Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Training Opportunity, and the Dishonest Horse?

This morning, Dawn and I had an unexpected training opportunity. One of the boarders had brought her dog to the barn and tied it to the bike rack outside while she did her chores. As I was getting ready to take Dawn out to the dry lot, the dog was barking loudly and frantically and running in circles on the end of its leash. Until recently, I would have thought "uh-oh, Dawn might be worried about that and spook/bolt, so I better wait until the owner controls the dog or steer a wide path around it." But instead I thought: "great training opportunity!" I always carry my clicker in one pocket and treats in the other now just in case things like this come up. I'm using clicker to help Dawn with her scary object training, so far with great success. So I haltered her and led her to about 10 feet from the dog, who kept barking and running. She stood, I clicked and treated. I asked her to move closer, same thing. Within a minute she was standing calmly, on a loose lead, literally inches outside of the dog's path. Absolutely no problem - not only did she stand, she never even spooked or showed any signs of alarm! What a great horse she is!

* * * * * *

I've been thinking some more about spooking and how we think about horses who spook, and in particular horses that develop a habit of repeatedly spooking at certain places, say near one corner of an arena. I think a lot of people, and I would have included myself in this group until only a few years ago, would say that a horse that repeatedly spooks at an object, or in a place, that we consider safe, is being "dishonest" or "cheating" or being stupid or a "butt". I think the reaction of a lot of people to this behavior is impatience and irritation, usually followed by a whack with the crop or reins. And I also think both traditional horse training methods of the "make them do it" schools and the "make your horse respect you" natural horsemanship schools of thought influence people to think of horses as dishonest or sneaky.

Now if you train a horse using those methods, will they be successful? Often the answer is yes, and the results you can get are often very quick. But in my opinion, what you get, at best, when you think of your horse as dishonest or sneaky, and train them that way, is a horse that is compliant on the outside but not really with you on the inside. I used to ride and train my horses that way, and had a lot of success. I've done a lot of thinking and learning since, and I've changed my mind. I think attributing dishonesty or sneakiness to horses is inappropriately applying human traits to horses which horses don't have, and is also thinking of the horse as an adversary to be overcome or controlled. Even if it's called natural horsemanship, that's traditional make-them-do-it horse training in another costume.

A quote from Mark Rashid's Whole Heart, Whole Horse:

A horse that offers us "good" behavior is simply telling us he's okay with what's going on at that particular moment in his life. A horse that's offering up "bad" behavior is telling us there's a problem, sometimes a major one . . . that needs to be addressed. A horse that is offering up "worrisome" behavior [such as bit chomping, head-shaking, pawing, tail-wringing, etc.] is telling us he doesn't understand something and is struggling with it. . . . [I]t is my belief horses don't distinguish between how they feel and how they act. So if they act a certain way, their actions are reflecting the way they feel. . . . If this is the case, then any behavior a horse offers, good, bad, or indifferent, falls under one category: the horse supplying information about how he feels. (p. 82)

So just as an experiment, instead of thinking that the horse who spooks repeatedly in one spot, or begins to get nervous and "pre-spooks", is dishonest or a cheat, what if instead we were to think that the horse is expressing how it feels and asking us a question: "I'm a little worried about something here, and maybe you could help me out with it, or else I'm getting out of here?" To my mind, if that's what the horse is feeling, then giving them a whack is about the last thing I'd want to do. At best, I'd make the horse comply and clearly communicate that I really wasn't interested in helping the horse with its worry, and at worst I'd end up with a horse that was convinced that things were even worse than it thought - not only should it worry about that place in the ring but now it should also worry about the whack it will get for being worried - for certain horses that's a great way to turn a small worry into a big one.

I also believe that there's a lot going on with the horse before we get to the scary end of the arena where we can pay attention and give the horse the direction and assistance it needs. First, if I'm dealing with this sort of thing, I pay really close attention to what I'm doing, perhaps unconsciously, in anticipation of the spook - am I starting to tense up? - this will often reinforce the horse's tendency to spook. Also, if I wait until we get to the scary place to give the horse direction and assistance, it's often too late to keep the worry from coming up. And I think we often just don't keep riding - I've had to learn from scratch how to do this and it's hard and requires a lot of concentration and I don't always succeed - I think if we can keep riding and give the horse active direction a lot of these issues just go away and others become easier to work with. The horse needs leadership, and that's what the horse is asking for.

