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.
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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.