The Role Of A Horse's Thought In Training

Stacks Image 2965

I want to write about what is essentially the basis of our philosophy to training horses - that is a horse's thoughts and feelings. I have talked a lot in the past about a horse's thought and it's importance in good horsemanship. But I am not sure I have explained sufficiently the principle and how to use it in training.

I can't emphasize strongly enough the importance of what I want to talk about. It comes from a culmination of years of working with horses and thinking about how they tick. It comes from long discussions with people whose experience and ideas I greatly respect. For me, what this article is about is the fundamental basis of what defines good horsemanship. In my opinion, an understanding of this topic marks the divide between those who ride and handle horses as if they are a utility to be mastered and those who are on the way to forming a harmonious partnership in the true sense with their horse.

A horse's thoughts! All horses have them. In fact, many of the problems people have with horses stem from the inability of owners to understand that very concept. For a horse to do anything it begins with a thought. Even the quickest shy begins with a momentary thought on the part of the horse. For a horse to do anything without some processing of the brain that involves recognition and decision making would require the response to be purely reflex. In animals with a sophisticated central nervous system - like a horse - spinal reflexes account for very few behaviours. Sometimes, the responses like shying or bucking can appear to happen so quickly that it seems like a reflex, but in reality that is pretty rare. If a horse's response was a reflex they could not learn to modify their responses. For example, if a horse was prone to shying so fast that it appeared that he could not have possibly thought about it, no amount of experience or education would ever allow that horse to change his shying response. This is because reflexes cannot be trained. But we know that is not true. Horses can and do learn to modify their shying behaviour. So such reactions, no matter how fast they appear to be, require some thought processing on the part of the horse.

Thought No.1:
“Everything a horse does begins with a thoughts”

Horses are not particularly talented at multitasking. It is hard for a horse to be thinking about one thing while doing something completely different. A horse is always trying to make his body do what his mind is thinking. The stronger his idea the more determined he is to try to make it work. For example, suppose a group of friends is riding down the road and one of the horses trots on up ahead. The other horses may not get too bothered by only one of the horses leaving the group to go ahead. The riders may have to pick up the reins a little to remind their horses to stay with the others, but that's not too hard to handle. Now suppose the rest of the group canters off over the hill ahead except one. There is a good chance the one horse left behind may want to go with the rest and if the rider tried to tell him to just keep walking they could end up riding a volcano that's jigging and jogging sideways the rest of the way home or until they catch up with the others. When only one of the horses left, the others had a thought to quicken their pace, but because there were still plenty of friends to keep each other company, the thought to hurry their feet was not a very strong one. But when all but one of the other horses went ahead, the horse that was left behind got pretty strong and you would have had to be getting pretty strong to stop it from happening. His mind left with his friends and he was trying to get his feet to catch up with his mind. If his mind had stayed with the rider, so too would his feet and he would not have tried to rush forward.

Thought No.2:
“A horse is always trying to get his body arranged to carry out his strongest thought”

This proposition can be observed in every moment that we ride or handle our horses. Another example is when a horse is working in the arena. Most horses (particularly in their early training) will be drawn towards the arena entrance. Their walk gets a little quicker when heading towards the gate and slows when walking away from the gate. When circling in the arena a horse may fall out on his shoulder on the side of the circle closest to the gate and fall in on the circle on the side furthest from the gate. Why? Because his thoughts are on the gate because the gate means end of work, unsaddling, back to the paddock and maybe feeding. Sometimes, the horse's thoughts are so strongly fixed to the gate that when the rider tries to force the horse away from it, he rears, pigroots or some other unwanted behaviour.

The photo above shows a good example of a horse trying to carry out his idea and resisting the idea presented by the rider. The horse is being asked to turn to the left, but you can see even though his nose is turned to the left and he is trying to push out to the right. See him looking to the right. If he was really trying to go left he would be looking to the left because he would thinking to the left.

