Are All Horses Meant To Be Rideable?

Moving on from my last post, I read somewhere that if a horse bucks when it is saddled for the first time it’s due to poor preparation. This got me thinking.

 

As a kid, I was lucky because I was very active and pretty good at most sports I tried. I have always had above average hand-eye coordination. I was quick on my feet and had really good reflexes. I was good a soccer player, runner, body surfer, and rider and I could box a bit. But I had a friend whose parents had emigrated from Iran when the Shah came to power. Bobby’s dad had a dream that Bobby would one day play soccer for Australia. If hopes had the power to make things come true Bobby would have captained Australia at the World Cup – and won! But Bobby was tragically uncoordinated. When he threw a ball it was anyone’s guess which direction it might go – even sometimes behind him. Bobby could do a lot of things really well, but he was never born to play soccer at an elite level. Bobby’s father was heart-broken.

 

I lost contact with Bobby after high school, but I sometimes think of him. I was thinking of him a few days ago when I wrote the post about horses that buck when they are saddle virgins. Thinking about Bobby has me asking the question, are all things meant to be possible?

 

If we accept that each every living thing has limitations, then it is not hard to accept that Bobby would never play professional soccer or that I will never discover the mathematical solution to the unifying theory or that my horse will never score 10s in a dressage test. No matter what our dreams may be not everything is possible. Contentment is only thinkable when we keep our ambitions or dreams within our limitations.

 

Now I come to the question that I’ve been pondering for a very long time.

 

Is every horse meant to be a riding horse (or carriage horse or companion horse of any kind)?

 

We train and ride horses because historically they presented a very useful form of transport and work vehicle and war machine. Civilization owes a huge debt to the horse. But this was only possible because of their trainability. We chose horses over almost every other species because they had the most appropriate features of any. But does that mean that every horse fits into that mold?

 

I come across videos, articles, books, and blogs that preach over and over that how a horse responds to training is the human’s total responsibility. I very much agree with this notion. I think our own limitations as trainers’ projects onto the horses and the outcome is all on us. So given that we all have significant limitations in our understanding of horses and our ability to communicate with them on their level, are there some horses we are never meant to ride?

 

In the course of the thousands of horses I have crossed paths with in my life I have certainly come across horses that were more difficult than others to work with. Among those I can recall, two horses (bred from the same sire) that I did start, but which I felt should never have been under saddle. They were both unpredictable and went through a few years of hell being passed from trainer to trainer looking for a solution. Eventually, the owner gave up and had them euthanized. With all the soul-searching that I did, the only explanation I concluded was that the horses were never meant to be riding horses. I can never be sure, but it seems to be the closest fit to explain their response to human interaction.

 

I realize it goes against the grain a little to think not every horse is destined to be a suitable riding mount. It seems unfathomable to think that a horse is not rideable. We grow up believing that surely if a horse had the correct handling they would all make good riding horses.  But when you consider how foreign it is to the nature of a horse to do the things we want to do with them and the practices we use to house, tame and educate them, it does not seem so far-fetched to me that there are some horses that are not born with the “right stuff” to fit into the mould we insist they do. The idea of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole comes to mind.

 

Bobby’s father put a lot of pressure on him to be a great soccer player. I know that Bobby’s life was made much harder by his dad’s dream. How many horses live in Bobby’s type of hell on a daily basis because our ambitions for them exceed their potential?

 

Pic: Not every horse is meant to be a riding horse. Some are meant to be beach bums.

Stop Before You Drop

There is a long established wisdom that goes something like “you should always leave a horse better off than you found him” or “always finish on a good note” or “don’t stop until you get a better change”. There are probably other aphorisms that you can think of along a similar vein, but you get what I am saying. For some, these are almost golden rules of horsemanship. I am not going to challenge the sentiment or intent behind these beliefs, but I am going to add a condition to them. In any particular circumstance, the degree to which we should apply this principle will depend.

