Forming new principles and perspectives for working with an equine partner can be a complicated and challenging process for the majority of horse people. We are often comfortable in the things we have been taught about horses, and it is hard for us to change our thought process and habitual routines in regards to work. The pushy behaviors we experience become perpetual, and we grow accustom to allowing them to continue. As long as the horse eventually gets in the trailer, or goes forward, or completes whatever task we are asking, we accept it without pressing further into the "why's" of his behavior.
Photo: Walter is an OTTB who was in my training program for a restart. Sydni is having a lesson on Walter, and she is working on getting him to respond to the feel of the inside rein. Notice how Walter wants to evade the pressure, instead of looking to the left, and softly taking his left front over. Sydni does a good job of waiting for him to align his thought with the inside rein.
Horse owners will either get comfortable in the unpredictability of their horse's thoughts and behaviors, or they will seek help from a professional with the hopes that this trainer or teacher can help them with their issues. On this journey to seeking the truth, we often encounter a lot of methods or techniques for helping our horses. We find a method that works for that moment, that clinic, or even a few different horses, and we tightly hold onto it. The problem arises when that particular method or technique doesn't work in every situation we encounter with our horse. Suddenly we are out of ideas, and we resort to another way of getting things done, or we force what we already know without getting a change in our horse.
The issues ensue not solely because of our approach, but rather the lack of understanding or awareness of how the horse is responding mentally in any given situation. My intentions in working with each individual horse, is to always assess where he is mentally, while asking questions that pertain to what is missing from his education in relation to his understanding of pressure. This may be as simple as asking him to check in with me on the ground, or asking him to follow any feel I may present to him.
Learning to observe what the mind is doing versus where the feet are going can seem intimidating and not applicable for a variety of horse riders. Learning about a horse's thought is an ongoing journey and process that requires a new level of awareness of how our horse is thinking and feeling during any given moment. It gives a new meaning and understanding to the "exercises" that we do with our horses. It is often that the exercise itself is not wrong, however the application and reason behind doing the exercise needs to be further understood.
A good example of this may be asking a horse to go over the trotting poles on the ground or under saddle. Many riders would be happy if the horse went over the poles at a forward gait, without knocking a foot in the process. Often what we fail to address is our horse's awareness, comfort, and his ability to come back when asked. In the process of teaching this exercise, we teach our horse to flee, instead of remaining relaxed and present.
If I were to teach a horse to go over the trotting poles, I would first allow him to be aware and comfortable of the obstacle in front of him. After this has been accomplished I may allow him to get the feel of going over the poles, while slowly making the task more complicated by interrupting his thought. I might ask him to softly take his right left over, and back up, or maybe present a feel for him to take two feet over and softly side pass to the left or to the right. It would be more important to me that I could interrupt him with softness, rather than driving him over the obstacle. I would also be wanting him to relax and think forward at a slow walk before adding speed to the equation.
When presenting any sort of exercise to our horse, it is important that we understand why we are asking this question, in combination with observing his response. What does the exercise feel like or look like, and what is happening for the horse mentally? Focusing on a change of thought, accompanied by movement influences the horses understanding of pressure for a more consistent and easy conversation between the human and the horse together.