Working with horses daily for the majority of my life has taught me many things. One of the most important is the issue of safety. Surprisingly, this is sometimes less of an issue when we’re around horses that are nervous, high strung, or otherwise unruly. In those cases we use caution and awareness, and we generally don’t get hurt. But when we’re working with horses that are quiet, relaxed, “solid citizens,” we sometimes get complacent – especially with horses we know and trust. This is often when we get injured.
This was not the case last evening when I was trying new boots on a horse. EZ was in his stall, happily munching hay. I was focused, and I was positioned properly. But as I was fitting the boot on, another horse made a sudden loud banging noise on the wall and startled EZ. There was no warning, no second or two to protect myself, when he jumped into me, slamming me into the wall and to the floor. I am so grateful that he stopped with a hoof that was inches from my face. My arm was bruised, but my head was fine. I was a bit dazed, but recovered quickly. Could I have put him on cross-ties instead of fitting boots in the stall? Absolutely. But that would not have been a guarantee of safety; in fact it might have been worse since he would not have been able to do what nature tells him to do: run.
The same day, I was standing at the head of another horse, Ace, to adjust his bridle. Something behind him startled him and he leapt forward. Again, I was fortunate, because instead of running over me as he could have done, he stopped. Thank you, Ace!
Another time I was simply fastening the buckles on a horse’s blanket when she shied and ended up jumping into me knocking me back against a wall. When I landed face down in the stall she stepped backwards onto my foot. Painful and frightening. She eventually stepped off my leg and I crawled out on my belly.
My point here is that accidents can happen anytime, and are often beyond our control. Horses are horses and they sometimes do unpredictable things. However, I often see people around horses doing incredibly dangerous things. Why would anyone put themselves at additional risk through carelessness? Just recently I saw Facebook posts showing a woman sitting with her bare feet touching her horse’s front hooves, a man cleaning a hind hoof squatting down with the hoof level with his face, someone allowing their 3 year old to lead a horse by himself, and two young girls diving into a pond off their horse’s back. No helmets, no protection. Once I saw a 2 year old walk under the belly of a horse, and the mother saw no harm in it. I once witnessed a groom at a show, lying on his side sanding a horse’s feet. Even the most settled horse is still first a prey animal and a flight animal. One never knows when a horse will mentally “return to the wild” and defend him/herself the way they were intended – which is often violently quick, and with tremendous power. If you are in the path of that power you could be seriously hurt, or worse.
As horsepeople, we understand the inherent risks. But to become careless is just plain foolish. Horses don’t intend on hurting us, but they do react to a stimulus. We don’t have to be paranoid, but we should always keep in mind the nature of the horse, and act appropriately for safety.
Think about safety the next time you’re handling a horse for your vet or farrier. Often a horse is nervous or distracted, while the vet or farrier is in a precarious position. I have seen people obliviously chatting away not paying any attention to the horse’s body language or how they are positioning the horse. I’ve known people who will even groom their horse while the farrier is trying to work. There are things you can do to help keep your vet or farrier safe. For example: if the vet is doing an exam on a hind limb, turn your horse’s head towards the side the vet is on. If the horse were to threaten to kick and you pulled the horse towards the vet, the hindquarter would move away from the vet. (If you had the head turned away from the vet and the horse went to kick, he would be coming toward the vet – not safe!) Little things like that can help everyone stay safe, as well as just being aware of your horse’s body language so you can warn the vet or farrier when they’re in a position where they cannot see or feel when the horse is warning them.
People aren’t the only ones who get injured because of our carelessness; our horses do too. The animals we love are often put in harm’s way because we aren’t paying attention. It’s easy to be distracted when other people are in the barn. I understand wanting to socialize, but the focus should be on the horse and socializing later. Don’t leave a horse untied with a halter or bridle on – they might stick their heads in places where the headstall can snag, causing them to panic and pull back. Equipment may break, but that’s repairable. A horse’s mouth can be damaged, neck and back muscles pulled, and/or spinal damage may be done. Be careful leading your horse through a gate. Riders often open the gate wide enough for themselves, forgetting that their horse is much wider. The horse does not know the danger lurking and needs his human partner to take care of his wellbeing.
There are no guarantees when handling horses – accidents do happen. But we owe it to ourselves and to our horses to focus and make choices that will keep everyone safe as possible. Horses’ body language can be very clear in warning us of potential danger but we won’t know that if we don’t pay close attention.
Over the 40 years that I have had the privilege of teaching horsemanship, I find the number one obstacle that deprives riders of both progress and pleasure is fear. Fear of riding horses does not discriminate, nor does it have boundaries. Equestrians of all ages, levels, and disciplines can find themselves afflicted with fear.
Although fear can often develop after a mishap where the rider was injured or frightened, it may also develop without a specific cause or origin. No matter how it started, once fear is present, it seems to have a mind of its own. As it begins to grow and spread, fear can affect your ability to guide and direct your horse. You are the horse’s leader; if the leader is frightened then the horse will follow your lead. The very presence of fear will transfer through your body language to the horse, and the horse will react accordingly, creating a cycle that can be difficult to break.
