Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How Far To Push Things?

This is a question I wrestle with every day - when a horse doesn't want to do what you're asking or does something you don't want, how far do you push things?  There are many places where this can come up - in arena work, the horse doesn't do what you ask or acts up when you do.  On the trail, the horse balks (or worse) or suffers from separation anxiety (barn-bound or buddy-bound), or refuses to go past a scary object.  Or a horse is difficult to handle on the ground, or won't pay attention and is distracted.

I don't buy into the ask/tell/make them school of horse training - I think these punishment/dominance-based methods, while sometimes effective in the sense that the horse may comply, do not lead to a willing horse or build trust and can lead to shut-down, or worse, suddenly explosive, horses.  I also don't believe that it's just a matter of getting the horse to respect you - I think the horse and I need to respect and trust each other and the horse needs to find me an effective and reliable leader to follow - horses want to follow leaders but they won't follow just anybody willingly.

I think I sometimes err on the side of pushing things too far or taking for granted that the horse is able to do what I ask.  And then other times I err on the side of not getting through something that needs to be resolved or providing the horse with the leadership he or she needs.  I'm always trying to figure this out - how and when to push, and when not to - and I suspect many horse people struggle with this issue to.  Although I think I often make mistakes in this area, there are a couple of principles I try to to remember when I'm trying to figure out what to do.

First, I think there's a big difference between fear-based resistance and other types of resistance.  This is a quote from a wonderful book, Old Men and Horses: a Gift of Horsemanship, by Ross Jacobs (more about this book in this post):
There is nothing wrong with a horse getting scared. Being scared and insecure is a way of life for horses. That's why they are first and foremost animals of flight. But what Amos was saying was that if you do get your horse scared you must make sure of two things: first, don't allow something that worries a horse become something that terrifies a horse. You do this by not over-facing a horse into a situation that is too difficult to handle for them. This is best done by making sure there is a way out of the worry that the horse can find fairly easily. The second criteria is to ensure you never leave the horse in the worried state. Make sure she comes out the other side of the fear in a more relaxed frame of mind.
This is why, when Pie had his buddy-bound worries on the trail - I believe this was not a learned/reinforced behavior for him but just anxiety due to his inexperience and being in a new place - I didn't force him to go - not that I'm sure I could have and a real meltdown might have happened if I'd tried.  I do think I overfaced him a bit, thinking he was going to be more OK with it than he was, and took him over the line of what he could do that day.  This probably resulted in his trust in me coming down a notch, and I'll have to earn that back. But that's already happened and while I try not to repeat my mistakes I also try not to dwell on them - we all make mistakes and will continue to do so.  I also didn't leave the issue alone - we continued to work on it (leaving the group for a few steps then turning back) as we returned to the barn and I also continuing to ride him as the other horses left the barn again, asking him to do things he was able to do, until he was somewhat calmer and less worried.  Force and fear are a really bad combination and I don't want to go there.  Pie and I are far from finished with working on this issue, but that allowed him to feel a bit better about things on that day.

Similarly, with Dawn, who has a history of being easily spooked and worried by scary objects, we've done a fair amount of clicker work, allowing her to set the pace in confronting her fears and teaching her to be more confident in dealing with scary things and also to trust that I won't put her in a position where she's forced - she gets some choice, but under my leadership and direction, which reinforces her trust in me.

Here is quote from one of Mark Rashid's books, Whole Heart, Whole Horse: Building Trust Between Horse and Rider (more about this book in this post):
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.
And sometimes "bad" behavior, particularly the more extreme types - bucking, bolting, rearing, etc. - are due to pain, or the fear of pain, or the horse being overwhelmed and just shutting down.  I think it's very important to rule out pain - ulcers, teeth, poor saddle fit, wrong bit, pain in joints/muscles, etc. - before assuming something is a training issue.  Also, how a horse is  fed and stabled can make a huge difference it the horse's behavior - adequate turnout and appropriate feeding are essential.

