Expectations

When we have a horse we have certain expectations that reflect something about ourselves.

 

What do we expect when we have a horse? How are those expectations shaped?

 

I know a woman who is an extremely good rider and has a lot of years experience with training and competing. I also know that when she is taking her horse to a lesson or show she allows an extra 15 minutes to load her horse into the trailer. She knows it will take between 5 and 15 minutes to convince her horse it’s time to load up and that’s okay. She doesn’t expect it to be any different.

 

I also came across a rider who likes to trail ride with her friends, but she has to stay vigilant because her horse is prone to kicking at other horses. She knows her horse is like this and has worked a way around it that ensures she still has friends that are willing to ride with her.

 

A well known dressage rider that I know is careful that on the day of competition there is not one glitch to her horse’s preparation before her event. If the day is too windy, she knows her horse will give a poor performance. If there is a distraction or loud sound before the event she will forfeit the competition.

 

I have known people that expect their horse will misbehave in public because they are stallions or mares in season or they have been eating spring grass. They get away with it by using leads with chains, anti-rearing bits, whips and other paraphernalia design to force a semblance of control on a horse. As long as they are 100% confident they can control their horses with such devices, their expectations are low about their horse’s behaviour.

 

I know a World Cup show jump rider that can’t rein back his horses, but that’s okay because a horse doesn’t have to back up around a jumping course.

 

People live with low expectations of their horses about some things, but not others. For example, the show jumper rider doesn’t care that his horses don’t rein back, but they must know how to perform flying changes with accuracy. The rider have told me that teaching his horse to rein back is more trouble than it’s worth. I find this very puzzling considering what a very basic maneuver backing up is compared to lead changes.

 

I have wondered why people will live with such low expectations of their horses about some things and not other. The conclusion I’ve come to is about how important it is to a rider.

 

The dressage rider that requires 15 minutes to load her horse into a trailer lives with it happily because she is 100% confident that her horse will eventually load. She can live with taking 15 minutes to load as horse as long he will eventually go into the trailer. But if she was only 50% confident of her horse loading I believe she would take the time to ensure he loaded in 15 seconds 100% of the time. Her expectations of her horse will change if wants to make sure she gets to every competition or lesson.

 

The same would be true of the trail rider whose horse kicks. If people refused to ride with her ever again because of the kicking, her expectations of her horse would also change. Suddenly it would become very important to her to teach her horse not to kick.

 

In short, it’s only when something becomes important to us that we place new or higher expectations on our horses. If we can get by while living with poor or mediocre behaviours and performance, then we don’t expect any more from our horses.

 

I believe that good horsemanship is about relationships as well as performance. This is why in good horsemanship everything a horse does and feels is important. In good horsemanship our expectations should be very high – on our horses and on ourselves. This means that we try to take care of all the little resistances and emotional turmoil our horse experiences. In good horsemanship we don’t accept that its okay if our horse kicks or our stallion acts like a petulant teenager or our show jumper doesn’t rein back or our dressage horse can’t handle loud noises and windy days. We see these things as signs of how well or badly our horses are doing. They reflect how important our horse’s okay-ness is to us. They tell the world whether how much we care about the horses and our relationship with them.

 

This brings me to why good horsemanship is important to the entire world of horses. When you attend a dressage clinic or a cutting clinic or a pony club day, most of the attention is given to a horse’s performance. It’s rare that the things that don’t immediately relate to the discipline at hand get any attention. How many dressage clinics help people with trailer loading or chewing on the bit? How many reining clinics help people with water crossing issues or chewing on the bit? How many jumping clinics help with rein back or chewing on the bit? Yet all of those issues are related to the performance issues the clinic is intended to address. They are interconnected because they each tell you about the focus, clarity and softness of your horse and the relationship that has developed. Nothing is separate from anything else or stands alone as an isolated problem.

 

Our expectations of our horses tell the world something of our expectations of ourselves. Every horse and every rider has issues – that’s normal and it’s okay. But to be content to leave those issues inside our horse is not being a good horse person practicing good horsemanship.

 

Clearly the rider had high (forgive the pun) expectations of his horse.


Reins Versus Rider's Legs

Often times people will bring horses to a clinic where the basics of listening well to the reins and the riders legs are pretty poor. Sometimes there seems so much to work on that it can be hard to know where to start.

 

It’s very common that you find a horse that has little interest in a rider or knows what to do. The shut down horse is a good example of this. But even if a horse is not shut down, it can still be resistant or ignore the rider’s cues through a diminished focus and/or clarity. You’ll find that a lot of horses exhibit this lack of education through being both resistant to the reins and to the rider’s seat and legs. Their buttons to go, to stop, and to turn are all broken.

