much pressure or cajoling? Without forcing them with harsh training aids or watching them prefer grazing to you? (Ouch!)
Can we train in such a way that our horses become engaged and willing partners?
Consider your approach to training in terms of teaching kids; Is every work session like that walk of dread to the principal’s office? Are you the boring study-hall teacher who phones it in, thinking students waste his precious time? Or the history teacher who was so boring you couldn’t even try to listen, a real loss because history is fascinating. Or are you the science teacher who blows things up unexpectedly from time to time?
Maybe there was a special teacher who you thought understood you. Maybe they stood up for you and you wanted to be worthy of their opinion of you. I can’t think of horse training without remembering Mrs. LaBelle and Miss Bean. In our lexicon, they worked with rescue, kids like me who needed someone to notice them, or maybe they managed to make everyone feel that special. I want to be that kind of trainer.
Learning is as much an art as a technical endeavor. As a trainer, working a horse or in lessons, I have a lesson plan, a goal I’m headed toward. Then I let the session unfold. Work becomes play when we inspire curiosity, so I make myself mysterious and interesting to the horse. I trust his intelligence and don’t dumb down the conversation with aids, positive or negative.
Most of all, I never forget that horses live in the moment. Prey animals all do, at every instant, their senses are more acute than mine. Better vision, smell, feel- all around better situational awareness. I can make a choice to not correct them, not scare them into a flight (sympathetic nervous system) response or “calm” them into a dull stupor (sympathetic nervous system, flip side.) I want to engage his intellect and inquisitiveness.
How to be interesting and mysterious to a horse:
- Wait and breathe. It’s nearly inconceivable to a horse that we wouldn’t start by ordering them around. Take a moment to let them know you are different. Build trust with your peace and silence.
- Draw his mind to you by being present and positive. It takes energy but smile, breathe happy air. Let your body say more than your lips. Become a horse oasis.
- Be the clever creative the sort of person who is interesting to hang with. Clever enough to direct positive response rather than destroy his confidence with correction.
- Stay consistently engaged; do the unexpected. Tack up and don’t ride. Do dressage out on the trail. Give him all the control in an arena; lead from behind and let him take you for a walk. Ride in a neck-ring and don’t care where you go.
- Stay engaged continually, you’ll need to re-energize. Breath works.
- Inspire a horse’s curiosity because curiosity is courage.
- Inspire a horse by giving him time to reason things out, let him find the confidence in his own capabilities.
- Inspire a horse by being so positive that they want to work with you by choice.
- Trust your breath is the largest cue possible. Really. Don’t let your eyes glaze over when you read the word… cue yourself to be enthusiastic about breathing. In other words, do something challenging to yourself.
Affirmative training means you are the affirmative one. You say yes. Be constantly aware that it isn’t so much the type of technique that you train, but the attitude you hold. Math is spellbinding if approached with enthusiasm and love. Literature can feel like a ridiculous waste of time if taught by a teacher who can’t relate it to our experiences. And a mounting block can be a place of wonder and trust.
It should be our goal to be the kind of teacher/leader that horses are drawn to. It takes consistent energy and commitment on our side. Less correction, more direction. With breath and a positive energy, use self-discipline to be fun and stay interesting. We can encourage confidence and inspire our horses. We can be the treat.