Is there a quick easy answer to solve problems that we may be having with our horse?
Updated: Aug 20
To speak to the “quick and easy” question in the title, let me first tell you a bit about my history and as well as some later experiences while teaching We move as One Natural Horsemanship.
As many of you have heard directly from me or read on my website, I struggled a number of years ago with my horses. Not only did my challenges affect my horses … for me personally, it led to fear, unhappiness, and feelings of failure.
One of my horses was a very timid and insecure thoroughbred. She was a very fearful girl who lacked confidence and although she had looked to humans for comfort (if another horse wasn’t around), she had mostly found that humans couldn’t help her.
When I adopted her, she was very good at home although extremely bracey or resistant. It was clear that people in her past were very strong with the reins and put too much pressure on her; so, she was afraid to move forward into the bit and moved her feet in staccato with resistance and much tension. In fact, her braciness and tightness caused her to develop neck muscling that was totally inverted…muscling on the bottom and hollow on the top.
Out on the trails, her braciness was ten-fold along with being mostly scared out of her mind. If she was worried about going forward, she would go careening backwards. Once, she backed me up a huge hill right up to someone’s front door. She would back into boulders, stone walls, and would scare me into thinking she would back into ravines; she would come darn close to falling into those ravines!
Trainers and people that I knew suggested many quick fixes: “stronger bit”, “try different crops”, “just push her through it”, “punish her with working harder”, “don’t allow her to go back to the barn; just keep working her and working her ‘til she calms down…then let her go home”. Some trainers while trying to ride her when she became resistant and scared would get off her. Getting off is understandable because when horses are that bracey and tense, they’ll do ANYTHING to survive. She was wide-eyed, her head was a mile in the air, she wouldn’t move (except possibly backwards), she’d bulge her shoulder out to try to spin towards home to the point of being grossly unbalanced which felt like she could fall, and sometimes she’d just keep screaming for another horse.
At some point, I came across Natural Horsemanship, but initially that didn’t work either. However, let me be clear, it ONLY didn’t work because I didn’t understand; my mind was in the wrong place; and I was executing the concepts totally incorrectly.
In fact, even though I was learning about natural horsemanship, my mind was still in the “traditional horsemanship” frame of mind. I wanted to get out on the trails for hours like I used to; do what I used to do with my prior horses; plus, I wanted to jump coops, stone walls and other obstacles on the trails like I had also done with previous horses. In my mind, I thought why can’t I do this? I wasn’t able to wrap my head around why I couldn’t solve these problems quickly. After all, I was fox hunting only months prior with my last horse, had ridden over my life in four different hunts, participated regularly in hunter paces, did some showing, and had even ridden a couple of times in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
At the time, I believed that I was thinking from a natural horsemanship perspective, but I was totally wrong! I kept looking for quick fixes; I thought I could find one solution for a scared bracey horse. Reading through natural horsemanship books, I would look for that ONE answer. Fast forwarding through many clinician’s natural horsemanship videos, again I would search for that ONE answer. I would ask natural horsemanship trainers for that ONE solution. I’d do some groundwork that I had seen and then hop in the saddle and try to push my horse to go further than she was comfortable … and further than I was actually comfortable. I was trying to prove to myself that I could fix this problem and I was embarrassed that seemingly I couldn’t. I couldn’t figure out why this process wasn’t working. Bottom line was I felt like a failure; I had totally lost my confidence, and I really wasn’t enjoying my time with my horses like I had in the past. Additionally when I had opportunities to ride other horses, I became nervous as well … which had never happened before.
Yes, there were times I forced myself and my horse out on the trails and sometimes it went marginally well; my horse was still bracey, but we got through. However, ultimately it would always revert back to extreme situations. A loud truck would pass, an unusual sound would happen, or we’d run into other horses, and then my horse would totally freeze up. Interestingly, I know now that she was looking for support from me; I remember her turning her ear(s) back towards me looking for help, but I didn’t know then how to give that to her. So, she’d start throwing her head, raising her tail and head in the air, trying to run towards home, maybe she’d scream, maybe buck a little, plus all the other assorted fearful behaviors. And there we were: both of us scared AGAIN!
One time we were jumping a stone wall and on take-off through mid-jump, she (being a timid horse) never committed to the jump. She needed clear communication and conviction from me. Anyway, she ended up hitting the top of the stone wall with her front legs, got hung up and we nearly flipped. I came off and was mostly unhurt. She, however, needed a few stitches over her cannon bone; thankfully, she had a full recovery in a week or so. The bottom-line for this episode and others was that we had not developed mutual respect, nor mutual trust and we definitely did not have clear back-and-forth communication (particularly on my end with regard to energy communication). I was clearly not giving her what she needed to feel safe and confident. We were not making smooth progress the way I had hoped.
I didn’t realize then that I was getting in my own way. The concepts of natural horsemanship were not getting into my “thick skull” 😖. Thinking that there’s going to be a quick fix in any relationship isn’t realistic. And, it’s ridiculous to imagine that I could solve my fear and confidence issues as well as my horse’s lack of trust in me which had taken time to develop … LICKETY-SPLIT … just like that!
It’s obvious to me now that I didn’t appreciate the idea of “mutual trust” between horse and human nor did I understand that trust takes TIME to build …. yet it can be lost very quickly. It took me a long time to grasp the idea that natural horsemanship is a mindset and a process … NOT just a skill set.
