Don't Make Work Something To Dread

I have horses because I like them. I ride and teach because I like horses. I trained horses for people for many years because I like horses. I see them either as friends or as friends-to-be that need help.

 

It’s because I like horses that I care as much about the emotional welfare of my horses as I do about the way they work. I don’t want work to feel a chore to them. I don’t want my horses to feel work is a grind and something to dread. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how I can make the challenges of riding and training something that we can willingly do together with minimum stress and zero drudgery. To me, that’s as important as any of the cool stuff I might be able to teach them to do.

 

That is why training that deliberately sets out to make work seem like a burden to a horse, confuses me. I am not kidding. There is a lot of mainstream training that is purposefully designed to make a horse hate work. It is derived from the old adage of “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.” I first heard this at a Ray Hunt clinic very many years ago, but since then it has been incorporated (in a corrupted form) into the teaching of a lot of trainers – both popular and unknown. I can think of a handful of trainers who largely base their entire approach to horse training and teaching along those lines.

 

The first time I was aware of this was at a clinic in the 1980s where the trainer was helping an owner load a horse into a trailer. The horse refused to take more than a couple of steps onto the ramp, so the trainer backed the horse out and lunged it in circles at high speed just outside the trailer. The horse whirled around and around for a few minutes and then was invited to load into the trailer again. The horse walked about half way in and stopped, so the trainer backed it out again and began sending it around like a satellite orbiting at the speed of light. After four tries at loading the horse, it finally stepped all the way into the trailer. Everyone was impressed at mission accomplished.

 

In another example about 6 years ago, a visiting clinician was assisting a fellow whose horse had bonded to another horse in the group. In order to help overcome the separation issue this created, the trainer had the rider allow his horse to wander of its own free will towards its buddy. Then on cue from the trainer, the fellow picked up the reins and applied leg to put the horse to work in close proximity to its friend. He worked his horse hard for several minutes, until the trainer told him to point his horse to the opposite end of the arena to see if the horse would willingly walk away from the second horse. The horse went a few steps and then drifted back towards its friend. The owner was instructed to make the horse work hard around the other horse once more. After about six or so repetitions of this exercise, the horse would finally walk to the end of the arena without looking back for its friend.

 

Then, of course, there is the all too common liberty round pen work where a horse that won’t be caught or hook on to a handler (or join-up) is chased around the yard until it decides being with the person in the middle is less stressful than being run around the perimeter at speed.

 

There are many more examples I can quote, but they all have one important thing in common. Their effectiveness in changing a behaviour relies on using work as a punishment for the responses we don’t want.

 

I am not saying that such a strategy is not effective in changing an unwanted to a wanted behaviour. It clearly works when it is done well. However, I believe there is a price to pay when we use work as a punishment.

 

I never want my horse to hate its job. When we want a horse to see work as something we do together and it feels okay, how can a horse distinguish when it is meant as a punishment and when it is meant to feel like two mates sharing a satisfying experience? How is a horse expected to feel comfortable about being lunged for balance and focus and also feel uncomfortable about being lunged for not loading into a trailer? How is a horse expected to feel okay about being directed around a round yard to build focus and relaxation and then feel bad about it when it doesn’t want to hook on? How is a horse that is looking for safety in another horse expected to feel good about us and working with us when we use work to trouble a horse?

 

I believe there is a lot of merit in the philosophy of making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. But the concept is applied too often too broadly and without an appreciation of the negative consequences of using work as discourager of behaviour. The risk of this approach getting in the way of a good relationship with a horse and a horse’s willingness to work is too high a price for me. There are alternative strategies that can be applied that don’t have the same negative consequences. These can be tried and experimented with if only people would not be so lazy and think a little more about the health of their relationship with their horse and less about creating obedience.

 

Photo: Running a horse in a round yard to convince them hanging out with people is a good deal is not the best formula for a good relationship in my opinion.

The Power Of The Inside Rein

I want to briefly talk about the inside rein (I know, you probably don’t think I can talk about anything briefly!).