Fear causes many horse lovers to give up on their passion for riding. It can leave you feeling incompetent and vulnerable. It takes away the joy you once found on horseback. Fear is often the reason horses are sold or become “pasture ornaments.”
Is there alternative to “putting up your boots”? Yes, you can overcome fear! Through my own personal experience, and in guiding my students, I have found overcoming fear to be entirely possible. I would like to offer a realistic approach to facing the fear that holds so many riders back. If you begin to understand how horses think, learn to read your horse’s body language, and increase your skill level as a rider, you can develop the confidence necessary to become a leader to your horse, and reverse the cycle of fear.
Understanding the equine mind
If you understand how a horse thinks, what instincts are necessary for his survival, and how a horse silently communicates through body language, it will begin to open the door to greater confidence and better communication. There are many books written on horses’ instincts, behavior, and language, but I must warn you that there are vast differences in interpretation of the horse’s mind among authors. I believe horses are always your best teachers, so studying how horses behave in a herd can tell you a great many things. Robert Vavra’s book Such Is the Real Nature of Horses is a wonderful study of horses in the wild. Of course, the photography is amazing, but Mr. Vavra has excellent insight to what he photographs. Mark Rashid has also written wonderful books. Two of my favorites are Horses Never Lie and Considering the Horse.
There are three of aspects of the horse’s mind that are always an influence in every reaction the horse has:
Knowing how the horse thinks helps us see the importance of leadership and correct guidance through your body language (aids). But how can you transform from “vulnerable passenger” to “fearless leader”? You’ve got to learn your horse’s language.
Understanding body language
Your horse is reading your body language, and it’s just as important to learn to read his. Understanding your horse’s silent communication will help you to read his awareness and reactions. I like to focus on four basic areas of body language:
It takes observation, constant awareness, and time to learn the subtleness of a horse’s body language. By understanding how your horse thinks and being careful not to humanize the situation, your reactions will be more appropriate and effective, and your confidence level will improve. Being able to read your horse is vital for the third piece of the puzzle: communicating effectively.
Developing your skill as a rider
To successfully combat your fear, you must also develop your skill as a rider. No matter how well you understand equine behavior, and how accurately you can read your horse’s body language, you must be able to communicate effectively, confidently, and appropriately with your horse to break the cycle of fear. Developing an independent seat, correct body position, and the appropriate use of the aids are necessary for feeling secure in the saddle and being able to give your horse the leadership he needs to feel secure as well. Though there are many books written about riding, there’s no replacement for in-person instruction. Especially for riders dealing with fear, finding the right instructor is important. Your instructor should have the right skills and qualifications for your discipline, and must also be someone you feel able to trust. Once you have found a possible instructor, either through recommendations or advertising, I suggest asking to observe a lesson. This will allow you the opportunity to see if the instructors’ approach and theory is right for you.
Just like training a horse, the process of rebuilding your own confidence is gradual and incremental. It can seem like an uphill battle at times, but a mountain does not have to be conquered in a day. Determination combined with knowledge of the mental and physical communication, as well as natural behavior and instincts of the horse will help you to finally re-experience the joy you once found in riding your horse.
In the 1970s, cavessons created for the purpose of closing a horse’s mouth (flash, figure 8, crank, etc) became popular, and since they seemed effective, I, like most, followed without question. But a few years later, a well-respected equine dentist, Ron Ross, visited my barn in Connecticut, and changed the way I thought. Ron was always willing to help educate his clients on the finer points of the equine mouth. He explained that in order for the lower salivary glands to operate effectively, a horse must “work” his lower jaw. The bit alone makes it difficult for the mouth to do this properly, and strappings on the cavesson only amplify the restriction.
Cavessons can have other negative effects too: if the noseband straps are adjusted a bit low and snug (as many are), the nostrils are no longer free to expand, and natural breathing is restricted. A low noseband might also apply constant pressure to the bridge of the nose.
Even though the damage they cause is well understood, these cavessons are so pervasive that many people use them simply because everyone else is. Many people don’t even realize their purpose. They might just like the look of a flash noseband, or they didn’t give much thought to the type of cavesson when bridle shopping (it can be hard to find a plain noseband these days!). Others think they need it to solve a problem.
Understanding the goal
Even for someone who aspires to “natural horsemanship,” most of what we do while riding or training horses cannot be considered “natural.” Putting saddles, bridles, bits, and other tack on a horse is undeniably “human.” But we can begin to bridge the gap between the horse’s nature and our own unnatural interventions by studying equine behavior, instincts, and habits.
We know that horses naturally need and want a leader, and our goal in training should be to become the kind of leader the horse needs. In training horses, we should aspire to a quiet, steady contact with the bit. Forcing a mouth shut through the use of flash, crank, or figure 8 cavessons is no substitute for correct training.
