Confident Rider Tip: Solving the Mystery of the Unexplained ‘Spook’

Question from a reader:

“Do you find that you can be working with your horse for a while, then ask the same thing of him as you’ve already done nicely, and all of a sudden he’s not paying attention anymore? And if you try to get his attention he ‘panics’ or spooks suddenly from the least little thing?”

People are often caught off-guard by the spook, bolt or buck that seems to come out of no where.  Some people think it’s just the horse’s way of evading doing something he doesn’t want to do or that he’s trying to ‘get them’.  While it may be true that horses will try to avoid doing things we ask of them (and, honestly, why shouldn’t they avoid work any less than we do?), it’s not true that they plot and plan ways to get us humans.

Here’s the thing about horses.  As prey animals they want to conserve energy as much as possible so that they have lots available when they need to run away from a predator.  So, a part from the exuberant play that youngsters sometimes indulge in, horses are pretty lazy (to put a label on it).  But, hey – I can relate.  I don’t like to expend any more energy than is absolutely necessary.  That’s why I’m always looking for short cuts to getting chores done around the farm.  One friend says I’m very creative.  I call it laziness.  

But back to the spooking, bolting, bucking horse issue.  So, why does an animal that likes to conserve his energy expend all that excess energy to avoid doing something he doesn’t want to do or just to ‘get the human’?  The answer is – he doesn’t.

There is always a reason for the horse’s behaviour.  Here are 3 possible reasons for that unexplained spook.

  1. Horses see, hear, smell and feel things of which we -mere humans with our different level of senses – are unaware.    Just because you didn’t see or hear anything that you believe would have startled  you horse, doesn’t mean that he didn’t see, hear or even smell something.
  2. Horses learn from repetition and it only takes 3 repetitions for them to see a pattern.  So, it’s really easy to inadvertently teach a horse to be nervous at a certain spot in the arena or on the trail or when asked to perform a particular transition or movement.  And that pattern can be created just as easily for you as it can be for your horse.  So, if your horse has spooked or reacted badly when you ride by a certain area or ask for a transition or movement, your anticipation of a repeat performance can cause you to be tense and nervous which affects how your horse feels physically and mentally.  Vicious cycle created.  
  3. How you sit on your horse affects how he feels.  Whether you’re in a western, english or treeless saddle or riding bareback, you affect (for better or for worse) your horse’s balance, alignment and level of relaxation.  Have you noticed how difficult it is to remain relaxed, supple and balanced when your horse is crooked, off balance and tense?  That works both ways.  So if you’re off balance, crooked or out of alignment in any way the less relaxed  your horse will be and the more reactive he will be to stresses (even little ones) in the environment.  And, you are more likely to give unclear and even conflicting messages to your horse.

Rider misalignment has a huge impact on horses behaviour causing them to exhibit unwanted behaviours or resistance.  You may be familiar with the rider vertical alignment (ear over shoulder over hip over heel) and the horse ‘nose/poll to tail’ alignment.  But are you aware of your alignment to your horse?

Horse and Rider Alignment

Horse and Rider Alignment – My horse is aligned poll to tail (her hind legs track up with her front legs); I am square (hips and shoulders); and we are aligned with each other.

You are sitting on your horse’s spine.  So, if you not aligned with his body and his bend, he will feel at least uncomfortable and at worst pain.  You are aligned with your horse when your belly button aims between his ears; your shoulders mirror his shoulders; and, your hips mirror his hips.  If your horse has a bend to the left (even a slight one), you mirror that bend when you keep your belly button aimed between his ears and your hips and shoulders square.  If your outside shoulder comes forward, his outside shoulder will mirror that and bulge out of the bend.  You’ll both be off balance and you’ll likely be hanging on to the inside rein trying to ‘correct’ him.  And suddenly – out of no where – is that spook or resistance to doing that transition …. 

The first step you can take to helping your horse feel less stressed and therefore less reactive to things in the environment is to improve your alignment.  It will also keep you better balanced and able to deal with any sudden movements that come ‘from no where’.

Your Turn:  Was this post helpful?  Share it with a friend who can benefit from it as well then leave me a comment below and tell me what you are struggling with.


The Bottom Line – The absolute best way to develop a true partnership with your horse is by building your confidence and trust in each other.

You can get your Free Instant Access to my report “The 3 Most Important Skills You Need to Develop Confidence With Horses” when you visit www.AnneGage.com

Interested in organizing a Confident Horsemanship Clinic at your location? Click here for more information.

You’re welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you notify me and include my credit information: ~ Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship www.annegage.com.  

Anne Gage ~ Confident Horsemanship –Putting you and your horse in good hands.
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Horse Training: Handling Your Horse Safely in Spooky Situations

Keep Calm and Carry On

Keep Calm and Carry On

It’s a bit delayed, but seasonal fall weather has finally arrived where I live in Southern Ontario.  One day it felt like summer and the next day it was definitely fall.  These sudden changes in weather, drops in the barometric pressure and, of course, winds can affect the behaviour of some horses.  Just leading your horse to or from the paddock or barn can be nerve wracking.

There are 3 common mistakes people make when their horses become anxious or spooky.