At this point in my life with horses, I'm interesting in having more than a compliant horse - that's nice but compliance on the outside doesn't necessarily mean that the horse is with you on the inside. There's a big difference between a horse that's willingly compliant and one that's merely compliant - I've seen the difference. Is it easy? No, and it takes a lot of time, patience, attention and effort on my part. But I believe it can be done, and that's what I'm working for with my horses. I'm on the road, and it's an amazing and exciting journey so far! If you want to read more about where I'm trying to go, and my work plan for Dawn, check out my post "The Horse is Thinking About Leaving . . ."

Have a great weekend, and may it include horses!


  1. I agree...we tend to humanise the horse to having our traits and the communication they offer is far more simple than a devisive plan.

    We as leaders and as commpassionate riders must look much deeper into what drives the behaviour...not fuel it and try to understand the horses point.

    Watching Simeon work with his owner these past months...I have seen a young horse that is nervous and chomping at the bit...during the lesson last Sunday...he was able to relax as the trainer related his needs to his owner...she relaxed and gave him some head room and neck length..she was doiung the classic blunder..trying to get him where he should be from front to back...instead of asking him to use his back up to the front.
    It was a joy to see the relief on both rider and horse!

    Me...well, mine has been telling me she hates me trying in the I am confounded. Her abusive past haunts me...and I wish to have a mare that can listen and be a partner..but run into such disturbing, sometimes dangerous to me, behaviour Kate.
    I am not willing to give up on her and this new trainer helped me with sticking to leading(not being ambiguous) and also switching it up so as she is not insulted with boredom.

    Reading about Olympian Lars Petersen and his 2008 Devon success- on his Succes horse, after years of spooking, fresh behaviour and bolting...I do keep it in mind as I try to be fair and just with Wa mare.

    Thanks for continually offering great tips and knowledge based on your years loving the equine. I appreciate all you do!

  2. Kate...I so agree with everything you wrote. Too many people are not willing to take the time to do things the right and patient way. Excellent post.

  3. Well put, I agree we put human emotionand feeling where it doesn't belong. I always say when a horse does something reactionary,"its not personal!"They don't actually try to P you off. That said they feed off so many signals including our emotioal state that it can be confusing . Sounds like good work with Dawn

  4. Good thoughts. I think it's counter productive to attribute human feelings to our equines...I like Kyra Kyrklund's idea that a horse doesn't spend the 23 hours a day that we aren't working with him thinking up ways of pi##ing us off. Patience, patience and yet more patience and agreed, don't ever take it personally.

  5. Good post! We see a lot of people giving horses traits that they've never had and never will. A horse is as honest as can be, if they are spooking they are scared of something and it's up to us to figure out how to give them the courage to deal with their fears.

  6. Excellent post, with lots to think about. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I'm completely with you: "dishonest" horses are man-made, not born. Sometimes even good horsemen make unconscious errors that result in what appears to be a dishonest moment, or a dishonest horse. I know I've blown it with horses from time to time, and had to regroup. Great post!

  8. I totally agree it is a huge mistake to attribute human traits to horses. That said I will readily admit that there are times when I do this, and we all do to some extent. After all we are just humans, just as our horses are just horses!

  9. Great post, I agree wholeheartedly with you. Some animals other than humans are capable of deceit, although not any where near the level of humans, but horses are not one of those animals. In my experience, the human perception of a "dishonest horse" is nearly always a communication problem. The human has asked the horse to do something, the horse doesn't understand or has become distracted and therefore doesn't comply and the human immediately makes it the horse's fault. We have to remember that, whenever we're handling a horse, we are responsible for the horse's behavior.

  10. This post got me to thinking about spooking in general. Why do horses have such different reactions to 'scary' things? Is it genetic or learned? The other day out in the pasture my two horses were standing near the fence by the creek. On the other side of the fence 3 deer suddenly jumped out of the long grass and bounded away. Alexandre's butt dropped two feet as he spooked and scooted away from them, and Jasper (who's only 4) turned to face them and gave them a good, hard look. Neither horse is spooky on the trails. I just thought the difference in their reactions was interesting.

  11. Albigears - I think there's a wide variation in horses' propensity to be spooky, and in what they'll do when they do spook. I think it's just how different individuals are wired, just as some people are naturally more reactive than others. But I also think that some spookiness is learned, particularly if we amplify the spook by what we do when it happens. I also believe that we can help our horses overcome their natural desire to flee when confronted with something new or alarming - that's why I'm working with Dawn on learning to spook in place - she's by nature a very reactive horse and very prone to flee.

  12. Albigears & Kate, have you read any of mugwump's comments about some horses (Sonita) being "the watcher"? It makes so much sense that horses are wired to have a role in the herd, and that it dictates their instinctive responses even outside of the herd.