Distinguishing between fear and other types of resistance can sometimes be difficult, particularly if a horse is exhibiting behavior that it has learned as a result of what its rider/handler (often inadvertently) has taught it.  Another example - our Lily had a problem trailer loading.  We carefully worked with her over a number of sessions to get her to load, and no dice - she would put her front feet in the trailer and that was it.  Since she at this point wasn't fearful - she was practically falling asleep with her front feet in the trailer - it was time to get on the trailer, and I had a companion with good timing ping her on the butt with pebbles (just enough to irritate her, not to force her) every time she stopped moving her feet.  Within moments she loaded and we've never had a problem since.  Notice we didn't force her onto the trailer - she could have stood with her head in the trailer, moving her feet around outside, for as long as she wanted, but she chose to get on rather than just move around or stand and get pinged, and she was rewarded for choosing the option we wanted.

And then there are the issues that arise on a day-to-day basis, such as "my horse won't travel in a straight line" or "my horse avoids the corners of the arena" or "my horse struggles with picking up the right lead canter" or "my horse runs through the bridle and won't halt" or "my horse is sluggish and won't move forward".  We've all got our list with our horses.  Another quote from the Mark Rashid book:
[M]ost of the problems we see boil down to simple miscommunication between the horse and rider.  And the vast majority of those miscommunications often boils down to the rider not giving the horse the direction it needs to perform the task properly, or . . . inadvertently taking a little mental break while the horse is still working.
What he's saying is that 99% of the time it's us - our lack of focus, our failure to provide direction, leaving the horse confused, our blocking forward motion by how we use our eyes and bodies, our not being clear and consistent with what we want or failing to ask the horse for what we want in a way that makes sense.  If we're to be the leader and expect the horse to follow our leadership and direction, we need to take that responsibility seriously.

So, in my work sessions, I try to have an objective - something I'm trying to achieve or work on - and I try to be creative in finding ways to help the horse understand.  I always try to make some sort of progress, even if it isn't always the progress I set out to make, and I also want the horse to feel better about things by the end of the session.  I try to make sure that I don't avoid problem areas, but I also don't drill or focus only on problems or force the horse to deal with a problem in a way that's not digestible - small increments of progress are fine with me - I'm in no hurry. And then, all the time, I have to be working on me - that's going to be a life long project!  And, will I make mistakes and sometimes push too far or not push far enough? - sure.  I try not to worry about this too much (although I do) and to forgive myself if I get things wrong as easily as the horses do and move on and keep working.  I often feel uncertain and not entirely sure of what I'm doing, but I do it anyway.

* * * * * * *
It's extremely warm - mid-60sF - today, and sunny.  Pie and I took a short mid-morning confidence-building ride at the walk.  We retraced the route I'd taken with Pie and my husband yesterday afternoon - through the areas where he'd had his anxiety over "losing" Scout.  Pie was somewhat nervous, but very well behaved.  As we were coming back, he spooked slightly at the goat moving around in its pen, and at two small children moving through some leaves (I'm not sure he has figured out what children are yet), but held it together and also dealt well with a (well-behaved) dog out on a walk and also a bicycle passing by.

When we got back to the barn, Sugar and Charisma were getting ready to go on a trail ride, so Pie and I went in the arena and did a bit of trotting - I didn't want to go with them because they tend to want to go pretty fast.  Pie and I also tried out his lope/canter.  It's not bad for such a young horse - pretty comfortable and balanced but better to the left than the right and the upwards transitions aren't smooth.  We won't be doing a lot of cantering until we can do a lot more softening work at the walk and trot first, and until we've done a lot of transition work at those gaits.

Pie called once as Sugar and Charisma left the barn, but was otherwise OK, and seemed glad to get back to turnout.


  1. I still consider myself "back yard" even tho I have had horses for over 30 years. When horses are acting out it is usually for a reason...many times it stems from the person riding or working with him and the method of communication being used. I know for a fact, that a great deal of the bad behavior stems from poorly fitting saddles and harsh bits along with impatience and inexperience. It takes time to do things right. (A slow approach to exposure builds confidence). That does not mean the work session turns into a marathon. Stopping on a good note, even tho it may only be a short time, can be worth more than repeating something over and over and over. We would not want someone doing that to us. I'm also not for seeing how high I can make a person or horse "jump" ...for entertainment purposes. We need to put ourselves in the horse's position more, to figure out what the problems are...what causes them. When I finish riding/working..I want my horse to leave on a happy note.

    Pie has done an awful lot, considering the length of time you have had him. He is going to be quite a partner!

