Wouldn’t it be great if only our good intentions mattered and not our actions? Wouldn’t it be great if we only influenced our horses when we intended to, not ALL the time? As an instructor, trainer and barn owner, I am frequently involved in teaching people to notice their habits. I often see people leading their horses without regard to their positioning or how they are influencing their horse. At that moment, they are often not aware that they are even influencing their horse, and allowing incorrect habits to form.
We all know horses are highly social animals and in nature, live in a herd. As a result, having and knowing the social hierarchy is highly important to a horse. Their safety and possibly their survival, depends on it. As the human in our horse’s lives, we are part of the herd and have to be their leaders, whether we like it or not. However, as a leader, if we make bad choices or are ambiguous in our behaviors or direction, our horses will struggle to know what behavior we expect from them. In a simple scenario, when you take your horse in from the paddock, do you let him decide to go eat grass? Does he walk at a pace you’d like? Does he walk along next to you or does he crowd you, try to walk behind you or change sides when something bothers him on his right? In all of the above situations, if you don’t direct your horse, and follow through on your request, and show him what you want, (as opposed to punishing him for what you didn’t want), you are training him to have improper habits and that you are not a reliable leader. That also means he can’t trust your judgment to keep him safe, and that goes for riding too! Horses are experts at body language, they don’t make mistakes.
Their need for security isn’t limited to emotional or psychological, it’s also physical. If we put our horses in situations where they don’t feel secure, or we compromise their security then we will have difficulty in training. The horse that habitually shies or balks at things is displaying a HABIT that your diligent leadership affects. If he diverts his attention, reacts, THEN you react, you reinforce the spooking habit. The trick is to be a clear and confident leader to maintain their attention BEFORE they divert their attention.
Horses have memories second only to the elephant. That means what their behavior is, becomes habit forming. Horses do what they last did. An example of this that I’ve seen goes like this; the horse has an irregular rhythm, goes quickly, slows too much, goes quickly, etc. With their aids, a rider will say, “No, don’t go that fast…no, not that slow…NO, NOT that fast…NO, NOT THAT SLOW!!!!” But the rider never “said” what they DID want. Instead, they will have the thought or attitude of “Well, of course my horse knows what I want. We do it all the time!” Do you? Why should they? Or do you always accidentally slow down and speed up, HOPING you get what you want? When your horse comes out with an even pace, is it because you trained them to go with that even pace, or was it something the horse just offered up and you assumed they “knew” that’s what you wanted. Often times I’ll see someone expect a desired result, miscommunicate their intentions, and then punish the horse for responding incorrectly.
I often find myself helping riders to realize a horse doesn’t think conceptually. The concept of an even pace and steady rhythm makes sense to a human, but is meaningless to a horse. If it doesn’t give them security, food or water, it means nothing to a horse. Horses read body language and learn habits; THAT’S ALL! As the riders of our horses, we are responsible for all of their training to develop them into good equine citizens and pleasurable, confident riding horses. Horses are very easily trained. Training them to have good habits is hard, unless we are diligent, conscientious and educated ourselves. Re-training is always harder than training correctly from the beginning, since horses have such strong memories. You can never erase bad training, you can only give them additional, (better), training and hope it overrides the bad! Do the best you can to educate yourself about your horse, (and your own reactions), so you can have a pleasurable equine citizen, that has good habits that show he is happy and secure in his “relationship” with you, his trainer and leader!