Step By Step
People often ask me what they should do about a training or behavioral difficulty they are having with their horse. It is difficult for me to provide a helpful answer because I can only make suggestions unless I see the horse exhibiting the behavior and the rider or handler's response to it. This is because when I look at the horse, I usually see something quite different than what the person has described to me.
And with so many different training "methods" out there today, coupled with advice given by friends etc., it is no wonder people are confused about the best way to sort out difficulties with their horses. With this in mind, I decided to establish a way for people to work through the problem themselves by doing some detective work. But instead of beginning by focusing on the horse, I suggest beginning by focusing on yourself.
1. Change thyself first
You are 50 percent of the relationship between you and your horse. Most of the problems I see between people and horses are caused by people. We all carry mental and emotional baggage with us, which often gets in the way of how we deal with people. It also affects the way we work with our horses.
In fact, horses frequently mirror us. For example, how many times have you seen a tense, nervous horse ridden by a tense, nervous rider? Or a slow, distracted horse ridden by a slow, distracted rider? If you want to change your horse's behavior, put yourself in your horse's place and ask yourself what you would do to change the behavior in yourself.
Does your horse have trouble focusing on the task at hand? What would enable you to focus better yourself? How about breathing exercises to help you relax. How about addressing pain that you have in your body? Does your horse have temper tantrums? How would you address your own anger? By pin-pointing the cause and then finding a way to resolve it? How about impatience? Could you find a way to look for the joy in every moment rather than wanting to quickly get on to the next thing? By addressing these issues in yourself first, you will gain a greater understanding of the cause and possible solutions for addressing the behavior in your horse. So when you notice a behavior in your horse that you would like to change, first try changing the behavior in yourself even if you don't think you need to.
2. Through a magnifying glass
Carefully observe your horse, looking well beyond the issue at hand. Start by examining your horse's daily routine. Check into everything he is eating--hay, grain, grass and water. Talk to your vet or feed dealer about their quality and appropriateness for your horse.
Go over your horse's body very carefully looking for any new lumps, bumps or asymmetries. To do this, stand your horse squarely on a level surface. Look at your horse from all angles and compare his right and left sides to see if they match. You can also stand up on something behind your horse and look down at his back, also comparing one side to the other. Carefully examine the fit of all of your tack, especially saddles and bits. If you don't know how to tell if your saddle or bit fits your horse, talk to someone who does.
Have someone else lead, lunge or ride your horse so you can see how he moves and carries himself. Watch other horses move too, for comparison. Observe horses who are not having the troubles your horse is having. In what ways are they like your horse? In what ways are they different? Is there a day or a time that your horse's behavior is worse? What is different about those times? Consider the other horses around your horse. Could your horse be learning a new behavior from a buddy?
3. Making connections
Now that you have made some observations, you have probably learned some things about your horse you never knew before. You are now ready to do some deeper investigation. Try to connect the things you have observed. For instance, if your horse is bucking in canter, could the fact that his hindquarters are asymmetrical have something to do with it? If your horse is out of balance when you ride him shouldn't you check to see if he is shod in a balanced manner? If he is biting could it be that he has pain from a stomach ulcer because of a poor feeding plan? If your horse has had a sudden change in behavior could it be that he had a reaction to an inoculation? I once had a mare who had a reaction to a penicillin shot which set up soreness in her neck that lasted for months. Talk to your farrier and your vet about your horse's behavior and what solutions they might have. My horse, Magic, has been much calmer since I removed corn from his diet. Allergy tests, which my veterinarian recommended, showed he was allergic to it.
4. Habitual patterns
The next thing to look at is the relationship between you and your horse with an eye on habitual patterns. Have you ever found yourself at odds with your horse over and over about the same thing, say a difficulty getting the right lead in canter? And even when you try hard not to get into a fight about it, you do anyway? This happens in human relationships all the time. It is called pushing each other's buttons. It is the repetition of a series of reactions until it becomes a habit. You do one thing which causes your horse to react in a certain way. This causes you to react in another way and then your horse reacts in another way and you continue reacting to each other until it all boils over into a fight. After this happens a few times, it creates a habit.
I recently read something that said, "It's a type of insanity to repeat the same behavior over and over again and expect different results." That really made me think a lot about habits! If you are in the repetitive cycle of a habit with your horse, the way to change it is to do something non-habitual. Completely change the way you approach and handle the difficulty.
My horse, Magic, is often resistant to grooming probably because of his early handling. When he is having trouble (it seems to go in cycles) I change where and how I groom him. Sometimes I groom him in his stall while he is eating hay, sometimes I let him walk around loose in the grooming stall while I groom him. Other times I may groom him in the narrow aisleway. Sometimes I use brushes, sometimes just a sheepskin mitt. Other times I use a dampened towel. I often intersperse the grooming with TTouch.
When I found that my horse, Rollie, had a great deal of tension in his body from overflexing and hanging on the bit while racing, I took the bit out of his mouth and rode him in a hackamore for a few months. You must think creatively. In fact, that is what TTEAM is all about. We have developed very creative solutions to a variety of problems.
5. Check your viewpoint at the door
While you are working on changing some of your habitual patterns make sure to include your habitual viewpoint. Be as open minded as possible. Try considering viewpoints and possible solutions that you have resisted in the past. Even if they go against what your instructor or friends are telling you. At least consider that there may be other causes for problems other than what you or the people around you think. To be an effective trainer you must have a tool bag large enough to accommodate all kinds of horses. Sometimes you have to be open enough to allow the horse to lead you to conclusions you would not normally have considered.