One example that easily comes to mind is the case of when a rider picks up the reins to ask a horse to stop. The horse stops, but as soon as the rider relaxes the reins the horse starts to move forward again without being asked. It's like driving an automatic car. The moment your foot lifts off the brake pedal the car begins to roll forward. Sometimes with horses people ride with the brake half on in order to control the forward. The reason the horse goes forward when the reins are relaxed is because the horse's thoughts are forward. He is looking up ahead, he wants to be up ahead and his thoughts are to be up ahead. So when the reins are slackened enough to allow his feet enough freedom, his feet move in order to be in the same place as his mind - up ahead!

From everything I have said up to now I suppose you have guessed that next seed I want to plant in your minds.

Thought No.3:
“For a horse to make a change in what he is doing he must have a change in
what he is thinking”

If you accept proposition 2 - that a horse is always trying to do what he is thinking - then it seems fairly self evident that if you want him to change what he is doing, you first want him to change what he is thinking!

Let's look at some examples. The horse that goes forward from the halt when the rider relaxes the reins does so because his thoughts are in front of him. He is trying to go forward because forward is where he is thinking. In order to teach this horse to halt and stayed halted until he is asked to move the rider needs to change the thoughts of the horse from being ahead of him to be with him. How do you change his mind? Well, one way that might help is that when the rider picks up the reins and asked for a stop, and find the horse leaning on the rein (because he thinking forward), that they ask for a rein back. When you do this it is likely that the horse will be heavy in the hand because his mind is pushing forward and therefore his body will be pushing forward. Keep backing until there is a moment of softness where the horse is light in the hand and his feet are light on the ground. Why? Because you can be sure that when the horse changes from being heavy to light on his forehand that you got a change of thought in the horse. You'll find at that moment he will stand quietly on a loose rein for a little while until his thought changes again. This is just one approach to the problem, but it illustrates the point about getting a change in the horse's thoughts.

Another example comes to mind from a foal that I was working recntly for a client. I was teaching her to carry a rug for the first time. When I presented the rug to her she rushed forward in fear. Her thought was to flee the scary object. I allowed her to flee, but in a circle around me by holding onto the end of the lead rope. As she ran I kept presenting the rug to her until the moment she slowed her feet a little. That change from a big rush to a little hurry represented a change in her thought. At that moment I stopped presenting the rug to her and rubbed her gently with my hand. I then again showed her the rug and again she rushed forward. But very quickly she slowed her feet to a steady walk at which time I removed the rug. I got a change in her thought from one of fearing for her life to acceptance of a the rug by repeatedly showing her the rug. This change in her mind caused a change in her feet from a flee to a relaxed walk.

If I had handled the rugging issue or the horse that wouldn't come to a proper halt in a way that did not get a change in the horse's mind I would always be fighting with my horse to get him to do what I was asking. You see this often with horses. A horse may always lift his head when the bridle is presented. Some horses shy a lot when ridden away from home, but not on the way back. Some horses require the rider to constantly nag with their legs to prevent them from slowing up. Some horses always crowd the owner when they are carrying the feed bucket no matter how much the person tries to "shoo" them away. The list goes on. These are examples of what it is like when we only try for getting a change in how the outside of the horse is behaving and not doing enough to get a change on the inside - the horse's thoughts.

Thought No. 4:
“Before a horse can accept a new thought he must let go of an old thought”

This is probably self-evident, nevertheless we often don't realise that the problems we have with a horse are often the result of a horse not being able to release the thought that occupies his mind right now. Once he lets go of his present thought he is open to accepting a new thought. That's the time we can be most effective in directing his mind with a new thought and thereby get a change in the way he responds. Most horses don't have trouble accepting a new idea from a rider once they can let go of their old idea. The stronger the thought, the harder it is for them to let go of it and therefore, the harder it is for them to accept a new idea. This is why most of us have trouble directing a horse. It's not that the horse won't take on board our attempts at directing him, it's just that he has a hard time forgetting about the idea that he already has. You can see this any day of the week with horses that hoon around a jump course with the rider hauling on the reins with all their might to steady the horse before each jump. Or perhaps you have ridden a pony that would suddenly dive his head down to eat grass and all your strength was needed to get him to stop and move. The horse that pigroots regularly in the canter transition is another example of a horse who has difficulty letting go of his idea to make room in his mind for following a rider's direction. Humans are no different. We too need to let go of re-existing ideas we may have about things in order to accept new ideas. I'm sure some of you reading this will have difficulty accepting some of the notions I am proposing because they clash with ideas you already have accepted. But just like I try to do with my horse, if I am going to sway you towards my ideas I need to help you give up other ideas. Whether or not I am successful will depend on how strongly you hold onto your thoughts, the merit of my ideas and how convincingly I make my ideas sound like good ideas and worthy of your consideration. This is exactly the same process we need to take with our horses if we are going to establish a harmonious partnership and convince them we are worthy leaders and they should make a try.

