The more I learn, the more I rethink my ideas about correcting. Sometimes I believe it is needed, especially when a horse has learned some undesirable things. But as my timing gets better and my understanding gets better, I find myself correcting much less, and redirecting or educating to head off problems far more. I think back on many corrections in my past and wonder if I could have redirected those behaviors instead.
Before correcting a horse, I think – firstly, are my emotions involved? If yes, time to quit. That never ends well. Secondly, are they physically and emotionally set up for what I’m asking? Did I prepare them and are their bodies in a position to do what I ask? Many times we ask for the wrong thing at the wrong time and set horses up to fail. I try to think less about what I don’t want them to do, and more about what I DO want, and how to make that work. If you find yourself making the same correction over and over, you may have a horse who doesn’t understand or is physically out of position to do what you ask, or , your timing is late consistently.
If your horse is an athlete (if you ride them you should think of them as an athlete), it’s important to have support for his body when it comes to nutrition, postural development and strengthening, hoof care and relief from tired or sore muscles. But a horse who is in good biomechanical alignment and a program that builds gymnastic strength in a healthy timeline does not degenerate as quickly. Supplements, joint injections, corrective shoeing, chiropractic, massage, etc – all these can be helpful to a horse who needs them, but working in balance should prevent degeneration of soft tissues, joints, and the horse’s mind.
What if your horse has already been damaged, and you are rehabbing? Breaking the cycle of pain, discomfort and imbalance is crucial. A horse in pain will not change their posture- so making them comfortable is key, but don’t let their new freedom from pain trick you into working in frames they aren’t ready for. Break pain cycles, and rehab slowly, so joints and muscles have time to adjust.
A healthy posture involves equal flexion in both hind limbs through the hip, stifle, hock and pastern, core stability and strength enough to lift the back, and a neck and shoulders that are free and supple. A horse in pain will almost always tighten their neck and shoulders to compensate, so eliminating the source of pain, not just the symptoms of pain, is essential.
Fear is an interesting topic – Many people speak about their fear of riding or being in certain situations as if they’re wrong, and have been forcing themselves to overcome it. To some extent, fear can be crippling. But fear is also an important indication something is wrong, or missing. Many times in clinics people tell me they are nervous, and they have every right to be. If the rider is older, or under prepared, on a nervous horse with little training, fear is an appropriate response. Fear means the situation is not a healthy one to be in.
Many riders are over faced, without adequate education and preparation, and ride horses with similar lack of preparation and education. The solution here is not to “cowboy up” and get over their fear, but to gain education through a controlled situation where their fear can be eased with knowledge. I prefer people learning to work with very experienced and quiet horses, because as we all know, when fear rises, neither man nor beast can learn.
There is no shame in riding a quiet horse if you have limitations. Your green horse doesn’t get quiet by being ridden by a fearful rider.
One of my clients commented that I was never afraid to ride any horse so I couldn’t relate. This is only partially true – I don’t ride horses I think I’ll be afraid of. While I work with many dangerous or worried horses, fear is my brain’s way of letting me know the horse is under prepared, and therefore I do not ride. When the horse has enough preparation to make them safe to ride, I get on and ride without fear.
You don’t have to cowboy up. Get the right horse for you, get education for you and your horse, and if you’re afraid, simplify the situation so you can relax. You and your horse gain nothing from being afraid.
I have stopped thinking of many behaviors as the problem and the focus, and instead as side effects. It’s not that I ignore the problems, but I don’t feed them. Instead, I work on fixing the whole picture – bringing the horse into rhythm and balance and relaxation. This focus has allowed many other little things melt away, and produces consistently a happy, healthy horse.
The horse bears the burden of not just our physical imbalances, but our emotional ones too.
For some, their horses is their little angel to be babied half the time, and the other half fought with, nit picked to death, and labeled stubborn and rude. Half their experiences with their handlers are permissive, pampering (of course in a way the human can enjoy, not necessarily the horse), and the other half filled with inescapable critique, pressure and discontent.
A horse is neither your baby or a jerk- both are anthropomorphic beliefs with no root in equine behavior or neurology. There is a middle way – the hardest way – but the most balanced way – where we see a horse as a horse, and none of their behavior is personal. In this way, we can add to their lives. An emotionally unbalanced person can never make an emotionally balanced horse.
Horses can’t speak or cry out in pain, so they get abused daily. How do you know if something is abusive? Would you be ok with the same method being used on a child; or on yourself? If no, then it’s very likely abuse. And much horse abuse is commonly accepted.
So often I hear people make excuses for their training methods by saying “it can’t possibly hurt him, he’s 1200 lbs!” “I didn’t hit him, he ran into the whip.” “He needs to learn respect.”