Mistake #1 – Anticipating that your horse will behave badly and becoming tense as a result.  Of course, we all want to be safe when we are around our horses.  They are, after all, very large, powerful animals that can hurt us without intending to.  But, as a herd animal who is very sensitive to body language, when you get tense, your horse picks up on that and his tension increases.

What to do instead – Recognize that there is the potential for your horse to be anxious and take steps to calm yourself before you take your horse out of the paddock or barn.  Breathing in calm, deep, slow breaths is the best way to calm your flow of adrenaline and release tension from your body.  It also helps you stay mentally in the moment.

Mistake #2 – Holding on tightly to or shortening up on the lead rope or reins.  It’s human nature to want to stop the horse’s movement.  Notice how often you are telling your horse to ‘stop it’ or ‘whoa’.  As a flight animal, feeling that his ability to move away from perceived danger adds to his tension and stress level.

What to do instead – Send your horse away from you and, if you have the room, in a circle around you.  This requires giving him some more rope and that you aren’t holding your lead rope or reins tightly under his chin. Keeping him out of your space means he won’t be running over top of you if he panics.  Sending him away addresses his need to move which helps him feel less stress.

Mistake #3 – Getting in your horse’s ace.  This happens in 2 ways.  The first happens when you jerk or pull on the lead rope or bridle.  The second happens when you turn to face your horse ‘head’ on.  Both reactions also comes from our human nature to stop the horse’s movement.  The horse’s response is to feel more stress as he feels threatened and typically throws his head up resulting in increased adrenaline release.

What to do instead – At the first sign that your horse is stressed, take a steady, supple contact on the lead rope or reins.  With a gentle, rocking downwards pressure ask your horse to lower his head.  If he tries to raise his head, use blocking resistance.  Do not try to pull or force his head down.  If he’s too stressed to lower his head or pushes through your blocking resistance, then put some space between you (see previous point).  Lowering his head helps to bring down the level of adrenaline so that his stress level does not escalate.

If you slow down, breath and calm your mind, then you will be able to stay in the moment and be pro-active rather than reactive.  Your body language will communicate more calmness to your horse and help to decrease his anxiety.

Your Turn

Does the weather affect your horse?  Sharing your experiences or questions is simple.  Just leave a comment or share your thoughts below or through Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

Share this post to spread the word about a better way to work with horses.  Enjoy your journey!

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You’re welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you notify me and include my credit information: ~ Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship (www.annegage.com).  

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Horse Training: Stopping Your Horse from Grabbing Grass

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I recently read an article by Julie Goodnight in The Trail Rider magazine in which she gives advice on how to stop a horse from grabbing grass while being ridden.

I took exception to this article right from the 2nd sentence in her reply:

“Snacking on the trail is a rude behavior and may be a sign that he doesn’t accept your authority.”

Far from being rude, “snacking” is a perfectly natural behaviour for a grazing animal.  An animal who is designed to travel long distances to find food and then to eat food whenever he finds it available.   It has very little (if anything at all) to do with the horse accepting “your authority”.

“While some riders allow the behavior and think of it as a horse’s natural instinct to graze constantly, it’s important to think about how horses act when part of a herd—and how they associate food with dominance.” (Julie Goodnight)

In their natural state, horses are grazers.  They DO have a natural instinct to graze constantly.  They DO NOT have a natural instinct to be aggressive and dominant about food – unless food is in short supply.  In the wild, horses travel many miles every day to graze.  They don’t live on lush pastures.  In fact, many wild horses live in areas with very sparse vegetation.  As prey animals, they know that their safety depends upon working collaboratively with their herd mates and that fighting over food is a waste of valuable energy.

“In the herd, horses establish the herd hierarchy by determining who controls food and water. Dominant horses always eat first and will run the subordinate horses away from the food supply until they’ve had their fill.” (Julie Goodnight)

Horses don't waste energy fighting over food when resources are plentiful.

Horses don’t waste energy fighting over food when resources are plentiful.

This behaviour may be seen in domestic herds, but it is created by over crowding and a lack of resources.  When food and water are always available, and the herd hierarchy is well established, this behaviour is not part of the normal herd dynamic.  Bring a special treat into the herd and you will see some pushing and even aggressive behaviour.  But, treats are – well – ‘treats’ because they are not always available.

So, I am disappointed and disturbed by Julie Goodnight’s suggestion that this behaviour is rude, a challenge to the rider’s authority and must be corrected.   Her method of “correction” requires the “domination” of the horse by the rider by whatever amount of pressure is necessary to get the horse to “re-think” his behaviour.

That way of thinking – dominance vs submission – is pretty popular even in so called ‘natural horsemanship’.

I think we can do and be better than that.

For the horse, his behaviour of eating grass that is there on the ground all around him makes sense.   The horse is NOT trying to frustrate and dominate the human who is riding him.  Just the opposite, the horse is an honest, straightforward, and social creature whose nature has been unchanged for tens of thousands of years.

We humans tend to take things personally and interpret the horse’s behaviour from our own self-centered needs and wants to have things done our way – what I want, how I want, when I want.  The horse grabbing grass while being ridden is an inconvenience and a disruption for the rider and so she sees the behaviour as unwanted or ‘bad’ and somethng that must be corrected.

Correcting the horse involves “consequences” (i.e. punishment) of some sort.  For example, the technique suggested by Julie Goodnight in the article:

“No matter what type of pressure you use, the consequences of eating without your authorization need to be harsh enough to overpower your gelding’s urge to eat.”