And Yet Another Thought....

Earlier I presented the idea that every action that a horse takes is preceded by a thought and a horse is always trying to do what he is thinking. The key to building a partnership with a horse is to teach him three things. Firstly, he should be attentive to the rider. Secondly, when asked by the rider he should let go of the thought that he already holds. And lastly, he should then make his mind available to accepting a new idea presented to him by the rider. This process is what I call the ability to direct a horse's thoughts. In my view, this is a good definition of trainability. Once we can direct a horse's thought, the horse's posture, movements and maneuvers come easily because there is no mental resistance coming from the horse. You now have a horse with a "try".

So why is it so difficult to change and influence a horse's thoughts? To answer that, you have to look at training from the horse's point of view. A horse has no concept of what is the point or purpose of a particular exercise. He sees no long term benefit to training. But worse than that, a horse very often (in fact most times) views working with humans as counter productive to his safety and comfort. To add a human perspective to this idea, think about dieting. If a person puts themselves on a diet it is only because they view the long term benefit as being good for them. But in the short term, diets are not very pleasant and if people could not grasp the long term benefits, nobody would ever voluntarily go on a diet. In the short term, the hunger one experiences would appear to be counter productive to a person's safety and comfort.

Now back to the horse that has no longer term vision - only thinks in the here and now. A horse does not see the benefits in a square halt at 'X' or an extended trot across the diagonal or having his teeth rasped or being shoved into a tin can on wheels or having to go through a puddle when he can just as easily go around it. So since a horse does not automatically see such things as good ideas, he will be thinking of alternative ideas that to him are more conducive to his safety and comfort. If the horse thinks an extended trot is too hard, but a canter is easier, he'll do his best to canter. He'll think about cantering because that is a better idea to him. If a horse thinks loading onto a float or having his teeth rasped threaten his safety and comfort his thoughts will be on ways to avoid these dangers to his well being. This is where we often get into a fight with our horse and try to use force to shape his behaviour.

The problem with using force is that force does not get a change in a horse's thoughts. It only gets a change in what he is doing, but not in what he is thinking and feeling. Forcing a horse into behaving in a certain way, results in a mental and physical resistances, poor attitude and prolonged difficulties which damage your relationship with your horse. Force can be either instilled by out muscling a horse (just being physically strong) or with mechanical devices such as harsh bits, spurs, martingales, nosebands, side reins etc. I won't get into a discussion here about such devices because that is a whole other subject that I am sure could cause some very lively debate. The bottom line is that if you are not getting a change in a horse's thoughts and feelings, but you are getting a change in what he is physically doing, then you can be sure that you are using force in some form.

The tricky bit about being good with horses is learning how to get a change in a horse's thoughts. Again, let's go back and look at what motivates a horse's behaviour and see how we can put that to use for us. Horses are always searching for safety and comfort. It is the most important factor that dominates their thinking. When you go into a paddock to catch a horse and he keeps his distance and leads you are merry dance around the property, he is thinking that being caught will compromise his safety and comfort. To him, allowing a human with a halter in their hand to get close is not in his best interest. His motives are nothing more than that. But if you go into the paddock with a carrot, he may come right up to you when he realizes that you have a carrot. That's because he associates humans with carrots as beneficial to his safety and comfort.