 

Most of us understand the idea that training is aimed at improving a horse’s mental, emotional and physical state. If we don’t do that then training becomes rather pointless and we should probably just look at our horses from afar and enjoy the great outdoors. If a lesson ends with no more clarity than it began, not only has the horse learned nothing positive, we also run the risk of making things worse. Doing nothing is usually a better option than doing something badly. This seems just common sense and difficult to argue with. I certainly won’t argue with this principle.

 

But here comes the BUT.

 

I don’t agree that it is a golden rule. I don’t agree that the concept that we end each lesson better than we started is a MUST. I don’t agree that it is a mortal sin to finish a session before a horse has made clear progress. It certainly should be our desired intent to ensure a horse is better off at the end of a lesson, but we should not be married to this agenda.

 

Some of you will be wondering why I think this.

 

The first point to make is that every horse and every person has days where things just go wrong. Even after a really good session with your horse, you know there are some bad sessions in your future. Training is not a smooth progression and more like driving over a corrugated road (washboard for the North Americans) – lots and lots of bumps.

 

However, it is exceptionally rare that any of these bad days do irreparable damage that can’t be undone in the next session or two. Most screw-ups can be repaired if enough care is taken. I know this because, as a trainer, I have retrained a hell of a lot of horses that have been subjected to years of screw-ups, yet they always came through. It is one of the reasons horses are so trainable – their ability to let go of the bad stuff if you can show them a better way.

 

The second point is that when things are not going well a horse’s emotions become high and often the human’s emotions also become elevated. The more that anxiety and frustration raise their ugly heads the more they interfere with learning. It requires a cool head for a horse (and human) to search through their options and problem solve their way out of a difficult situation. If we don’t recognize the rising emotional state of a horse and try to push through the problems, we run the risk of pushing a horse into a reactive state where learning the “good stuff” becomes an impossible mission. Nothing positive can come from further work. The solution is to stop what you are doing and bring the emotions down to zero. Until the emotions subside there is no point in continuing. Sometimes this may require a short break and a quiet moment and sometimes it might be best to put the horse away for the day and return to fix it tomorrow. But the point is there is nothing to be gained by continuing until the horse transitions from a state of high emotions to low emotions. Stop the work and try again later.

 

Why do I say stop the work instead of keep working until the emotions transition to a state of calm and relaxation? The reason is that sometimes no matter how bad you think things are going they can always get worse. You might think your horse is not going very well and feel the impulse to try to help him feel better and have clearer clarity. But if it is “one of those days” or you are lost in how to help your horse make a change and the hole you are digging is getting deeper by the minute, it is better to quit when things are not good than to continue and push them into being horrible.

 

So now that I have explained why it is sometimes okay to finish a session without making things better for your horse, let me tell you that it is not okay to do it all the time. If we end a significant proportion of the lessons without clear improvement, we are dooming our horses to serious trouble. It’s easy to think that the one-hour a day we might work our horse gives the horse 23 other hours to recover. And this may be true if only occasionally we mess up in that one-hour. But if we regularly create trouble for our horse in that one hour and we don’t reverse the trouble by the end of the session, we have now created a pattern of trouble that no amount of recovery time will help.

 

In my book, The Essence of Good Horsemanship I use the analogy of a kid at school being bullied by another kid. If it happens only rarely (say once a year), the victim does not usually carry too much turmoil inside them and it gets shrugged off. But if the bully starts to pick on them regularly, after a couple of weeks the kid does not want to go to school and after a month he is picking on his little sister, talking back to his parents and getting in trouble with the teacher. The more the kid is bullied the more trouble grows inside of him. This can happen with horses too. It is not true that what happens in the arena stays in the arena with a horse. They will carry the trouble created in the arena everywhere they go if we don’t make sure their bad days are the exception and not the norm.

 

I believe we should approach every experience with our horse trying to make their life and our relationship better. However, sometimes this just won’t happen and it is better to finish a session early with a little trouble inside our horse than to continue and drag them kicking and screaming into hell in order to make something happen. There are very few instances in a horse’s experience that are so traumatic they cannot be undone with consideration and care. So don’t be fixated on making it a golden rule that you can’t quit a session with your horse until he makes a clear improvement.

