Part Two: Norman, Is That You? (The Reactive Horse)

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Last week, I wrote about horses who are The Strong Silent Type. This horse is the opposite.

Describing him sounds like reading the judge’s comments on a marginal dressage test: Tense in the back. Tight in the poll. Hollow. Too quick. It doesn’t stop there. He has twitchy eyes, a furrowed brow, and he clenches his jaw. Sometimes his head is so high you almost unable to see around it and the muscle under his neck is stronger than the one on top. His flank feels rock hard and his breath is as shallow as yours.

“We all go a little mad sometimes.” -Norman Bates, Psycho

And it isn’t just physical. It’s the way his mind works, as well. He reacts; when a different horse might reason it out, he jumps to conclusions, usually the worst. Everything seems like it’s on the big screen; he’s dramatic and impulsive.  Sometimes he gets sullen, almost pouting, and a minute later, he’s hysterical, jigging as if his hooves were on hot coals.

People cluck their thick tongues, and shake their heads and suggest, oh, so very delicately!” -Norman Bates, Psycho

He’s just really sensitive, they say. Really? I consider most horses on a continuum; one end being stoic and the other end being reactive or demonstrative. It isn’t that some horses are more sensitive than others; they just express their emotions differently.

My horse acts this way because he’s hot-blooded, they say. Sure, some breeds are more energetic and athletic than others, but to my eye, many of these reactive horses look frightened or in pain. Can the rider truly tell the difference between personality and behavior? Are they certain he is sound?

Does your horse make strange faces? Maybe he twists his neck and chews his tongue. He paws with impatience and pins his ears when it’s suppertime. Or he grinds his teeth, or flips his head, or you can routinely see white around his eyes.

Could your horse have ulcers? They are ridiculously common and practically all the behaviors I’ve listed so far could be symptoms. Think about it; no one denies the connection between ulcers and colic, still horse’s number one killer. On the high side, we didn’t always know as much as we do now; it’s actually a great time to have ulcers. There’s so much help available. (Just to clarify, stoic horses have as many ulcers as reactive horses do, but worse, they just keep it to themselves.)

What if these behaviors that we correct or punish are actually calls for help?

She’s just mare-y, they say. No, mares aren’t just naturally cranky. Their hormones make them more like stallions than geldings… and ovarian cysts are one of the most under-diagnosed conditions. On top of that, the discomfort of that situation could cause a secondary condition of ulcers. So, lighten up on name-calling mares already.

He’s an alpha horse, they say. But just like humans, leadership isn’t the same as dominance. The herd hierarchy has much more nuance than that. In my experience, alphas like a break from trying to control the universe and enjoy the peace that comes from positive training.

He’s never quite mean, they say. It’s almost like he tries too hard. Exactly! Reactive horses are responsive, intuitive, and connected. They have contagious enthusiasm, backed by intellect. They are radiant and intense and luminous. And yes, they have hearts that burst with try. Don’t believe me? Watch a thoroughbred run in slow motion.

More often, it’s us that fails them. We think it takes courage to ride a reactive horse, but what if compassion is really what’s needed?

Disclaimer: Horses are fully dimensional sentient creatures. The continuum between stoic and reactive is meant to help understand that horses are not brain-dead plow-horses or ditzy hotheads. They are individuals with complicated combinations of temperament, training, and past experience.

Anxiety is a different thing entirely, not necessary, or permanent. There are positive solutions that will build partnership, and from that place of security, allow the horse to give you his most brilliant work. Essential point: A good rider listens to every horse with wide-open ears, accepts who the horse is, and then begins the conversation right there.

How to best partner with a reactive horse? First, don’t minimize his intelligence. And you might want to sharpen your own attention a bit. Now, if you want to dominate something, control your own self; make your seat soft. Breathe slowly, deep into your lungs. Require your cues to him to be invisibly small. Most of all, don’t pull on his face. Why make him feel claustrophobic when the responsibility for elastic, soft contact belongs with the rider?

Horses and humans both tend to speed up when they get nervous or think they’re losing control. Resist the urge. Go slow. Runaways happen one step at a time and if it seems like the energy builds stride by stride, perhaps he’s never been taught the joy of a downward transition. (Stoic horses excel at this.) Reward him for doing less.

Walk a lot, then ask for a trot, but in just a few strides, before he accelerates, exhale back to the walk. Repeat, and for now, always bring him back before the anxiety grows. (Neanderthal training methods would say that you’re teaching your horse to quit by cuing a short trot, but nothing could be farther than the truth. Running a horse until he’s tired and submits doesn’t train him; it institutionalizes anxiety.) Downward transitions allow his trot will be more relaxed because he knows how it ends. Teach half-halts and halts from your leg. Leave his face alone.

School lots of downward transitions, with immense praise. Breathe. Let it be a slow dance.

Reward the least thing, so he understands that less is more. Let your mind be slow; he’ll take the cue from you. Give him the confidence to let go of his fear and know he doesn’t need to try so hard. Then, when his poll is its softest, shut-up, jump down, and step a few feet away from him. Watch him bask in the glow of being anxiety-free. See him stand quiet and still, let his eyes go soft, and droop that bottom lip.