 

The very talented riders are able to address a horse’s inadequate response to the reins and legs simultaneously. While working on one they are working on the other. But many people struggle to do both. Often when they are working on getting a horse softer and more responsive to the reins they inadvertently inhibit a forward response to the rider’s seat and legs. Likewise, in the process of teaching a horse to be more forward off the rider’s seat and legs they create more resistance to the reins.

 

How does this happen?

 

In the example of teaching a horse to be softer on the reins, people often use the reins to make up and down transitions. That is they either use one rein to bend a horse to a stop or to turn or they use two reins to block a horse’s forward movement. In either case, they begin by insisting a horse go forward. Movement becomes paramount because whether you are using one rein or two, standing still is not very useful to creating softness.

 

However, I often see people tell a horse to move, and then within a few strides they are applying the reins (one or two reins) to tell a horse either to not move or to turn. In a green horse, turn leads to slowing down because they do not understand how to engage their hindquarters with the same energy as going straight. So in a horse where the basics are not well established, applying the reins usually has the effect of either stopping a horse or slowing it down. If this pattern gets repeated it doesn’t take very long before the horse learns that it gets kicked in the sides if it doesn’t move and gets pulled in the mouth if it does move. Either way we make it hard for a horse to find a place of clarity and comfort.

 

When somebody brings a horse like this to a clinic, my personal bias is to help them focus on teaching a horse to be better on the reins before teaching them to be more responsive to the legs. Here is why.

 

I believe it is safer to ride a horse moving forward if I already have decent communication through the reins. The response to the reins do not have to be perfect, but life is much safer if when my horse does go I don’t have to yank and heave on the reins to slow him down, stop him or turn him. It’s like I feel a lot safer if I knew the steering wheel and brakes on my car worked fine before I worried if the accelerator was ok. In an ideal world, the safest option is to have both the reins and the go button working well, but if faced with a choice of one or the other I’m focusing on a better response to the reins first. This is choice I often come across at clinics.

 

If a rider decides they are going to get the forward button working well before they have a good response to the reins, things sometimes go wrong. The reason this can be problematic is that the way most people instil a forward response in horses that don’t want to go forward is to put a flee inside the horse. They drive the horse with either the rider’s legs or a whip or a voice or spur etc so that the horse tries to escape from the pressure of the aid. For a little while this can create considerable anxiety in a horse that the rider hopes to take care of later. But in the meantime the anxiety that the go button brings about causes the connection between the rider and the horse to be very flimsy, and results in any communication via the reins being even more difficult. In its attempt to escape the pressure to go forward, the horse’s mind leaves the scene and when the reins are applied nobody is home to pay attention.

 

However if a rider knows how to teach a horse to go with them when moving forward, rather than go forward with a flight response, then it’s a much better and safer approach to teach a good response to the legs and reins at the same time. But I figure this is not the case most of the time, otherwise the horse would not be in the predicament of resisting both reins and legs in the first place.

 

The last point I’d like to make is that when working on a response to the reins, we are also working on a response to the rider’s legs, and the other way around. This is because the resistance to both these aids often stems from the same place. The anxiety and/or confusion that causes a horse to ignore the feel of the rider’s legs is often the same anxiety that blocks a horse from listening attentively and softly to the reins. By improving one you are putting in place the elements that will help improve the other. Fixing the forward button won’t automatically fix the problem with the reins, but you are a long way ahead and visa versa.

 

Finally, I want to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with working on forwardness first if that is your preference. I am just expressing my personal philosophy that seems to work well for me. If you do it differently and do it well, then that’s just as valid.

 

This a photo of Nikaline from Maine working on Gabe’s response to both the reins and the rider’s legs. I’m keen to see their progress when I visit in September.

Horse Standing Still When Being Mounted

I have been asked about how to teach a horse to stand still when being mounted. The horse in question is an ex-racehorse and no doubt fidgeting and moving when a person prepares to mount is part of life for him. I’m sure the behaviour has been reinforced so many times that moving is the only way the horse knows how to respond when somebody tries to mount. I’ll get to what to do about it in a moment, but I want to emphasize that nobody should get on a horse that is moving. It’s just dangerous and unnecessary. Having a horse that stands quietly to be mounted should be a training priority for everybody.

 

When I was starting horses for people, I can’t recall having a problem with horses that didn’t like to stand still – even on the first ride. I think this is because it was important to me that a horse feels mellow and relaxed in the work. If a horse didn’t feel this way before I mounted, I wouldn’t try to hop on board. It told me I had more groundwork to do to prepare a horse better. It’s why we do groundwork.