 

Photo: This looks like some quality let down time for horse and rider that will help bring the emotions down to zero.

Clueless Horsemanship - 2nd Interview

Today is my second interview with renowned horseman and teacher, Ted Clueless from Clueless Horsemanship. If you are not familiar with Ted’s work, I recommend you read the first interview I posted on February 10, 2017.

 

Ted learned about horses from the knee of his father and his grandfather and his uncles. In fact, Ted gives full credit for most of his accomplishments to his dad and other family members and happily admits he comes from a long line of Clueless horsemen.

 

So without further adieu, here’s Ted.

 

Ross           

Welcome back Ted. It’s great to be talking to you again.

Ted           

Thanks Ross. You’re looking well. Eating well I see!

Ross           

I’m always prepared for a famine – you just never know when one will come along. What’s with the arm in a sling? What happened?

Ted

Aw, I was working with a young horse doing some clicker trainin and you know how young uns are – a little flighty and stupid.

Ross

Yeah, but what happened?

Ted

Well, I was usin the clicker to mark the YES moments and things were goin pretty well. The horse would give a good answer, I’d click and then I pull out a piece of licorice from my shirt pocket as a reward. It was all comin along real good until a bloody cicada started soundin off in the tree we were standin under. Click, click, click, click, click. The bloody thing wouldn’t stop. The horse thought every click meant he should get a piece of licorice and when he didn’t he started muggin me for it and attacking my shirt pocket. He went nuts. And that bloody cicada wouldn’t shut up. He nearly got me killed. I almost lost me left nipple And I’m rather fond of me left nipple – it’s me second favourite. It hurts just thinkin about it. Anyway, he tore the muscle in me left boob and the doc said I should keep my arm in a sling ‘til it heals.

 

I tell you mate, that bloody clicker training is dangerous. I’d thought I’d give it a try ‘cause people always rave about it, but you’d have to have a ‘roo loose in ya top paddock to give it a go – well, at least in cicada season.

Ross

Well, maybe next time you could try using a different sound. Instead of a click you could use a simple word like ah “cuckoo” as a marker.

Ted

Well then it wouldn’t be clicker trainin, would it? It’d be cuckoo trainin! That’s a bloody stupid idea. Who ever heard of clicker trainin without a clicker? People would think I was cuckoo.

Ross

Maybe we should move on to something else. What else have you been up to lately?

Ted

Been real busy. I recently taught me first colt starting clinic and last month I did a colt startin demo at the Horse Expo.

Ross

Fantastic. How did the demo go?

Ted

Well, to be honest not as well as I expected. Me cousin Morris (we call him More Clueless) was supposed to help out, but he had just harvested his crop of medicinal cannabis and had to try it out to make sure of his quality control system. Anyway, he slept through me demo and was no help.

 

Then to add to the problem, I’d forgotten me glasses and ya know I can’t see a bloody thing without me glasses. Well, I was going to start this nice lookin Quarter Horse in front of 500 people. I planned to work him first from me own horse, Red Fire. When I walked into the pen both horses were there waitin for me. Bloody hell, they were the same colour and same size and without me goggles I couldn’t tell them apart.

 

Well, to cut a long story short I saddled and got on the wrong horse. As soon as I sat down in the saddle I said to myself, “this aint ol’ Red”. And then she blew. Me brains got shook up like marbles in a tin can bein thrown down ten flights of stairs. It was ugly. But I managed to stay on until the horse had run out of steam and the broncking stopped long enough to get off. I jumped off like a gazelle on one of them nature shows before the horse got his second wind.

 

I didn’t know what to do, so I pretended everythin was perfect and goin accordin to plan. I made out that the buckin was just an act and me screamin like a little girl was part of the act too.

 

I then went and saddled ol’ Red pretending he was the unbroke one. I rode him around and he was like an old gentle kids pony. Everybody was amazed how I got an unridden horse to be so perfect on his first ride. So I think it finished pretty well.

