Maisie is a very different horse from Dawn. If you come anywhere near Dawn with a plastic bag, she loses her mind - more later about scary objects and the topic of desensitization (which I don't do in the usual sense of the word). If you shake a plastic bag in Maisie's face, or rub it on her, she just looks at you, and she's never been formally desensitized. But when I first took her on the trail - I doubt she'd ever been outside an arena - she exhibited many of the same behaviors as Dawn. Each horse has a different temperament, and each horse has different things which cause them to worry - with a horse like Dawn it often seems like she's worried about most things. As I learned to ride Maisie on the trail, making lots of mistakes on the way and getting some things right, I found out some important things. A lot of what I know and try to apply also comes from Mark Rashid, but I also take things from other horsemen and women that I respect. I have a plan for my work with Dawn, which I've started to implement - more about that in a minute.
I do think that horses vary greatly in their basic temperaments. Some horses are always going to be more reactive and spooky - but my objective with a horse like Dawn who is super-sensitive and inherently reactive is to get to a point where she can spook, without feeling as though she has to flee to save herself. Spooking is a natural and potentially life-saving behavior for horses - I never punish a horse for spooking or being afraid, and I try not to react myself when the horse spooks - one of my favorite Mark Rashid sayings is "your horse spooked, you spooked, and you ran off together." My objective is the spook-in-place - where the horse can then bring its attention back to you and just keep on working.
In my experience, it's rarely the spook that's really the issue - it's what happens leading up to the spook - often the horse is thinking about being somewhere else for a while before the spook triggers flight. If the horse has already mentally left the (building/arena/trail/round pen), or is on the verge of having a complete meltdown, it's getting very late - sometimes you can recover the situation but often not. Getting ahead of things - catching the thought as it forms and dealing with it before it turns into an action - is the name of the game. It's even better if you can prevent the thought from forming at all - by not putting the horse into a situation where it feels its only recourse is to take action to save itself or by providing direction to the horse so it doesn't have to worry so much and figure out what to do next. I think many times horses leave mentally (and then physically) because we're just not there for them to provide direction and leadership.
Of course the first thing to do with any extreme behavior is to rule out some sort of physical problem or pain - teeth, saddle fit, ulcers, chiropractic, bit or rider behavior - before considering these behaviors as training issues. A horse that is in pain cannot learn well, or even at all. When I first got Maisie, she would routinely buck under saddle, and it turned out that we had some serious chiropractic and saddle fit issues to resolve before we could do any training.
A horse that has left mentally, and is afraid, has decided that you're no help and that, in order to save itself from dying, it must bolt/rear/violently escape. From the horse's point of view, it's really feeling that bad inside and is just expressing that feeling with its body. One reason behaviors like bolting on the trail can become habits is that the horse learns that this is a way to get relief from the worry/fears it is feeling, since it hasn't found any other way to solve the problem. So the fundamental issue is, how do you help the horse learn that you can be of help when something is worrisome? If the horse knows that you can be relied on to help, then large worries may become smaller and small worries may be easily dealt with. And then every time you and the horse together solve a problem that worries the horse, you will build mutual trust. But there are building blocks before that - the horse has to be able to listen to you and understand what you are saying before you can help.
For me, the building blocks are:
- building trust between horse and rider through the rider providing direction and helping the horse work through worries
Although these aspects of what we're doing sometimes involve separate exercises, ultimately they all will work together in everything we do. The objective is this - to have the horse and rider pair able to do work together as one - where you are able to direct the horse's thought, the horse responds to your thoughts willingly and with softness, and the horse's body becomes your body and the horse's feet become your feet - this is true unity.
Lately, if you've been following my posts, Dawn and I have been working on attention. If you haven't got the horse's attention, or can't get it back, you've got nothing to work with. As with all my work, I don't demand the horse's attention - I ask for it and reward the horse when she complies. For attention, Dawn and I have been working on a number of different leading and lunging exercises, including "one-step-at-a-time", the "bridal march", and transitions on the lead off my body language and energy and verbal commands. Once we're ground driving, we'll be working on attention too. And once we're doing more under saddle work, we'll be doing attention-building exercises through transition exercises and various movements, which is something Maisie and I are also doing. I can't emphasize enough that all of this is a two-way street - I have to be paying close attention to the horse for the horse to pay attention to me - it's a conversation.
Some people have found clicker training very helpful - I haven't used it much and may do more with it - I had some good experiences with Lily doing this and Dawn would be a natural for it.
Dawn and I have only scratched the surface so far on softness. Again, this is a mutual, conversational thing - not just about the horse being soft - I have to be soft too. We've so far been working on backing in hand with the halter, and her being responsive to very slight cues when leading or lunging. We'll be doing a lot of under saddle work with this involving the bit, but we're not going to do that until we've done a lot of in-hand work with the bridle, including backing and lateral work - Dawn can be very bracey, and I'd like to get a lot of that resolved in-hand - for one thing I can see her whole body which helps me tell what is happening. This will also ensure that she already has a clear idea of what I want when I'm mounted. We're also going to do a lot of ground driving in the halter and bitless, and eventually with the bit, to work on her softness in preparation for our under saddle work. And softness isn't just mechanical and on the outside of the horse, it's about the horse being soft inside - this involves mental relaxation and attentiveness, and trust and confidence.
