Silly headline, I know.
But sometimes it seems to me that this is exactly what many horse owners are looking for. This one magical advise, a horsemanship trick that works for every problem.
I’m afraid the exact opposite is the case. Educating a horse, or fixing problems, takes a lot of time and is a step by step procedure. Lots of horse owners don’t have much time to spend with their horses. They have a demanding job, a family, other hobbies. Not everyone can drive to the stable every day or five times a week. This by itself is not even the problem. When we come to the stable after work, we’re maybe a bit stressed and just want to have a good time with our horses. Quickly throw on the saddle and have a good ride. Any behavioural problems that might come up are either ignored or dealt with quite harshly when they become annoying.
The next problem is that we underestimate the importance of good manners on the ground. Maybe some of this sounds familiar to you: We happily approach our horse on the paddock. He ignores us, looks the other way. We call his name, he starts to snooze. Annoyed, we walk up to him. If we’re lucky, he doesn’t run away. We catch him, drag him behind us (he’s not so enthusiastic to leave his buddies and give up his afternoon nap), we open the gate, and while we’re busy closing it our horse buries his nose in the fresh grass by the gate and starts walking towards the field, us still managing the electric wire and trying not to be dragged after our horse. We yank on the rope, more or less successfully, and start the challenging trip to the barn, the horse darting this way and that for grass, stepping on our feet and pushing us away with his shoulder. At the barn, we want to clean his muddy legs. The horse is a bit scared of water, doesn’t stand still and somehow we manage to clean him without taking a full bath ourselves.
Next we want to brush him real quick. He is bored, chews on the wood, chases away a fly with his head and bumps into us on the way. He empties the tool box, scratches with his hoof on the floor, swishes his tail in our face when we brush his hint legs. Picking up his feet is a near catastrophe and we’re already glad when he doesn’t kick. He manages to step on our toes twice.
When he sees us approaching with the saddle, he flatten his ears. He tries to get away from the thing and we have a hard time putting it on his back. He snaps when we tighten the girth. He refuses to take the bit, either by playing giraffe or not opening the mouth. Somehow we manage to shove it in. We are already sweaty by now and more or less annoyed.
He’s more or less leading the way to the arena, making sure to stop at every shimmer of green, or spooks because of a bird in the bushes. He manages to step on our toes again. Good that he doesn’t have shoes, we think. Finally, we can mount. If he would stand still long enough for us to hop on, that is. We ask our friend “What do you do so your horse stands still at the mounting block?” ignoring that so many things went wrong before that.
I’m not making fun of anyone here, I’m also not exaggerating. I’ve had every single one of these problems with my horse, sometimes all in one day. I see that most of my friends at the stable have the same problems. We’re not talking about a ‘problem-horse’ yet, but these are sure signs that the horse is on a good way to develop some more serious issues.
Generally, we start taking horse education a little more seriously when more dramatic problems begin to appear, such as bucking, rearing, spooking, biting, kicking. What we usually don’t want to acknowledge is that we might be a part of the problem. We failed to teach our horse some very important basic behaviours.
So our horse might develop some more dangerous behaviour that we become quite concerned about. We might participate in a clinic with a famous horseman, learn to swing a rope and that our horse doesn’t respect us. We’re shown a series of exercises so that this defiant animal realises who the boss is, like forcefully sending him backwards for every unwanted behaviour. We buy a rope halter and chase our horse around the round pen. The horse gets scared, runs (what else to do), sweats, until he is tired and is allowed to come to us in the middle. When I see people do this, I sometimes wonder who doesn’t respect whom. If we don’t start to work on the basics, a few exercises or chasing our horse around in a circle will probably not help us in the long run.
Horses can learn quite easily how we want them to behave around us. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself:
We should stop thinking about our horses as animals that constantly disrespect us and more think about them as our students. If our horses don’t understand something, we need to explain it better. Divide complex tasks into manageable tasks to give them a feeling of success. If we expect an end product right away we doom your horse to failure. If we see our horses as students, we need to step up and become their teachers. Everything we know about teaching psychology applies to teaching situations with our horses, too!
I would like to mention one exercise that I find very useful, though. It’s called ‘head low’. Very unspectacular. You simply teach your horse to lower his head when you give a certain signal. It can be the hand on his poll, a slight tuck at the halter, an inviting open hand. Mind that you don’t apply any kind of pressure while teaching it, use a carrot instead. This way your horse will always connect something positive with this exercise. A horse that has the head low is relaxed and you ask him to trust you. With the head down, horses can’t see well what’s behind them. When you approach a herd of horses and they hear or see you coming, they will all take their heads very high in order to have a good look. A horse that’s tense and exited always has the head up. Asking for a lowering of the head has a great calming effect and asks the horse to focus on you instead of what’s going on around him. Bear in mind that this is also a matter of trust and the exercise might not come easy for your horse, because you might, in his eyes, not be worthy of his trust. If your horse has learned to lower his head while standing, he can also learn to do it in a walk, trot, and canter, without any tie-downs.
A better headline for this article would be “Seeing your horses as students”. Of course there are horses/rider combinations in which the horse is the teacher and the rider is still very inexperienced. And of course, I’m learning something from my horse every day, it is not a one way street. But I found that thinking about myself as a teacher and my horse as a student, I feel more responsible to think about what I want to teach, how I want to teach it, and what I should do in order to improve my knowledge and skills. Every unwanted behaviour can be seen as a new task, a chance to teach your horse something. And it makes me want to be a better version of myself, one that my horse can trust and likes to follow.