 

Er, ya won’t put that bit in the interview will ya?

Ross

Absolutely not. Don’t worry. You can trust me.

 

So what do you think about these colt starting demos or even the colt starting clinics?

Ted

I reckon they’re great. Ya know, I can get 10 people to come along to a clinic who don’t have a clue -  ya might even say they are clueless (haha, excuse the pun). I get ‘em on their horses in a couple of days. They take ‘em home not really broken in and don’t know what to do with ‘em. Next thing ya know I get a phone call from them wanting to book ‘em in for 6 weeks training. It’s money in the bank. It’s brilliant!  I wish I had thought of this scam years ago.

Ross

But are you helping people and horses? Are they getting anything out of it?

Ted

Absolutely mate. My aim is to help people learn how to get along with their horse. It’s more important to know your weaknesses than to know your strengths. People are working on their horse, while I’m working on me. Horses are very special and it’s amazing how quickly they can change. Ya know a horse does not care how much ya know until he knows how much ya care. Believe in your horse so your horse can believe in you. Nothing is better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse. Do less to get more. The slower you go the faster you get there.  The horse knows if you know and he knows if you don’t know. A little persistence is better than a lot of insistence. There is never a silence quite so loud as a horse thinking. No matter how good or bad your day is it is always better with a horse in it.

 

Ross

Er Ted, Ted STOP! Please no more glitchy catch phrases. You are giving me a migraine. Do any of those sayings actually mean anything?

Ted

I dunno mate, but I reckon they must do ‘cause lots of trainers use them all the time and people flood to their clinics and pay a bucket load of money to hear them cute glitchy catch phrases.

 

I reckon I’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the average horse person.

Ross

Well, thanks Ted for your time. I think I’ve got all I can take for now. Once again it’s been interesting and made me question a few things, like why the hell do I bother and I don’t drink nearly enough for this job.

Ted

No worries mate. Anytime.

 

Photo: Some people think Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream (Norway, 1893) depicts a person screaming. But it actually shows a person trying to block out the sounds of the screaming in their head. That’s how I felt after my interview with Ted.

The Peculiarities Of Pecking Order

I write this essay with a little trepidation because I fear it can be confusing to understand. If you are interested in herd behaviour you might find this interesting, but otherwise I suggest you skip over this post. I think the topic is both fascinating and important, but it is a little in depth. So don’t say you haven’t been warned

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I first became aware of social hierarchy at high school. As I grew older I realized social ranking was a big part of having an organized society. In fact, I think almost all social animals have devised a system of ranking or pecking order in order to make their society work. But what did surprise me was that, unlike humans, some social structures are not linear. In human society, human A is above human B, who is then above human C and they are above human D  - it’s a linear hierachy.

 

However, I have noticed that among horse communities sometimes the social ranking is circular rather than linear. For instances, horse A is dominant over horse B, and horse B is dominant over horse C. However, horse C may also be dominant over horse A. In other words, A->-B->C->A. This almost never happens in human society. In the human world, human C would never be dominant over human A in this scenario.

 

I find the idea of a non-linear pecking order absolutely fascinating because I think it reveals something about the nature of horses that we don’t give enough consideration to in our relationships.

 

Let’s go back to think about humans again for a moment where human A->B->C->D etc. Given a specific scenario (eg office or school or sports club or home), the reason that human A dominates human B is the same reason that gives human A dominance over human C and over human D. Furthermore, the reason human B out ranks human C and human D is also the same, and so on and so on.

 

However, in a horse herd, the fact that horse A is higher in the pecking order than B and B is higher than C, but C is higher than A, suggests that the factor(s) that determine which horse is in charge is different for each horse. For example, horse A can chase horse B away from the food let’s say it is because horse A is tougher and more determined than horse B. Then horse B can chase horse C away from the food because it is tougher and more determined than horse C. Then how is it that horse C can chase horse A away from the food?  It doesn’t make logical sense that the factor that governs dominance in all three relationships is the same (tougher and more determined) if A->B->C->A.