What happens when we change our perspective so that we see the behaviour as something perfectly natural and normal for the horse?

We train more intelligently and without abuse – that’s what happens.

Here is what I would do to change this behaviour.

First, the rider must be paying attention to the horse and what is in the environment.  When your focus is on your horse, you can feel subtle changes in his movement that signal where his focus is and what he is thinking about doing.  The sooner you notice the horse preparing to reach down for a bite of grass, the more pro-active you can be to prevent him from doing it.

Then, the rider must be ready to prevent the behaviour.  To be effective, the rider must be balanced and supple in the saddle and ride with contact on your reins.  As soon as you feel your horse pull his head down, close your fingers on your reins (to block) pressing your knuckles into his neck if necessary so you don’t get pulled out of your saddle.  At the same time, send him forward from your seat and leg.  A horse who is moving forward from his hindquarters cannot lower his head as easily.

The more consistent you are with your aids, the sooner the horse will give up the behaviour.  If you are re-training a horse who has been allowed to eat while being ridden, be prepared for the horse to look to pull down harder and refuse to move forward.  He will most likely object to this change from being allowed to not being allowed to eat.  It always takes more time to un-train an existing behaviour.  Just think of how difficult it is for any of us to change a habit.

If you enjoy it when your horse has a ‘chew’ while your out for your ride, then teach him a cue that says ‘ok you can eat now’.  I do this by asking my horse to halt and stand quietly for a moment.  Then, I release the reins and gently tap or stroke her shoulder.  When it’s time to move on, I ask her to move forward from my seat and leg taking up my reins again as she lifts her head.

This way, we both enjoy the ride.

YOUR TURN

What are your specific challenges with your horse?  What training methods have you used?  Please  leave a comment or share your thoughts below or through Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

Share this post to spread the word about a better way to work with horses.  Enjoy your journey! 

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My book is now available on Amazon.com! “Confident Rider, Confident Horse: Build Your Confidence While Improving Your Partnership with Your Horse from the Ground to the Saddle”.  Click here to order.

Interested in organizing a Confident Horsemanship clinic at your location? Click here for more information.

You’re welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you notify me and include my credit information: ~ Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship (www.annegage.com).  

Confident Horsemanship with Anne Gage – Putting you and your horse in good hands.

Do You Go to Battle if Your Horse Doesn’t Listen?

Image

Understanding

The following is an excerpt from a blog I came across recently in which the writer was offering suggestions for how to handle a a horse who won’t stop.

“Don’t treat him gently, thinking you can avoid the problem or dare to think he’s doing it because he’s frightened! He’s doing it because he’s a bully. Treat him like we should treat all bullies. Stand up to him. …

All the time you’re doing this your legs should be kicking. Forget about looking refined. This is war! You are up there to prove a point. You have made a decision to crack this habit and you need to kick on through it.”

The post ends with this statement:

“Remember that brute force will never work but for all problems there is always a solution. WE just haven’t found it yet.”

Well, I agree with the blog writer on one point – brute force will never work.  But it seems that her idea of brute force and mine are very different.

There are 3 things with which I disagree with the writer:

  1. “He’s doing it because he’s a bully.”  A horse’s main priority is his safety.  When he feels threatened or even suspects the potential for danger, his first defence is flight.  If he feels he can’t run away, then he’ll fight.   Mental stress as well as physical pain have the same effect.  If your horse doesn’t understand, feels pain or stress of any kind, he will be provoked into defensive behaviour like bolting, bucking, rearing, striking, kicking out, etc.
  2. “Your legs should be kicking.”  Kicking a horse makes no sense to me.  First of all, it makes your seat unstable, creates tension in your body and causes you to pull on the reins. Second, it does not give any clear signal to your horse of what it is you want him to do.  Good riding requires the rider to have an independent seat and quiet hands as well as the ability to give clear aids at the right time. This requires suppleness and balance so that you have the ability to feel your horse.
  3. “This is war!”  I want to have a partnership with my horse not be at ‘war’ with him (or any horse).  The foundation of the training scale is relaxation.  My goal is to eliminate resistance by helping my horse to be calm, relaxed and free of tension.  Kicking with the mindset of ‘winning the battle’ is counter productive.  It creates tension in both the rider and the horse.

The bottom line is this, if your horse is doing something you don’t want him to do or isn’t doing something you do want him to do, it isn’t because he is stubborn, stupid or bad in any way.  It is because he:

  • doesn’t understand
  • is frightened or in pain
  • it just doesn’t make sense to him
  • isn’t physically or mentally able to do what you are asking of him.

A good rider – a good horse person – who has empathy for the horse – will take the time to figure out what is getting in the way and fix it.  Even if that means changing something about themselves.

Your Turn!

What do you do when your horse does something you don’t want or doesn’t do something when you ask?

What other great questions or suggestions do you have? Please leave me a comment and share this post so others can benefit. Enjoy your journey!

How to Stop Over Thinking While Riding Your Horse

keep moving forward

“When in doubt, go forward” was a phrase my hunter/jumper coach often used when we were schooling over fences.  If we didn’t see a distance, then riding forward to the jump was a better option than hesitating and holding back.  We were taught to ‘ride forward and ride the rhythm’ rather than focusing on seeing the perfect taking spot.