 

Trying to fix the problem before it becomes a problem is a much better solution than allowing the issue to develop in the first place. Everything we want to do with a horse is done better if the horse is emotionally relaxed and has a ready, quiet mind before we ask. But so much of the time we wait until a problem arises, then chase after it to fix it. So if you want to avoid your horse developing a problem of standing still when you mount, prepare the horse better with groundwork to improve focus, clarity and softness.

 

But what if a horse comes to you with a history of fidgeting when a rider attempts to mount?

 

First, let’s assume this is a training issue. For the sake of not turning this into a 30 page treatise let’s assume the problem is not due to a bad saddle or sore back or rider jabbing their toe into the side of the horse etc. Let’s assume a horse has just learned that moving works out well for him.

 

Again, I would prepare my horse well enough to ensure it was relaxed and comfortable before I even attempted to mount. The first thing to check is where are my horse’s thoughts. If my horse was thinking to be somewhere else, chances are that’s where he will be trying head. If he wants to go back to his paddock or wants to escape the cyclist coming towards him, I will have to compete with those thoughts. If his thought to be with his mates is stronger than his thought to be with me, then chances are he will move his feet in that direction when I try to mount or at least the second my bum hits the saddle, So my first job is to ensure my horse’s strongest thought is with me – he’d rather be here than anywhere else. Once his thoughts are with me and it feels okay to him, the job is done. He will stand quietly for as long as he is emotionally soft and his primary thought remains with me.

 

There are a few horses that walk away when being mounted because they either believe that is what is required or because it has been going on for so long the behaviour is now habitual, such as the ex-racehorse I mentioned earlier. The reasons that originally began this behaviour may not even be a factor now. They just walk away because they have been doing it for so long the habit is now instilled.

 

You can watch dozens of videos on YouTube showing how to handle this problem. For the most part you see when a horse attempts to walk off, it is driven around on the lunge or driven into hindquarter disengagements or being backup at high speed or some other form of chasing. I expect the principle being applied here is another misinterpretation of “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.” In short, these types of approaches are nothing but punishment for moving. It’s true a horse will quickly learn to not move when a rider mounts, but that’s because it dare not move. It’s putting a horse between a hard place and a harder place. Nowhere in this scenario can a horse feel okay. It’s like instead of rewarding somebody for their work, you punish them if they refuse to work. Lots of stick and very little carrot.

 

Instead of driving a horse around, ask them to yield to an idea and wait until they feel softer. For example, if a horse walked off when I tried to put my foot in the stirrup, I might step back on the ground, pick up the inside rein and ask for a hindquarter yield. I would not drive the hindquarters around, I would just hold the inside rein and wait for the hindquarters to yield. Even when the feet moved I would continue to wait until the horse was focused and felt soft in my hand. This represents a change of thought from the horse’s idea to leave the scene to being with me. When I apply a feel to the inside rein and wait for softness, there is no punishment. It is simply asking the horse to follow a feel and wait until the movement of the hindquarters becomes their idea and the resulting softness indicates they feel okay about it. That’s the change worth having – not having them stand still because they dare not move for fear of being driven again.

 

The last thing I want to say is in regard to people who use the reins to apply the brakes when they mount a horse. This usually comes in the form of either a rider shortening the rein for contact while they mount or flexing a horse’s neck to the side when mounting. If the reins are needed to prevent a horse from walking away, then you haven’t got a horse that wants to be with you. You may be able to physically prevent the horse from leaving, but his thoughts have already left before you put your foot in the stirrup. You have no justification in boasting that you have a horse that stands still when you mount, if you use the reins to stop it from happening. If I can’t mount a horse with loose reins and a straight neck, then I know I have much more work to do.


Size Versus Size

I want to discuss a topic that gets very little intelligent discussion. Talk on this topic is mostly made behind people’s backs and is often no more than biased criticism. Let me state now that if anybody makes a comment that is childish or disparaging to other people their comment will be deleted, they’ll be sent to the headmasters’s office and may incur a suspension.

 

I want to talk about size versus size. I mean the size of a rider versus the size of a horse. Although, this is not a topic that is often openly discussed intelligently it is an issue for very many people. The subject lacks good information and is most often only discussed in disparaging terms that make some riders feel bad about themselves. I believe this is not helpful.

 

I’ll state from the outset that I do not agree that big riders cannot be great riders. Proof for this view comes in the form of a very talented horsewoman, Lee Smith. Lee is a first class trainer and rider, and is a large person. Anybody who watches Lee working horses will have to agree with my view that a person’s size does not have to limit their ability to ride and train horses well.

