Horse Training Reflections – Letters To Kirsten

Carrying on from a previous newsletter topic, I thought I would share some of the comments that were sent about the lesson on horse training techniques. Each comment gave more food for thought and pounded on the question… What is Horse Training?

This quote, that is part of the signature on every email my mom sends, says a lot about my personal views of horse training:

Education must always be constructive, leading to self-expression in harmony with one’s environment and in co-operation with others…Love and understanding are necessary to accomplish this, by co-operating with the individual, by making him feel that he is accepted, by inviting his reciprocal co-operation and goodwill.

 Father Edward J. Flanagan, Founder of Boys Town
 

To me, training equals education. Since we ask horses to live in un-natural environments and interact un-naturally with a predator (human) and bear un-natural weight (the rider), then really, shouldn’t we expect that some education is involved for the horse to do this well? Is education something that you put in or something that you draw out?  To me, education is a process of drawing out and refining the intelligence and talent that are already there. Education is a process of developing skills that allows innate intelligence to flow in a positive, constructive, life-enhancing direction.  One definition of education reads, “An informative experience”.  So when training, I have to ask myself, “Is the horse receiving the information needed to refine the skills of a ridden horse?” If I simply left the horse in a truly natural state, then I probably couldn’t even catch him much less ride him.

So mom writes:

No matter what method(s) work for you, nothing works for the good of the horse or yourself if you are out of balance, and/or if your horse is out of balance. Just as with cars, you may have very expensive, top-rate tires, but if your wheels are not balanced, the tires will wear wrong. Though you may be successful in many aspects of your horsemanship, if balance is an issue, your horse will “wear wrong” over the years.

Apparently mom, not a horse person, has been paying attention. Part of education is refining the use of our bodies or the horse’s bodies towards optimal use. Most people think that balance means the horse can do the job and not stumble or fall over – that is only a very small part of it. Training towards Optimal Balance means that the body is guided towards more efficient, correct mechanical function. Just like humans, horses are not born knowing how to best use their bodies. They must develop skills to utilize their talents, in other words, they must train to carry a rider.

Richard, always very insightful, writes:

Many thanks for your insightful newsletter.However, I find a curious logic in the recent debate on horse attention. To my mind, one does not “teach” horses to “focus attention”. Horses are masters at paying attention to the leader and his/her signals. They don’t have to be “taught”.  There is a fabulous recent study by Jonah Leher How we Decide. It’s thesis is pattern recognition. I believe it is applicable to your recent discussion.

Thank you Richard, I would agree. Back to the idea that education is a drawing out of intelligence, not a putting in. Of course a horse can pay attention, just watch a foal find the mare or a “buddy sour” horse find the herd. Attention is a natural talent the horse possesses. The question is how does the human draw it out and develop it towards riding?It is easy to tell where a human is in the mind of a horse…

  • If you can’t catch your horse easily and without treats then the horse still considers you a predator and itself prey.
  • If the horse is easy to catch but hard to manage, then the horse may have accepted you as a herd member but you are lower in social rank than the horse.
  • If the horse is easy to catch, cooperative and happy in training, then the horse sees you as a friend and capable leader.

Understanding why a horse chooses to behave in certain ways is an education for the human. Understanding how a horse’s body needs to function to remain safe and comfortable in its own skin is an education for the human. Once a person understands the horse’s perspective and needs as an equine, then that person is qualified to train a horse. How a person does that is a small matter. Techniques are always a two-edged sword. Any technique you can think of can be used for or against a horse. They can put in obedience or draw out cooperation. It all depends on intention. Which leads me to an interesting perspective from Laura, obviously an attorney:

You raise an important point about the significance of intent.  This has long been recognized in criminal law. Crimes are defined to have both an act and a mental state component. Mens rea is the legal (Latin) term for the mental component of criminal liability. To be guilty of most crimes, a defendant must have committed the criminal act in a certain mental state. The mens rea of robbery, for example, is the intent to permanently deprive the owner of his property.

In order to convict someone of robbery, a prosecutor must not only prove the defendant took the swag, but that they did it with the specified intent.  By contrast, taking something under the mistaken belief that it was your own or with the intent to return it to its owner is not robbery, although in certain circumstances it may be some other criminal offense.

Applied to the discussion in your newsletter, you could argue that insisting a horse focus on you is not abusive when done with the intent of teaching that horse a skill to help him become a better partner.  On the other hand it could be abusive if done for the purpose of establishing dominance over the horse. Like almost everything about horse training, so much comes down to “feel.”

Thank you Laura – what a great point to make. Everything with a horse does come down to intent and feel. Working with a horse or for a horse is what I would consider the purpose of training. Putting the horse’s well-being first and my own amusement second is the path I have found to solving behavioral issues and drawing out the beauty or talent in a horse.

And from Jack:

It’s not the technique that matters, it’s how & why you use the technique.  Your motives & intent.