Finding the real problem
Instead of jumping to a new piece of equipment to correct a problem, it’s important to understand why horses chomp or gape their mouths. In the case of a young horse just being started, it will take time to accept cold, cumbersome metal in his mouth. Or a horse may need dental work. The bit may be the wrong size, diameter, or type to fit a particular mouth conformation. Some breeds, for example, tend to have lower pallets than others. The ever-popular loose ring snaffle can easily pinch tender lips if not properly fitted. Riders’ hands are another possible culprit: unsteady or aggressive hands can easily cause a horse to avoid contact through gaping. A less obvious cause could be an ill-fitting saddle, back soreness, feet or leg discomfort – all of which can also show up in busy mouths. Understanding that gaping is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself, is critical. One can only begin to fix a problem after you know what’s causing it.
Pressure and release: the keys to horse behavior
Horses demonstrate their intentions through body language. They have an entire language derived from the application of pressure. The important factor in herd communication is that pressure begins mildly, and is only accelerated to accomplish the point if the milder pressure has failed. Once the point is made, pressure is released. Horses understand instinctively to move away from pressure; what they do not understand is constant pressure without relief. If the pressure is there whether they respond or not, there is no reprieve. A horse can learn to accept constant pressure (such as from a cavesson designed to clamp their mouth shut) if they have no other choice, but it damages or destroys the harmony between the horse and rider.
If you can make your horse more comfortable and therefore more content by not using devices that cause unnecessary pain or pressure, I can’t help but think we will all win! Your horse’s care and well-being are ultimately your responsibility. We tend to follow our mentors without question, yet questioning is a positive approach which enables us to make the correct choices for our horses. When in doubt, listen to your horse. He’s always the best teacher.
For an excellent explanation of how different types of cavessons work and the effect they have on the horse’s mouth, see sustainabledressage.net.
“Brutality begins where knowledge ends. Ignorance and compulsion appear simultaneously.” ~Charles de Kunffy.
It’s rampant in every discipline, every breed. I see it in training barns, show arenas, boarding facilities, and backyards: people using devices that restrict their horses’ natural movement. I am appalled at the practice, but what really baffles me is how many otherwise loving owners there are who daily subject their horses to painful devices in order to force a particular look or position.
I am convinced that the majority of horsemen using devices just do not realize the harm they cause to their horse. Unfortunately there are also many amateurs and professionals who DO know and choose a quick result over the well-being of their horse.
There are too many devices to discuss all in one post, so for now, let’s focus on draw reins, tie-downs, and martingales. Their general purpose is to create a certain head carriage that imitates the natural posture of horses when they are motivated to “strutt” in elegance and grace – art in motion.
When a horse is excited we see a natural arching of the neck and vertical position of the head. But this is only the front end of the horse. Looking at the whole horse, we can see that this arched neck and vertical head position is created through hindquarter engagement. The horse shifts his weight back, and the head comes up. It is a balanced lightness resulting from a natural rhythm and suppleness. Headset is the last step, not the first, so this is not something that can be properly achieved by forcing a horse to carry his head artificially.
Draw reins, tie-downs, and martingales not only artificially set the horse’s head, they also prevent a horse from moving his back, neck, and hindquarter freely. The horse may have the “look” of being naturally arched, but the artificial head carriage will take its toll on the body. Such restrictive devices can cause both mental and physical damage, often beyond repair. Damage to the jaw, neck, back, and hocks often lead to the eventual breakdown of the horse. Lameness develops and behavior problems frequently surface. Gaits can become irregular. Strength, elasticity, and balance diminish.
See http://horsesforlife.com/DrawReinsPictogram for pictures of draw reins in action. Notice how restricted and unnatural the horse’s movement is.
Now look at the poll when a horse naturally arches his neck. It will always be the highest point, no matter how high he holds his neck. The flexion is at the poll, not a few vertebrae behind the poll.
Using head-setting devices can force the horse to bend behind the natural point of flexion, which in time causes lasting, irreversible damage. Look around at shows or at photos online and you can easily spot horses that have been forced into this artificial bend during their training. If only judges refused to award horses carrying themselves this way, maybe these devices would not be so popular.
I often tell my students not to “humanize” the horse, but in this case, I think there is a credible analogy to be made: pretend your head is tied so your neck is bent in any direction. Keep it there. Walk, jog, and run like that. Stand like that. How long before you feel cramped, painful, tired, frustrated, angry? If you were really tied that way, how would you try to release the pressure? Would you fight for relief? I expect it would become difficult to move with grace and beauty.
The horse in comparison is limited in his ability to protect himself and relieve the pain. His power is greatly diminished. Remember, he is a flight animal. Unable to flee, he may resort to fighting to get relief. But if he fights, he’s called a “rogue” and punished. It’s a no-win situation for the horse.
I find it incredibly unsettling and sad to see a horse with eyes that show pain, anger, or resignation. Please look at your own horse. Be honest with yourself, and if you have been using such devices, question your own motivation. Do you want to win so badly that you’ll sacrifice the well-being of your equine partner? He has no choice…but you do!
Horses CAN be trained without causing pain and long term damage. Take the time to learn the methods of lateral and longitudinal bending, and how to engage the body and communicate with the mind. Understanding all of the physical aspects we observe in the horse’s natural posturing: impulsion, relation of the spine, rhythm, and flexibility, is the first step in learning to duplicate it under saddle.
It might take a bit longer than the tie-down method, but the results will last a lifetime. You will have a physically healthy horse as well as a willing partner.
