What exactly does it mean to refer to a horse as “dull?”
Most often, we refer to dullness in horses as it regards to their response to our cues and requests. What’s interesting is we (or I guess in this case the mysterious “they”) tend to describe it as a quality the horse possesses, instead of a unique, individual response to a particular person or person’s way of handling.
Becoming dull is a form of self protection on the horse’s part. When aids are repetitive without release, conflicting, or inescapable, such as in the use of confining equipment like side reins and such, the horse learns to tune them out. They either can’t differentiate between accidental noise, such as a bumping leg or hand, and an intentional aid, such as a leg or rein aid given.
If the aids are not released, too loud, too frequent, or given in a way the horse just can’t tolerate, they can slide into learned helplessness. This is where the horse has learned that nothing they do releases pressure or brings them peace.
Some of the most sensitive natured horses I’ve ever met were referred to by someone as dull. These horses likely were overloaded, tuned out, and gone into self protecting mode.
If you’ve ever had trouble getting good responses from your horse, and watched someone else seemingly by magic produce energetic responses from the same horse, you understand how unique the horse is. They are not robots to be programmed. Just as you react and respond differently to each person and situation, so does the horse.
We can’t think of training as programming responses if we are to consider the well-being of the horse. Really, all good training is, is listening to the horse, and teaching the horse a mutual language that can be shared with you in each moment. That means a good horseman or woman doesn’t learn cues and aids, they learn to feel, respond, and communicate every step of the way, in the way that each step requires.