 

The ability of a horse to soften in response to a feel from the inside rein is arguably one of the most powerful tools in the training of a horse. It is because of its ability to alter a horse’s thoughts that the inside rein can influence the lateral flexion of a horse, relax the top line of a horse, connect to the inside hind leg and via all these mechanisms it can mediate the balance, straightness, and softness through the entire horse. The inside rein is like the Swiss army knife of correctness when riding and training a horse.

 

Yet, despite its importance, it is rare to come across a horse that does not resist the inside rein. This resistance comes in various forms. Most people think of a resistance to the inside rein as a horse that leans on the rein. Often this is true. Many horses add to the heaviness of the rein when a rider applies a feel. But it is not the one and only form of resistance. Sometimes this resistance presents as lightness on the rein, but a brace across the top line, a leaking to the outside, a tightness in the hindquarters and lack of activity of the inside hind leg. More often than not these issues appear together or in various combinations.

 

When a horse stops resisting the inside rein and yields mentally to the feel it is amazing how straight, balanced, calm and soft a horse can become. But when the yield is purely a physical giving to the pressure there continues to be resistance in the way a horse moves. This is because a mental change affects the whole horse in a physical way, whereas giving to the rein pressure generally results in only a partial evasion of the pressure in that part of the body that the horse feels  the most discomfort or in need to escape from discomfort.

 

It can be hard to feel the difference between when a horse mentally yields or when it physically evades the inside rein. To the novice rider, they can feel the same. Most times when a horse is physically evading the inside rein they will flex their neck both vertically and laterally to avoid the discomfort of the bit. To some, this can look pretty and feel great because the horse feels light. But to a rider whose is aware of feeling the whole horse, from mouth to hocks, it becomes apparent when there is a superficial change on the outside of a horse and when there is a mental change to the inside of a horse. This aspect of feel is not something riders can appreciate and usually remains theoretical and confusing until the first time they feel the difference. Then it is often a cathartic experience that changes everything about their understanding of correctness in a horse. It’s a skill all riders should develop as they progress.

 

I read an article recently about the importance of a horse learning to yield to the outside rein. It was such an interesting article because there was almost no mention of the importance of the inside rein and getting that right. But even more importantly there was no mention of a mental yielding. The emphasis was only on how the outside rein affected the shoulders. Whether you want to argue which is more important, outside or inside rein, the value and effectiveness of the reins will always come back to the ability to get a mental change in a horse.

 

Nevertheless, for me, this all begins with an appreciation of the power of the inside rein to influence both a mental and physical okay-ness in a horse. Until that’s in place, it’s hard for a horse to be anything more than a polite robot. That’s why for many years to come students at my clinics will have to suffer me yelling at them to “get him to soften to the inside rein.”

 

Photo: I said inside rein, not inside rain!

Winners - Caption Competition

We have two winners of the Photo Caption Competition. Both came up with the same caption, so Lorena Russell of Equitainment.com.au has kindly donated a prize each to the value of $30 for them.

 

Catherine Lloyd - Wales, UK

Kim Gibson  - Queensland, Australia

 

Thank you everyone who entered.

Horses And Friendship

Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman were great jazz clarinetists who headed two of the most popular American big bands (dance bands) of the 1930s and 40s. In an interview in the late 1950s, Artie Shaw was asked his opinion of Benny Goodman. In a very ungracious mood, he said, “Benny Goodman played clarinet. I played music.”

 

A young Aussie trainer I know recently wrote to me about his horse. I have met his horse and at the time I quickly appreciated its intelligence and sensitivity. Yet getting along with the horse has been elusive for the trainer. The horse does what it is told, but has a low tolerance for being told. The horse is a great example of one that does not hide its contempt for what humans have to say. Despite the trouble, the owner loves his horse and sees its potential, but is frustrated by his inability to inspire a relationship of mutual trust, confidence and enjoyment.

 

My friend and I have discussed some of the horses he has been working for clients and it is clear he is doing a good job and even helped horses that other trainers had given up on. He has become quite skilled at getting things done and helping horses feel okay or even happy about it. But regardless of the growth in the trainer’s skills and understanding of good horsemanship, the problems with his own horse persist. It’s as if his horse says, “Okay, I’ll do it, but don’t expect me to like it or even be nice to you about it.”

 

This is what I had to say about my young friend’s dilemma in a recent email.

 

“I’m glad you are seeing Billy’s potential. I liked him from the start but wondered whether you were suited for him because of your fixation with getting things done. I believe he has a lot to teach you about getting along with a horse. I feel that the horses you’ve been working for your clients have been brilliant at teaching you to help a horse get something done and be okay about it. But Billy could teach you how to be a friend to a horse and not just a rider or trainer. There is a difference, and not many horse people are open-minded enough or aware enough to know how to be a friend. I am hopeful Billy could be that horse for you.”

 

I think there is a difference between being a good trainer and a good horse person. Most of us measure our training skills by the effectiveness of what a horse can do. There are plenty of people who are good at what they do, but just because a trainer is good at what they do does not mean that what they do is good.

 

If we are lucky a horse or two will come along in our life to remind us of that. They will reveal our weaknesses and flaws as friends to the horse. They will show us that being an employer is not enough. Even having focus, clarity, and softness to a high level is not always enough.

 

So what makes a person a friend AND a good horse person instead of just a good horse person alone?

 

I believe it is sensitivity to a horse's need to feel their concerns are important and catered for. When we present a challenge, a horse only feels the need to ‘try’ if they have learned it works out well for them over and over again. This happens because we prioritize their feelings and never betray them. It’s only then that horses learn to trust and feel confident in our presence.

 

But more than that we need to become part of a horse’s life. Most of us interact with our horses when it comes time to work with them. However, in that way our relationship becomes work one like colleagues that share a job. On the other hand interacting with a horse outside of the work scenario and becoming an intricate part of their life changes the relationship from employer/employee to friendship status. Spending quality time with horses as they go about their day is an important part of developing a great relationship.

 

I know this experience. I know it is possible to be a friend to a horse. I know it's real. I’ve had this type of relationship with a small number of the horses in my life. I have previously told the story of my horse, China who was able to lead me to water and back twice a day when I lost my sight while trekking in the South Australian wilderness. I was able to hold his tail while he negotiated through the thick bush to a creek; he waited while I washed my body and bathed my eyes, and then led me back to camp. He did this every day until I recovered, even though he had not been trained to lead while being held from the tail or to wait while I bathed or take me to water. In my blindness, I trusted his judgment and he did more than he was ever trained to do.

 

Then there was the time a small herd of brumbies (feral horses) stormed into camp during the night to take my horses. Despite breaking away and being free to follow, Luke and China both stayed nervously by the camp as the brumbies disappeared into the darkness. Or the occasion we were trapped in a bushfire and the horses jumped a crevasse to enable our escape. Then there was the first time I asked China to jump over a person standing up. Not forgetting when China was bitten by a snake and was very sick through the night. I stayed with him all night but I eventually fell asleep. I was awakened at dawn by his bristles nuzzling of my face as he laid down beside me to sleep and recover.

 

I can tell a dozen or more stories of events that confirm to me that being a true friend to a horse is entirely possible even though most behaviourists would find an alternative and more rational explanation. But friendship is difficult (if not impossible) to define and friends come in a variety of forms and serve different purposes in our lives, yet we categorize them all under the umbrella of friendship. So who is to say that when a horse offers something above and beyond their training that it is not a friendship?

 

I believe my young trainer friend has the potential to know his horse as a friend and not just a possession. But even if it doesn’t happen with Billy, I know he wants it and if he wants it he will work hard enough to eventually know it. Like Artie Shaw who did more than just play the clarinet, my friend will one day do more than just ride and train horses.

 

Photo: Arties Shaw (left) and Benny Goodman (right)

Photo Caption Competition

Sharpen your wit and channel your inner Oscar Wilde for the photo caption competition to beat all others.

 

Lorena Russell from www.equitainment.com.au is generously offering a $30 gift voucher for the cleverest caption to accompany the photo below. Submissions should be suitable for children.

You can send your best to me: rossajacobs@yahoo.com

The deadline for entries will be 5pm Sunday November 20th Australian Eastern Summer time and will be judged by Michele Jedlicka. Her decision will be final – as always.

 

Thank you Lorena and thank you Michele.