I couldn’t agree more!  Thanks Jack.  

Then Leslie brings up another important point about training. She writes:

Today I found myself musing … what do horses do if they are not being asked by a human to focus?  Taken further, what were horses designed to do?  Detect danger and run from it. But we have taken the danger away.  There are no mountain lions, no predators for our domestic horses.  So they are fully loaded, so to speak, cocked and ready, all that evasion energy with no place to go.

It seems compassionate, in that context, to give them something to do.  I’m sure you have, as most of us have, observed how most horses like having a job that makes them feel useful.  I know Junior does.  One instructor actually reported a glowing look on his face after a student had a really good lesson on him.

I guess my point is that we all have life force, chi, whatever.  And maybe what we are all working on, 2-leggeds and 4-leggeds, is how to channel or direct our life force.  So asking a horse to focus and learn and grow is a huge gift if it is offered and asked in a way that aids the flow of life force more easily (vs.–you guessed it–resistance).

Thank you Leslie for that insight!  Not only have we eliminated real predators from our horse’s lives, we feed them. This small fact of owning a horse has enormous repercussions. Of course we feed them, it would be criminal if we didn’t. But because we do feed them, horses no longer have a real reason to move. We breed in genetic weaknesses, we feed them and we ride them – there is nothing natural about it.

Horses in nature will travel an average of 25 miles per day in search of food and water. While some time is spent playing, fighting or fleeing from predators, the bulk of each day is spent just moving in a calm, efficient way. Even if you give your horse a 200 acre pasture and a herd of 30, a domestic horses knows exactly where the food and water are at all times. They become couch potatoes and rarely will they learn to use their bodies efficiently. The pent up energy also results in misdirected flight or fight behavior that often become behavioral issues. This is why training is such an important component of horse-keeping.

Horses require movement. They evolved in motion. Cultivating relaxed, efficient motion with a domestic horse that has too much pent up energy and no outlet is one of the main purposes of training. To assume a domestic horse is like a wild horse is trying to make an apple into an orange. Mother Nature does provide what a horse needs and culls the weaknesses when humans stay out of the picture. But as soon as humans enter the life of a horse, we take on the role of provider. If we do not understand the needs of a horse and its natural tendencies then it will be a challenge to guide the horse into new skills that are required to be successful in a completely un-natural environment.

One final email from another trainer, Jim, who writes:

What good words and thoughts.  I don’t disagree with any of your points.  I have witnessed some pretty nasty cat fights over techniques.  Another problem is the trainers develop their disciples and then anyone who is not among their group is then by definition wrong.

At trainer A’s clinic you will frequently hear that trainer B is terrible “all he does is chase a horse around the round pen”  The reverse is true at trainer B’s clinic or they may be bashing another trainer all together.   I not infrequently hear a student tell me that they don’t won’t to do what I am going to ask them to do before I even have a chance to evaluate the student and the horse (so I can decide what my recommendation is going to be)  because of what they have heard that “I do”.  Well like you I try to do the best thing for that individual team. Bashing, I am pretty sure comes from the ego.  It usually comes from someone with a lack of knowledge.

I appreciate your frustration and have had the same frustration myself.  I think that we need to help the student learn to ask the right questions and help them see how what may seem to be a contradiction may actually be the same message said another way.  I also think that teachers need to be respectful of others and stop the bashing and focus on what they recommend and why they recommend it.  One observation, if I may, is that your filters which I think are absolutely right, take time for the student to develop. So it seems to me that these three filters should be at the beginning.  So for the person that is closer to the beginning of their path:

So how do I filter information? It is very simple:

  1. How do I know if Am I achieving a Learning Frame of Mind?  (calm, willing, attentive, adaptable)
  2. How do I know if the horse and I are communicating clearly with each other?
  3. How do I decide if what I am choosing to do is healthy for the horse’s body?”

Thanks Jim!   It is all about asking the right questions. Just like training a horse, training a person is about drawing out intelligence and talent and refining them into the skills of horsemanship. My own learning process as a rider is what keeps me patient and humble with my horse’s learning process. We all make mistakes in the process of training but our intention is what matters most to the horse.

So this brings me to the question I consider most important regarding any technique or training method – Does it serve the horse both in mind and body? If it does, then that is what I would call training.

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Equine Imbalance

...."Many problems (of the horse) can be caused by unbalanced patterns of tension in the body"........
....."Uneven tension will often result in uneven body use, difficulty carrying a saddle and rider, stiffness generally 'through the back' or the body as a whole, behavioural problems etc..... " Gavin Scofield D.O.
Founder of Equine Postural Training &
Official Osteopath for the British Endurance team

Acknowledgements

Photos Contributed by:
Jim McCleary - McCleary Photography
Christianne Gentile - True by Christianne
Sarah Wengernuk - Essence Photography

Quote Of The Day

Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.
~W. C. Fields