That meant that we didn’t hesitate or get stuck.  By riding positively forward, we helped our horse maintain the impulsion needed to get over the jump – even if the take off spot wasn’t ideal.  Holding back or hesitating because we weren’t sure meant our horse would either chip in (resulting in a bad take off), stop before the jump or run out at the jump.  Our hesitation got in the way.

Hesitation is what happens when riders over think a situation or process.  I often see this when I’m coaching – particularly in adult riders.  They get physically and mentally ‘stuck’ (and so do their horses).  They have stopped moving forward because they are over thinking.  As these riders get frustrated with their lack of progress, they develop more self doubt and less confidence.

Over thinking causes gridlock in your brain.  This busy-ness in your brain prevents you from making decisions as you get stuck in circling thoughts. 

Over thinking takes you out of the present moment and out of the physical connection with your horse.  Your focus is on the problem or the potential problem and keeps your thinking in the past or on the future.   This doesn’t work well when working with horses where – because horses live in the present moment – the situation changes moment to moment.  You need to be able to focus on solutions, but over thinking prevents that.

There is a cure for over thinking.  Get out of your head and into your body.  Feel what’s happening in your body and in your horse’s body.  Be aware of what’s happening in the environment around you. This is what your horse is doing.  

I can hear you saying ‘easier said than done’.

Here are seven suggestions of ways to help you stop over thinking, be in the moment and have more physical awareness and connection:

  1. Focus on your horse’s rhythm and maintaining it.
  2. Play background music and match your horse’s rhthym to the music.
  3. Count your horse’s steps – identify which foot is stepping when.
  4. Notice the movement of your seat – do you feel your hips drop and then swing forward (left and then right, left and then right)?
  5. Notice where your horse has put his focus.  Is it on you or something else? If it’s somewhere else, bring it back to you by keeping him busy with transitions or changes of direction.
  6. Make up patterns to ride in the arena. Don’t ride around and around the outside. Be like a figure skater or ballroom dancer – cover the centre of the arena with changes of direction. If there are objects (i.e. dressage letters, pylons, poles, jumps, barrels, etc.) in the arena, make patterns going to, around  and between them.  Keep changing the pattern.
  7. Wiggle your toes in your boots.  Wiggle your fingers without moving your reins.  Roll your shoulders without moving your hands.

As you let go of the over thinking, you will become more aware of the subtle changes happening in the moment:

  • in your body (I’ve lost my contact. I need to release the tension in my shoulders, again),
  • in your horse’s body (His head just came up. What did he notice? Now I’d better help him come back into a calmer frame), and
  • in the environment around you (the wind’s picking up, I’d better watch for blowing leaves that might unsettle my horse).

When you quiet your mind, you will decrease your stress and tension, become more connected with your horse, and even enjoy your rides more.  You might just notice that you’re moving forward.

Are you struggling with over thinking? Are you a reformed over thinker?  Share your experiences with over thinking by posting a comment below.  

BorderMy book is now available! “Confident Rider, Confident Horse: Build Your Confidence While Improving Your Partnership with Your Horse from the Ground to the Saddle”.  Click here to order.

Interested in organizing a clinic at your location? Click here for more information.

Let’s spread the word about a better way to work with horses.  Share this blog with 3 friends, send a Tweet or post a link on your Facebook page.  The horses thank you.

You’re welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you include my credit information: ~ Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship (www.annegage.com).  

I would also appreciate it if you’d send me a copy for my media files.

Anne Gage ~ Confident Horsemanship

www.annegage.com
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Facebook Group – Horseback Riding Solutions with Anne Gage
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Helping the Horse with Separation Anxiety

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Question: “I recently adopted a horse from a rescue. She is kind, but nervous and gets really anxious when taken out of her paddock. She has had some down time at the new farm and has settled in with the herd she is turned out with. I’m not sure what to do and now I am getting nervous about handling her.  I am not very confident, but I do want to win the trust of this mare.”

Answer: This is not an uncommon scenario for anyone who has adopted or rescued a horse from the race track, a rescue facility or an auction. Giving these horses time just to adjust to the new environment and routines is as important as any training you do with them. There are so many adjustments they have to make in their new lives.  Horses coming from these types of situations may have had multiple owners or trainers, and may even have suffered from neglect or abuse. That is a tough life that does not engender much trust, respect or confidence in people or unfamiliar situations.

For the first few weeks (even months), simply focus on building a bond with your horse. All of your interactions with her should be centred on building mutual trust, respect and confidence between you. Having this bond will help resolve any herd separation anxiety.  By focusing on bonding with this mare through ground work – grooming, hand walking, lunging, long lining etc. – you can change this dynamic so that she feels as safe with you as she does with her herd mates.

Initially, to keep her stress level as low as possible, work with your horse where she is still close to her herd. This may be in the paddock (if it is safe) or just on the other side of the fence.

