The term Horse Whisperer came into vogue with the success of the book and movie of the same name and became the mantra of the natural horsemanship movement. I prefer the term “Horse Listener”.
If your horse is not performing as you are asking, do you try to determine the cause of the behaviour or just address the symptom with stronger pressure? Adding more leg, the stick, the spur or a stronger bit simply creates more noise for the horse to deal with. More stress for both of you. A recent session with my own horse, Ever Sacred, is a great example of this kind of situation.
Ever used to be what I call a “no horse”. Whatever request I made of him, his first response was always a loud “no”. He tested my authority to be the leader in every session. As I kept passing his tests, they became shorter and his resistance became less until, eventually, they went away all together. We developed a true partnership based on mutual trust and respect. When I lost my confidence a few years ago, Ever helped me rebuild it.
Due to a busy teaching and clinic schedule this summer, I haven’t been able to ride Ever regularly. Despite the irregularity, when I did manage to fit in some time to work with him, he was still my willing partner. I was very surprised this week-end when without warning the resistance and stress returned with a vengeance. The behaviours he exhibited were so out of character for Ever now, that I was concerned that there was something very wrong. I could not even get him to truly relax with ground work that has always worked. He displayed no obvious physical soreness, but I was convinced that he must be hurting somewhere. Was it a problem with his teeth or the bit? Had the saddle fit changed? Was he locked up somewhere that I couldn’t see? In order to help him, I needed to find out the root cause of the problem. Here is the process I went through:
1) Start with the easiest first – Check the condition & fit of the bridle, bit & saddle. All seem to be ok with no significant changes in either the bit or saddle fit.
2) Would his attitude would be any different if I rode him without tack? Today I got on him bareback with just a halter. His mouth was quiet and he wasn’t flipping his head about. So, that leads me to think there is a good possibility he needs his teeth floated or has some other issue with his mouth (Vet appointment booked). He stood quietly to let me get on him ( a definite improvement from the week-end), but pinned his ears as soon as I asked him to walk off. Possible soreness in his back or withers?
3) From the ground, I asked him to do the carrot stretches*. On the right side, he could bring his nose all the way back to the top of his flank. On the left side, he could only reach to his girth line. Definitely must have something locked up either skeletal or muscular. (Sports Therapist appointment booked).
Just as a side note, as I was standing by his left side pondering the situation, I stroked him at the girth. Rather than just bringing his head into my centre (his usual response), he scratched his girth. Curious as to why he was doing this atypical behaviour, I stepped slightly further away to see what he would do next. He brought his nose a bit further past his girth. That is when the idea to test his ability to stretch on both sides came to me. I didn’t have any carrots or treats with me. He just followed my fingers. I have never known him to do these stretches without carrots before. Hmmm …was he really showing me where the problem is????
Ever will have a few more days off until the vet and the sports therapist check him out. They will either find something that needs to be corrected andthat, hopefully, will resolve any pain issues. If not, I will continue to look for and resolve the root cause of his behaviour. He is telling me something. I just have to be listening well enough to hear the message.
“Lots of people talk to animals….not very many listen, though….that’s the
problem.” ~ Benjamin Hoff
Ever – when things are going well.
*Carrot Stretches – Ever’s Sports Therapist (Lorna Bell), uses these 4 stretc hes at the end of each session. You can use them as a warm up before working with your horse. You just need a couple of medium sized carrots. Hold the carrot firmly in your hand with a bite size piece visible. Show your horse the carrot and take it back to his girth about where your foot would sit from the saddle. If your horse likes to “cheat” and move to get the carrot, you may need to stand him with a wall or fence on the opposit e side. When he reaches for the carrot, don’t let him have it until he holds the stretch for about 3 seconds. Then, let him have a bit and come out of the stretch. Repeat for the second stretch, but take your hand along his mid-line to his flank. The third stretch is up at the top of his flank, about where the skirt of a western saddle would sit. Repeat all 3 stretches on the opposite side. The final stretch is to take the carrot between your horse’s front legs (hold it below his knee level), so that he stretches his neck down low and slightly between his legs. You might hear some popping in his spine when you do these stretches as the spine goes back into alignment. If your horse can’t do all of these stretches, he would probably benefit from a chiropractic and/or massage therapy session.