Fast forward to current day: while teaching We move as One Natural Horsemanship, I am totally amazed by most of my clients. They far surpass me in terms of being able to re-think what they learned in their past horsemanship and then apply natural horsemanship principles to everything they do. These clients not only find ways to enhance what they learn but have been able to progress along with their horses far faster than I was able to years ago. I’ve also found that once these clients realize how much concentration is involved to be clear in communication, they have become masters at “being in the moment” and connecting with their horse’s needs. So proud 😀!
However, I have also had some clients over the years who have the same problem that I had years ago; they “get in their own way”. Here’s a couple of examples:
I teach communicate on the ground with horses in a way that makes sense to the horse and whereby the human takes on the role of a benevolent leader. I coach the initial basics like leading a horse using clear communication; defined spatial direction and boundaries for the horse; all the while without allowing the horse to push into the human. In the process of practicing this exercise and asking clients to be very particular, I’ve had some clients argue: “my horse ISN’T pushing me”, “my horse IS where I want him/her”, “I can’t bite* my horse”, “it’s mean to bite* my horse”, etc. I’ll then reiterate the concepts of herd dynamics and go over horses’ needs and review that if there isn’t clarity and structure in a herd, a herd won’t survive. However, I’ve learned that sometimes people are just not in a place to be able to listen and accept what’s being given to them. At a later date, they may be able to understand how to implement benevolent leadership and re-think some of the “horsemanship” concepts they’ve learned or heard in the past. (*See NOTE at bottom of page regarding “bite”)
As a component in trying to teach communication between horse and human, like most natural horsemanship trainers, I’ll teach clients to send their horse (not pull) certain places to touch things or go into an enclosed space or onto unusual items like a tarp. When doing so, the tasks will become more and more specific….like we might ask the horse to touch an object and then step up the exercise to request the horse touch a very specific part of the object. I had one client who was having difficulty communicating this to her horse; she finally gave up and said “I don’t want to do that anymore; I want my horse to be a horse”. She followed her words up with pulling her horse over to the destination and forcibly pushing her horse’s nose on that portion of the object. Again, this client was not in a place in her life to accept that horses have tremendous aptitude for understanding and intuitiveness and that we can communicate with them in a way that makes sense to them which will ultimately lead to a fantastic partnership.
Mostly now my clients come to me because of what they read on my website, this blog, or my Facebook page. Additionally, they have already heard about natural horsemanship on the Internet, on TV, etc. So they’re generally already predisposed to natural horsemanship techniques and methods. Their minds are open to ideas that they might not have been comfortable with in the past and hence they’re ready for this new journey.
Again, my natural horsemanship journey was very challenging at best….it took me a long, long, time to “get it”. Having come out the other side of this process, I realized that anything worth doing is totally worth taking all the time necessary to learn, understand, process, and practice. Every horse and every human is different and each individual human and horse has a different timeline to grasp and understand concepts. A true partnership or relationship of any kind takes time to develop and nurture.
In terms of teaching humans and training horses, I recognize that each horse and each human comes with different thinking and/or background and each has different learning and behavior styles. If you decide to go on this journey, I have to suggest that you try to be kind to yourself and your horse. Allow the time necessary to find your path. Be aware also that your friends and acquaintances might not appreciate what you’re doing with your horse; they may feel threatened by techniques and principles they don’t understand and may make you feel bad. (This happened to me often.) The best that you can do is to just know in your heart that you’re doing the right thing for you and your horse; ultimately, you’ll become a better horseperson than you ever imagined. Additionally, your horse’s abilities will most likely surpass what you ever expected before going through this process. And, of course your partnership together will be like nothing you ever imagined.
Understand also that sometimes you’re not in the right place to take the journey. But, if you do embark … know that not only your relationship with your horse will improve, but your understanding of other animal and human relationships will improve, too.
I know I would have fared so much better if I had a true natural horsemanship instructor to teach me along the way. I did take lessons from a purported natural horsemanship instructor for a while, but it turned out that she didn’t fully understand nor consistently integrate natural horsemanship concepts such as proper pressure, corrections, and releases. Most noticeably, this trainer didn’t fairly escalate her requests and she didn’t fully grasp the idea that horses … like us …each process and learn differently. This led to much confusion for my horse and I. Unfortunately for me there were no other natural horsemanship instructors in my area at that time.
I am thankful though that I was able to arrange for a well-known natural horsemanship program’s certified instructor to travel a long distance to my area. She came a few times to give clinics and I took those plus a few private lessons with her. Her input truly helped me improve. We are still friends to this day and I pick up tips from her every now and again.
For me, I believe ongoing natural horsemanship education to be critical for my horsemanship growth, my horses’ improvement, as well as for the betterment of my teaching to my clients. So, I regularly advance my education with a few internationally known horsewomen to constantly better my understanding and techniques.
Given that I struggled so much with learning and fully understanding natural horsemanship, I recommend in the beginning getting instruction from a good Natural Horsemanship instructor/trainer. In the beginning, I found books and videos are not of much help. You definitely should embark on lessons with someone so you can: interact to fine-tune your understanding of concepts; determine your and your horse’s learning styles; and help you understand the importance of timing and specificity in communication with your horse.
If you would like, you can contact me for help by clicking HERE.
* NOTE: I use the word “bite” or tag a horse because in natural horsemanship we try to replicate behavior from the horse’s world. Example: If in a herd hierarchy, #5 horse communicates to #6 horse with body language and energy that he/she wants that horse to move … and #6 horse ignores the less physical requests ... #5 horse will most likely bite or kick. Of course, we as humans don’t actually “bite” or “kick”, but we may tag with a string or stick.....NOT with aggressiveness but with assertiveness.
Kyle Van Splinter