  1. Encourage her to come into a calm shape.  When a horse feels calm, her poll is level with or lower than her withers.  Picture a horse dozing or grazing.  You can change how your horse feels by changing her posture.   With contact on your lead rope, gently rock her head side to side with downwards pressure – be careful not to pull her head down.  Keep contact on the lead rope but don’t pull or jerk on it.  Jerking or pulling will make her feel more anxiety, cause her to throw her head up and keep adrenaline running through her system.
  2. Respect her need to move when she is anxious.  Remember that horses are flight animals and asking her to stand still will only cause her more stress.  Direct her movement by calmly sending her around you in a circle.   Having a long lead rope or even a lunge line allows you to send her a safe distance away from you if she gets too rambunctious.  
  3. Protect your personal space by keeping clear boundaries about how close you allow her to come to you.  Ask her to bend around you by massaging her girth just about where your leg hangs when you are riding.

Click on this link to watch a short video showing how this technique was used to help a mare with separation anxiety in the barn.

When your horse is able to maintain this calm shape, then gradually expand the distance from her herd. If either of you get too stressed, move back to your comfort zone where you can both exhale and regain calmness. This process might take several sessions, but is well worth the time and effort in the long run.

When you adopt a horse from a rescue, think of that horse as a foster child who has been passed from home to home and has never developed a trusting relationship with a human. He or she needs time to adjust to the new environment, de-stress physically and mentally, and build trust, respect and confidence in the new situation.  With consistency and calmness, your horse’s behaviour will improve and she will feel safe with you.   Enjoy the journey.

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My book is now available! “Confident Rider, Confident Horse: Build Your Confidence While Improving Your Partnership with Your Horse from the Ground to the Saddle”.  Click here to order.

Interested in organizing a clinic at your location? Click here for more information.

Let’s spread the word about a better way to work with horses.  Share this blog with 3 friends, send a Tweet or post a link on your Facebook page.  The horses thank you.

You’re welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you include my credit information: ~ Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship (www.annegage.com).  

I would also appreciate it if you’d send me a copy for my media files.

Anne Gage ~ Confident Horsemanship

www.annegage.com
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Facebook Group – Horseback Riding Solutions with Anne Gage
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Is It My Horse or Is it Me?

I received an email the other day from someone asking for help with one of her 3 horses.  She has ridden and owned her own horses for several years and has no problems with the two geldings she started with.  But, the gelding she recently acquired has her frustrated and looking for answers.

Trainers have told this woman that she is too passive with her horses and that she ‘lets them get away with too much”.

The frustrations and challenges this woman has with her horse are common – especially with a new horse.  I’ve shared her email below to give you her full story.  Then I’ve focused on 3 points that stood out to me and gave me a good idea of what’s happening between her and this horse.

“My two geldings I’ve had this entire time have never challenged me. They’re pretty laid back, low-ranking horses.  I just got a new horse that’s a whole different story and he has exposed me. The trainer who sold him to me said he is going to take you to another level.  He also told me he was a “in your hip pocket” kind of horse.  So when he first start nudging with head and nipping when I pet him, I just thought he was being playful and friendly.  My other two horses don’t do this.   I wasn’t prepared.  It was subtle at first, then got worse and worse.  Then one day he literally ran over me trying to get in stall and push another horse out. That’s when I Googled for answers and discovered my horse had lost respect for me as his alpha horse and he was now the leader.

I start reading all I could on what to do to regain his respect and assume my role again.  So I basically started “herding” him in every situation I could.  I “free lunged” him in the arena and did the join up and had the licking of lips, yielding hindquarters, all that.   Even when I go out to feed twice a day I herd him to his feed instead of letting him walk behind me like I used to. But still, I felt like there was still something missing.  

The “willingness” to follow me or be my partner is not there. So I found myself still searching because I feel like his attitude is “I will move because you are forcing me to, but I don’t like you and I’m not doing it because I want to.”

I guess my question is, is this something that is going to come in time, or am I possibly being a bully by not understanding that even standing in the wrong position while herding him or using the lunge whip could be sending the wrong vibe?  Geez, this is so complicated to me.

Just when I think I have it right, by being lots more aggressive, I see that maybe I’m bordering on being bullying, causing him not to trust me, and still not getting the desired relationship, which is one built on respect and trust.  I just know that even after I lunge him and he licks his lips and follows me all around, if I attempt to rub him on neck or head, he will still nudge and semi-nip, like he is annoyed.

I am having trouble leading him as well.  I read that a horse is more confident following while being lead, so I tried that, but he is constantly trying to bump into me, plus it feels like he is “pushing” me, so I don’t think I should do that. Then when I lead him from shoulder, I am constantly having to bump my elbow to keep him out of space and he gets all wide-eyed and acts all offended.  

I am so discouraged right now.  I just want to get something right.  I feel like I can’t touch him, pet him, reward him, because when you give him an inch, he takes a mile. I will take any advice you can offer.  You have made the most sense to me than all the other articles combined!!! Thank you!

As I like to say, “you don’t always get the horse you want; you get the horse you need”.   But, I have good news for you – it may be simpler to change your relationship with your horse than you think.  I’ve picked out 3 points from the email that stuck out for me and give a pretty good idea of what is going on in this relationship.

1) “So when he first started nudging with me with his head and nipping when I pat him, I just thought he was being playful and friendly.  If I attempt to rub him on neck or head, he will still nudge and semi-nip, like he is annoyed.”  

Your horse is telling you that he does not like his face and neck being touched.   This is an ‘intimate’ area for horses and we need to earn the right to be in there.  I relate it to meeting someone you have just met or someone you don’t know very well who assumes to give you a great, big bare hug. It’s not a very comfortable feeling.  Some people just stand there politely and tolerate it.  Other people might have a more ‘volatile’ reaction – from stepping away to put some distance between them and the other person or even pushing the person away.

