I remember watching a Dr. Phil show one day when he talked about this very thing. This thing about having conversations that seemingly don’t matter, that way when it comes time, you can have conversations that do matter. You don’t just build trust by jumping into the big issues.
This has really been a big part of my journey with horses. Most horses I own and train have come with baggage. The baggage where they have big issues, dangerous issues, and quite frankly, most of them belong on Dr. Phil if they were human. I think the common denominator with all these troubled horses as well as the troubled people on his show, is communication. The ability to listen as well as the ability to communicate to keep these big problems from coming to life.
Lately, really in the last 6-8 months, I’ve become more aware of subtle body language that horses give. The subtle signals that indicate stress, fear, anxiety, confusion, etc. All of these subtle signs are the start to the problematic behaviors such as spooking, bucking, rearing, bolting etc.
Most people and trainers want to jump into fixing the problem by going after the problem itself, essentially they are going for the hard questions first. Some horses will surrender and hide their emotions to avoid the pressure. For example, a horse that bucks, some people would just hire a good bronc rider to “buck the horse out”. They are directly going after the buck rather than going back to why does the horse buck to begin with. “bucking a horse out” will work on some horses for a while, but on the ones that can’t hide their fear or worries any longer, “bucking them out” will only make their issues worse. Another one is spooking. A horse that is spooky, most people want to desensitize them to everything because they think that will cure their spooking. The real issue isn’t the spooking…
So, how do you have small, meaningless conversations with a horse? I have been starting by reading the subtle things. Things like a horse avoiding to be caught, a horse avoiding interactions with you, a horse freezing or tensing up when he’s around you, etc. When a horse shows these signs, I do nothing, I just hangout. Its a very hard thing for me to do on a patience level but also on a time level. A person paying for training may not like the idea that I am just hanging out with their horse. My own personal horses, I don’t care how long it takes, it is what it is.
I am finding however that the time I spend hanging out with them, is like having conversations that don’t matter. Its like talking about the weather, or what you did over the weekend or something like that, its sounds like nothing, but to the horse it means something, it means that not everything we do is going to require action from them.
This is also where ground work comes in. To most, ground work isn’t essential because they want to trail ride, show or have a working horse, they don’t have time to do ground work and most people don’t “need” groundwork because their horse isn’t dangerous. But groundwork is again another avenue that allows for small talk. With groundwork, you chip away at the small things like direction and speed which creates a level of communication. The more you communicate, the bigger and more important talks you can have later on.
So this weekend, is the last obstacle clinic of the year. In the past I have found that the obstacle clinics are the quickest to fill up. People want to bring their horse that spooks or hates obstacles or is generally unruly because of his “issues”… My goal during the obstacle clinics is to help people better communicate with their horses so its not a fight. Most horses that resist obstacles are horses that have been pushed to do the obstacle or horses that have built up negative emotions in the way they have been trained or handled. But when we break our training down to address the emotional aspect as well as the physical teaching of things, our horses will be better balanced. A better balanced horse will allow us to help him through the hard stuff. When the situations get hard, that’s when you know how good your relationship is with your horse. Does the horse look to you for help or does he take care of himself. Ultimately we want our horses to look to us to help him. We need to not let our horse down….