 

Most people see large people on short horses and are concerned for the horse. However, a horse’s height is not necessarily a factor in its weight carry capacity. Many draft ponies such as Highland, Fjord, Halfinger etc can carry as much or more than their taller cousins. A more relevant factor is the weight of the horse because this takes into account the density of bone, muscle mass and size of the girth or barrel of a horse – which are more important factors in determining the carrying capacity of a horse.

 

It’s hard to find too many facts on the subject of size versus size. There has been a long held view that a rider’s weight should not exceed 20% (or one fifth) of a horse’s weight. You’ll find some old cavalry manuals state this. That means if a horse weighs 500kg, the rider should weigh 100kg or less.

 

A study in 2008 showed that the ideal rider’s weight was between 10% and 15% of a horse’s weight. If the rider weighed 25% of the horse’s weight, some muscle soreness and damage was observed along the horse’s back. Riders that weighed 30% of their horse’s weight caused significant soreness in horses.

 

However, there are several factors that were not considered and which can mitigate a horse’s tolerance for carrying weight.

 

Horses with short backs are less likely to develop soreness than those with longer backs. A horse’s tolerance for carrying weight is related to the conformation of their backs. Short coupling and well-set hindquarters provide a horse with a greater ability to carry a large rider with comfort. Most people who ride performance horses already know this.

 

Secondly, a horse with good muscle development and topline will more readily be able to resist back soreness caused by a large rider than an unfit horse with undeveloped topline. Horses with a sway in their back need more care than horses with flatter toplines and wide barrels.

 

Another factor is saddle fit. Making sure the horse is carrying a well-fitted and balanced saddle is even more important than normal when the rider is a large person. Damage from any little pressure points will be magnified with increasing weight of a rider.

 

A big factor in a horse’s weight carrying ability is relaxation. A horse with tension in its topline will inevitable become sore quickly, irrespective of a rider’s weight. But the larger the rider, the quicker and more severe the soreness will develop. This factor is a no brainer. It is important that we all work our horses towards being as soft and relaxed as possible in order to maintain comfort and soundness. It is no less important for horses with large riders. A horse with a tight topline will very quickly develop a sore back.

 

The way a larger person rides is arguably one of the most important factors in keeping a horse sound.

 

When a rider’s weight borders on what a horse can comfortably tolerate for long term soundness, they need to maintain a good position that puts them as closely aligned to the centre of gravity of a horse as can be. A horse’s balance point and a rider’s balance point need to be as close as possible, if not overlapping. It means not riding like a sack of coal, keeping quiet in the saddle and following the horse’s movements with our seat.

 

Lastly, I have noticed that many of us (including myself) lose their flexibility and athletic prowess as we get older and gain more weight. As much as I resent my body letting me down as I age, I have to accept that I will never again be the Adonis I once was. Nevertheless, I try to maintain my flexibility and strength because my work demands it. Simple exercise is slowing down my delapidation. I can mount most horses without the need for a fence or mounting block. I am able to move and adjust my position in the saddle easily. I can still move my feet pretty quickly when a horse pulls hard on the lead rope. And I can still put my socks on each morning while standing.

 

If I can do those things with a little regular exercise and stretching, then so can anybody else - carrying extra weight or not. It is important to both the horse’s well being and the ability to ride well that a big rider maintain core strength and flexibility to go with their horse, while still being relaxed in the body. It just takes a little effort.

 

The bottom line is that a large person can be a good rider without harming their horse. It’s a good idea to think about the 20% rule when choosing a horse. But if you are riding a horse that is small for your size, making sure your horse is fit and relaxed, use a well-fitting saddle and maintain a good riding position and flexibility in order to ensure long-term soundness. It’s nothing more than every rider should keep in mind.

 

This photo was taken of Lee Smith at clinic she did in Scottsdale, Arizona about 8 years ago

Biting

I’ve had a request to write about horses that bite people from a friend of a woman who owns such a horse. I am told the horse is not too bad when ridden, but can be quite cranky when being handled on the ground and has already bitten its owner several times – one time resulting in a large haematoma. The owner believes the horse is “quirky” and following her instructors suggestion she whacks the horse’s legs with a riding crop every time the horse looks like it might bite.

 

Before I begin, I want to make the point that although I will be discussing the problem of biting specifically, the principles I’ll be raising may equally apply to many other behaviours such as ear pinning, kicking, pawing, wood chewing etc. There is a commonality to many behaviours we see in our horses and few things exist in isolation.