  2. I agree with 99% of the time it's the handler's lack of focus or direction and not the horse. They are pros at reading our body language and so we must become pros at reading theirs as well! Timing is the main key on all training of animals not just our equine friends. Asking at the proper time with the right amount of pressure is learned through experience in doing and by feel. The animal will "tell us" when it's right by his reaction/behavior. You're doing a fabulous job with Pie!

  3. What you said about 99 percent of problems being due to the rider echoes something I've been thinking about for the last few weeks. Late this summer and fall, Panama developed a habit of bolting more often, and I suffered quite a few falls. I think a lot of what happened has to do with ME, not him. I was riding less often, so he had more energy, and then because I was developing a fear of him bolting, I was starting to lean forward too much and project too much anxiety. My trainer taking away my stirrups for a couple of weeks helped to solve the first problem, and I am working on the second. So far it seems to be making a difference in Panama's behavior!

  4. I think the answer is "it depends". I absolutely do not push if I think the issue is fear related. Pushing her too far if she's afraid will do nothing for her confidence or her trust in me. I always take those situations very slowly. She has also had some pain related issues, and those require a similar response on my part. I still try very hard to accomplish the goal, but I also keep her best interests in mind.

    There are times when she really is just being defiant. Times when she's done something before and chooses not to this time (trailer loading, for example). For those situations, I will make her do it no matter how long it takes.

    Walking through water is another one with my other horse. He's done it before and today he just doesn't want to get his feet wet. He'll be going through the water or we don't go back home. :)

    And again, it always depends on the horse. Some horses can't be pushed and others can. You need to know your individual horse and what they can and can't handle mentally and physically.

  5. Thought provoking, thanks Kate.

    I agree it depends. My two pennies, if I may, are that I will always eliminate all possibilities of physical pain before I try to retrain a behaviour or redirect a reaction. A positive, confidence-boosting means should always be our first port of call and negative means should always be used with tact (I use both means). I believe breaking down the steps into as few as possible and not placing time constraints on positive results is of equal importance. Make the correct answer the easy option for the horse and he'll always reward you.

    With each day passing and with every 1-to-1 with you, Pie's confidence will bloom :)

  6. I think you made a great point...we want our horses to look to us as their leaders. That's all well and good, but we better be prepared to be damn GOOD leaders.

    It involves everything from not over-facing your horse to not making him work when he's sore, or punishing him when he's in pain (from lameness, to saddle fit to whatever). If we ask our horse to consistently do things that scare or hurt him, we are going to be very bad leaders, and our horse will understand that very quickly.

    Of course, that doesn't mean we need to be perfect:) However, I'm learning with Miles that one of the most important things a horse and rider can share is the idea of "good faith". I trust him that he's always doing the best he can, at that moment, for me, and not being a "jerk" or being manipulative-those things are for people:) Likewise, he's trusting me to keep him safe and give him a fair shake. I may ask him to work harder than he wants some days, but he knows I won't ask him to work harder than he can, or work when he's in pain. He trusts that we won't be going along and then he gets a jab in the mouth or in the side, or a whack from the whip for reasons he can't fathom. We can COUNT on each other...part of that comes from months and months of getting to know your horse as well.

    Just the fact that you're bringing up these subjects and examining yourself means you are a wonderful leader for Pie:) We should always be examining ourselves as horse owners, handlers and riders-as much or even more-so than we are examining our horse's strengths and weaknesses.

    Sorry for the long comment! Great post though:)

  7. I'm going to "ditto" Lori's comment. I probably would have written practically the same thing.

  8. Kate, very good post- very well thought out. I agree with you, and I, too, struggle with the best way to address issues that come up. Trying to work out what the horse needs helps me to grow in maturity of my leadership, I hope. Good work with Pie today!

  9. I constantly have to ask these questions when I ride Tucker. He is a very complicated horse. There are some physical issues, I know, but how much they really impact his ability to work is hard to say. Each day is a new experience.

    As always, a perceptive, well informed post.

  10. Oh yes. I know all about pushing a horse too far. I've got the scars to prove it. hah!

    Remember Bella? The mare that bucked my twinling son to the moon? Well she has new owners now, who say she still bucks, but mostly in the arena and round pen. They've had her checked out for a multitude of pain issues, tried different bits, including bitless, and different saddles. She still bucks on occasion.
    But they seem to think that Bella bucks when she's bored and doesn't have a specific job to do. She also seems to dislike round pen and arena work, or inexperienced riders on her back. She wants to go somewhere and loves the trails.

