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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!