I have a problem. I ignore it. It’s gone! Okay. Eyebrows are now being raised sky high through horsemen’s hatbands worldwide. There are so very few parts of our lives where that statement is true, but it can be with our horses. This gives us yet another reason to pause and offer up profound thanks for the privilege of being around horses.
Part of the Package
Behavior problems are, of course, very common with horses. You could even say that they’re part of the package of being around horses, especially if you consider that what we call a “behavior problem” is pretty much always the horse’s natural response to an unnatural situation that we have put him in. We ask an entirely different species to work with us, work for us, and somehow understand what we want to happen without our really being able to explain it clearly. At the same time, we ask our horses to put aside their own very accurate survival instincts that tell them most of the world wants to eat them.
We expect our horses to calmly and happily let a predator (we humans) climb up on their vulnerable backs and ride them where they don’t necessarily want to go. Horses are hard-wired to run away if something scary chases them, but we harness them up and think it’s normal for them to trot happily down a road dragging a noisy cart or wagon. We expect them to stand quietly while they are tied up and couldn’t escape if a hungry lion might happen to show up. In fact, most of what we do with our horses runs absolutely counter to what they really should allow us to do. Truly, horses are one of God’s most generous miracles.
A Litany of Problems
But all of this does require training, and it shouldn’t be surprising that there are going to be some glitches in the learning process. Some of those glitches will become minor quirks you can live with in your horse. Others can become serious behavior problems that can overshadow everything you do with your horse. It is, in fact, entirely possible to turn your entire life with horses into one long litany of problems, and many of us know people who seem to dedicate themselves to doing just that.
Horses react positively or negatively to situations depending on what they have been taught-regardless of whether that teaching was intentional. If we skipped a few steps in training, or if whoever we got the horse from skipped those few steps, or if someone botched a previous experience for a horse, or even if there was just an accident at some point, there are going to be some consequences of these situations that we may not like.
This is why so many magazines devote so much paper and ink to “How To Fix Your Horse” articles. John Lyons’ Perfect Horse isn’t going to do that. All those problems can be fixed without ever mentioning them or working on them with your horse. In fact, your training and relationship with your horse will improve tremendously if you don’t spend time dedicated to “fixing” problems.
Don’t Fix Problems
No, we’re not nuts and we’re not giving up on these very sane guidelines:
• You must not get hurt.
• The horse must not get hurt.
• The horse must end the session calmer than when he started.
Nor are we saying you should just be passive and let the horse do whatever he wants. Everyone’s goal is to have a safe, happy, mannerly horse, and out-of-control horses are none of those things. But we do not reach that goal through concentrating on specific behavior problems because doing that has a lot of seriously negative side effects.
First, it can be dangerous both to you and to your horse. If you make a project out of stopping rearing, pulling back, bucking, or biting, you’re generally putting both yourself and your horse in a situation where somebody could get hurt. (See the sidebar, opposite.)
It’s easy to lose your mental concentration when you react to your horse’s bad behavior. If he jigs or is buddy sour, if he won’t pick up his feet or walk through a stream, it’s annoying. If he won’t load, you can get frustrated. If he pulls back when he’s tied, it can be scary. None of these emotions contribute to clear thinking and/or calm judgment.
Then there’s the time lag involved. Think for a minute about the last time you said, “He’s going too fast!” or, “He’s in my space!” or, “He’s kicking at me when I pick up his feet!” Somehow these things are always the horse’s fault. You let him start the behavior, and then you try to find a way to correct it. By that point, you’re already at least three steps behind where you should be.
You Can’t Lead if He’s Ahead
Horses need and look for calm leadership. You can’t lead if he’s ahead of you in his thoughts, actions, and emotions.
Because he’s ahead of you, pretty much by definition you will be late with your cues. Late cues give him time to get into more trouble. By the time you can give the cue, he’ll be doing something else, so the cue you give will not be proper for what the horse is doing just then. He’ll connect that cue with what he’s doing wrong at that moment, so the wrong cues and bad behavior will reinforce each other.
Your training plan also gets sidetracked and becomes more confusing for both you and your horse. You start working on a specific cue, say for diagonals. You give your rein cue and your go forward cue. Your horse gets jiggy or maybe he spooks. When you get yourself physically and mentally back together, you aren’t working on diagonals any more, you’re working on correction-probably using the same rein or leg, but now in punishment mode.
This doesn’t build a positive relationship. It doesn’t teach him what you want your hand and leg cues to mean. And the peaceful relationship you and your horse both seek has pretty much flown out the window.
Now you’re having an argument with your horse. It may be a big battle or it may be a constant stream of smaller, nagging corrections, but you’re definitely not working together in a positive way. This doesn’t build a beautiful performance, because nothing beautiful is forced or restrained.
Don’t Train with “Don’t”
Constantly correcting your horse is working with a continuous “don’t.” You end up spending a great deal of time trying to tell him over and over again what you don’t want him to do. This complicates and multiplies your job of teaching because there are hundreds of things we don’t want our horses to do. This kind of concentration is neither positive nor rewarding for you or your horse. No one wants to spend what is supposed to be a fun and relaxing time saying or hearing nothing but, “No, don’t do this,” followed by, ” For Pete’s sake, don’t do that, either!”
Training from “don’ts” is especially ironic because there really aren’t any “don’t” cues with horses. There is no signal in horsemanship that says, “Don’t go left,” but we do have one that says, “Go right.” There is no signal that says, “Don’t take the left lead,” but we do have one that says, “Take the right lead.”
You can use that fact as a powerful tool in getting the behavior you want from your horse. Problems get fixed by training your horse to do what you want him to do, not by working on what you don’t want him to do. Instead of an abrupt (or steady stream of), “No, don’t do that!” keep your own concentration and keep working on that diagonal. Or work on perfecting his head down cue or on backing or on anything else that needs improvement.
As one problem goes away, might others show up down the line? Sure. But what you work on with your horse is always your choice, not his. Every moment you’re around your horse, you’re either teaching him something or reinforcing something. So always ask yourself, “Am I working on what I want or what I don’t want?” You can stop every behavior you don’t want your horse to do by keeping your focus on something you do want him to do. After all, you’re the leader.
To lead, you must always be a step ahead of your horse. To be ahead of your horse, you have to have a plan and follow it. Focus on what you want him to do next without being ruffled by any behavior mistakes he makes in the process. Your training will go further faster. Your relationship with your horse will improve. You’ll be safer. And you’ll have a lot more fun!