Humans greet each other face to face.  We share this trait with our dog and cat pets because it is a predator based behaviour.  Watch how horses approach each other when they are being passive or friendly.  They extend their lowered neck and head softly towards the other horse (or human).  The other horse extends his/her neck and they exchange breath. If they are bonded, they come closer bending their bodies away from each other and share in some mutual grooming – generally on the withers or along the back.

Only when horses are challenging or telling another horse to move out of their way do they approach with a high head and strong energy.  Going ‘head to head’ is aggressive, bullying body language in horses – picture 2 stallions fighting.  This is what colts and geldings are mimicking when they play halter tag.  Predators also approach the head and neck.

When you want to pat your horse, approach with softened body language (just soften the energy coming from your core), and walk in an arc to his shoulder.  Rub or scratch his withers (horses don’t pat each other).  This is the sweet spot that all horses like to have scratched.  Make sure you are standing with your weight away from his head/neck.  By that I mean, don’t cock your hip towards his head.  Try this with your horse and let me know how it goes.

2) So I basically started “herding” him in every situation I could.  I “free lunged” him in the arena and did the join up and had the licking of lips, yielding hindquarters, etc.  Even when I go out to feed twice a day I herd him to his feed instead of letting him walk behind me like I used to.  

Only horses that are bullies herd other horses all the time.  Instead of constantly asking him to move, enforce your personal space boundaries.  Carry a whip or a rope with you if necessary and just use it to extend your arm.  Keep it low – pointing at the ground and only bringing up as high as your waist if your horse needs a stronger message.  Move the whip back and forth to define your bubble.  Some horse’s are sensitive enough that just pointing the end of the whip towards them will get them to back off.  Others might need a stronger energy coming from twirling the lash. Always bring the lash from the ground up towards the horse because this is less aggressive than bringing it the other way.

When you put a new horse in with a herd, there is usually a bit of running for a few minutes.  But, soon everyone settles down and one horse (usually the 2nd in the herd hierarchy) takes on the job of keeping the new horse out of the herd.  She decides how close the new horse can come and as soon as she crosses the line, #2 chases her out.  Once she is outside of that line, #2 leaves her alone.  This is simply defining personal space. Eventually, that space gets smaller and smaller until the new horse establishes her place in the herd hierarchy.

3) I constantly have to bump my elbow to keep him out of space and he gets all wide-eyed and acts all offended.  

When you have established your personal space with your horse in the field, you may find that it is much easier to lead him without him crowding you.  There are two other things that might be causing this problem however:

i) If you are standing in just in front of his shoulder when you lead him, you are in that sensitive head/neck zone.

ii) If your core (belly button) is aiming towards his head/neck.

Both of these things relate to your alignment to your horse and can cause him to turn his head away from you which then causes his shoulder to push into you.  So you are constantly fixing what you are inadvertently causing.

When you lead from his shoulder, your hip should be lined up with the middle of his shoulder.  Your core and his spine should be on parallel tracks.  So, if there were laser beams coming out of your centre and your horse’s nose, they would look like train tracks in front of you.

The photo below shows me leading a horse from the shoulder with correct alignment.

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When establishing a relationship with your horse based on mutual trust and respect, don’t mistake being a ‘leader’ with being a bully or being a ‘friend’ with being a push-over.  The ideal relationship should be more like that of a bonded pair within the herd.  Although one horse will yield to the other, there is rarely any aggression between them and they enjoy hanging out together.

Isn’t that what you want with your horse?

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Watch for my book coming soon – “Confident Rider, Confident Horse: Build Your Confidence While Improving Your Partnership with Your Horse from the Ground to the Saddle”

Interested in organizing a clinic at your location? Click here for more information.

Let’s spread the word about a better way to work with horses.  Share this blog with 3 friends, send a Tweet or post a link on your Facebook page.  The horses thank you.

You’re welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you include my credit information: ~ Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship (www.annegage.com).  

I would also appreciate it if you’d send me a copy for my media files.

Anne Gage ~ Confident Horsemanship

www.annegage.com
www.facebook.com/ConfidentHorsemanshp
Facebook Group – Horseback Riding Solutions with Anne Gage
www.twitter.com/AnneGage

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Are You Really Listening to What Your Horse is Saying?

Aside

I read the following thread on a forum in the ‘horse training’ section. 

I’ve started working with one of the horses at the barn and I’ve noticed that when I ask him to do a game such as “Hide the Hiney”, he pins his ears back but shows absolutely no aggression towards me. With all the other ground work we do this is the only game in which he does this. He is a very gentle horse and always does what I ask. I was just wondering why he is pinning his ears back and is it something I need to be concerned about? Also if it is a concern how can I teach him to not pin his ears back when playing games? Thanks for all your help!

I admit that I am not familiar with this game of “Hide the Hiney” and had to do a Google search.  It’s one of the games taught by Parelli to get the horse to move his hindquarters.  If you (like me) haven’t seen it before, here’s a short video showing someone doing it with her horse.