Self-calming work can be particularly helpful with a horse that tends to be nervous or reactive. I did a lot of this with Maisie, and it really helped. Dawn and I haven't done too much of this yet, other than standing still at the mounting block, but it'll involve learning to ground tie, the "just standing around" exercises, various exercises involving giving to pressure - softening work is part of this of course - and all the exercises of her paying attention and learning to wait that we've been doing with our leading. I've actually observed Dawn effectively self-calm a couple of times lately on the lunge - she spooked and was able after a stride or two to just go back to work, and after her "rodeo moments" a few days ago, she came right back and went to work. This is very encouraging. There is a very important thing I do to help her with this - I treat her like the horse I want her to be (while of course taking appropriate safety precautions and also working with the horse I have today if issues arise) - which means that I expect calmness and just ask for things in a matter-of-fact way and when she does spook or react to something, I just calmly bring her attention back and keep on working - this helps her understand that she can just move on from the spook.
Building trust between horse and rider through the rider providing direction and helping the horse work through worries - now this is a big subject of which Dawn and I have only scratched the surface, and I think is the building block that must be there for the horse to successfully deal with any worries that come up, say on the trail, without feeling it has to flee to save itself.
We've already started working on this with some easy things. Dawn is very worried about jumps and even poles on the ground - there are specific reasons in her history for this but they don't really matter now - we just need to get on with the work of helping her not to worry. We initially did some approach/release with a ground pole and then one-step-at-a-time up to and over it and we're now lunging over it at the walk. She still worries a little, but it's much better. We'll soon be doing some work with getting her used to ropes, and then we'll be doing a lot of ground driving, starting in the arena and progressing to the area around the barn and eventually the trail. She's also getting used to wearing a saddle again, and to mounting, walking around and dismounting. As her trust in me builds up, we'll tackle some harder things, like plastic bags, which are a really big worry for her.
My objective for her is for her to learn that she can worry a bit about an object or situation, and then relax and go on with work through a combination of her own self-calming and my helping her with the worry by giving her direction and assistance. We will work with specific objects and situations, but I won't be doing formal desensitization or sacking out - if we encounter a scary object that we haven't encountered before, I want the training to generalize. For example, there are occasionally hot-air balloons around - I have no way to desensitize her to this but eventually want her to be able to deal with things like that. Ground driving can be very helpful with this, as it will allow us to do a controlled approach/retreat with objects, where I can take her just slightly into the worry zone, and then back out of it, and then back again, with the objective to work our way closer and have her learn that she can worry and then feel better again without fleeing. We can also do some scary object work in hand - but always giving her a way to safely move her body so she doesn't feel trapped.
Telling how far to push things as you work - how much worry to let the horse get into - is difficult, and was a judgment call I often got wrong when I was first taking Maisie on the trail. For example, it's important to use judgment when a horse is introduced to stressful things, like leaving the barn, separating from a buddy, or going further on the trail or tackling an obstacle or a scary object. Some worry is OK, too much worry can be bad. You need to be able to read your horse's subtle signs of worry. This involves paying attention to the horse - to the subtle body language - ears, posture, signs of nervousness (this can be almost anything - bit chomping, tail swishing, tension in the body, breathing). I've learned to tell when the tension is building and either reduce the pressure or help the horse deal with the worry by doing something to provide direction and assistance. I need to do whatever it takes to make sure I'm not pushing too far for the horse or can provide it help. Now sometimes you'll get bad advice from trail companions or fellow boarders - "you just have to make the horse do it or else it'll learn it can take advantage of you" - this is how people think, not horses - the worst thing you can do with a horse that is worried or fearful is force it to do something - that's a good way to destroy trust. For example, if you're on the trail and need to do it to help the horse, get off and hand-walk, or even turn back to the barn, or slow down - do whatever it takes to help your horse. If people don't understand or criticize you, don't worry - your horse and its trust in you is much more important than what people think of you and your methods.
As we work through things that may cause worry, I have to always remember to give the horse a way to successfully solve the problem and relieve the pressure - but I also have to make sure the horse has a real choice and isn't put under so much pressure - making the "wrong" option so hard that it isn't a real choice - that the horse doesn't really have any choice but to comply and choose the "correct" option - this can lead to the horse shutting down (which builds in problems for the future) or explosively resisting - in either case you've lost the horse's trust. A horse that is merely compliant on the outside but not "with you" on the inside is only trained on the outside and that training will break down if the pressure gets too great or if circumstances are different - you ride at a different time of day, or take the horse away from home, for example. The worried horse inside will show itself again, and everything will fall apart, sometimes in ways that are dramatic.
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Sorry for the long post - there's a lot more that could be said about each aspect of this. I hope that helps give an overview of where Dawn and I are going with our work and what we hope to achieve together.