A few weeks ago, after much preparation, planning, and a little stressing, I packed my saddle, bridle, sleeping bag, and two suitcases full of clothing and boots for every type of weather, and took a 2 day drive down to middle of Nowheresville (Tarpley), Texas. There I spent two weeks studying under Leslie Desmond with six other wonderful girls all interested in learning more about the intricate aspects of Feel. While many (many, many, many…) subjects were covered, one of the biggest takeaways for me was the difference between correction and education. In other words, rather than setting the horse up to fail, and correcting them, it is much more effective to set the horse up to succeed in the first place.
Here’s an example of a very, very common problem:
One of the biggest sources of contention between the average novice horse owner and their horses is the problem of crowding. Horses who push on, rub on, stand too close to, nip, bite, or generally disrespect the human often receive correction in many forms : he gets backed up, pushed away, pushed on, smacked, has a chain yanked, a lead rope snap popped, etc. All of these types of correction momentarily create a brace in the horse – try it yourself: go and push on your friend, and see what his reaction is. He’ll probably lean back into you. Now imagine getting smacked or yanked on – you will probably brace yourself for this type of correction. These braces form habits, and often the horse-human relationship becomes contentious; the person waits for the horse to rub his head on him, the horse waits to be smacked, the cycle of pushing continues.
One of the most confusing aspects for the horse in this cycle of correction is that often the human corrects the horse for crowding him, and yet often chooses to stand at his face in his blind spot, hold his lead rope tight and close where he finds no release, and hand feeds him. All of these actions, choices made consciously or unconsciously, form a pattern which begins with a crowding, disrespectful human, who over time teaches his horse to crowd and disrespect. How confusing for the horse who one day is invited into the human’s “bubble” to recieve a hand fed treat, to put his lips on you, check your pocket for treats, get a kiss, etc, and the next day he rubs, crowds, etc, and recieves a firm hand in exchange.
We all love horses, and we all want our horses to love us. The most clear, respectful, and peaceful way I know of to show a horse I care for him and acknowledge his rights as a flight animal with binocular vision (meaning when you are standing right in front of his face he cannot see you and is uncomfortable with you there), is to set him up for success. Don’t teach your horses to crowd you and put their lips on you in the first place. Stand beside them at the shoulder, or by the hip if you have to, and ask before you pet a horse. People who assume they can hug or touch anyone whether they know them or not are not generally well received by others, so consider your horses’ body language and thought before taking your hand right up to his face.
If you have a horse who already crowds you, I encourage you not to correct him. Either you, or someone else taught him that accidentally or purposely, so if you want change, don’t make him feel wrong for what he has been taught to do already. Instead, stop contributing to the problem. Stop hand feeding; carrots taste just as good in a bucket or on the ground, and he (and you) will appreciate and learn from having a little room between you and his teeth. Stand by his shoulder, help him learn to stay straight and balanced by not pushing his head or shoulders on you.
If you are not convinced that these small things can make the world of difference for your horse and for your relationship to him, try it for one month. Be aware of your habits and thoughts about your horse, and at the end of the month, after taking time to be conscious and have more positive thoughts toward his behaviors, emphasizing the good rather than focusing on his “bad” habits, see what kind of horse you have then. I hope you will find a happier, lighter, more respectful horse, if you are willing to focus on your own contribution to the problem, as well as solution.