There were 3 comments in this post that really caught my attention:

1) he pins his ears back but shows absolutely no aggression towards me

Horses’ ears are an important part of their body language and the messages they give should not be ignored.  Ears that are pinned flat back are a sign that the horse is annoyed.  Not every horse that is annoyed will act aggressively, but it should always be seen that the horse is giving a warning.  Pay attention to it.

2) this is the only game in which he does this

At the very least, it means the horse does not like what you are doing.  So something about this particular ‘game’ is annoying this horse.  The horse in the video also seems to be annoyed by it.  Watch for the spots in the video where he pins his ears back (there are a few). And watch the expression on his face.  Not happy.

Remember ‘show and tell’ from kindergarten?  Horses show and tell us how they are feeling through their posture and body movements.  The raised head and pinned ears of the horse in this video tell that he is not happy about something that is going on.  An empathetic trainer (yes, that means you whenever you work with your horse), pays attention to the horses signals and does her best to figure out what is causing that behaviour.

Is the horse just challenging because he doesn’t want to do that movement?  Then how can you break it down to make it simpler and easier for him?

Is the horse confused by something you are doing? How can you adjust your body language – position, posture and energy – to make it more clear to him?

Is he being affected by something else in the environment?  How can you bring his focus and attention back to you while keeping him feeling calm, safe and secure?

3) how can I teach him to not pin his ears back when playing games

Now this question really concerned me!  Even if you can, you shouldn’t teach a horse to not pin his ears back.  That would be like putting duct tape over your mouth.  If you want to really have a true bond with your horse, he must be allowed to express how he is feeling.  And he does that by showing it with his body language.  It may be a game for you, but it’s not a game your horse enjoys.  Ask yourself what the point of the ‘game’ is and look for another way that will get the same result, but that your horse doesn’t get annoyed about.

We use body language cues as a large part of our communication, too.  Many years ago, I used to not like being hugged by friends and had a friend who was unrelenting ‘hugger’.  I knew every time I met her, she was going to hug me.  I didn’t like it, but I did like my friend.  So, I would think ‘uh oh, here it comes’ and brace my entire body.  She would give me a hug and I would stand like a rock enduring it until it was over.  Now, my friend knew I didn’t like her hugs, but she was convinced that she was going to change how I felt by forcing her hugs on me.  I tolerated it, but didn’t enjoy it.  Your horse can feel the same way about some things that you are doing.  Pay attention to his body language and respect how he is feeling.  Try changing your approach.  Change how you are asking – your position, your posture, your energy.

Your horse’s body language will tell you when you’ve got it right for him.  And then you can both enjoy the game together.

Pay attention to his cues.  Don’t try to turn them off because they ‘bother’ or ‘concern’ you.  Honest, direct communication is a key part of any healthy relationship.  Respect and honour your horse’s right to express his feelings so you know what he needs.  This will strengthen your bond with him.

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Watch for my book coming soon – “Confident Rider, Confident Horse: Build Your Confidence While Improving Your Partnership with Your Horse from the Ground to the Saddle”

 

Interested in organizing a clinic at your location? Click here for more information.

Let’s spread the word about a better way to work with horses.  Share this blog with 3 friends, send a Tweet or post a link on your Facebook page.  The horses thank you.

You’re welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you include my credit information: ~ Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship (www.annegage.com).  

I would also appreciate it if you’d send me a copy for my media files.

Anne Gage ~ Confident Horsemanship

www.annegage.com
www.facebook.com/ConfidentHorsemanshp
Facebook Group – Horseback Riding Solutions with Anne Gage
www.twitter.com/AnneGage
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Horse Training – Demanding vs. Earning Your Horse’s Respect

I recently read an article by a Well Known Clinician in which she was offering tips for training a horse that did not want to go out on the trail alone. I agreed with her on several points:

  • The reason this is such a common problem – horses are reluctant to leave the security they feel with their herd mates.
  • That it would not be an overnight fix, but would take at least several weeks of training to resolve.
  • That the work would have the benefits of making the horse safer and more willing.
  • That ground work must be the starting point of the re-training.
  • That the horse needs to have his attention on you (the trainer/rider) rather than on his herd or distractions in the environment.

But, I disagreed with the Well Known Clinician’s instructions to:

  • “demand respect”,
  • not let him “get away with” small disobediences, and
  • “make him walk through” things that he is avoiding.

The words we use affect our behaviour.  What feelings and thoughts come to your mind when you hear the word “demand” or the phrase “don’t let him get away with …” or “make him do it”?  What comes to my mind is aggression, force, conflict.  There is a winner and a loser.  It feels dictatorial and unsympathetic to the needs and feelings of the other party – whether that is a human or a horse.  This way of thinking, in my mind, sets up a “master/servant” type of relationship.

When I work with horses, my aim is to create a willing partnership based on respect, trust and cooperation.  These elements are much stronger when they are earned rather than demanded.

Respect is earned by having clear, consistent and appropriate boundaries.

Trust is earned by paying attention to what the horse needs and then giving him that.

Confidence is built by decreasing his stress and helping him to feel calm and safe.

I want the horse to choose to follow me not because he is afraid of me, but because he feels safe with me – mentally as well as physically.

Behaviour is communication.  If the horse is not behaving or responding the way I would like him to, I don’t consider that as “disobedience”.

