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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Performance Horses, Naturally.

So I recently found myself challenged.

It was at the Horse Breeders and Owners conference when one of the plenary speakers spoke on the topic of typical training practices and the issue of horse abuse (Stacy Pigott, Training Practices for a Positive Image). I kind of wrote off the topic as applying to those who starve horses or do abhorrent, unspeakable things that leave scars and wounded spirits. Certainly not me.

I honestly can't remember a good chunk of the session (I am entirely a visual and completely not an auditory learner so I have to hear something really significant to remember it).  The one thing she said that stuck out (and she was quoting someone else)  was a challenge of sorts.  The gist of it was "Could you do what you do with your horses in Central Park, and with limited opportunity to justify your actions, go un-criticized?"

It made me think.  A lot.

A few years back in a bit of a ridiculous and completely ego-fueled scandal, an email went out accusing me of "horse-beating".  The incident occurred at a club-sanctioned event and was witnessed by all of the local professionals in the industry, so my worry about the repercussions of the allegations were minimal.  I was insulted, but I certainly wasn't worried about my reputation.  It made me think though ... could anyone (yes, anyone, horse person or not) see everything that went on both in front of and behind the scenes, possibly find something questionable in what we do.  And what defines "questionable"?

Due to our move home this winter and our lack of a covered riding arena, I've spent a lot of time doing chores and not very much time working horses.  Sounds depressing, I know, but its given me some time to think on all of this.

Between my own personal experience with it and the recent challenge posed at the Conference, I got thinking about my conduct and my relationship with my horses.  I know that I have never willfully "beaten" or abused a horse, but nonetheless, do they trust me?  And more importantly, should they? Or should they just do what I tell them to do? And is there a difference?

So, I started researching.  One of the other speakers at the conference, Dr. Stephen Peters, spoke on the horse's brain and how learning happens slowly, through repetition and lots of opportunity for time to pause and absorb the learning.  That the horse cannot learn when its anxiety and mental intensity level stays elevated for too long.  Its not the elevation that is the issue necessarily (unless I would assume, it is extreme) but the extended duration of this elevated state.  I suspect pressure of any kind would cause some kind of elevation in these vitals.  Horses are, after all, flight animals and are constantly searching for ways to be free of pressure for this exact reason.  Certainly fear or pain, or really distress of any kind, would cause these types of elevation.  How then, can we know how much is too much?  Not all of us have access to the kind of equipment required to determine if our horses are in distress and to measure hypothalamus and brain activity for intensity levels that are too high and that do not naturally decrease due to prolonged elevation.

Well, that lead me to the question ... what causes horses to be under pressure and when does this pressure turn from productive and educational to a stimulus for fear and distress (and is the answer to the latter ever me)?

I would love to give you a clear cut answer (and in the future I would like to dismantle this problem even more) but for now I have come to believe that it has, in large part, to do with the attitude in which we enter the horse's world. For instance, when you watch horses, they aren't just out there taking it easy on each other.  If the lead mare needs to school a colt she doesn't gently just nuzzle him away from the water or hay bale, especially if he's acting boyishly confident! She is firm.  And by firm I mean she uses enough force as is necessary to pressure him into feeling some distress and isolation from the herd.  There's the key though. 


Just enough.  Not too much. And she never completely loses her cool, has a tempter tantrum and goes overboard.  Nor does she worry or panic or fear that he wont listen to her, and act inappropriately.  She uses just enough pressure, and then goes along her way.  If she needs to do it  again, and again, and again ... she does. But never does she get frustrated or start acting unpredictably or unfairly.  She just keeps pushing him, far enough that he wishes he were allowed back in  (to the herd and her protective leadership) then she lets him alone.

I firmly believe two different people, applying the same type of pressure, but with different attitudes and for different lengths of time, can have completely different results. 

Horses communicate using body language.  So do we.  But that's ALL they have to communicate with.  We have words too, and we rely far more on them than we think.  Horses are very good at body language.  They pick up tiny signals.  Ones that we don't even know we're giving off. These body signals can be evidence of calmness, firmness and authority, or of fear, anger and unpredictability.  Horses are not wired to deal with the latter.  It causes them distress, and if prolonged, the horse will not be able to decompress enough to enter back into a "teachable" state. Sure, if you apply extreme pressure in these cases you may "break them down" and get some results resembling what you were looking for but they will not be natural, willing or sustainable.  The horse will eventually break down either mentally or physically.

Okay, so back to the topic of the day.  I have long been a critic of many schools of "natural horsemanship". I think I need to clarify that for the most part it is probably not the "school" I am critical of as much as those who profess to be followers but are ineffective, often fear-based, and lacking the necessary skills and tools to themselves appropriately administer the training in a productive way.  People hear the word "natural" and think of how lovely it sounds and forget that it needs to be what is natural to the horse  and not humanize the process to what feels natural for themselves. I have been known to say, sure playing around with natural horsemanship might be fun and different for a while, but it isn't gonna' train your performance horse, especially in the Arabian show pen, with all its technicalities. 

Or is it?

Well, that's what I have set out to discover.  We tend to write it off as normal that our Arabian and Part-Arabian show horses are just "flighty" and unpredictable by nature.  They are after all "show" horses (as though this some how makes them another species). These high level performance horses require rigorous training and must operate under a high level of difficulty and technicality.  But is it so unthinkable that they could be cool, trusting, and also collected (pun intended!!)?

This trust and this calm takes work.  It takes skilled hands at the end of the lead or the rein.  It takes self-control, not just of your physical actions, but of your emotions, physiology (i.e. heart rate, breathing, etc) and psychology (i.e. your attitude towards the work you do with your horse).

So, in order to better understand if learning to communicate with our horses better in their language is compatible with training a performance horse, we are making some shifts.

We move into this spring preparing for the season ahead in a bit of a different head space than we have before.  We will start to better monitor our horses attitudes, resistances and reactions. We will learn to develop better self- awareness and self-control.  We will attempt to gain the trust and willing partnership of our horses, instead of just breaking them down and pushing them over the line to get compliance.  We will be tough when it is necessary, but not out of anger, fear or frustration, but an understanding that when we release that pressure (in a well-timed way) our horse will gladly rejoin the conversation in a new, more trusting and submissive manner, that he has chosen.

So far, I think it's going very well.  I will keep you posted but I don't think there will be a lot of surprises.  From what we have learned over centuries of research and studying these animals, gaining their true and genuine trust has never failed yet.  And so we will learn to speak better in their language instead of forcing them to speak ours.  And hopefully we will, in the end, come out with trusting and willing partners and both of us will have more confidence in our endeavors.  We will have applied our training methods with calm, fair authority and developed all the skills necessary for our horses to become great performance horses, naturally.