For years I have watched, read, and listened to a growing number of natural horsemanship trainers. As a natural horsemanship practitioner myself, I want to be pleased at its increasing popularity. But I was recently an observer at a natural horsemanship clinic in my area, and feel the need to speak out against something I see far too often.
I began my own study of natural horsemanship in the 1970s when I read the wonderful book Such is the Real Nature of Horses by Robert Vavra. It wasn’t about training, but rather a book of Mr. Vavra’s beautiful wild horse photography along with his insight into their nature. It has remained one of my favorite reads and was the beginning of my journey into the study of natural horsemanship. Thirty plus years later, I am still learning.
Natural horsemanship, in its essence, is developing an understanding of the horse in nature, and working with the horse’s nature, rather than against it, to develop a willing partnership.
So, when I see “professionals” training horses under the guise of natural horsemanship, teaching techniques involving pain-inducing leverage, I am both saddened and appalled. Not only is there often nothing natural in their techniques or approach, they do not respect or consider the horse as a partner. They may be able to achieve an obedient and compliant horse, but they are doing it through fear. Horses may submit to their request, but after what I see as brutality. These trainers demand respect, yet they have no respect for the horse.
There are two types of leaders: one that bullies and one that leads through example. If horses are put in a herd with two dominant horses, they will always choose to follow the “passive leader.” This should be no surprise — people don’t like being bullied either. So why would anyone think a horse would become a willing partner through the same techniques?
What distresses me in addition to the horses that suffer through this training is the vast number of people following like sheep behind some of these trainers. Yes, what they can accomplish may seem impressive, but have these people looked into their horses eyes? Do they not see the fear, the resignation, and the broken spirit of their horse? A student recently talked to me about a horse she had in training. She was worried that the trainer was terrorizing her horse. She expressed her concerns to the trainer but was promptly reprimanded and made to feel like she had no right to question what was being done — the trainer was the professional, after all! NO! IT IS YOUR HORSE AND YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT HIM/HER. IT IS YOUR RIGHT TO SAY “NO.” It is also your right to not allow a trainer to bully you!
Information on training techniques is so readily available to all of us. We can buy books, we can research the internet, there are videos, demonstrations, and seminars everywhere! Before following a trainer, I encourage everyone to take the time to do some research. What is his/her background of study? What have they accomplished? Watch them work with some horses and people. What is their rapport with them? You can easily see a horse is worried when approached by someone who has hurt them. Trust your instincts and continue your search if you have any apprehension.
Pain and fear are not the way to create a partnership with your horse. No matter what your experience level, you are ultimately responsible for how your horse is trained and treated. It is never okay to hit, tie-down, or in any other way cause pain to a horse. Horse lovers, people who strive to be good horsemen, know this instinctively. Don’t let anyone, “professional” though they may claim to be, misguide you.
Lily, Lily, Lily!! That’s what I heard myself say as I watched in horror as Lily exploded into the air… with Amy astride! Oh my goodness, there is so much to learn from this horse. In the last update (Part 5), I felt confident that Lily and Amy had turned the corner in developing confidence, trust, and leadership. But as I helped Amy up from the wet muddy ground, I was in stunned silence. I reviewed the steps leading up to Lily’s explosion.
In the weeks prior, we had continued working in hand with Lily, and were continually pleased to see that she was indeed becoming comfortable with the process. She became accustomed to both saddle and bridle. She went over, through, around, and laterally over obstacles. She could trot and even canter without becoming mentally heightened. Amy had spent several days stepping up in the stirrups and lying over the saddle. She had mounted and just sat, peacefully praising Lily. Lily showed no difficulty with any of this, so I was perhaps a bit too comfortable when Amy suggested that it wasn’t necessary to lunge Lily before mounting. She also believed Lily was tired of the round pen and wanted to work out in the paddock instead. She reasoned that the round pen was a bit slippery from rain. This was a valid point.
I have started and worked with a large number of green horses, and my preference is to take all safety precautions until the horse is completely comfortable with walk, trot and canter in a controlled environment. I feel that some warm up, either free lunging or with a line, is important to connect with the horse and get a feel for their state of mind. But part of me thought Amy was right and I was being a bit too cautious. So we walked out into the paddock. With Brian standing at Lily’s head (another thing I don’t normally do as I feel too many people can cause anxiety and claustrophobia), and me holding the stirrup to keep the saddle from slipping sideways, Amy confidently put her foot into the stirrup and mounted.
I’m not pleased to say I did not follow my instincts and knowledge. I learned from a terrible explosion of an accident what can happen when a horse becomes girth-bound. When horses are girth-bound, they feel the girth’s pressure and panic – not understanding that the pressure will lessen by breathing and relaxing. They can become totally explosive. Because of this, I make it a rule to always tighten girths slowly, walking the horse a few feet between tightening, and then again before mounting. It’s also important not to squirm, move around, etc., until you allow the horse to relax and walk forward.