    Which makes sense considering that my twinling son was just going to ride her around at a walk in our paddock. We just wanted to see how well behaved she would be for a child to ride her quietly in circles.
    Not so good.

    I had to laugh when her new owners told me that they affectionately call her Bucking Bella.


  11. I think you have a good grasp on the concepts. The first thing, like you said is identify if it is fear based or defiance. Next, figure out the threshold (the bubble--when does the horse get anxious) retreat and then ask for just a little more after the retreat. It becomes like clockwork, but very effective. You are citing and following great trainers, so give yourself more credit...you are doing good work!

  12. This post made me think, I never try to push my horse too far, but I probably do, even though I'm unaware of it! I know I do take what he does for granted, and I really shouldn't! Love reading your posts like these :)

  13. As always, excellent post! I really do wish most people took the time to develop that trust relationship with horses as they are being trained. Unfortunately, the ask-tell-make methods is all too common and used (in my opninion) too liberally with young horses especially. How many more "made" horses would behappier in their jobs if the early training went slow and steady, the learning at a pace the horse is capable of understanding.

    I'm so glad I went back to basics with Panache, because the ask-tell-make method was getting her so flustered. We spent a lot of time just walking a trotting, letting her figure out that leg doesn't mean GO!!!! and monsters really don't live in jumps. lol. She still looks for monsters, especially nopw that we're riding under lights again, but she trusts me to not put her in a position where monsters will get her. At least in the ring... trail riding is a whole different ball of wax.

    Anyway, all my rambling to say that I appreciate the thought you put into your post. Thanks Kate!

  14. Kate, another excellent post! Gives me lots of things to think about. I have finally found some time to catch up on some blog reading. I am so happy to read about Pie joining your family. Congratulations!!

  15. In my training, I find that resistance only comes from one of four categories: (1) worry/anxiety, (2) confusion, (3) laziness, or (4) pain/discomfort. I try really hard to listen to my horse and figure out why I'm getting resistance. I make my best educated guess (which I think gets more and more accurate as you get to know the horse), and then decide how hard to push, or whether I need to ask the question differently, from there. I don't know if I'm always right, but I try my very best....

  16. Oh I do love that book you mentioned by Mark Rashid. Full of so many good stories.
    Regarding pushing horses too far: I always wimp out early. I can't really be accused of pushing too hard. My friend Bill, however, is another story. He had a horse named Rambo who was a bucker. Beautiful bay horse, very friendly, wanted to p[lease, but sometimes he'd just freak out. He'd go to his bad place and lose it. He was one of the few horses Bill took to the auction to sell after spending months working with him, and even calling in another trainer. Rambo was doing great for a while but one fateful day with the other trainer lost it again. Recently Bill has been thinking a lot about Rambo and wonders if one day he didn't push him too hard. They were working in the ring and Bill was pulling out all the stops: tarps, crinkly bags, all the usual stuff. And that afternoon Rambo was good for a while but then had one of his freak outs. Now Bill is wondering if he had stopped that day's lesson earlier, maybe Rambo would have fared better. Maybe he made him cross a thresh-hold and after that Rambo was never going to avoid the bad place again. Of course it's hard to know. But Bill has never forgotten it. I think he feels if he had to do it all over again, he'd handle that lesson differently. I know he feels he puched the training and de-sensitizing too hard for one afternoon. The good news is that Rambo was purchased at the auction by two women who knew his history. I like to think maybe they just wanted a gorgeous bay for their pasture and for company.

  17. Good post. I think when you start off with a plan, you have to be able to change the plan if the horse is not performing to expectations. just yesterday riding Dudley everything was fine... until suddenly it wasn't. uncharacteristically he got all worked up about - what!? and felt like he was at times going to explode. I resisted the urge (and a bit of anger!) to push/punish/dominate him through it. In fact I got off to walk twice. When we got back to the house (me leading him the last bit), I got back on him and we did some other agility work that I hadn't planned. that way we both ended on a good note. every horse is different... and every day the same horse can be different!
    - The Equestrian Vagabond


Thank you for commenting - we appreciate it. No spam or marketing comments will be published.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.