 

So it appears that the factors that determine dominance in a horse herd are different than in human society and may even be different for individual horses. In fact, the most obvious explanation that comes to my mind is either horse C does not find the tactics used by horse A to dominate horse B stressful enough to cause it to yield OR horse A does not apply the same behaviourial tactics towards horse C as it used to dominate horse B.

 

So this is the really interesting part for me.

 

If this is true (and that may be a very big IF) it suggests the way horses figure out relationships is far more complex than many of us assume. I have been doing some reading on this subject and there has been a lot written on herd dynamics. But in all my reading I have only come across a couple of passing mentions of the non-linear pecking order that many horses display. Nobody has examined it in depth or tried to explain it. It has been treated in a fairly dismissive way from all that I have read.

 

But it seems there are two obvious questions arising from this observation. The first is to ask what are horses detecting when determining pecking order if it is non-linear? And the second question is how does this impact on the way humans and horses relate to each other? This last question may have implications for the way we train and interact with our horses.

 

I can’t answer either of these questions at the moment, however, I ask you to consider some reasonably common scenario that may be how this issue plays out in real life.

 

We know that some horses get along better with some people. I’m not talking about the difference between skilled horse people versus unskilled horse people. I’m talking about the stories of horses that get along better with women or the ones that do better with some men or the horses that are gentle with children but difficult to handle for an adult. In my training days, I had experience with horses that instantly took to my wife, Michele, but it took some time before I was able to get along with them to the same degree. Many years ago a friend brought her twin 4-year-old daughters to visit. I let them pat a horse, which instantly showed aggression towards one of the children, but fawned over the other in a nurturing way. I still don’t know why. What was the difference between the twins that the horse picked up on?

 

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea that I am trying to explain these interactions by giving horses some mystical powers of perception. There are many possible reasons why horses act the way they do with different people that have nothing to do with the way horses determine who is in charge. And I don’t want to give the impression that horses relate to humans in the same way they relate to other horses. In addition, I don’t know if a non linear pecking order exists in wild horses or if it is only a factor of confined domestication or dependent on herd experience in early life etc.

 

But I believe it is worth considering that there is something about the way horses decide the nature of their relationships with other individuals that are presently beyond our understanding and may be influential in determining how we get along with them. It gets even more complex if you consider the possibility that the factors that determine a relationship are personal to each individual horse and not a generic feature across the whole species.

 

One day we will understand how social structure in horse herds are determined and I think it will mark one of the most significant advances in horsemanship and contribute markedly to better relationships with our equine friends.

Timing and Releasing Pressure

To round out my last couple of discussions on balance and feel, I thought it appropriate to repost an article on timing. I recently posted an essay on the timing of the application of pressure, so this article is more about the importance of the timing of the release of pressure. I hope it is interesting enough to make the long read worthwhile. Cheers.
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This article is about the timing of a release of pressure when working with a horse. I consider this essay to contain some of the most important concepts every rider needs to consider. I hope you’ll think about some of these ideas.

I’m pretty sure most of you know that horses learn from the release of pressure. Learning for a horse does not come from pressure itself because the purpose of pressure is just to make life uncomfortable enough to encourage a horse to try something different that would provide comfort once again. When it does choose a response we want, we remove the pressure. It is the absence of this pressure that teaches a horse it chose wisely.

We all know this and it is drummed into us by just about every teacher we ever have. In fact, the importance of releasing the pressure at the right time is so important that it is common for novice rider’s to be screamed at by their teacher, “release, release, release,” when a horse makes a change. The emphasis is placed on the importance of releasing the pressure immediately the horse makes a change. Most people are taught (i) use enough pressure to motivate a horse to search for a response that we want, and (ii) completely remove the pressure the instant the horse makes a change. This is about all that people are taught and there is very little other explanation about when and how to release pressure. I believe the subject is much more complex than most people give any thought to.

Let’s start with when to release pressure.