But I didn’t have a chance to warn Amy in time. She sat down in the saddle, and before I could stop her she tried to adjust a little crookedness in her saddle. It was 1, 2, 3, rodeo time! I must say Amy did an amazing job for a novice rider. She did try to stay on, and fought hard for it. Lily went up, then began bucking and twisting. Amy remembered me saying that if a horse is bucking, to sit back and bring one rein up and to the side to stop the buck. She was trying for all her might, but she had slipped sideways and lost her balance. And Brian, ever supportive of his wife, was innocently trying to hang onto Lily, which only escalated the problem.
Amy turned out to be fine, but at the time she was hurting, unsure if she had done damage to her hip and shoulder, and the sun was starting to set. Not an ideal place to stop, but working in the dark would have been productive. We agreed to review the situation and begin anew the next time. Amy was not to be deterred from her progress… or so we thought.
By the next session, fear had set in and Amy felt she needed to step back. She was frustrate and wanted a break. We decided it would be best if Brian took over working with Lily until Amy was ready. Lily responds well to Brian’s quiet yet confident manner, and she seemed not be bothered by the incident at all.
I have to chuckle at Amy’s “break,” because it was only a week before she was back at the helm. We discussed the accident and what caused it, and all agreed not to take shortcuts when working with Lily. Back to the round pen…but not back-tracking! Lily settled quickly and Amy was once again stepping up until she felt she could sit down in the saddle. Yes! She did it! Lily was quiet and did not appear worried. We are back on track.
Mistakes will be made, accidents will happen. It’s how we handle them that will make the difference between success and failure. Blaming the horse or someone else for our mistakes, or repeating the same mistakes without searching for the reasons behind them can keep us from developing our horsemanship skills. Sadly, it means the horses usually suffer as much or more than us.
I am always disappointed in my own mistakes, but I have to remember that never are they done with bad intention, and never will I blame someone else for my responsibility. I ask the horse (and the student) for forgiveness and go forward without dwelling on the error. I commit to improve life for the horse. Horses are incredibly forgiving. They seem to know whether someone has good intentions rather than being intentionally abusive. If humans can be just as intuitive and forgiving, letting go of innocent wrongs, the horse will continue trust us and follow our leadership. Amy and Brian are great at this, and it’s one of the many reasons I believe in their ability to succeed with this complicated horse.
Lily’s Story Part 1 – Meeting Lily
Lily’s Story Part 2 – The Rescue
Lily’s Story Part 3 – New Beginnings
Lily’s Story Part 4 – Following the Leader
Lily’s Story Part 5 – Learning “Feel”
Lily’s Story Part 6 – Making Mistakes and Moving on
Once, while driving down a country road I spotted a pony that appeared to be rubbing his neck on a fence post. As I got closer, I realized he was actually trying to free himself because his halter was caught on the post. I pulled over, released him from the halter, then went to the house and explained to the pony’s owner what I’d seen. Carefully, I suggested they remove the halter during turnout or use a breakaway halter instead. (Personally, I feel if you need a halter left on a horse to catch them then there is a gap in your leadership and bonding relationship, but I was not there to lecture, just to try to prevent a tragedy). I explained that the pony had been in danger of breaking his neck. The owners were polite, but something in their expression told me that either they didn’t believe me or they didn’t care.
It was just one week later when I was driving down this same road that I saw the pony once again caught in the fence …only this time he was dead. Sadly, he had entangled the halter and in his struggle, apparently broke his neck. This did not need to happen!
But even the best, most caring people may unknowingly create avoidable dangers to their horses. One man I knew had decided to remove a fence made of T-posts. The line was down, and he was in the process of removing the posts. The day ran short and so he was forced to leave a few posts in the ground overnight. The next day he came home from work to find one of his horses had somehow impaled himself on a post and was hanging from it – it had entered through the belly, and exited through the chest. If he’d only known the risk, he could have put caps on the T-posts and saved his horse’s life. A horse can still land on a capped T-post if he rears up while playing near a fence, but the cap will prevent penetration.
These are, unfortunately, not unique events. Any of us who’s been around horses long enough has heard stories like these, or narrowly avoided disasters ourselves. Sometimes we pay attention and make the necessary changes, and sometimes not. Unfortunately for our horses, sometimes we learn lessons the hard way. I knew another man who did know better, but still left a halter on his horse because it was convenient and saved him a little time. His horse put his head through a metal gate and got caught. In his struggle, the horse actually tore the gate off the hinge and was found standing with his feet through the gate and the gate still on his halter. The horse lived, but had pretty severe nerve damage.
Traveling to farms I see a wide range of stable management practices – some good, some not! Horses are large, strong animals, and sometimes we forget just how fragile they are. But we must remember that the environments we are keeping them in are not entirely natural: halters, t-posts, blanket straps, equipment left in fields, cross-ties, gates, barbed wire, nails, poisons, etc. They do not have instincts that tell them to be wary of such dangers. They are inquisitive, sometimes mischievous, and left to investigate, they do – often to their own harm.
