Have you ever had someone imply that you have issues and you need to change your behaviors, habits, etc.? We see it on TV all the time where talk show hosts have guests that have issues and their family/friends brought them to the show so someone could help them. Most times you see arguments, fights, and strong emotions when the people are confronted about their bad habits. If you’ve ever had that happen on some level, how does it make you feel? Let me guess… excited, thrilled, and overly enthusiastic that someone wants to see you change your ways for the better? Ha ha, kidding! When it comes to this topic, whether referring to horses/animals or people, the response when someone comes in insisting on changing us, we tend to get defensive on some level and so do animals.
I had a new trainer start to help me a while back. Great guy, very nice but I always felt uneasy, insecure and slightly depressed as well as anxious, when he’d help me. I couldn’t really figure out what it was until after I stopped working with him. I realize now that the feelings I had were because he was always saying he’d help me fix all the things I was doing wrong with the horses. Initially, I felt like an idiot that I must be so inept at working with horses that he needed to fix all this stuff about me and my training program. I felt like maybe I had no business training horses if I was that off base and needed that much help. lol. That insecurity just nagged at me because I felt like I wasn’t accepted and recognized for the way I was but rather I should have been someone better than I was. Well, long story short, once I saw the results he created, as well as the way he behaved in life, I wasn’t convinced that I was needing so much help after all. lol. I accepted that I was doing just fine where I was and that my current circle of mentors accepted me for who I was and always pushed me to dream bigger and do better but not in a belittling or criticizing sort of way.
When it comes to working with horses, I find the same responses in horses when the owners want to change them. Most people want to change a horse who is lazy, spooky, hard to catch, won’t load in the trailer, herd bound, ect. Often, in the beginning for sure, the horses get defensive about all the new rules the owner learns. The owners get discouraged by this and often get tougher on the horse or quit trying all together. I used to be in the business of “fixing” problem horses until I realized this phenomenon. It’s not about fixing anything in all honesty… its about having empathy and understanding for the behavior or actions of the horse and then self reflecting and acting in a way that is going to change how horses respond. Basically, when we change our approach, the horses change their responses. When we get firm or hard, horses get braced and tense. When we slow down and soften our approach, or adjust our cues and use of pressure, the horses soften and respond smoother.
The big 3 problems people want to fix in my practice are bucking, rearing or bolting. All three of these are flight/fight responses in the horse. The problem with trying to fix any of the 3, is you miss so many little things that caused the big things to happen. Without looking at all the little signs, and addressing those, you can’t fix the big problems. I have seen people punish horses for bucking, rearing or bolting, by going to extremes but usually that just causes a horse to shut down and not respond, we then assume we fixed it. The interesting thing with this is what happens when someone new and less experienced comes into the picture… when a horse is truly confident and understands the work being asked, they don’t behave badly…
Understanding that these 3 things are the result of a horse going into self preservation mode helps the overall approach. Once an animal is in this zone, they don’t rationally think or learn anything positive, and typically it just further adds to the trauma and damage to their confidence as well as ingraining more learned behaviors. By getting after a horse that bucks, rears or bolts, you only add more pressure to an already overly pressurized situation. Seeing the big 3 as valuable information rather than a problem to fix, will allow you to investigate the reasons why the horse feels threatened enough to self preserve for their safety.
The most common mistake I see and hear people make is saying the horses does the actions on purpose. They may call the horse stubborn, bad minded, counterfeit, etc. because they seem to behave so irrationally and at times its programmed for them to behave badly. Instead I look at how a horse acts as valuable information. Learning to read/feel body language and facial expressions really puts a damper on all the things we label horses being. When we miss the signs from the actions, body language and facial expressions, we only see the most obvious things which we label as the “problem”. But when you learn to read the subtle cues the horses give, you can slow down and help fill in the gaps. Same goes with people who struggle with major issues, look at all the little things that lead to the big thing. The nice thing about horses, is they are very honest. People only show you the stuff they want you to see and they can hide the rest inside. People are great at hiding how they really feel in order to be politically correct. Horses don’t fear judgement, therefore, when you slow down and listen, they’ll lay it on the table for you to see.
The more I learn to read horses, the more I see just how gentle they are even with all the baggage they carry. When we learn how to slow down and learn to understand what they are saying, the better we will get along. You don’t have to use harsh or forceful tactics to make a horse behave when you slow down, listen and understand what the horse is trying to convey. The more you slow down, listen to the horse, the horse will soften because he now knows, that you know, he’s struggling to cope with something. My goal is work with horses the way I would want someone working with me. Accept me for who I am, teach me new things, allow me to learn and process, encourage me to try even if I get it wrong and don’t punish me for struggling.
The difference between a job you love and a job you hate, isn’t about the job you do, but its who you do it for. Great leaders, encourage, accept and reward actions of willingly trying to do your best and as a result they bring everyone with them because they want to be there, they want to be in a positive and rewarding enviroment. 🙂