 

It is true that most biting occurs during ground handling, but I have had come across horses that will attempt to bite a rider. So biting is not exclusively a groundwork problem.

 

I don’t know the horse at all, so I can’t say if the horse is quirky or not. However, biting at people is almost never a personality disorder. It is triggered by bad feelings erupting into action. I have never seen a “happy biter”.

 

Most biting develops because a horse feels frustrated with how to deal with the stress of pressure or what is being asked. Usually a horse bites when it is conflicted with what it feels it needs to do and what the handler wants it to do. The answer to resolving the pressure a handler puts on them is elusive and in their search to eliminate the pressure they might try biting at the source of their problem. They would do the same thing to another horse if it were the cause of their dilemma.

 

When a horse first bites a person, it is a normal reaction for the person to jump back, release the pressure, rub their injury etc. When we do this we give the horse a momentary release from the pressure – enough of a reprieve that within a very short number of repetitions the horse learns the benefits of biting. Soon it becomes a habit that pops up whenever there is enough frustration to trigger the behaviour. Biting is no more than a horse’s way of trying to get a better deal for itself when a handler isn’t listening to them.

 

The least imaginative, but most common way, of fixing the problem is to punish a horse for biting. I have encountered people who will instantly smack a horse in the mouth or make them back up a million miles an hour or whack them with a whip (as in the case of the woman I mention). Punishment never resolves the problem. Hitting a horse may eventually teach it to stop biting, but the ill feelings have not been resolved and still lay inside the horse. Those feelings will need to be expressed somehow in the form of some other unwanted behaviour. Suppressing the biting is not the answer.

 

In addition, a horse will learn to be wary of a person who inflicts punishment. It destroys trust and confidence in a person and ruins any chance of a good relationship between horse and human.

 

I’m not suggesting that people accept being bitten as being okay. People should protect themselves from the severity that a horse’s bite can inflict. Some of you might remember reading the Story Of Satan, where the horse had the habit of reaching around to grab my leg and fling me from the saddle. In that instance, I protected myself by wearing cricket pads while riding.

 

At clinics I usually tell people to be alert and prepared for when they see their horse moving to bite them. As the horse reaches for the person, block the bite from happening with an arm or hand. Do something to prevent the horse’s mouth from making contact. However, if a person is late and they get bitten, then rub the wound, say ‘ouch’ and forget about it. Be more vigilant next time. Don’t seek revenge on the horse. Once it’s happened, it’s over, forget it.

 

The real solution to overcoming a horse’s biting habit happens on two fronts. The first is to clear up the confusion and frustration that evoke the bad feelings inside a horse. If those feelings don’t occur, neither does the biting. This is a big picture issue. It’s not a matter of doing a series of exercises to counter the problem. Eliminating the feelings that cause a horse to want to bite means always making sure you work with a horse’s focus, offer it absolute clarity of what you are asking and always end with a horse feeling better and softer at the end of each task. For those that are unsure what I mean, I can recommend an excellent book on the topic of focus, clarity and softness called The Essence Of Good Horsemanship by Ross Jacobs – I’ve heard whispers that it is pretty good.

 

The second course of action that is applied hand-in-hand with the first is to deal with the habit of biting. Once biting has become a habit, the habit needs to be re-shaped. Good timing and good feel are very important here. It involves seeing the idea of biting forming in a horse’s thoughts and interrupting those thoughts before they evolve into action. It means being aware that a horse is thinking about biting and substituting that thought with another thought.

 

For example, if I am leading my horse and I notice a sideways glance in my direction, a tightness around the eyes and mouth and a little change in his responsiveness, I might ask my horse to turn right or back up or yield the hindquarters or trot forward or pick up a foot or look to the left or lower his head. It doesn’t matter what I ask him to do. It only matters that it gives him something else to think about other than leaving a bite-sized impression in my forearm.

 

Because my horse was thinking about biting me, when I ask him to do something else inevitably there will be some resistance and maybe even crankiness. I will continue to ask my horse for the new thing until the resistance is replaced with a softer response. It’s only when the horse offers a softer response can I be sure that he has let go of the idea to bite me and taken on the thought to follow the feel I present with the new task. I have substituted the thought to bite with a new thought. If I stop asking before my horse is softer, I know there has been no change of thought or emotions, and my horse has learned nothing from the exercise. There is no learning without a change of thought. In order to be effective, this process requires vigilance and consistency on the part of the handler.

 

Some horses express their inner feelings through biting. If this becomes a habit, we have to look at our approach to training that is causing this behaviour. Happy horses don’t bite people.