Even the most conscientious owner cannot prevent all accidents. A horse could step in a hole that had gone unnoticed in the pasture. A branch could fall down on a horse standing underneath a tree. (That actually happened to a student of mine – the horse was impaled, but is doing just fine after major surgery!) But there are many dangers that CAN be avoided, just by taking a little extra care, or being a little extra aware of what might go wrong. Here are a few things you can do to make your farm horse-safe:
Horses don’t get the chance to choose where they live or who takes care of them. So we have a huge responsibility to not only keep them healthy and happy, but also safe. What would you add to this list?
I truly believe that horses are our best teachers. Through their response, they clearly let us know if we are communicating correctly. They just do not get it wrong when we get it right! I learned this lesson many years ago when I changed my perspective from “why doesn’t he do this right?” to “what am I doing wrong?”
A wonderful Arabian stallion, McPherson, was my teacher. “Mac” was talented, sensitive, and intelligent. He was a champion in reining, western pleasure, and dressage. He could stop on a dime with just a breath, spin like a top, perform effortless clean lead changes, collect, extend, and move laterally effortlessly.
So why was I having so much trouble doing trot-halt transitions? I was certain I was executing the aid properly: my hips were in position, my thighs closing, my breathing correct – so why did he insist on hollowing his back and moving through my request? I resorted to clarifying (or so I thought), with my reins and voice – it did not help! I did what felt like hundreds of transitions to no avail. Confused and somewhat frustrated, I just would not give up.
As I paused in contemplation, I remembered something I had just said to a student…”stop trying so hard – less is more!” So, I walked off then simply quietly just thought of stopping. Mac stopped immediately. Was this a mistake? I wondered. I tried it again and again and again with “just a thought.” Each and every transition was amazing.
I realized what Mac was telling me: he was not stopping because I had been asking with an overuse of my aids, which caused him discomfort. It would be like I was shouting into someone’s ear instead of talking. Did this mean I only had to “think” and through telepathy he would “hear” me? Well, maybe not, but just the thought of stopping was shifting my position in a manner he could feel, without getting in his way. Mac must’ve thought, “It’s about time you got it right!”
His prior response was just him trying to avoid the unnecessary pressure. Being human, I assumed I was doing everything correctly. But I wasn’t asking, I was controlling. I wasn’t listening to my partner. I wasn’t being a partner, I was being a dictator!
Some horses with less independent spirit and sensitivity may allow you to overuse your aids, but not Mac. Mac taught me to listen to horses by paying attention to their reaction to my aids. He taught me to be a better rider. Most of all he taught me to be a better partner. I am so grateful to Mac for all he gave to me.
Horses will keep you humble! In the last post Lily was finally accepting Amy’s leadership. Their bond was strengthened and trust became deeper. We were steadily moving forward in a positive direction, however, not without challenges.
Lily has a background of abuse. I believe horses, like humans, can have flashbacks to situations that have caused them distress. One of the difficulties in working with abused horses is we can innocently trigger a negative memory. During training sessions with Lily, it became apparent that she has deep-seated trust issues. She accepts leadership only until she feels threatened. Her cerebral energy heightens and her survival instinct kicks in. Since her flight instinct is inhibited when working in an enclosed space, her fight mode takes over. One minute we’re all good and the next Lily will be doing “airs above ground.” It’s how one handles these situations that either guides the horse comfortably forward, or not.
I have explained to Amy and Brian the importance of allowing Lily to work through these situations. Amy has a tendency to back away at times of resistance, allowing Lily to avoid the situation that caused the reaction. She sympathizes with Lily and only wants to be her friend. I explained to Amy and Brian that they had a choice: they could either work through the areas of difficulty and keep taking steps towards an eventual true leadership/partnership, or they could keep Lily as a pasture pet, at liberty to do as she wished.
I truly feel Lily enjoys the interaction with humans. My training is always with the utmost respect for the horse with the goal in mind of “partnership” not “dictatorship.” However, in order to become a partner with Lily, the Morrises have to ask her to work with them. If we don’t allow our horses to work through these situations, they will not improve. In order to be a safe riding partner for Amy, Lily must show respect and trust.
By introducing her to obstacles and new challenges, and then allowing her the time to express herself, she would find that at the end of the “expression” things hadn’t changed. Amy was still there, still guiding her, and she was okay! She would eventually understand the relationship. Lily would develop the foundation so necessary for success.
Regardless of whether a horse is with or without human guidance, it is of the utmost importance for the horse to move forward through stressful situations. The natural instinct of a frightened horse is to move. Standing still would be inviting the predator to lunch! However, horses seem to have a need to understand what it is that is frightening them. They often run from some object of concern, only to stop, look back, and eventually head in the direction towards it to investigate. They may have inner radar telling them when and if it’s okay. Human-made objects are not natural to a horse, but through exposure, they become accustomed to them.
When faced with a stressful situation, the horse must react. If we encourage the horse to move forward through the situation and allow them time to absorb, breath and sort out the situation, they will. This is quite different from forcing a horse through a fear. Regardless of what has caused the fear, one can’t deny the posture, breathing, or actions of a frightened horse. I’ve heard comments from handlers regarding horses “faking” fear. Horses do not fake fear! Forcing a horse to overcome fear simply will not have a positive outcome. If their leader becomes aggressive they have all the more reason to believe the situation is indeed a bad one. You may accomplish the task at hand, but you will not have a secure or willing horse. But if you do not turn away from a situation, and allow your horse to absorb and work towards resolve, acceptance will follow.