I haven’t hit anyone in my years of teaching, and I’ve had many students who were blatantly disrespecting their horses change their behavior with better understanding. I’m not advocating against setting boundaries with a horse and staying safe. There are times where corrections are necessary, but I find the more I learn how better preparation and better timing can eliminate the majority of corrections I used to think were necessary.
I’ve yet to hit, whip, or yank on a student of mine, and I’m having a hard time understanding how that would help them be in a frame of mind to learn. I’ve never tied a student into a position while teaching them better posture. I haven’t taken out more severe tools when they weren’t listening and I can’t imagine the public being ok with me doing any of these things that we so regularly do to horses. So why do we accept it in training?
We go through great lengths to keep them comfortable- fluffy pads, blankets, fly spray, brushing boots. We know they are bothered by the discomfort of something as small as a fly, and then plow into their mouths with dead equipment like side reins, or spur relentlessly as if they have no sensitivity. Horses can and do feel pain, even though they are large, and we are small.
What are good hands? Many students tell me they have bad hands, when in actuality, there is nothing wrong with their hands. What they often have is tight shoulders or a tight back.
To have good hands necessitates control of our entire bodies. We have to be able to follow the movements of the gaits without needing support from our upper bodies. Even if you don’t need the reins for support, if your upper body takes too much weight, and your back is tight, you’ll be unable to have a good feeling on your horses mouth. If your shoulders are tight, your hands will struggle to give. It’s not a fault of your mindset or abilities – just simple mechanics.
If you want good hands, get control of your body. Find a deep, elastic seat, an independent upper body, and learn to relax your legs, even when you use them.
Stubborn. Lazy. Disrespectful. Short attention span. ADD. Crazy.
These are words I hear students use to describe their horses every day. Aside from them being anthropomorphic descriptions that don’t have any accuracy when describing a horses behavior, it shows a lack of empathy, understanding , and leadership. Is something going on you don’t like? Use your big frontal lobe to your advantage and take the situation in your own hands.
Imagine your teacher trying to teach you to ride and instead of explaining how to do something in words you can understand, they fight with you, complain, and label you all sorts of unkind things.
You are either your horses teacher, or you are in their way. To paraphrase Bill Dorrance, “it’s natural for a horse to feel like you’re in their way when in fact you are.”
One of the reasons it’s so important to not over manage the horse’s head and neck or to try and create roundness through the reins is that the horse’s head and neck offer us valuable information about the body. If the horse throws his head up, that’s a good indicator his back has hollowed and his weight has come onto the forehand. If he’s counterbent, he’s likely fallen in with his inside shoulder and rib cage. Trying to fix these imbalances with the reins forces the horse to crunch their neck into their shoulders and further imbalances them. If, however, you fix the body, the neck and head will fix too.
Try it yourself : standing in a normal, relaxed posture, drop your right shoulder down so the space between your rib cage and pelvis is squished. What happened to your neck and head? You’ll probably notice your left ear is now higher than the right, and your chin tipped slightly to the left. You are “counter bent.” Now, without changing anything, turn your chin to the right, keeping your ears Unlevel. You probably feel pretty uncomfortable, and maybe stopped breathing as well. This is the equivalent of fixing a counter bend with your reins.
Now, shake it out and try again – drop your right shoulder and you’ll find your left ear come up again. To fix it, take a nice breath in, and lengthen the space between your right side rib cage and pelvis. You’ll notice your ears are level again, and your shoulders are too. No need to fix the head and neck.
Ride the horse’s body, and the head and neck take care of themselves. Ride the head and neck, and you have to fight with the body of the horse.
Many people are far more sedentary in their day to day lives than people used to be. Fine motor skills, balance, athleticism, and ability to be mindful of surroundings is not something you suddenly get for your weekly lesson- these are skills that have to be tuned daily throughout your life. I remember asking a kid student years ago, as he was struggling to mount his horse, if he climbed trees. He looked at me like I was crazy: why would you climb trees? I use dancing comparisons in teaching but I have met very few people who dance and can relate to the metaphors. People learning to ride without an active live in whatever capacity seek to really struggle with balance, awareness and motor skills required for even simple things, like buckling halters, bridles and cinches.
So what can you do if your job is sedentary? Exercise is essential for one, but you can throw in little tasks to challenge your balance and awareness throughout your day: brush your teeth with your non dominant hand. Try to lace your shoes with the non dominant foot first. Take the stairs. Practice meditation. Put your non dominant leg through your pants first. Try practicing good posture when you drive. Listen to the sounds when you cook instead of letting your mind wander. There are a million ways you can learn to engage with your world on a daily basis that will help you ride a little better, too. Horses live in a sensory world, and we tend to live in our heads. So to engage with horses in their world, we need to
Tune into the senses