Respect is a word that is thrown out there when it comes to relationships. We don’t interact the exact same way with everybody we encounter. Some people we develop a high level of trust and respect and others we may be polite but have little to no trust or respect for them. We develop our respect for someone by seeing, hearing, and interacting with them in a fair, consistent and generally positive fashion. We lack respect for those who are dishonest, flaky, unpredictable, etc.
Working with horses works exactly the same way. I find there are two parts to working with horses. First is the Respect and trust aspect, second is the educational aspect. For me, training a horse is about mentally and physically educating the horse. Mentally, the horse needs to be trained how to learn. The horse needs to have that respect and the trust with the person in order to feel safe and comfortable with the education process. Skipping the mental training can create some major behavioral challenges down the road where a horse is so overwhelmed, frustrated, shut down, etc. that they will do whatever it takes to escape.
The respect and trust of a horse is built through lots of little interactions. Every time you interact with a horse you are either training him to have good habits or you are teaching him to have bad habits. If we are consistent in our behaviors, whether good or bad, our horses will reflect out habits. There is a saying that horses are a mirror to our soul. Calm cowboys have calm horses and nervous cowboys have nervous horses. The more we learn to recognize our behavior in our horses behavior, the better the relationship becomes.
The most challenging part for me when training horses for other people, isn’t the horse problems and it isn’t the people problems, its the issue of getting the owner and the horse to be on the same page. Most problem behaviors in horses stem from poor owner handling. The owner may allow a horse whether consciously or unconsciously, to behave poorly thus resulting in a build up over time.
When working with a horse, my first goal is to work on teaching the horse how to learn, how to cope with little bits of stress and basically how to think rationally rather than irrationally. Its a process of keeping little things from sliding by. For example, a horse that wants to stand really close to you or push on you while leading, that is a behavior that when left unchecked can result in an insecure, spooky, distracted, unwilling and generally unsafe horse.
Another very important thing I want to stress is learning how to communicate with a horse. The primary means of training is through the use of negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is not a negative thing, it simply means that you apply pressure to ask a horse to do something and release the pressure when he has done what you like. For example, when you want to horse to turn right, you pick up on the right rein, when the horse turns you release the rein. A lot of bad habits are formed from doing the opposite. For example, when a horse doesn’t want to lead, he stands and locks up, a lot of people want to get in a tug of war match with a horse. This results in the person getting tired and quitting the tug of war before the horse moved forward. This little interaction taught the horse that if he just stands there, the pressure will eventually go away. Instead, keep tension on the rope and walk off to the side pulling the horse off balance a little and he walks forward, and you can then release the pressure.
In summary, its very important that we learn how to effectively work with our horses. Trainers can educate the horse, rehabilitate problem behaviors, but its your job to earn and maintain the respect of your horse when work with it. It about being aware of every interaction and making sure you aren’t giving your horse mixed signals of expectations. Horses know when you know, and they know when you don’t know based on how well you can communicate with them. If your communication skills are poor, your horse won’t be able to understand you and he will run the show.