Listen to Your Horse
I’ve been describing a lesson I call “Capture the Saddle”. It’s used to teach horses to line themselves up next to a mounting block. In the previous section I talked about how you can turn this ordinary, everyday behavior into extraordinary “Grand Prix” level excellence.
Even before you have built the behavior to this point, you can use the mounting block as a measure of how your horse is feeling. If your horse normally lines up well, but today he is swinging out or he’s walking off before you can get on, don’t assume that he’s “testing” you. Instead ask him what’s wrong? He knows standing at the mounting block leads to riding. Why doesn’t he want to be ridden today?
Our horses work so hard to communicate with us. We need to learn to be better listeners. When we train them with play in our hearts, they will want to work with us. If today they are saying “No” to riding, there’s a good reason. It may not always be obvious, but we need to become good detectives and find the answer.
Ask most horse owners about the ancestral background of the horse, and they can tell you that horses are a prey species that evolved in open grasslands. What they may not be as clear about are some of the consequences of that background.
Horses are herd animals because there is safety in numbers. The flip side of this is there is danger in appearing to be vulnerable. A lame or sick horse draws attention to itself and to the herd as a whole. Show weakness, and you’ll be drawing in predators, so horses are very good at hiding their injuries. They are protecting not just themselves, but their whole family. It takes something acutely painful such as an abscess or a torn tendon to bring a horse hobbling to a stand still. If they can hide an injury, they will.
So we have to be good detectives. It may not be immediately obvious what is wrong, but if you keep looking, if you keep collecting data, you may be able to piece together enough clues to discover that the reason your horse fidgets at the mounting block has nothing to do with training and everything to do with the poorly fitting saddle that is hurting his back.
“Just Tell Me How You Feel”
Normally an angry or frightened horse gives lots of warning signals that he is about to explode. If you punish those early warning signals in an attempt to stop a horse from biting, you can create that most dangerous of animals – a horse that gives no warning signals and goes straight to attacking when he has been pushed over threshold.
Just as horses can learn to withhold these signs of stress, they can learn the opposite. Instead of punishing them for fidgeting and refusing to step up to the mounting block, if you show them instead that you will listen to them, they will become more comfortable about expressing how they feel.
Just as we can actively teach a process that leads to intelligent disobedience, we can teach our horses to express more openly how they are feeling. When we listen to them in a context such as the mounting block, they begin to generalize the concept and offer us a truer picture of how they feel both physically and emotionally.
Peregrine for years bounced from one health crisis to another. The aftermath of a bout of Potomac Horse fever sent him on a downward health spiral that took several years to sort out. During that time I was grateful for his grumpy faces. I needed to know from one day to the next how he was feeling.
He was never punished for making faces. The rule was he could make faces. He just couldn’t act out on them. Because I was listening, he never needed to.
Sometimes the reason a horse says “No” to us, is not because there is something wrong with him, but because there is something that isn’t right with us.
This was driven home to me by a horse I met in a clinic many years ago. The horse was on loan to one of the course participants. She was a very clicker-experienced horse who was used to being handled by a skilled and very tactful owner.
Some horses are incredibly generous teachers. They seem to enjoy working with beginners. They are truly worth their weight in gold as they make up the heart of a good lesson string. Round-bellied ponies who take care of their young riders are treasures. Solid citizen campaigners who will take you over your first jump no matter how out of balance or how scared you are are the salt of the earth.
This mare was none of those things. She was a finely-trained artist who expected a high level of expertise and delicate feel from all her human partners. Unfortunately the woman who was working with her wasn’t able to live up to this mare’s exacting standards.
They started out well enough. I had them walking around a “why would you leave me” circle of cones. The mare started out by offering what she knew – beautifully balanced steps of shoulder-in on the circle. The handler clicked, gave her a treat and then slid down the lead. The mare wasn’t happy. Something was wrong, but it wasn’t clear yet what it was.
They went through a couple more cycles. The handler slid up the rope, and the mare walked off in shoulder-in, click and treat. Only now she was beginning to grab the lead before the handler could get more than a few inches down the rope.
“That’s as far as you’re going, little miss,” she was effectively saying.
We stopped, put the mare away and worked with the handler. We had her slide down the lead while someone else held the snap end. She felt soft enough to us. There was nothing especially harsh or abrupt in the way she handled the lead. We made a few adjustments to the details we did notice, and then we brought the mare back out. Things were not much better. Hmm. We put her away again and went back to rope handling basics.