One final thought on this aspect of training, I see horse handlers forcing horses to stand in front of an object to “look at it.” I do not believe this approach brings the best results. By forcing the horse to stand still, we take away his natural instinct and completely humanize the situation.
Lily had proven her ability to work through being hobbled, tied, and locked in a tiny stall. She looked for a way “through the open door” and found one. Given the opportunity, I was sure she would do the same in training. I must clarify that we are not asking anything of her other than the basic foundation of bonding, which includes trust and respect, oh, and a little time with her nose out of the green grass in order to entertain her humans! Her people give her a wonderful home, lots of pasture, a pasture mate, plenty of feed, monthly pedicure, salon styling of mane and tail, and the best of veterinary care, so putting a little time in to give them some fun is only a fair trade. Mentally, coming to a place of peace regarding the process of training, the Morrises were ready to move forward.
We graduated to a lovely grass fenced arena surrounded by trees – a quiet and serene place to expand Lily’s horizons. There I did it again…I just humanized the horse! Quiet and serene to me, but to Lily it was initially an unknown enclosed area with trees hiding those ever present Dragons. We turned both horses (we had brought Olympia along to lessen the trauma) loose and allowed them to investigate the area at their comfort. Once settled, we then hand walked Lily around the perimeter, asking her to focus on Amy and to move when and where she asked. Trust, simply trust, is what we needed. She did well, so we moved towards lunging.
Soon, we moved into trotting straight along the fence line, then circling in the corners using many transitions in order to keep her focus on Amy. Lily started out high-headed and wide-eyed, but remained obedient and soon began to lower her head and relax a bit. Over the next few sessions we saw amazing changes in Lily. The wide-eyed “ready to flee or fight” attitude seemed to diminish. For the first time in training, her general posture was more relaxed and she wasn’t quite as worried or over reactive to new challenges. We were able to ask for canter without her standing on her head, hind legs waving at the sky! Obstacles were added to the routine. We asked her to back through poles, weave in and out of cones and walk then trot over poles.
One point of interest is how Lily responds differently to Amy vs. Brian. Amy normally works with Lily, but Brian is always present to learn and offer support to Amy. On occasion, I ask him to take over. Sometimes, Amy is unable to attend a session and I feel all will benefit to have him participate when possible. Brian is tall and lanky with a very gentle and quiet manner. But as soon as he is on the other end of the line, Lily will posture and show her willingness to fight. Brian doesn’t fight! Lily has had to learn that. Perhaps Lily was leery because her last owner was male, or just simply because she had worked out many things with Amy but had not with Brian.
It confirms my beliefs that horses do not instinctively trust you. They need the opportunity to develop a relationship with you. A talented horse person or a brute of a horse person can generally accomplish whatever they ask of the horse without developing a relationship, but it doesn’t make it right. Horses should not be “passed around” like an inanimate object. It’s not respect if we don’t take the time to allow the horse to get to know us. I try and impress upon my students what a wonderful gift and privilege it is to have a partner in a horse. It’s a beautiful things and well worth the effort. So, we quietly take some time to allow Lily to see the truth in the situation and to breathe…and she does!
I do not know if Lily comprehends how lucky she is to have chosen the Morrises. Perhaps that is also a human thought. Personally, I am thrilled to have the honor of working with people who truly wish the best for the horse. She always comes first. Although I am sure they are anxious to be mounted and riding their horses on the trails, they are also completely committed to move at a pace that Lily dictates through her acceptance. It may take a bit longer since they have chosen the path to work with Lily themselves (with my guidance). Our sessions are once weekly. This allows them time to practice and develop each step we work on it before I return.
Being newbies, obstacles do show up along the way. Without experience, it’s that much easier to hit setbacks due to honest mistakes. Even the most experienced horse people make mistakes! Amy still has a tendency to want to give Lily her freedom to do as she pleases, but she knows that in the end it’s not the healthy thing for anyone. So much to learn – when to apply pressure, how much to apply, when to be firm, when to be supportive and soothing. A “feel” must be developed and I assure Amy and Brian that no one learns without mistakes. It’s what we do with them that matters. So, she’s getting better at biting her lip and following through when Lily argues and… all is good!
I am looking forward to sharing the next chapter when Lily is under saddle again! I believe it will be soon. Stay tuned!
Lily’s Story Part 1 – Meeting Lily
Lily’s Story Part 2 – The Rescue
Lily’s Story Part 3 – New Beginnings
Lily’s Story Part 4 – Following the Leader
Lily’s Story Part 5 – Learning “Feel”
Lily’s Story Part 6 – Making Mistakes and Moving on
Lily’s in-hand work progressed quite nicely. Initially, she was difficult to catch and halter, but that was quickly fixed. She learned to follow Amy and Brian’s body language. She would move forward freely, back up, step laterally, and would stand at a halt, coming forward when asked. She appeared to enjoy the interaction during training. Could we breathe a sigh of relief? In a “Stepford” world, perhaps!