Rather than “not letting him get away with small disobediences”, I consider why the horse has a certain behaviour.  For example, if he won’t stand still for mounting I consider possible reasons.  Is he experiencing pain, anxiety or fear?  When I address the reason and give the horse what he needs to be calm and relaxed, then he will be able and willing to stand quietly.

Rather than “making him walk through things he is avoiding”, I consider his perspective as a flight, prey animal.  If he is concerned about a particular object, I will work with him in his “comfort zone” and gradually expand that area while I help to keep him in a calm, level frame.  In this way, I build his trust in me and his confidence increases.

When you earn your horse’s respect and trust, he will become more willing and confident – naturally.   You horse will feel safe, calm and relaxed whenever he is with you – even when he is away from his herd mates.

Click here to watch a short video (6.29 min) to see how I apply these principles when working with a horse in-hand (leading in contact) to build trust, respect and confidence.

Please do post your comments or questions below.

If you would like to help spread the word about a better way to work with horses, please share this blog with 5 friends, send a Tweet or post on your Facebook page.  The horses thank you.
 
You are welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you include my credit information:
Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship (www.annegage.com).  I would also appreciate it if you’d send me a copy for my media files.
 
Anne Gage
Confident Horsemanship
www.annegage.com
www.facebook.com/ConfidentHorsemanship
www.twitter.com/AnneGage

Losing Confidence in the Saddle? How Your Horse’s Shape Affects You… and Him

It’s important for every rider to pay attention to their horse’s shape.  While we should look at the whole picture, in this blog entry I am going to focus on 3 natural shapes of the horse’s back.

  1. Level – meaning neutral or straight
  2. Round – meaning lifted or convex
  3. Hollow – meaning dropped or concave

Each of these shapes is natural for the horse.  Each one effects the horse physiologically as well as psychologically.

Level Back at walk

Level & Round:For riding, the ideal shape of the horse’s back is to be level or lifted.  In these frames, the horse’s hindquarters are engaged as they reach well underneath his body.  This creates impulsion as his hindquarters are driving his forward movement.  His head and neck can work as the balancing mechanism they are built to be. The further the hind legs reach under the body, the more the back naturally lifts.  The horse can move with elegance and ease through all transitions and in all gaits.  He can collect and extend his stride, jump obstacles gracefully, and comfortably carry a rider

Lifted Back at Trot. Note how far the left hind foot is reaching under the body. The diagonally opposite front and hind legs have the same angles.

Lifted Back at Canter. Note the right hind leg reaching well under the body and the elevation of the front end.

Hollow: Unfortunately, it is far too common to see horses being worked in a hollow

Hollow Back in canter. Compare the reach of the hind leg in this photo to the one above.

backed frame in all disciplines of riding.  The hindquarters trail behind and the front end pulls him forward.  His balance is compromised because his head and neck become braced and tense.  He moves awkwardly and inefficiently through transitions and in all gaits   His movements are jarring and uncomfortable.  He looks and feels uncomfortable as his muscles, joints and mind are stressed and strained.

Riding a hollow backed horse presents more challenges to you physically, but also mentally because the hollow backed horse is:

  1. mentally in flight mode
  2. difficult to control at all gaits and is usually out of control at the gallop
  3. difficult to slow down because he cannot get his hindquarters underneath himself
  4. unbalanced especially when starting, stopping and in transitions (both upwards and downwards)

Of course, all of these situation can create more tension in the rider – especially a nervous or inexperienced one.

Nervous Riders & the Hollow Backed Horse: Many nervous riders end up with hollow backed horses.  The tension in the rider’s seat, back, legs and arms are mirrored in the horse’s body.  The horse drops his back as he feels rigid, driving pressure from the riders’ seat.  His neck braces as the rider uses the reins for support.

A viscous cycle has started with both horse and rider feeling stressed, tense and unbalanced.  The problem is compounded as the physically stressed horse is also more mentally stressed and reactive because he is in constant flight mode.  His movements are faster and he becomes more and more easily spooked.

 An inexperienced or nervous rider who has a good basic position will still find it difficult to maintain her position, balance, posture and suppleness when riding a hollow backed horse.  It takes an experienced and relaxed rider to work through the horse’s hollowness bringing him to a level and eventually a round frame.

If you find yourself in this situation, it is time to go back to basics and to get help from an experienced, empathetic horse trainer and riding coach.  Find someone who can work with your horse as well as with you.

The trainer/coach should have a good foundation in ground work that improves your horse’s frame – no running around high headed, hollow backed, counter bent and unbalanced on the lunge line.  Your horse needs to be balanced, relaxed, stretching and in true bend to strengthen his hindquarters and back muscles.   He or she should also be able to do the same for horse in the saddle without using gadgets to create a head set.

As your horse’s shape becomes consistently level (and eventually round), you will find that he is more calm, graceful and less spooky.  You will find that your own riding reflects these changes.

Confident Horse & Rider

Enjoy the journey.  It takes as long as it takes and there is no destination.

If you would like to help spread the word about a better way to work with horses, please share this blog with 5 friends, send a Tweet or post on your Facebook page.  The horses thank you.
 
You are welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you include my credit information:
Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship (www.annegage.com).  I would also appreciate it if you’d send me a copy for my media files.
 
Anne Gage
Confident Horsemanship
www.annegage.com
www.facebook.com/ConfidentHorsemanship
www.twitter.com/AnneGage