As show season is upon us, I see a lot of posts about horse behavior being less than optimal. The reasons vary from the first show of the season to a windy spring day, or both! Now, I do not usually like to talk about horses as if they are good or bad because they are like humans, sentient. They have their own feelings, their own reactions, good days, and bad days. Who are we to judge that? Do you like when people judge your mood? That being said, I do expect some cooperation from my horses. It just means that I am empathetic to their plight, as they are very empathetic of mine. It means that I respect them enough to ask questions and accept the answers, but on occasion, I may need to ask them for a little more than they might want to give.
Horses do not usually get a choice in how they interact with humans, so we are already forcing something upon them every day. This does not mean you should feel bad about riding your horse. Offering your horse acknowledgement for this type of relationship allows your horse to feel understood, at least in some respect. Contrary to the widely held belief, horses are not usually doing naughty things out of spite. Your horse is reacting to something that is upsetting his sense of comfort or he wants to play. Human logic often leads you to either anthropomorphize your horse too much or make him completely insentient. Neither is correct. Horses consciously perceive everything; they just do not have all the emotions or reactions that people do. This means, your horse does not perceive your reaction to his behavior like you perceive it, most of the time.
For instance, once your horse does something you deem naughty, you burn that into your brain and attach an emotion to your horse’s action. Then, every time you think he might be naughty again, you revisit the same emotion and prolong your focus on it. Horses do not behave this way instinctually, so your emotion is now a stressor for your horse. Horses in a healthy herd will make a correction or a statement to another horse and move on. If the same correction or statement needs to be made again, it may be done with more vigor, but the length of time of the correction does not increase. Nor do horses revisit the same emotion later around the same horse without provocation. They treat the next interaction like a brand-new interaction. In contrast, humans are terrible about moving on and letting things go! Frustration is something that horses would not even know if humans had not taught them, so they do not understand it well. Frustration just comes across as anger or fear to the horse, but the horse is not able to figure out what there is to be angry or fearful about. Now your horse is trying every trick he knows to escape the anger or fear. Thus starts the vicious cycle of “naughty” behavior and your reaction to the behavior.
Most people have two core reactions to undesired horse behavior, anger, and fear. Now, some people get angry because they are fearful of what might happen. Some get angry because they see naughtiness as an ongoing problem. In this case, the naughtiness is usually just enough to disturb the rider’s concentration and disrupt the flow. Reacting in anger to fear is usually an innate thing. You can work on your anger reaction by slowing down and giving yourself time to think. If you react quickly in anger, cut the outburst short. This will minimize the damage to your horse’s psyche. Fear is something that you must be honest with yourself about! If you really fear your horse’s reaction to something, you need more tools in your toolbox. If you are just getting angry because you are frustrated that things are not going perfectly, get over it! Remember, you are riding a sentient being who is much larger than you. Be happy your horse allows you to ride and get curious about what it might find scary or interesting and what might be worth being naughty about.
I have learned that anger and frustration are useless emotions when you are working with horses. Anger clouds our reaction and makes us less clear to the horse, which is more upsetting to the horse. So, how do you communicate with that naughty horse? First, turn off your human brain (as best you can) and think like a horse. Remember they have huge eyes and see way more than you do, so look around. Acknowledge everything you see, acknowledge things they see, that you do not see. My thought is usually, I have no idea what you are looking at, but yep, it is there, and I am so glad you can see it! Say to yourself and your horse, gosh, that banner could be scary if it got to blowing. I have no idea why this corner of the arena is scary, but we will just avoid it for now. For most horses, just the act of your acknowledgement (they do sense it) is enough. If you ignore their concern or try to convince them (or yourself) the issue is not there, your horse feels ignored and less secure. Is your horse the type that just feels fresh and could produce a buck or a bolt? Acknowledge that feeling and then think, let’s give that body something to do, shall we? Most people struggle with this type of thinking because they have come to their ride with an agenda, which is perfectly ok, but then they do not want or know how to modify that agenda. In my experience, if you acknowledge what might be the source of a problem and then go about figuring out how to help your horse relax, you’ll soon be back on track with your plan. Even if you cannot get back on track in that ride because something is just too much for your horse to handle, you have made good training progress for the next time because you took the time to acknowledge the issue. Building trust with your horse. When I have something go wrong during a ride, I now usually hear the voice of my German trainer saying: “It’s no problem. Don’t worry.” I remember thinking back then, the hell it’s NOT or how can I not WORRY! He was very right though; it is not a problem and worrying about it does not help.
How do you find the relaxation? First, you must acknowledge that since you are riding a sentient being, nothing is ever going to be perfect. You are not perfect all the time, neither is your horse. You must be prepared for the misstep, the momentary brace, or the break in concentration. Do not get yourself into a tunnel vision situation. Be aware of your surroundings and be feeling what is going on with your horse. If you can stay relaxed and go with the flow, it will make things look even more relaxed than they are. Second, experiment! I’m a huge fan of experimentation because horses are like humans (in that we all have different personalities). What may work for one horse, does not work for another, but usually if you find your horse’s key to relaxation you can use it all the time. Their reflex will strengthen over time, making your life much easier. If you have a horse that is very looky, try a long walk around the show grounds, letting them hand graze or watch the other horses. Trying some massage or muscle release techniques here can be super helpful. Maybe your horse will respond to some more focused groundwork (not just lunging in circles). If your horse gets nervous under saddle, find a quick, easy yield that suggests relaxation to your horse. Then, refine it, make it happen seamlessly in normal circumstances. When your horse gets tense, you may have to ask for more of that yield and more often until it starts to relax. The better the yield is when your horse is not tense, the quicker you will see a result when it is tense. I like to use a simple hindquarter yield most of the time because I can train my horses to do it imperceptibly under saddle and it works with most horse personality types. Plus, it never hurts to reinforce the inside hind leg stepping under! If your horse is the unconfident type, just being there with clear boundaries can help. Letting them know that it is not ok to ignore you and get hyper focused on something else. Again, the trick is to not be emotional. Simply have the intention of keeping your horse’s attention and use a yield to inspire them to follow along.
So, whenever you find yourself dealing with a “naughty” horse; empathize, acknowledge, and start a conversation. Trying to ignore the issue or getting angry about it, is not going to makes things improve. Horses perceive much more than most people give them credit for and their sense of empathy is far superior to ours. Use those attributes to your advantage. I am always having conversations with my horses. I ask with my aids and my intention. Can you do this? Will you do that? How does this feel? Do you understand? I never get hyper focused on a problem. I will ask a few questions about it and see if I can get the horse to try a different answer. Then, I will move away from the problem. Whether I come back to it or not that day depends on how willing my horse was to try a different answer. If he is not willing today, I can try again tomorrow. After giving the horse the courtesy of allowing them to process the conversation, oftentimes they are more willing to find another answer.
As for my own mental health, I try to put the “I know my horse might spook at” thing in a box in the corner of my brain. I focus on the work and the relaxation. I will even avoid a spooky spot until I have my horse more relaxed and my aids are working better. The spooky box in my brain is there to remind me to be vigilant, but not to rule my ride. I want my expectation for the ride to remain the same as it was before the spooky thing happened, even if I must change my plan for how to get there. Happy Riding!