    My horse was labeled with "lazy and slow" as a 2-3 year old, with occasional moments of "resistant". I'm now realizing that not one of those labels is correct. If anything he's trying too hard to figure out what he should do, and stalls out or panics when overloaded. I wish I'd found your website when I first got him, but chances are I wouldn't have recognized it at the time, since I was solidly old-school. This horse is forcing me to find a new approach, and it's sending me down amazing new paths in all parts of my life.

    Today we practiced pre-trailer loading with two rails and a piece of plywood. He did well, and I was pleased to have broken things into small pieces. I'm learning to take patience to a new level, using you and Dawn as an example.


  13. stilllearning - Thanks for your comments! I agree that the different personalities do often translate into different herd roles, based on my limited experience. Dawn has always been primarily a "sight spooker" , whereas Lily, who is also very spooky, is primarily a "sound spooker". Both Lily and Dawn are dominant in a herd situation, whereas Maisie is a subordinate, and is less spooky, although more inclined to be herd/barn sour.

  14. I think the fact that Pie and Sovey switch roles on a trail ride depending on who is leading tells us that "spooking" is really just like us doing a step back for reconnaissance. They definitely switch personalities and then react as a leader or follower. The leader "steps aside" (spooks) to proactively see better/more clearly and gather information. At least that is what it seems like to me. It doesn't ever seem to have one thing to do with me or trying to unseat me or annoy me, except maybe to alert me too, if I am lucky enough to be considered one of their herd/group while we are on a ride.

  15. Kate- agree. Do you find a correlation between how much self-confidence a horse has and how much they spook? Or is it more of a general attitude? Alexandre is a definite worrier, but not a spooker. Now days if we're out on the trail and he spooks at something, he turns around, approaches it, and touches it with his nose. Then he continues down the trail. He does this all on his own (from so much repetition I'm sure). I think he thinks before he spooks and usually decides it's not worth his trouble. He's much more dominant than Jasper, a subordinate, who as a 4-year-old TB is hardly spooky at all.

    Stillearning- I love mugwump's Sonita stories and am getting impatient for her next installment! Congrats on your pre-trailer loading session.

  16. OH and juliette- I used to take beginners trail riding and of course they always wanted to be in front. I told them that if they're in front the lion/rock/turkey is going to eat their horse FIRST and they need to know their horse will act accordingly.

    Sometimes on a trail when there's something obviously spooky coming up (old car, big rock, plastic bag) I start telling my horse that the horse eating _______ is coming up and it's going to get him. I tell him all the horrible things it's going to do to him. For some reason this usually makes him walk calmly by it.

  17. Great Progress!!!!!!! That would have been a great feeling!

  18. I read this when you posted it, on Saturday, and took a few days to digest it. Thanks - it's a great post.

    I could push my gelding Champ past anything he was scared of. He was a great horse and never held it against me, and it worked for us. Dixie is a different story - I used to try to push her past scary stuff, and she'd get SO outdone with me. Head up, really hot, scooting past the monster as fast as possible, and even worse the next time we encountered a monster. I eventually realized that it's ok to let her stare and think and take her time. I don't let her run away (which she will happily do), but if she just tries a little bit that's good enough for us.

    Her spooking has changed, too. She used to startle, spin, and try to bolt - now she generally startles, comes down crouched like a cowhorse, and STARES. Big improvement. I am so proud of my brave horse.

  19. Good post, Kate (again).
    No, horses are not dishonest.
    And keeping calm when a horse spooks often calms the horse.

    They might spook when they are feeling fine and just want to play around too. (I love our horses' sense of humor.) When I feel my horse is enjoying herself I'm happy too!

  20. What a GREAT post, Kate. Oh, the spook. Can be so scary, head scratching, and sometimes makes me so frustrated! It's so true, the flight in them kicks in and it's not their fault. The more we can reassure them they are safe, instead of 'beating it into them' is sure to get them to be better, more secure mounts. I know when riding Lazarus, and he spooks in place, I reward him for his bravery. When he runs like the dickens, or checks out, I try to reel him back in gently, give him a task, and loudly praise him for being 'soooo brave!' It works, but that is the tip of the OTTB iceberg sometimes. I love reading about what other people do for success, and try it out myself when he gets better!

  21. I totally agree with what is mentioned above,and i love to have this kind of approach with horses.

  22. My trainer says there is no such thing as a dishonest horse. Every reaction a horse, whether it be what we hope for or not, is that horse telling us exactly how he or she feels. This is a great post. I am new to this blog, just found you through Shannon (A work in Progress) But I see you have a lot of reading that I need to check out. Looks like some good good stuff! Thanks

    1. Cindy - welcome - your trainer sounds just like Mark Rashid!


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