Every person has a natural behavioural preference. A way of doing things. That is anchored in our brains. A person is able to adapt this behaviour to whatever a situation requires. We behave differently in the supermarket, at work, at school or at home on the couch. In times of stress our natural behavioural preference always comes to the fore. If you have to adapt too often or for too long at any time, it takes energy.
These preferences can be divided into four types. We all have these four types in us, with one more strongly represented than the other. People who are dominant are bold, focused on performing tasks, but are quick to blame others if things don’t go as planned. Conscientious people are perfectionists and focused on details, but they set the bar very high for themselves. They are extremely critical of themselves when something goes wrong. You also have people who are very focused on others or on stability and harmony.
This affects the way you are with horses. A horse is a prey animal that lives in a herd. All his motives and reactions are based on that. If you frighten him, hurt him or he becomes insecure, he wants to flee. If you stop him it creates a sense of panic. He will want to run away, but that is not possible. In such a situation he is not open to learning anything, let alone that you can change anything that you think needs improving.
If a horse is frequently blocked from fleeing when something worries him, you create a state that behavioral scientists call “learned helplessness”. That is a kind of soulless subjection in which a horse does its work slavish and seemingly obedient, but without any “joie de vivre” (enjoyment of life). He shuts himself off to the outside world. He is far from that beautiful animal that works in harmony with his rider, with a happy and sparkly appearance. Yet you see it regularly, even with people who call their horse their “dearest friend” and seemingly would do anything for it.
Horses are herd animals by nature and have no problem following orders, even from us. Provided the question is asked fairly and without aggression, so they don’t get scared and provided they understand what you want from them. However, that can be a problem, because how do we understand each other? We are predators and ego driven. Status and how the outside world thinks about us is important to people. The horse couldn’t care less, but to us that’s a different piece of cake and you may not think about it every day, but it is part of the way we communicate.
Take away the pressure
Following orders is promoted, when a reward is in store. If certain behaviour or movements are rewarded according to the standards of a horse, he will repeat them. Unfortunately, this is just as true for bad behaviour. So, if he sees an opportunity to tear himself loose and disappear into a juicy green pasture, you can be sure he’ll try again. If he finds you scary, then leaving you is already a feeling of reward and he will want to repeat it.
Behaviour that yields something is repeated
For a horse removing something that he finds unpleasant is a feeling of reward. You should take that “unpleasant” very broadly. Pressure on his side with your calf is not painful, but reducing that pressure is a reward for him. Reducing pressure on the bit certainly feels like a reward to him.
Reward in this way is most effective in training, but it is important that you are aware of what you reward. It is not helpful if you unconsciously take pressure off of something you don’t want. A well-known example is a horse that reacts anxiously to the sound of electric clippers. If you turn it off when he spooks, you will teach him that the scary machine will go away if he reacts frightened…
Communication between people is not always easy. If you know that there are four types of behaviour with a different motive, you realize misinterpretation is happening a lot. We use spoken language with all kinds of words to argue, negotiate or mitigate something, but it is often unclear what our real intentions are.
Horses like simple language. They like black and white. They don’t do much with grey areas. That is why it is important to be clear and above all be consistent when dealing with horses. If you want something from him, always ask the same way.
Make sure you always respond to something in the same way. If you put your legs on to go forward and he doesn’t go, give that same aid a little harder. If he still doesn’t go, you may even have to touch him with a whip. If you do that consistently every time, he really will respond immediately to that first light aid the next time. If you’re sharp on one day and not so the next, if you’re tired or distracted, then how is he supposed to know what you mean?
As a human you are supposed to be the smarter of the two and therefore you have to adapt to a horse. If something goes wrong you can really assume that it is because of you, due to the unclear way of communication that we as humans have.
Make your life as a rider easier by always thinking about the natural motives of a horse. A horse really wants to work with you if it understands what you want from him, but it really isn’t his first preference. Even if you have a good relationship with him he really prefers to be out in the field with his friends.
Be clear and consistent. Reward the smallest successes and don’t wait until he gives you the whole Grand Prix program. Repeat those small steps until they are easy. One good step becomes two, then two becomes four and so on. If you or he is having a lesser day, take a step back. Make work easier and be satisfied with what is going well. If you act as a friendly leader he will trust you and do his best to understand you.
Don’t force him
If a horse does not want to cooperate with you it is in most cases because he does not understand you or he doesn’t trust you, which in turn comes from not understanding you. However, he may also be unable to physically answer your question. You should know this for sure. I absolutely do not like working a horse through something. Sudden changes in behaviour or something that he has always done well but suddenly no longer wants to do, are reasons for alarm bells and a visit to your Vet. Only if he indicates that there is nothing wrong physically, you can look further at what is lacking in the training. Forcing a horse with pain into working is animal cruelty.
Don’t think you can solve riding problems with a supplement or an expensive treatment. You won’t get a better shoulder in from a powder and there is certainly no such thing as a “quick fix” or a “magic word”. It is very human and contemporary to try to find such a quick solution. If you really want results you have to get to work with your body and your mind.
You are working hard, it was busy on the road, you fly into the stable to ride your horse and you have exactly one hour before you have to go to your next appointment. Your horse is in the field with his friends and there you come charging in, with an aura full of stress around you.
Another scenario: You love horses, you want to ride but deep down you find those big animals quite scary, but you definitely don’t want your friends to notice how scared you are. So you put on a brave face and you step into the field to get your horse.
I can think of a few more examples but I think my point is clear. Something is not going well here. Horses communicate non-verbally. They can read your body language better than any fortune teller and they mirror behaviour. You can try to hide your real feeling, but a horse will see through that.
People are not so aware of body language and that can cause a lot of confusion. Take the situation where someone walks backwards in a lunging circle, which is an invitation for a horse to follow you, while at the same time chasing him away with a whip… for a horse that is completely incomprehensible.
Even when you are in the saddle a horse is very aware of your mood. I am convinced that horses can show compassion. So, if you feel sad and you have a bond with your horse in many cases he will respond kindly and gently. Anger, stress, impatience or rushed behaviour makes a horse insecure or even afraid, which will cause him to want to get away from you.
In order to train properly you must have the right focus. That does not work with one eye on the clock. Whoever made up that a lesson lasts exactly one hour? Not the horse. Put your phone away. You should focus on your horse and not be half distracted when a message comes in. He deserves your full attention. You need your brain to think about what you are feeling, what is happening below you and what you can do to improve it. To find solutions that make it more clear to your horse what you want from him.
If you are in a rush, impatient or afraid, do not mount. Pay attention to him in a different way. Give him a nice grooming session, take him for a walk or do in hand work. Enjoy his company. It is easier to betray trust than to build a bond. It is really not necessary to train every day because you have a competition planned or because you think it is what you should do. Building a long-term relationship is the way forward.
• Behaviour that is rewarded is repeated
• Relieving pressure is experienced as a reward
• Always respond in the same way