What at first seemed of interest and enjoyable to Lily soon appeared to be an imposition. This is common in basic training. Putting it into my own human thoughts, I can imagine a horse weighing whether they’d like to be leisurely grazing with their herd, or being asked to do human things in a round pen?! Given that choice, one might not find too many volunteers.
So, a reversal of attitude had occurred, and sweet Miss Lily showed she could and would emphatically express her opinion. When approached, she would turn and walk away. When asked to move, she would plant her feet firmly in refusal. At one point, I was standing with Brian discussing her new behavior, when Lily walked up to us, stood for less than ten seconds, then pinned her ears and swung her hindquarters as a threat to us. She needed to be leader of the herd, including her humans. Before, when Amy and Brian weren’t asking her to do anything, before she was being “controlled,” she would follow them anywhere. She walked into the greenhouses and tried climbing the stairs to the house. She was like a huge dog! She was content and not threatened. Placing boundaries on Lily brought out her instincts to run, and if she couldn’t run, she’d fight. This is the very trait that had saved Lily, but now that she was safe, she had no way of knowing she would never be hurt again. She could not have known we wanted a partnership with her, so her behavior was understandable.
I know firsthand how those who truly love their horses want to believe “if I just love them and give them lots of carrots they’ll do anything I ask.” But you have to make a decision whether to let your horse rule you, which may mean never being able to ride, or to train him.
Many years ago, I was given a lesson in reality by the “love of my life horse,” Solitary Man. Carrots, apples, sugar, hugs, begging, and crying were not going to get him to do something he didn’t feel compelled to do! Through tears, frustration, and anger, I had to come to terms with the fact that what I wished for was actually humanizing the horse. It took some time to accept horses as they are and not as my naïve dreams had wanted them to be. Once I understood horse instinct, behavior, and language, however, I was in awe of the fact that a horse is willing to partner with a human. What a marvel!
The key is in discovering how to achieve a harmonious relationship and to cause, not force, a horse to work with us. And Lily, despite her difficult background, is no different. So, up the first incline of the roller coaster we headed. We moved our sessions to the round pen – a safe place to establish the necessary leadership role. The round pen provides a boundary without the physical restraints of a rope.
Herding Lily around, I began a demonstration of round pen bonding. I then stepped out and asked Amy to take over. I was sure Lily would adjust fairly easily… wrong again! Lily’s normal gentle spirit became a fire-breathing dragon! She was not to be herded, corralled or controlled easily. She’s smart enough not to try and climb the panels or crash through, but she acted aggressive and threatening to Amy. She pinned her ears, reared and lunged towards her. I’ll always remember Amy’s courage. This gentle woman stood shaking, on the verge of tears but trusting my guidance, as she followed through with the session. I try very hard to never allow neither horse nor handler/rider to get hurt during training. I do not believe in running a horse in the round pen in order to exhaust and force their cooperation. Instead, I use the technique of asking the horse to move forward and to continually redirect them as a herd leader would in establishing the pecking order. Insisting the horse move without frightening them will develop respect without fear. However, when a horse comes at you in a manner that indicates YOU will be herded, you must stand your ground and insist they move. It’s important to remember the horse is looking at you as simply another horse. It’s not personal; they are just trying to establish their place in the herd. Using a rope in a twirling motion, or using a lunge whip to “equalize” you may be necessary.
At this point, Lily fired her engines, using her wonderful athletic abilities to try and outmaneuver Amy. Several times she came towards Amy in an intimidating manner. Amy stood her ground and quietly but firmly insisted Lily move in the direction she asked. I don’t recall how long this session lasted, but it took longer than most. I’m sure Amy thought Lily would never relent to direction. I can only imagine the doubts running through her mind. But, YES it happened. Lily just suddenly stopped her threatening posture, began to lick, chew, drop her head, and look at Amy. She began to change direction quietly, and when asked, she turned and walked in to Amy respectfully and peacefully. It’s a beautiful thing to see a bond between horse and human! Amy appeared to be in slight shock! This one session stopped Lily’s behavior of threatening people. She would allow herself to be haltered, and she once again showed her sweet side. We had successfully climbed that first hill!
It would be great to say that we’ve not run into any more obstacles; that Lily was always cooperative; but that would be shy of the truth! As we continue her training we uncover aspects of Lily that have caused us to step back a few times. Her past experience in riding was just as horrific as the way in which she was kept. As we move through the process of ground work to lunging, saddling, bitting, mounting, etc., we find triggers that must be addressed. I have learned so much from Lily, most importantly to watch and listen to what the horse is telling me. We cannot train without treating each horse as the individual they are. I believe horses are all individuals, and therefore they will not respond the same. I would like to share these experiences with you, so, if you check back again soon there will be more lessons from Lily!
This is the fourth part in a series of posts about Lily. Check back soon to read the rest of this story!
Lily’s Story Part 1 – Meeting Lily
Lily’s Story Part 2 – The Rescue
Lily’s Story Part 3 – New Beginnings
Lily’s Story Part 4 – Following the Leader
Lily’s Story Part 5 – Learning “Feel”
Lily’s Story Part 6 – Making Mistakes and Moving on