Horse Training for the 21st Century

Prepare yourself to learn some concepts here about training horses that you probably haven't heard before! TTEAM (Tellington Touch Equine Awareness Method) is unlike any other method of training horses out there today. Here are five principles that make it different:

 1. We begin by recognizing that horses are intelligent beingswith an inherent willingness to work with us but for the obstacles placed in their way.

 2. Their behavior is their language and it is often misunderstood.

 3. TTouch on the body can eliminate fear and pain. It also enhances trust and can effectively and permanently change behavior.

 4. Habitual patterns of undesirable behavior and ineffective movement can be changed by non-habitual TTouches and training exercises.

 5. We aim to work with understanding, kindness and intelligence rather than dominance, force or bravado and are most successful when we invoke the TTEAM Golden Rule of Horsemanship: TREAT YOUR HORSE AS YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE TREATED.

 This concept is quite different from other forms of horse training and I know what some of you are thinking, so I offer these quotes from Linda Tellington-Jones:

 "Understanding our horses doesn't mean that we become 'permissive' or that we don't use firmness and discipline when required. It means rather that we open the door to cooperation rather than confrontation, an attitude that leads to successful performance so much more easily and joyfully than does domination through fear and submission. Such a humane viewpoint often has the unexpected side effect of enriching our whole lives."

 And:

"With the knowledge that kindness doesn't automatically mean loss of watchfulness, judgment or control, we realize that we can allow ourselves the great pleasure of befriending our horses."

If you are like most people, you didn't become interested in horses because you wanted a distant and impersonal relationship with them. And you probably visualized yourself riding or working with your horse without conflict. But, perhaps, conflict is what you found. You do not have to lose your friendship with your horse because of this lack of harmony.

When I say we work with horses using understanding, what we understand is this: most behavior problems are a result of fear, pain, fear of pain and miscommunication. Most of these behavior problems are man made. So, instead of blaming the horse, we look for the causes and try to remove them.   Fear is a common cause of behavior problems in horses. In order to eliminate the fear you must first recognize it. TTEAM recognizes five fearful reactions. They are: fight, flight, freeze, faint and fidget. These are not thought processes or intentional behaviors but instinctive reactions. Fortunately, we can teach the horse to override these fearful reactions. One way we do this is by teaching the horse to lower his head. A frightened horse raises his head as part of the fear reaction. So we teach horses to lower their heads when we ask. This enables them to override their fear and to think through a situation rather than react to it.

In other situations where horses are afraid, such as trailer loading, we "chunk" down an exercise to make it less threatening. In this situation, where many people would call the horse "stubborn" when he refuses to load, we see the horse as being afraid and exhibiting the "freeze" reaction. So instead of making the outside of the trailer more unpleasant than the inside, as is often done, we break the exercise down into smaller parts. First we walk the horse over a piece of plywood, then over a raised platform. Then we lead the horse through a progressively narrower space formed by sheets of plastic. Next, we lead the horse under a sheet of plastic over head. By the time we face the horse with an entire trailer, he has lost much fear and gained confidence in himself and trust in his handler. 

Pain occurs so often I am always surprised when I find a horse that is pain free. Many behaviors people routinely dismiss as attitude problems actually come from pain and the effects of these go much further than people realize. Consider a horse who pins his ears, moves or even tries to bite when his girth is tightened. Many people will punish the horse for this behavior because they don't understand that he is reacting to pain or discomfort caused by the girth or an ill-fitting saddle. If this pain goes untreated it could become so severe the horse may buck when mounted. How else would you expect the horse to respond in that situation? This is why we say behavior is the horse's language. Some people talk about being "horse whisperers." TTEAM will teach you to listen to the whispers of your horse!

Fear of pain is the result of a past incident and can be puzzling if we are unaware of what occurred. The tricky thing here is that the trigger is sometimes unknown to us, at least at first, and the horse's behavior is unconscious or involuntary. Both the trigger and the behavior have been imprinted into the nervous system as a form of cellular memory. The experience is similar to a person who has had a car crash who may involuntarily tense up or experience a flash of fear when driving past the place where the crash occurred. This kind of episode with a horse is sudden, can be violent and come "out of the blue."

But it is involuntary. This is why punishing a horse for fearful behavior usually makes the behavior worse. Punishment creates fear and it gives another reason for the horse to be afraid. TTouch has the ability to change the habitual pattern of fear in the body associated with the trigger. It can actually help remove the fear from the body by opening up new neuropathways or alternatives for behavior and movement in the nervous system.

Miscommunication results when the training methods and signals to the horse are simply not clear enough or are not presented in a way that the horse can understand them. This often occurs when people do not understand how horses learn best. One of the most important differences with TTEAM training is the use of "guidance" in communicating what we want the horse to do. With some methods of training a signal is given and the trainer waits for a response from the horse. If the horse does not respond, the signal is made stronger and stronger until it elicits a response. Often, the stronger the signal becomes the more painful or fear provoking it is. But both fear and pain tend to inhibit learning.

What we do instead is to make the signal more instructional. When teaching a horse to lower his head from a signal, (See, "Calming Your Horse By Lowering His Head") we begin with pressure on the halter and then add pressure on the crest. Then, if needed, we turn the head from side to side and then squat down while stroking down the horse's chest and legs rather than using a progressively stronger signal. Because the signal is so clear, the horse understands easily and learning comes quickly, especially when the correct response is followed by a reward.

The outdated method of "breaking" horses to ride where the saddle is suddenly strapped on and the horse bucks in reaction until it is tired is akin to teaching a person to swim by picking them up and throwing them in the water! The method offers no instruction and creates tremendous fear. We use a slow approach where the horse is gradually allowed to become accustomed to the pressure around his girth and to the weight on his back. The horse is then shown how to move comfortably and in a relaxed manner while wearing the saddle. In this way there is no fear to overcome. We also add praise and reward which enhances the horse's trust in the trainer and the horse's enjoyment in the learning process.

When fear and pain are eliminated and communication is clear, TTEAM training is simply amazing in its ability to create a happy, willing horse that enjoys and looks forward to his training. I have had the experience many times of my horses pulling me to get into the trailer because they knew they were going some place fun! Xcel (star of my web site series, "Reschooling the Thoroughbred") has, on a number of occasions, been reluctant to return to the barn because he was enjoying being ridden so much!

TTEAM takes horse training beyond the need for fear, force, dominance or a conditioned response. Instead, it brings about behavior change by instilling calmness, eliminating fear and pain and using clear, guiding communication. It creates and enhances the strong bond of friendship that brought many people out to the barn to begin with. It is truly a training method for the twenty-first century!

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