Training Advice for Horses in the Spring

 

 

“Egads, stand back! It’s spring and all those flighty chestnut Arabians are reactive nut cases. Afraid of everything. Downright dangerous. Whoa, now. Settle down, big fella!”

Spring can be an unsettling time. Yes. I take blog requests and this is the big complaint. Really, year-round, but it’s especially fresh with post-hibernation hung-over indignation in the spring. We’ve been inside too much with lousy weather and now it’s getting warmer. We have big plans for the summer. It’s crucial that the work begins today, but all our horses want to do is graze. It’s disrespectful and outlandish rudeness. All they ever want to do is eat. Pulling away constantly. He started it, we pull back before we know it. We start with a little tug, but it looks like he is grazing faster now. How can that be? Now the horse doesn’t even lead? Frustrated, we jerk the lead rope. He strides a few frantic steps and his head slams to the ground. He is grazing just as hard but his ears are sour and he’s counter-bending away. How dare he? If we give the horse a choice, we’d never do anything but graze!

BTW, that’s Sweet Al in the video. He lives in Arizona. You don’t see grass like this very often.

For some over-important reason, humans took it to heart when we were told that every interaction is training. We think letting a horse graze once means that their work ethic will be destroyed forever. So, we drill the exact same training, day after day, because he’s in “training.” I mean if we didn’t repeat the cues for a walk, trot, and canter, what would horses do? But now it’s spring and that stupid horse can’t remember how to walk? Does he need a whip to keep walking? Does he need to go to boot camp for an attitude adjustment?

Horses stress eat. I’m sure that you would never empty a tub of ice cream after a fight or walk to the fridge for a snack twenty times an hour just because you’re locked inside. But when a horse grazes more frantically on the end of a lead rope, he’s anxious. Fear of what might happen makes him resistant. Sound familiar?

He gives a calming signal, a universal message that he is no threat; that we humans don’t have to be so aggressive. He might do it by looking away or closing his eyes partway. Or by stretching his neck low, meaning grazing. Be clear, if your horse thinks you are correcting him again, or in his eyes, being aggressive, he will graze more frantically. If you see it through his eyes, the more he suggests calming, the angrier you get. It’s a vicious circle. And the human is the vicious part.

That experience of constant correction makes a horse anxious. Some horses get stuck in the flight response, seeming to spook at everything they see when it’s humans they’ve lost trust in. Other horses shut down, pulling inside and almost pouting. To be corrected each stride is soul-killing. Instead, ask him to walk on. He can lift his own head. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that he isn’t walking, so why correct his head? Pulling on his face is a halt command, he’s already doing that. Instead, take a breath. Or five. Smile and say, “Walk on.” Become relaxed and forward yourself, he’ll take the cue.

Maybe it’s humans who go nuts in the spring. Or maybe you were raised by parents who believed in the “spare the rod, spoil the child” approach. It’s what you have been taught. Most of us are passive-aggressive, don’t pick a real fight but just quietly nagging and trying to micromanage every feeling our horse has. As well as our own, because it’s important to be good. Good behavior matters the most.

Your horse has a couple of things to say. First, you might consider getting an ohm, the rare white amphibians who live in underwater caves and can go up to 10 years without eating. Or a really big snake, like a boa, can go months without eating. They might accidentally eat your pet bunny or a small cat, but not often at all. Less grooming, and not rideable, but no more complaints about constant eating. Horses will be the first to remind you they are designed to eat small amounts throughout the day. Born to graze, even if they live in a dry lot. Eating is no less than survival for a horse and so-called domestication doesn’t change their instinct or their digestive system. Why is that so hard for humans to understand?

Horses have a profound memory, remembering both good and bad. One day doesn’t negate all the others. On days when the weather prohibits training, or during the weeks we take a vacation, a horse doesn’t promptly forget everything they know. It’s more likely that a horse will be challenged by what he remembers.

I take blog requests from horses, too, and this request is from every horse in the northern hemisphere. The request begins with “My human is dysfunctional and doesn’t even know it. She gets cranky about it.” It isn’t that we lack grace and can’t dance. Well, it isn’t just that. Horses are capable of subtle nuance because of their keen senses. We aren’t on a level playing field; we only pick up a fraction of what a horse does from the environment.

Can you smell the grass? Imagine what it might smell like if you had two olfactory systems and you were still being fed last year’s hay. Your horse wants you to know that grass this sweet doesn’t happen year-round. Just a couple of weeks in the spring. It’s been a long winter. Itchy and cold, and he can hear the grass screaming to be eaten. Okay, maybe grass doesn’t scream, but he can hear everything else. Birds are returning. Wild animals are mating. The earth softens and even the trees are coming back to life. The sun has turned warm. It’s a party, for crying out loud.

Want my professional training advice? Come on, do you really want to fight spring? Spring is literally a force of nature. Fighting spring is like fighting gravity. Instead, give your horse a spring break. Let him out to buck and fart without correction. Let him run for the horses we lost. Let him celebrate being alive in the green season, you have the rest of the year for training. Let him remind you that playing hooky didn’t make you stupid. And that being good all the time is an act.

Train less, feel more.

Let him graze while you tune up your own senses, as limited as they are by horse standards. Start easy, feel the sun on your skin. What do you smell? How does a blade of grass taste? What is the farthest thing you can hear? Even if you’re aware of how dull our senses are in comparison, paying attention puts you in the present moment with horses. Would we do better to trust our horses more? Learning to maintain awareness of his experience is where the negotiation can begin when it is time to train.

Now the hard part. Remembering that horses don’t judge perfection, but care about authenticity, try to see yourself through your horse’s perceptive eyes. How do you like what he sees?

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

21 thoughts on “Training Advice for Horses in the Spring”

  1. I really love this !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Not every day is a training day
    My best days are spent with horses just being horses
    Thank you for this
    Have a great Day !!

    Reply
  2. All I want to do right now is go along for the graze. Beautiful blog, beautiful horse. I love my horse, I trust my horse.

    Reply
  3. Anna,
    Always my belief but I was ‘corrected’ by you this morning in reading these wonderful words.
    Yesterday, we had less time and the horses wanted to stay out in the spring grass longer.
    We were trying to coax them back to the barn, and I noticed my OTTB’s eating became more frantic.
    He was reading my signs
    I stopped, and let him eat, much longer. Then, he relaxed.
    After about 15 minutes I said, quietly, “Walk on.” And he did.

    Thelwell once said, “Talk to your pony, he will understand you.” Never truer words.
    Nuala

    Reply
  4. Must I toot my own horn again…twice?
    1. My last trail rides with my Appy consisted of hurry up and get ready to meet our riding buddy waiting across the road Made it on time. And now “Ready, set, put your head down and eat, Cappy. I’m busy with my friend catching up on the news. And now after 20 minutes or so of you eating and me talking, you want to lift your head up and start walking the trails? Honestly!”
    2. “My mistake,” I thought when I decided to let my TB Dover go out to graze in the backyard first before going on our ride. As he disappeared from view, I realized, “Well, there goes my ride.” So I sat and waited, thinking soon I’ll have to go get him. But 15 minutes later or so, he comes trotting back to me, all ready to be tacked up! Yes, sometimes it’s good to make mistakes. You never know what you’ll discover.
    Bonus Points. Back at the barn, but still on the backyard side, I can’t help but “train” Dover to speak human. As he walks away to graze, I utter the word “carrot,” watching him stop mid-stride, do a 180, and return for the carrot. I know it’s not right to use verbal commands, but his back was to me at the time. How else was he going to know there was a carrot in his future if I didn’t say something?

    Reply
  5. Beautifully said! Wish all horse people could learn this mindset. I love spring and how the horses find so much joy in it.

    Reply
  6. Thank you , thank you, thank you
    I love this post, I wish everyone had the open- mindedness to accept this reality 🐴💕
    Carole, Miss Red and Samiaan 😃

    Reply

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