Why do horses perform a certain way for one person and a completely different way for another. Is it their history together? Is it one persons skill or ability? Is it luck? Or does the horse just have it in for one of them….
Something that has been happening for a while now is that people who attend my clinics come in and they say that their horse will not do something or is acting out in some way in a given exercise and I come over and go ‘ok show me or let me try’ and then miraculously the horse performs the task without hesitation… Why? What is this? What do I do differently to the owner in that exact situation? I certainly don’t whisper anything. Side note – I do talk to myself and my horses all the time, its perfectly normal to talk to your horses, If you do this also, don’t stress my shrink said it’s ok…
To try and answer this mystery I have done some soul searching and I believe the answer lies in part with the application, energy and belief. I approach every horse the same way, I always try and bring myself to the present moment, I breathe, I centre myself, then I approach and ask the horse with an unwavering commitment and confidence. I don’t force, I just ask with a very clear cue, I don’t muddy the waters through inconsistent body language and cues I try to be black and white, clear as day and present the option for the horse to answer the question willingly and then I release or reward as quickly as possible. Even when the horse reacts out in a negative way bucking, rearing, kicking, biting, not moving, etc. I just carry on and expect the best outcome possible will show up in a second or two and it usually does. One clinic attendee recently said, sure its easy for you, you have no emotional attachment to this horse, I said ‘what I have no emotions?’ She laughed and so did I and I said ‘I’m sure my wife would agree at times..’ But maybe she was on to something, she was right in saying I don’t have any emotional attachment as to why that particular horse can’t try in the present moment, I don’t give any excuses or energy to the 500 times before that when the horse had done something a certain way (leaning, running into the owner, or just not moving) I don’t have a build up of positive and negative experiences with that particular horse to make that horse think, maybe I could try and put it over him today, just like yesterday and the day before that. I just approach, clear in my mind and present what we are trying to achieve to the horse and you guessed it, it just happens. Maybe energy is the key…
Another example, I had a horse at a clinic recently and I was told it won’t canter to the right, and I said ok “why?” A great question and one not used enough when working with horses, just “why?”, The answer that came back eluded to a previous career the horse had and that he had only cantered on the left lead. So I said, “sweet, hop off and let me try” and you can guess what happened, the horse cantered on both leads around the exercise I had set up for the attendees without hesitation. Yes, I have ridden thousands of horses and yes I am a professional horseman, but I believe one of the major distinctions as to why these and other changes happen in a instant is that I am present and ask the horse to try for me with an unwavering confidence and commitment (my energy). No hesitation, no question, no excuses, no history as to why the horse can’t try for me, and more often than not, they try a little bit harder and do what ever it is we are asking. Ego check, many humans have figured this out and there are countless people around the world who can do incredible things with horses, all of which I believe have one thing in common, unwavering confidence and commitment and the ability to be 100% present in what they are doing. Unless the horse is fearful and acts out, this presents another opportunity to show the horse that there is no need to fear and then we take the time needed to comfort the horse and let them relax. Important note here, if a horse isn’t ready for something we stop, take the time that is needed to show the horse its ok, just try one step first.
I don’t believe there is an easy fix for this phenomena with horse owners, one big thing I help my students with in the first instance is stoping with the excuses (both their own and their horse’s) and just start expecting a little bit more. This doesn’t mean pushing the horse beyond its abilities or outside the ‘comfort zone’, simply asking them to try a little harder. This could be as simple as offering a cue in a different way or re-presenting the exercise or task, offering a breath out (both for the rider and horse) prior to trying again. Or simply suggesting a different outcome for your horse through letting them relax first then providing a physical cue or reward for the horse within the exercise.
So, if you are trying to achieve something with your horse, ask the ‘why?’ question first, this could lead you to the ‘why not’ or the ‘why they can’t’ answer and then reframe it in your mind and then ask the horse to try again. Ultimately, it could provide you with a new perspective, which will help you re-present the idea to your horse and hopefully make both you and your horse more comfortable and relaxed about the situation.
Food for thought – hope this helps.