“How do I stop my horse from doing this?” An oversimplified version of the most common question a horse trainer is asked. The question comes with a backstory, a theory, and a recitation of everything they have tried. The first resistance is small, we might think it’s a cute affectation even, but if we don’t listen, they will keep at us until we do. Unchecked, the horse becomes dangerous, our response gets more frustrated and now you and your horse don’t recognize each other.
Horses are stoic. Left to polite handling, they try to do what we ask. Even if it hurts, they try. Finally, some horses shut down while others will come apart, but the symptoms continue. Horses give us calming signals when we are too pushy or loud but if we are focused on training, we might miss their call for help. We think it’s a training issue because that’s what we focus on. The horse focuses on himself because he’s in pain.
We would see if the horse was limping, we would help if there was a wound. The last thing we want is for our horse to hurt, and maybe that’s why we don’t want to see it.
If your horse has a dramatic change in behavior, and blows up in an instant, for no reason you can find, it’s usually pain. Think of a shockingly intense pain like a pinched nerve or a bee sting. But if it’s a slow change over time that has grown to be a big problem, that’s still probably pain. Think of a relentless dull chronic pain that wears you down like arthritis or headaches, not visible but very real.
Any decent trainer will say to check for physical issues first before embarking on a corrective training plan, but many conditions are nebulous in the beginning, some not diagnosable, so the vet says “Nothing I can find.” Do we believe the horse or the vet? Either way, it’s complicated, because the horse has a scary mix that’s part pain, part conflicting messages from us, and part anxiety. It will take some time to unravel.
The quick answer from a fear-based trainer is to make yourself big or loud or carry a weapon. Pain shows as aggression lots of times; it seems to almost make sense. You might come to an affirmative trainer like me, and ask for special dispensation to use a whip. You might say kind methods don’t work. And you’re right; training methods of any sort aren’t a resolution for pain.
It all seems nebulous and we want a simple answer. We hear the ancient threats, you can’t let him get away with that, ringing in our ears. So, we decide on a Scared Straight approach. We want to fix the problem.
Look what I found in an article with an even better title than mine, Doing What Doesn’t Work, by Jitinder Kohli: “Scared Straight programs don’t actually work. Far from reducing crime, research shows that participants in Scared Straight programs are about 7 percent more likely to commit crimes afterward than those who don’t participate. This finding is not even new—repeated studies carried out since the 1960s show that Scared Straight programs have no positive effect.”
Punishing a horse isn’t a cure and now we have a full-blown frightened, hurting horse with new bad habits. Finally, we believe him, even if we don’t understand him, and we have to find the right question for his answer. Horse Jeopardy should be a real game with the winner getting their vet bills paid.
What to do while the search is on? It’s a good time to remember that horses never forget anything. First, stop doing things that aren’t working. Please, just stop. Then share that relief when your horse blows. Give him some time off. Do the health checks and ask tough questions but let him rest. Don’t groom him, really let him be. As much as we want to help, give him time to soothe himself and let his memory cool. Consider it an apology.
Patience is the first step in changing a habit. I use the word habit because I’m trying to train myself to use that word instead of “problem.” A problem might have a quick fix, we can fill the water tank for instance. A habit is something we understand differently. A girl might bite her nails, it’s a behavior that we want to stop. If we force her, like whack-a-mole, the cause will pop up again in different behavior. We’re just fussing with symptoms instead of looking for the underlying issue and then forming new habits that will be ongoing. Habit is a better word because we expect it to take time to change and we calm down a bit. Going slower is always good.
Next, rephrase the question because the problem isn’t what your horse is doing. It’s why your horse is doing it. Horses don’t do anything without a reason. We tend to think they are “just being a horse” and they are. A horse who has the intelligence to show us they need help. We must think less about problem-solving and more about listening to the horse.
But what do you listen to? We need a common language with our horses, and it isn’t going to be English. Most of us think we know their language, but if we did, we wouldn’t be in this spot. Are we going by what we were taught way back when, old cowboy myths or superstitions? Then remember all of the breakthroughs we’ve had in even the last few years. It might be time to catch up on science and calming signals. Not romantic, but useful.
Where to start while you’re waiting for the physical answers? Take a video of being with your horse and see his side of the story. His side is what you are doing. But don’t just take the video, actually study it. We must be open to learning how we contribute to our horse’s situation. Maybe it’s a small habit we’re not even aware we’re doing. We’ve probably been taught to do it, or we do it innocently, not understanding what it means to a horse. It doesn’t matter why we did it, if it isn’t working, we need to change it so the horse can give us that different answer.
So, we are patient in finding out if there are physical issues and we are patient in changing our own habits to be more horse-worthy. We work to build a more vulnerable language with our horses because it’s never just one thing, one correction, or one easy fix. The answer is rarely where we thought we were headed. We’d do better to create our own habits of curiosity and perception because mysteries are constantly unfolding and usually a little out of control.
It was never as “simple” as training.
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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
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