Our handler told us she had the same sort of issues with her own horse. Clearly both horses were trying to tell her something. This was a puzzle we needed to solve.
We brought the mare back out, but now we let her be the teacher. The instructions were to wait until she showed her handler that she was ready to begin a new cycle. Not until her horse cued her was she to slide down the lead.
They stood side by side. The handler had her hands folded together about waist height. That’s the cue for a behavior which I call “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt”. It is one of the very first lessons which I teach a horse. The horse is clicked and reinforced when he keeps his nose pointing forward, away from the handler’s treat pouch. Over time it evolves and branches off into many different behaviors.
Robin shows us a beautiful baseline for “the grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt” behavior.
The grown-ups are talking:
- is the formation of ground tying which means, among others things, you can groom a horse while he stands at ease.
- transforms from a simple at-ease posture into the pilates pose. This is a “grand prix” behavior. The horse engages the same muscles he uses under saddle to collect himself for advanced performance. Only instead of doing this in motion, he is collecting at the halt. It is wonderfully good for a horse’s overall muscle tone and can help maintain a horse’s back strength for riding.
This mare had a beautiful pilates pose which she normally was perfectly happy to offer. Now she just stood next to this handler in a flat, at-ease stance.
The handler was waiting in grown-ups for she wasn’t sure what. She let out her breath, and the mare posed.
“Slide down the lead,” I quietly instructed her. The handler did as she was told. There was no biting at her hand. Instead the mare flowed into a beautifully balanced shoulder-in. Click and treat.
The handler waited again. Again, she let out her breath, and again the horse posed. “She’s telling you she’s ready for you to go on,” I told her handler. “Let the pose be the cue to you that she’s ready for you to slide down the lead.”
The mare had been trying her best to tell us what was wrong. When this handler slid down the rope, she held her breath. That made her feel tighter, heavier. It made her feel as though she was shouting at this very light horse.
Either we humans weren’t as sensitive as this mare, or the handler hadn’t been holding her breath when she practiced the rope handling with us. But at least with this horse she was definitely holding her breath. Without meaning to she was applying too much pressure. This horse didn’t like it and neither, apparently, did her own horse. When we gave the mare a way to signal to us when things were more to her liking, we could not only see what was going on, we could solve the problem.
Fixing the “Fixers”
As I watched this handler more closely throughout the weekend, I saw lots of little ways in which she was keeping the pressure on. It was so subtle, it was easy to miss. The pressure wasn’t coming from her hand on the lead, it was coming from her expectations and to be blunt – her neediness. She was a rescuer. She wanted to “fix” this mare. But this mare didn’t see herself as broken.
When we gave the mare permission to lead the dance, she was able to show us all that she wasn’t broken. Her handler needed to breath, smile and set aside the “poor horse” energy that was clogging up the relationship she brought to all the horses she worked with. She saw horses as sad little infants in need of rescuing and fixing.
If you don’t see yourself as either a baby or broken, you don’t want someone mother henning you and trying to “fix” you. There are definitely times when my horses aren’t feeling well, and they want to be cuddled. And there are horses who have fallen on hard times and really do need to be rescued. But that’s not forever. At some point that event sits in their distant past, and they are no longer “broken”. When we surround them with “fix it” energy, some of these horses can begin to feel restricted and annoyed.
It’s very much like a toddler who squirms out of his mother’s protective arms. “I can do it myself!” He’s beginning to exert his own independence. “I can tie my own shoes!” At some point you have to let him try.
At some point we have to stop treating our horses like infants in need of our constant care and supervision. They are our partners in the best and truest sense of that word, and sometimes our partners get to take the lead.
This handler needed to play more. She wanted to be a nurturer, and for some horses that is exactly what is needed. But every good mother knows there is a place for play, as well.
When my horses wrap themselves around me in beautiful lateral work, they make me smile. I laugh with them. We are dancing together, and for both horses and humans there is no better of expression of Joy than that.
This article ends this section on “Cue Communication”.
Coming Next in our list of “Ten Things You Should Know About Cues” is: Number 5: Cues Evolve.
The way in which cues evolve as we teach new skills leads us straight to play. That makes this a very important concept to explore.
Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.
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Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training. If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: