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.

Disgraceful Bucking

A few days ago a friend asked me a question.


“Is it a disgrace if a horse bucks and squeals on the first saddling?”


“Disgrace” is a pretty strong word and I don’t think I would use it to describe the situation, so let’s go with the word “bad” instead.


I don’t think anyone would argue that it would be preferred if a horse did not feel an urgent need to buck and squeal. We would all like to think that the first time a horse was saddled was a virtual non-event – sort of just the next thing to do and no big deal. This happens a lot and if the preparation is right the response to being saddled for the first time is more of a whimper than an eruption. But sometimes times a horse will throw a tantrum or display a strong degree of negative emotions.


So is it bad if a horse does buck and squeal? As you might expect the answer is not a simple yes or no. It’s complicated.


Firstly, we could rejoice in the fact that the horse expressed its true feelings. It’s not always possible to assume that just because a horse did not behave badly that it did not feel bad. Sometimes a lack of animation when a horse is saddled for the first time can be a sign of suppressed emotions rather than okay emotions. You can’t be sure if the horse feels comfortable or is shut down. However, if a horse does throw a tantrum you can be pretty confident it is not shut down, which is a good thing and highly desirable.


On the other hand, if a horse does buck, squeal, rear, run panicked or freeze when saddled for the first time, it suggests that not enough was done to prepare a horse for the experience. Something was missing in the lead-up work to ensure the fear and anxiety was under control before saddling. Most horses can be gradually introduced to the idea of wearing a hunk of leather on their back and having it strapped firmly to their midsection with stirrups banging on their sides, in such a way as to minimize the stress that the first experience may induce.


However, there is a big BUT to this.


Most lead up work to preparing a horse for saddling involves ‘approach and retreat’ type methods where the stressful experience is introduced in increments and then removed the instant the horse shows signs of relaxation or acceptance. The trainer approaches with the pressure and then removes the pressure before the horse has a meltdown (there are various ways of doing this, which I won’t go into here). In this way, a horse adapts to the feel of the saddling and learns to accept it.


But the difference between the preparation training for the first saddling and the actual first saddling is that in the build-up training pressure is applied by ‘approach and retreat’ principles, whereas the first saddling utilizes a ‘flooding’ technique. In flooding, the pressure is applied and not removed until the horse gives up and the dust settles. This is an important difference because with repetition of the approach and retreat methods a horse learns the pressure will go away and comfort will be returned. But with flooding, there is no relief or comfort because the pressure from the saddle is not going away until peace and calm return to the world. It’s just the way it is when saddling a horse because the saddle can’t be removed and the pressure can’t be removed until the trouble is sufficiently quelled to remove the saddle.


Some horses will panic and buck when they realize they are stuck with the saddle and it is not coming off just because they appear worried. This could mean that in the preparation work the horse never became okay with the saddle, but instead, the horse had learned to just hold it together because we had taught them the saddle would be removed in a moment or two. That’s the difference between a horse accepting the saddle and tolerating it. For many horses in this position, it almost becomes a necessary evil to have a bucking fit in order to learn to become okay with carrying the saddle. It’s unfortunate, but I believe there are a few horses where a tantrum is necessary before they can find acceptance of the saddle.


In my opinion, even though we would prefer a horse did not buck and squeal when we first saddled it and did everything we knew how to do to prevent it, that’s not the biggest sin we can make. I believe the “bad” (or “disgraceful” as my friend would say) thing is if we were not aware it was going to happen and it caught us by surprise. If we didn’t see the trouble building, then we have some self-examination and self-improvement to do. After all, we can’t help a horse feel better about being saddled if we can’t even detect how it is feeling. The secret to avoiding a meltdown is to prepare a horse before the meltdown happens and this can only happen if we are aware of the volcano bubbling underneath before it erupts.


So I am less concerned about a horse bucking and squealing when saddled for the first time than that a person may not be aware it was going to happen. If you are aware the buck is inside a horse there is a chance you can do something about it before it happens. If you are unaware of the trouble there is a good chance you won’t see the buck the next time and the time after that and the ill feelings may continue for several sessions.


Is it a disgrace if a horse bucks and squeals on the first saddling? As I said, it is complicated.


Photo: Lorena is preparing Forest for saddling by introducing the feel of a rope around his midsection to mimic the pressure he will experience from a snugly fitted girth. Note that Lorena can apply or remove the pressure from the rope to accommodate the emotional needs of her horse as he becomes more comfortable with the feel.

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.