Confidence is the greatest gift any rider can give their horse. Period.

The ultimate goal is riding well enough to help each horse find the center of this stoic/reactive continuum. So, with trust and contentment, the horse is free to feel the dynamic strength and power of his own body. Relaxed and forward. 

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Now What? (and Other News)

Now is the winter of my discontent. Hurry spring.

A post from my other blog. Yes, I have another blog. Click: Now What? (and Other News)

Photo Challenge: A Good Match

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A contrarian and a curmudgeon;
fairy tale non-believers
with parallel differences,
kindly melding the gaps.
Together.
Separately.
….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

A Good Match

Part One: The Strong Silent Type (Of Horse)

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I’ve said it before: While growing up, I saw She Wore a Yellow Ribbon more often than I saw my relatives. My father oversaw the TV and he liked real men like Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne. (I’m sure you can guess what he thought about James Dean.)

Later, like lots of us, I bought the notion of a strong, silent leading man when it came to movie star crushes. They had square jaws and walked with a swagger, always a little mysterious. I should stress here that they were acting. It was my mid-thirties before I connected the crash between my taste in movie idols and my constant whining that the man I was dating wouldn’t talk to me. Duh.

It took longer for it to dawn on me that my horse was stoic, too. His resistance wasn’t easy to read. He hid lameness and acted tough. He did what I asked, even if it was too much. Neither of us wanted to admit that we probably held a grudge. We liked each other, so instead it was more like passive aggression on both sides. Truth be told, you can’t force a horse talk to you anymore than you can a man. In hindsight, I think some of our training problems were more from ulcer pain than anything, but again, he didn’t give me the usual signs that a more reactive horse might have. I’m still apologizing for that.

Disclaimer: I am extremely aware that trainers love to classify horses into personality types that over-simplify horses, so it’s easier for novice horse owners to make assumptions. None of us are that easy to pigeon-hole.

Instead, I consider most horses on a continuum, one end being stoic and the other end being demonstrative. I deliberately choose these vague words, give lots of room for individuality, and always remember that it isn’t that some horses are more sensitive than others; they just express their emotions differently.

That said, people like stoic horses because they seem quiet and easy on the surface. They’re commonly lesson horses, therapy horses, and kid horses.

Here’s a definition from Dictionary.com– Stoicism: the endurance of pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint. Synonyms: patience, forbearance, resignation, fortitude, endurance, acceptance, tolerance.

Does this definition make you a bit sad? What sounds heroic in a movie character is kind of soul-killing for a creature as beautiful as a horse. If you are a dominating rider, you might want that kind of hostage mentality, but if you are hoping for an equine partner, this is leadership without heart.

Old timers had another word they used for stoic horses who seemed almost too easy to read: Counterfeit. They looked like the real thing, but there was something not quite right.

It isn’t that stoic horses are dishonest; they’re subtle communicators. If our cues get loud or inconsistent, he just tucks inside of himself. It isn’t disobedience so much as self-defense. He could look well-trained, but his eyes are dead. You might want to think everything is fine but as time passes, and he gets more withdrawn. He might drop his head between his knees in submission; he might look like a push-button pleasure horse on the surface, but he gives you none of his heart. He doesn’t want to try. Maybe you’ll call him lazy and kick harder, but louder cues will just shut him down more. If you are honest, it feels more like coercion then partnership. (Don’t even dare consider spurs.)

Then it happens, just like the big bloody shoot-out at the end of a western movie. After he’s taken all he can, a stoic horse might explode with emotion. The rider says, “Everything was just fine but suddenly, for no good reason, my horse just started bucking.” Or worse, all the light in their eyes finally goes totally black and they just lose the will to live, looking years older than their age. (Not that it’s my business, but if this is your goal–a blindly obedient, soul-dead ride–then please, don’t have children.)

How to best partner with a stoic horse? First, don’t minimize his intelligence. Especially if he’s a draft breed. Assume he hates being under-estimated and talked down to just as much as you do. Breathe yourself quiet. Show him respect and don’t interrupt his thought process. Wait for him to volunteer. Listening will require better patience and effort; stoic horses aren’t as blunt as demonstrative horses. Rather than bullying him through work, let him be who he is and answer in his own way. Yes, he will answer eventually, but you don’t get to be the boss of that. Allowing that horse to volunteer is your single goal.

When he gets the answer right, or even partly right, reward him lavishly. Let him know that his input matters. He might act a bit like the shy kid who blushes when the teacher praises him in class. That’s how you can tell it’s working.

Now the tendency of your work together is starting to shift. Instead of being a robot, he might even offer something more than you ask for. Yay, and don’t you dare correct him for trying too hard. See the big picture: He’s learning and shaping his behavior is much more important than demanding perfection.

Nurture this little sprig of confidence. Reward him with a big release. Like that same shy school kid, he doesn’t want to be hugged until he faints; instead slack the reins or the lead. Release! Let him stand on his own feet and feel pride in himself. Pause. Let his introverted bravado bask in the broad daylight. Then reward that; thank him for his honesty.