Firstly, it must be understood that when it comes to training horses, learning only happens when they have a change of thought. If a horse yields with its feet, but not with its mind, a horse learns nothing from the exercise. Take for example when we ask a horse to halt in response to pressure from the reins. We increase the feel of the reins and the horse stops moving its feet. If we release the pressure from the reins and the horse continues to stand still, our reins have probably inspired the horse to change from thinking forward to thinking halt.

However, if when we release the pressure of the reins the horse automatically moves forward again (like when you release the brake on a car with automatic transmission) then there was unlikely to be a change of thought. In this case, the horse has not learned to yield to the reins with a change of thought and releasing the pressure just because the feet stopped moving did nothing to improve the situation. All we did was use enough braking pressure in the reins to impose our will on the horse to stop moving. But it was never its idea, just ours.

So when we say we should release the pressure when the horse makes a change, we really mean, “make a change of thought.” Without a change of thought there is no learning, therefore, don’t release the pressure until the horse’s thought changes.

This is a vitally important concept to grasp because it then gives a clearer picture of what is a well-timed release of pressure. As I said above, most of us are taught that we should release the pressure the instant a horse does what we want. Yet, as I have explained, often this may be the wrong time to release if the horse’s thought has not yet changed. We need to hold or even increase the pressure (or whatever it takes) until the horse has a change of thought. Then we should remove the pressure.

I want to add something else for your consideration that contradicts what many are taught. This is going to surprise you a little (if you haven’t already read about it in my book).

Even if we wait to release the pressure until the horse has changed its mind, it is not urgent that we release immediately. The timing of the release is dependent on how long a horse holds the thought we want it to have.

Let’s go back to the halt again. If we apply the reins and that inspires a horse to change it’s thinking from forward to standing still, we have until a new idea pops into the horse’s head in order to release the pressure. So if a horse thinks standing still for 5 seconds is a good idea, then we have a window of up to 5 seconds before we should release the pressure in order to have good timing. On the other hand, if the horse can only hold the thought to stand still for half a second, we only have half a second to release the pressure before our release is too late.

After we have worked out the timing of our releases, we need to give thought to the quality of a release.

For most people, a release is black and white; all or nothing. We go from using enough pressure to get a change to zero pressure to reward a horse for that change. As I see it, there are two problems with this approach.

To begin with, when we try to be clear that we are releasing the pressure we try to make it all or nothing. That is, we go from X amount of pressure to zero pressure in the blink of an eye. Often this startles a horse and snaps them out of the thought we wanted to them have. By being abrupt in the way we release the pressure we sometimes inadvertently interrupt their focus on the job and as a result, install a brace in our horse. We don’t mean to do it, but I see all the time horses that are bothered by the abruptness with which we release the pressure. So try to be smooth and not quick with how you remove the pressure.

The second part of releasing pressure is that by offering a horse X amount of pressure and then zero amount of pressure, we often lose the connection to our horse. Working with a horse is a constant conversation through our reins, seat and legs. This conversation is ongoing and should never cease. We ask a horse something and they come back with an answer or another question. Then we reply and they reply. It should go on and on throughout the ride. The conversation is by the back and forth exchange of feel (reins, legs and seat) between our horse and us. When we release the pressure completely, we lose the feel and the conversation. It’s like we hung up the telephone on our horse in mid conversation.

We don’t have to offer zero pressure for a horse to feel rewarded and understand the lesson. We do have to offer a better deal that feels more comfortable, but that does not mean we present no feel to the horse and kill the lines of communication dead. Reducing the pressure is still a reward if we have used the minimum amount of pressure to start with, in order to implant a new thought into a horse’s thinking. The softer a horse is, the closer we can offer a release of zero feel, but it should never become zero because we want to keep the conversation open.

In summary, an important decider in the timing of a release should be determined by when a horse changes it thought and how long it holds that changed thought before a new thought enters its mind. Furthermore, the release of pressure should be smooth and not abrupt and almost never should it be so big that there is zero feel between the horse and the rider.

Photo: I fear this woman has timed the release of her pressure quite badly.