Monday, August 15, 2011

The danger of riding half a horse

Many people mount their horses each day without having done the work of preparing the horse or reading the horse properly and this is a dangerous endeavor. I've been on many trail rides and around many barns where horses are acting-up and out of control yet the rider mounts with the hope that they will return back to the trail head or to the barn in one piece. In these cases both horse and rider, not to mention other horses and riders in the vicinity, are in serious jeopardy.

Horses constantly tell us, without hesitation, how they're feeling and how they feel about what's going on. I guess many people don't listen to what the horse is saying because, number one, they are not insightful enough to rightfully interpret the horses language and, number two, I believe most people wouldn't know what to do about the situation if they could understand what the horse is saying loud and clear.

Horses that are acting up on the ground, when being saddled, when being led or groomed, let alone being ridden, are telling us that we have not done the work with them properly or thoroughly enough. This is not a bad thing in itself. These situations will actually make us better and safer horsemen once we learn the horses language and then once we aquire the skills to deal with those situations in a way that the horse will accept and appreciate; everyone wins in the end.  However, to mount an unruly horse, whether we do it alone or with other horses and riders in close proximity, is a disaster waiting to happen. And the more we do it the more the situation will escalate because, for sure, the horse in particular will become more and more misunderstood and frustrated and will begin to consider us, the rider, as his adversary and that's the last thing we want our horse to be thinking; that's like riding half a horse. We want our mount to trust us and to know that we understand him/her and that we are listening to what they are attempting to communicate. 

Think about it. Horses are all about being free so they are all ready in a compromised situation. They've basically given-up their freedom and they find themselves totally under our command. Horses are smart, smarter than most people give them credit for, and they figure things out lickity-split. Then they are forced to make psychological adjustments to deal with whatever the command post is deciding to delegate. Unruly, undisciplined and unpredictable horses are attempting to communicate with us. Sometimes their behavior suggests that they are screaming at us to reconsider our approach, technique and our behavior.

As I mentioned above, our horses, if we listen to them, will continually teach us how our behavior around them could be tweeked in order to have a better relationship with them; and a better ride by the way. If we don't listed to what the horse is attempting to communicate the frustration of both horse and rider will continually grow until a wreck happens and someone gets hurt. The frustration of both horse and rider will escalate, that's just how things work, and as we refuse to listen to our horses we create an increasingly more volatile situation.

Would I be so naive to suggest that any horse can be taught to be 100% safe and predictable? Probably not but we can certainly lower the odds of something happening into our favor by doing the work with our horses, first on the ground, and then by listening to what our horses have to say.

Sometimes we find ourselves with a horse that has been psychologically injured by previous ownership. In other words the horse we end-up with in our barn has been traumatized by the handling of a previous owner. This means that the horses bad behavior has been adopted by the horse as a survival mechanism. It is very similar with children who have grown-up in households that were injurious to their delicate psychology. In order to keep their dignity and their self worth they adopt psychological patterns to have at leaast some sense of control over the situation. Horses are quite similar. So, if we get such a horse in our barn, and many people end-up with such a damaged horse, it doesn't do any good to blame, reprimand, abuse or get violent with such a horse. In fact, that's absolutely the wrong attitude to take as is also the case with a wounded child. The only answer to the situation is to, over time and sometimes quite a lot of time, help the horse to learn that we are different and that, even though we look very similar to the person that was previously responsible for the abusive situation, through unwavering patience, kindness and predictability the horse will learn to trust once again. Maybe this is not an easy task and maybe it takes longer than we would like to think it should take but as far as I am concerned it is the only pathway to success.

I have a horse in my barn now that came to me with the reputation of an outlaw. People said lots of negative things about him and many people were actually afraid of him. He is big and stout and certainly looks like he can hold his own in a fight, no question about that. The very first instant I met this horse I liked him and something in his eye told me that he was getting a bad rap. I was asked to work with this horse to get him to load because others were having huge difficulties loading him.  With me, and after only a few moments of patience, kindness and technique, he loaded straight away and repeatedly. After being in my barn and with my small herd now for only a few months he is a wonderful horse and a dependable and predictable mount. I feel this is because I was patient and easy with him; I simply dropped all the expectations of how he should be and how he should act. If I saw he was having difficulty with something I'd intentionally get very gentle and soft, slow everything way down, get inside his head to figure-out how to help him, and me, out of the jam-up that was going-on and this seemed to do the trick.

Horses know if we're saavy or not. That's what makes them so darn smart and so darn difficult to deal with if we continue with our inappropriate behavior that's not working. There's a keen beauty about this type of honesty even though we might not like it sometimes. So, if you're having difficulty with our horse, take the time to stop for a moment, take a deep breath and ask yourself how it is that we, the supposed commander of the relationship, can use our creative skills to lead the relationship in a positive direction for both horse and rider. Otherwise you'll continue to ride only half a horse if that. 
"He doth nothing but talk of his horses".  William shakespeare

Thanks for listening!