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When it comes to horses, this question has always lingered in the back of my mind. The reason for it is that, while 95% of the time Sully is really laid back, and pretty well bomb-proof, even he has his “horse” moments. These moments typically arise when asked to do something he’d rather not, or when he’s already having a bad day. They also tend to be directed at non-scary objects, things that he’s seen and not reacted to a hundred times before, in places we ride frequently. I have a rule of thumb when out riding: if it startles me, it only makes sense that it would startle him, and I offer no consequence for those occasions. Startling things happen from time to time. Things like flushing game birds, deer popping out of the woods, gun-shots or loose livestock. Every equestrian expects them, and good equestrians always ride as though one is around every corner.
I’ve known people whose horses are constantly a nervous wreck, and one thing I’ve noticed is that these horses typically don’t act scared. They’re often tuned out from their people, independent, angry or disinterested. And the people are afraid of them, which only fuels the fire. Trainers and riding instructors are called in, endless arena and desensitizing work is done, and if the horse is truly afraid, much success is had. But many horses return to the bad behaviors as soon as their rider is left alone with them.
My theory? People teach their horses how to behave. If your horse is behaving badly, rather than chalking it up to a horse being
horse, take a good hard look at not only how you handle him from the saddle, but firstly how you handle him from the ground. Are you paying attention to every action and reaction? How do you react to a spook? Do you freeze up, get nervous, and leave the scary area? That’s what I did. Sully very quickly learned that he could intimidate me. A little jump, and suddenly, all cues stopped. His spook successfully broke contact, and he could do his own thing.
If a spook is for real, it lasts a 10th of a second.That’s it. It happens, we may stop and stare for another second, but then we return to whatever attitude we had right before it happened. If a spook is a ploy, the behavior drags out until the horse gets what he wants from you, usually a frightened dismount or a turn for home and the end of work.
I’m no trainer, so I can’t tell you how to proceed from that point. Every horse is different, every rider is different.
I stumbled across a book a few weeks ago on the clearance table at Tractor Supply Co. called Ride the Right Horse, by Yvonne Barteau. This impulse buy has changed the way I communicate with Sully, and therefore is gradually improving our riding experience. Yvonne and her husband, Kim, surmise that there are various personalities of horses, and each has a unique way of dealing with its environment. Through reading this book, I was able to pinpoint the type of horse I have as being an aloof-social type. Aloof horses are independent loners. They don’t like to partner with anyone, man or beast. They are not easily frightened, but they are easily overwhelmed. They can become over-stimulated by too much outside information, and when this happens, they simply tune out. Social horses love to be around everyone. They are easily taught silly tricks and don’t do well on their own. They rely on their herd for safety and company. If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “Well, gosh, an Aloof-Social mix is a complete contradiction!” Not really, though.
horses (Photo credit: willg willg.photography)
Sully shows definite aloof tendencies, and it comes out as the dominant personality. He’s content on his own most all the time except feeding time. He definitely tunes out my riding cues when something more stimulating comes along, like a cow or a sparrow in a bush. But he’s social on his own terms. He’s formed a bond with a few specific people, myself and my mother being the two main ones, and wants nothing more than to please us most of the time. That’s the social behavior.
The book states, too, that the aloof mixes are actually the easiest to train, and good for beginners, as their reactions to everything are typically pretty subdued. I have definitely found this to be the case.
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Riding him with this personality in mind, for instance, past those pesky pigs, I’ve seen a huge improvement in just two rides. Rather than increasing aids as he takes his attention off me and thus over-stimulating him and causing him to shut down completely, I remove all aids and wait. If this means we stand in one spot for a few minutes, that’s fine. After he’s had a little time to process the source of his fear, I start asking for an ear (acknowledgement) by lightly touching his girth with my heel, or picking up one rein. As soon as he acknowledges me, I remove the aid. Repeat, only this time, ask for a step, quietly, and when you get it, remove the aid. Allow him time to process each request independent from everything else.
This has worked amazingly. The first time, he proceeded to walk through the area with his neck low at a normal speed. No spinning. No blind backing. No crazy sidepasses. I really couldn’t believe it.
So this is the way we are proceeding, until it stops working. As for the spooking, the book confirmed my suspicions; when my horse
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spooks, he’s usually just breaking contact with me because he’s feeling overwhelmed rather than afraid, and now that I know this is what is happening, I immediately pick up contact again rather than freezing and removing all aids for fear of a bolt. So far, it’s doing the trick.
The real test will be this spring.