The day will come when the two of you will be together and you’ll show him a challenge. Just reveal it; nothing more. In your quiet mind, you’ll hear him say, “I got this.” You’ll feel him breathe; your legs expanding with his chest as his steps out.

Confidence is the greatest gift any rider can give their horse. Period.

 

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Photo Challenge: Against the Odds

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Hailed a far distance,
heart-sore,
across broken peaks
and thirsty creek beds,
to surrender the ache
in the cooling air
at the edge of the stars;
home.
….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo–I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. I take these photos with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

What To Do When Your Horse Is Wrong

WMIntoSunsetIt started small. It started the way it usually starts; the rider pulled on her horse’s face. It’s a fundamental disagreement: the rider thinks it’s her right to control the horse and the horse doesn’t like having metal jammed on his jaw bone. They weren’t even on the same subject.

So, the gelding got fussy. The rider kicked and steered, trying to make him go. But the horse heard more whoa than go; all the steering happened by pulling the rein back, not that is was ever the rider’s intention to give the horse conflicting cues. There was head-tossing and mouth-gaping. It started small.

The next part is tough. Maybe it’s because we’re predators or maybe it’s our ego about having our way, or maybe we’ve been taught that we must show them who’s boss in some Neanderthal version of dominance, but it’s as if the rider has blinders on, unable to see (hear) her horse. The horse notices it immediately. It takes the rider longer, of course. It isn’t that the rider is mean or belligerent; she just believes she’s right.

It’s just about now that things can start to speed up. It’s like we have a snowball theory of disaster that says if the horse hesitates a second, or gives just one thought of resistance, then all is lost. That one small action will necessarily gain speed and size, like a snowball rolling down a hill, and so we panic and accelerate. Which, by the way, works like a cue for the horse, too. Now things are coming apart quickly.

“If you get bucked off or kicked or bitten, you obviously did something wrong, and that’s just too bad. The horse, on the other hand, is never, ever wrong.” -Ray Hunt

Yes, it’s a quote by a western trainer, Ray Hunt. Lots of classical dressage trainers say the exact same thing, but not with the same blunt honesty.

So right now, I’m hoping that the rider is frustrated. And if the rider pauses before throwing a temper tantrum, she might actually feel that frustration and anxiety, and take it as a cue to herself, to go slow. Hooray! It’s a huge win to recognize an internal feeling and stop the snowball race long enough to become self-aware.

And in that tiny pause that feels almost like surrender to the rider, the horse can take that cue, too, and things begin to decompress immediately. It seems like an accident at first, almost a kind of butt-fall into better leadership, but it counts. Your horse just confirmed it and rewarded you for better behavior. You have to wonder who’s training who? But if you’re smart, you accept the invitation to partnership and start the ride again.

First, let a moment or two pass. It’ll feel like forever, but you are teaching yourself patience. When you label it that way, it should feel slow. Learn to enjoy it.

Now the game begins. It’s that game that we all played as kids; we called it Hot and Cold. As we searched for something hidden, others let us know we were getting warmer and cooler.

It’s a good comparison because training should feel a bit like the two of you feeling your way in a dark room. You are directing your horse toward something he doesn’t have a word for. And if the only answer you accept is perfection, then it’s you that’s failed. Instead, you are negotiating a better answer each time, by rewarding him as he gets warmer. The dog training term for that is shaping a behavior, step by step. Or if you’re a behavioral scientist, you call it successive approximation, meaning an approximate answer on the way to the right answer.

Regardless of what you call it, it means that you have evolved away from being someone focused on failure who makes serial corrections; nagging the horse about what he’s done wrong, again and again, making each ride a punishment. Now training becomes more like a game of cooperative hide-and-seek, with habitual rewards for the efforts your horse puts into the work. The more he offers, the happier everyone is. Now it’s as if you nag him about being a smart horse.

Here’s where creativity matters the most. Knowing that your horse is never wrong, it’s the rider’s challenge to ask a better question, then accept and reward that answer, and continue patiently and cheerfully, until the best habit is consistent. Training is nothing more than the “serious work” of playing a game of collecting and rewarding good experience for your horse.

A moment for the cynics in every discipline that will say that positive training is fine for trail horses or amateur horses, but if they’re asking for really hard advanced work, then pushing the horse hard is justified, whether it’s reining or dressage or jumping. Shame on them for selling their horses short, and for thinking so little of their own skills.

So, there you are in the middle of your ride. Take a breath and remember the best ride you ever saw. It doesn’t matter what riding discipline, but the horse’s ears weren’t pinned and his tail wasn’t clamped. He lifted his feet and his body looked strong and soft at the same time. It was freedom and partnership and trust, and most of all, you could tell it was art because it lifted your heart.

Then, whether you are a beginning trail rider or an ambitious competitor, ask your horse if he wants to play a game. Start where your horse is at right now. Ask for just a stride of walk, and reward him generously. Let it be enough, as you set about helping your horse be totally right.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Photo Challenge: Shadow

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I mean to blur the edge,
a half-stop between dark and light,
of the distance between us.

He’s walked on from this place
but just over my shoulder,
his shadow warms the ground.

Afterglow.

….

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo–I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. I take these photos with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Shadow