Many of you have probably heard the adage, "Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult." It is mostly credited to Ray Hunt when he talks about training horses. Although, I believe Ray's words are wise, I am afraid that the interpretation that many of us place on this phrase is where we often get into trouble with our horses. Most people place emphasis on the "… and the wrong thing difficult" part. We try to make the wrong thing really difficult and sometimes almost impossible, rather than the trying to make the right thing easy. This is a very important principle when it comes to being effective in directing a horse's thoughts and therefore a good horse person.

If we ask a horse to do something and he chooses to try doing something different, it is because he either did not understand what we wanted or he figured that what we wanted was too hard and compromised his safety and comfort. So he chooses an alternative response to our request. We in turn try to make the wrong thing difficult for him. For this to work we have to make the wrong thing more difficult than the difficulty the horse perceives the right thing to be. Often we make the wrong thing an impossible choice in an attempt to make him choose the right thing. Now we have a horse that is stuck between choosing an unpleasant response and a horrible response. He may indeed choose the one we want (which is now only the unpleasant choice), but we have done nothing to make our idea any more pleasant and the horse's thoughts and feelings about our idea are still going to be resistant and searching for a better choice of safety and comfort. All we did is put the horse between a hard place and a harder place. He still does not think our idea is a good one and we have not helped him feel better about allowing us to direct his ideas. There is trouble brewing inside this horse even though he may appear to be doing everything we ask. That trouble will surface under pressure. That's why you often see horses that behave really well at home, but lose control when they go to a horse show.

I think rather than quote Ray Hunt, I would change the words slightly. "Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing less easy - but not impossible." Give horses clear choices! Don't make one choice so difficult that the horse would never make a mistake. Allow him to make mistakes and discover for himself that your idea is the easier, safer and most comfortable option. When this happens he will have more confidence in giving up his ideas and following your ideas.

A very good example of what I am talking about occurred a few years ago in Arizona when Michele and I were visiting Harry Whitney. A lady had brought an Anglo Arab gelding that seemed very quiet and almost bombproof. Harry arranged to do a liberty float loading demonstration where the horse would be presented to a float in a round pen and given absolute freedom to choose whether or not to go into the float. The owner had assured us that it would only take a few minutes because the horse was a dream to load and never baulked to go into the float on his own. The float was parked at the entrance of the round yard and the horse was loose in the yard with the owner sitting in a chair in the centre of the yard. The owner was not allowed to leave the chair nor was she allowed to direct the horse in any way. The only influence she could place on the horse was to whack the ground (not at the horse) with a lead rope when her horse was mentally looking outside the round yard or ignoring the float. Whacking the ground with the lead rope was not meant to direct the horse, but to get him searching to where would be a good place to be in the round pen. It was a type "warmer, colder" game that kids might play. After a few minutes the horse was parked at the ramp of the float just as the owner predicted. But the horse did not go in. Several times, he put one foot on the ramp, then pulled it back and ran around the pen frantically - as if he was totally desperate to find a way out of the pen despite the owner putting no pressure on him to do anything but notice the float. He was clearly conflicted between what he wanted to do and want he felt was being asked of him. Over and over the horse came back to the ramp and tried several times to make himself go into the float, but again and again the horse found it far too difficult to follow through with this idea when the human was not there to impose some restrictions on his choices. He knew he was supposed to go into the float, but his thoughts were that it was not in the interest of his safety or comfort. After thirty minutes the horse was in a terrible sweat despite the cool temperatures because of the inner tension he felt. After four hours and maybe thirty or forty attempts by the horse to go into the float without success, the horse finally managed to step all four feet into the float. But he immediately exploded out again. This was a fantastic demonstration of what the horse was feeling inside about going into a float, despite being trained to be an excellent float loader. The owner was blown away by the revelation that her horse was so bothered by the float and that she had spent all those years making him do something he felt so bad about doing. It was clear to her that her horse was so willing and polite that he would go into the float when asked despite the fact that she never got his thoughts to go into the float. His thoughts were for him to always try to be somewhere else.