Horses give accurate feedback. They always do. Unless we train them to believe they are not allowed. It takes time to discover how to communicate effectively without taking away a horse’s voice, and it is hard work. I understand why most people don’t train this way. It means digging deep to uncover how I become interesting and engaging to a horse, and to add insult to injury there is no one way because every horse is unique. I can’t interact with highly sensitive Huey (pictured above) the same way I work with Peppy, the master of conserving energy. They are completely different from one another, with completely different history, background and ways of responding. I must be able to adapt – horse to horse, moment to moment.
It took a long time for me to let go of my interpretation of what it means to train horses. I had come to believe that the only way I can be safe around them is if I enforce certain ground rules. I interpreted what I was learning to imply that by allowing horses to express their opinion, they would take advantage of me, and likely hurt me. Over the years of rehabilitating horses with behavior problems and lameness, I came to realize the opposite might be true. That restricting their ability to express themselves puts both myself and my horses at risk. Now I see everything my horse does, or does not do in response to me, as information. It’s nothing personal, they are not plotting against me. Their actions and behaviors are simply information that helps me determine how a ‘training’ session unfolds.
Most often, lack of apparent cooperation when we endeavor to move together, stems from a lack of clarity, or lack of consistency on my part. Peppy and Kastani are absolute masters of energy conservation. They simply will not waste time and energy guessing what I might want. They wait patiently for me to find clarity in my movement, and consistency in how I make requests. When I do, they jump right in with great enthusiasm, participating with all their heart. It took a while for me to find that clarity in myself. To feel strong, confident and committed.
It’s easy to forget that horses notice every tiny nuance of body language. The more consistent I am the better. We may experiment in the beginning, discovering what movements, patterns, figures, entice a given horse. Once I know that when I do this movement or gesture my horse does that, I can repeat it, and reliably get the same response from my horse. We now have our fist dance step. The smallest changes in my position, posture, tone, and energy influence his actions. It means I can’t be at all random or mindless.
When I get a handle on my own movement it allows me to make conscious, intentional decisions about every single step. More, every single nuance within that one step. My goal is that when I step my horse steps with me. Not because I reinforced him taking that step by escalating pressure or giving him a cookie. He steps with me because I offered clarity in my request, and allowed him time to research for himself. He needs time to explore. He not only has to experiment to discover what I want him to do, but engage in internal research to discover how to coordinate his body to execute the movement I have in mind.
A horse that learns he’s allowed to explore and take a little time to figure things out ends up really enjoying our interactions. Not only that, but how he responds gives me extremely valuable information. If he does not fluidly move when I move, I check in with myself first, making micro adjustments to my posture and position. One small adjustment, then pause to see how that change influenced my horse. Then one more small change and so on, until I discover the piece I was missing. Often those micro adjustments provide the last bit of clarification he needed to move. There are, of course, many times when the problem does not originate with my request. He might be unsure and I just need to add a little energy to encourage him he’s on the right track. More often, there is something going on physically, mentally, or emotionally preventing him from following my suggestion.
When I discover he’s having difficulty because something is blocking his ability to follow my lead it affords me an opportunity to help him. By assessing where the blockage might be and offering bits of body work, or changing the movement pattern to help him free up, I let him know that I care, I’m listening, I value his input in the dialogue, and I’m here to support him so that our time together gives as much to him as it does to me. I make it as easy as possible for him to join in the dance and feel good about it!
Believing that I have something of value to offer my horses, that interacting with me can enrich their lives, and that they might actually want to spend time with me is key. I think so much of what we are taught about horse training stems from a belief that if a horse were given a choice they would always choose to hang out with their friends, eating grass or hay, hanging out in the shade. And it’s easy to think that way when I haven’t done anything with my horses in a while. It takes a bit of persistence for them to break out of their routines and give me a chance. If I do my job right, then they enjoyed our dance enough they are more interested the next day, and even more interested the next. Little by little we build on this mutual enjoyment of shared movement.
Little by little my horses feel encouraged to respond accurately to my suggestions. Their feedback guides me to better myself at the same time it shows me where a problem might be brewing for them. If we allow them, our horses become our best teachers. All that’s required is that we remain open to their feedback and trust that they give accurate feedback!
Above all, remember to enjoy the dance!
Live workshops focused on the human side of the conversation with horses coming in September!
September 6, 7, 8: Symposium in Fruita, CO – Foundation workshop for anyone interested in learning how to remove roadblocks to effective communication with horses. The foundation workshop focuses on removing our own road blocks so that we can help our horses.