In the last few days I noticed that Weto was a bit absent minded. Usually he is very focused, and when he is not, that always tells me that something is slightly off. Now when I say Weto seems absent minded, then other people might not even see this. It’s just that there is a slightly worried look in his eye and he has a delayed respons for the aids I give. Because he is also my friend, I don’t want to push through this and override his concerns.
Of course there can be many reasons and that’s why it’s very important to truly know your horse inside out, so you can already feel slight changes. Sometimes it might be a health issue that’s just forming, you could have pushed your horse just a little too much, or there are some discussions going on in his herd. Often, these issues seem not even worth mentioning to us, but for our horse they might be very important. So for me, a big part of a good relationship with a horse is not asking for focus when I feel that there is an issue of some sort, so I don’t create tension in the training or have to use my aids with lots of pressure. I don’t “make him connected” by, for example, disengaging hind legs or demanding quick reactions in the round pen. When my best (human) friend is in trouble, I will also not force her to run around the apartment. That wouldn’t make sense at all.
So what do I do in such a situation?
I let go. I take a step back and analyse what could be the problem. I carefully look at the horse and see if i find anything wrong physically, I observe him on the paddock in the herd, I check his feed ration, if there is an imbalance in the hooves, I might look at the teeth or tell the vet to do that (our vet is at our place quite often, luckily). I will run my hands over his muscles and see if I find any tensions.
I will also question my last trainings: Did I train too much or too long and might there be some stiffness in the muscles now? Were my expectations too high, was there some goal I had in mind and did I maybe push too hard to reach it? Was I too confusing and it wasn’t clear for the horse what we are doing?
Often, I might just give the horse a few days or a week off. They also need a break sometimes 😉 We work with so many details and it might also happen, that the horse just gets a mental knot :P. I do that for example in spring, when they are so happy about nature’s awakening and are enjoying their energy. Or when I had an intensive training period, for example as a working student. In Weto’s case, I know from the past years that in autumn he can get a bit worried about his herd of about 12 horses. For some reason, he seems to think about them more often than usual. So I generally give him some space in this time and the issue resolves on his own.
Another thing I might do is work at liberty. And by work at liberty I don’t mean chasing the horse in the round pen, but working in a big arena or in the field and seeing what is going on when all the tack is off. So during my last two trainings I was fortunate to be totally alone at the stable and I could spend some time with Weto in the indoor (it was freaking cold outside). I could immediately see that his thoughts were totally somewhere else, somewhere in the direction of the paddock. I let him be for a while and after some minutes he realised that I was there, too. He came and got a nice scratch. He decided to stay with me, so I suggested some walking together. He joined me. Then his thoughts wandered off again and so did his body. I just waited. He came back and nuzzled my hair. Then the dogs started to bark outside and he was worried about that. I went and sat on the chair in the corner. After a few minutes, he joined me. I gave him a treat.
This went on for a bit. I didn’t mind him leaving and I also didn’t expect him to stay. Eventually he stayed and I had a feeling he wanted to do something. So we did a few simple things: walk, stop, back-up, circle. When that went well, we tried transitions to trot, stop, trot from backing-up. He earned lots of treats and I focused on my own energy and body expression. Sometimes he left. Then I just waited and when he was ready he came back. In our second training session yesterday, our connection was much better right from the start and the worried look in his eyes had already almost faded. At the end of the session he had a glow in his eyes and I was laughing, because he would canter a few strides, stop, and then hurry back to me to get a treat.
So instead of increasing the pressure and risking a dent in the relationship with your horse, you can find out what helps your horse to connect again. It might be just hanging out together, or having some free days, or getting a vet check if you suspect that something might be wrong, or a walk in the forest, a long grooming session, or some fun at liberty.
You always have the choice: Do you force obedience, or do you use the situation to deepen the bond you have and show some respect to your friend.