The Real Horse

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When Michele and I were training horses for the public owners would often recite a list of habits and problems that had observed in their horses. One lady even came with an A4 sheet of paper where she had listed all the things that she couldn’t do with her horse. Everything from touching the ears to being able to clip the legs straps of the horse rug was on the list. It was a long list.

But a lot of the time owners would come to watch their horse being worked and say something like, “he’s never done that before.” The most common scenario was to see horses that were easily caught at home, being hard to catch when they first arrived at our place. Almost inevitably owners would tell us their horse was always easy to catch and they can’t understand why we had difficulty catching him.

But it showed up in other situations too. Sometimes their quiet, easygoing horse at home would be fractious for the first few days with us. Sometimes he wouldn’t stand quietly to have his feet trimmed or was highly distracted every time they saw another horse or heard one calling out.

A lot of the time these were just normal settling in problems while a horse became use to the new environment. But also a lot of the time people misread the horse they had at home and became fooled into thinking that is the real horse.

The real horse is very often not the horse you have at home. Most times people are dealing with a horse that relies on the familiarity of home and the routine that goes on at home to feel okay. We can all get along pretty well with our horses when the sun is shining and the birds are singing. But it is an illusion to think this is the real horse inside your horse. The real horse is the one that appears when you take away his buddies, remove him from the familiarity of home, change the routine of where and how you ask him to operate. Then you get to see the horse that is truly lurking inside. You only really know what’s inside your horse when he is in pressure situations.

When people use to tell us that, “my horse never did that at home,” I always knew that they were relying on the familiarity of home to keep them safe and their horse manageable. Many owners are reluctant to expose their horse to pressure situations for fear of bringing out the beast that is inside. They rely on the environment to get along okay with their horse. They often don’t realize they are doing that or that is the situation, which is why they are often genuinely surprised that their quiet little Flossy is not really safe enough for granny to ride. But there are constant hints about it too, like the how he handles windy days or spring grass or other horses galloping nearby. These things will often give an indication of what is bubbling away inside a horse.

If we want to know what lurks deep inside our horse there are few alternatives but to put them in uncomfortable situations. It is foolhardy to keep depending on avoiding pressure moments in order to ensure nothing goes wrong. Eventually something will happen that is out of our control and then we will have nothing to work with to help get the horse mentally and emotionally back with us. By stretching the comfort limits of our horses we can incrementally tap into the trouble dwelling inside and help him feel less troubled. The trouble won’t go away by ignoring it and hoping nothing triggers it that will bring it to the surface.

As trainers, Michele and I worked hard at helping client’s horses become more comfortable and less troubled in confronting situations. I know that if a horse can be settled at home, if he can be easy to catch at home, if he can tolerate a variety of situations at home with calmness, he can also learn to do it in strange places, with strange people and strange situations.

It’s easy to be fooled into thinking you have a horse that’s easy to handle and enjoys working with you if you never test his tolerance of new and challenging situations. We think how he behaves on cold, windy days or when there is fresh spring grass are just an aberration and not something to concern ourselves with because he’ll get over it. But those scenarios reveal the true nature of the relationship we have with our horse – not the adorable, quiet and accommodating relationship we have when there is peace throughout the land and birds in the trees are singing their sweet melodies of joy. Don’t dismiss the bad rides or the trouble we have in new situations because they are moments when we can really help our horses and make a big difference to our relationship.