Giving A Horse A Job

It is widely accepted that horses do well if they have a job. This seems to be especially true with young horses that are still learning their role as a riding or working horse.


But what does it mean for a horse to have a job and how does it benefit a horse? I think these questions are very important to ask and I want to share my thoughts about them.


I believe the purpose of giving a horse a job is to bring clarity and confidence to working with a rider. We all want our horse to take an interest in what is being asked. When we have ridden nineteen circles in a row, it can be hard for a horse to see the reason behind why we need to ride the twentieth circle. If it just seems to be a sheer repetition of what came before, a horse will tend to mentally turn off. But by giving a horse a job, it is easier for a horse to stay tuned into the work.


As I said, having a job is particularly useful for younger horses that are learning to become riding horses. They learn to carry a rider and take instruction that results in a satisfying outcome and confidence that being ridden is not so bad after all. With practice, a young horse learns the purpose behind the job and takes an interest in doing it.


Take for example, moving a cow. A young horse is asked to follow a cow. He doesn’t know why or how, but under the instruction of the rider, the horse learns that when it approaches the cow the cow moves away. Furthermore, the horse picks up that as it puts more pressure on the cow, the cow moves even further and faster.  With less pressure from the horse, the cow slows up. It usually doesn’t take too long for a horse to understand that it can control the cow. Suddenly there is a purpose and interest to tracking a cow. This might be followed by learning to open gates so that it can get to the cows or learning to push a cow through a gate or learning to separate a cow from other cows or learning to side-pass/back-up/roll-back etc to be in a better position to moving the cow. All these new ways of being guided by a rider have a purpose – ie to control a cow. It places the use of the reins, rider’s legs and seat into context for a horse that is figuring this stuff out. It creates clarity.


The other benefit to working a horse in a way that maintains its interest is about the relationship between rider and horse. If a horse has to be asked to go to work, it would rather be for an interesting job rather than a mindless job. If a horse finds the work interesting there is considerably more harmony between horse and rider and less dread about being asked to put out an effort.


The bottom line is that when a young horse has a job there is more joy, confidence, and great understanding to the relationship between horse and rider.


So what counts as a job?


Most people think of a horse job as things such as working cows or working other horses or dragging logs etc. But in my opinion, a job is anything a horse knows how to do in response to changing circumstances. For instance, polo is a fast moving game where circumstances are constantly changing. A horse can learn the job of how to best position itself to allow the rider a good swing at the ball. Another case would be a pack horse that has learned the job of ensuring it goes around trees with enough room to avoid rubbing and damaging the packs against the trunks and bushes. Or the horse in a quadrille team that learns to maintain its place in formation during complex maneuvers.


But can riding in an arena be a job? Can jumping a course be a job? Can riding on a trail be a job?


Remember I said that a job is a horse knowing how to respond to changing circumstances. Therefore, in theory, anything can be a job if it teaches a horse to know how to respond to changing circumstances.


Now this is the big, important part of giving a horse a job. This is where people get it wrong. We teach a horse a job, which it learns by repetition. That job then becomes a pattern. Horses love patterns because they are predictable. However, when the job becomes a pattern it closes the lines of communication between horse and rider. We often rely on horses learning the job as a habit to get the job done. But when that happens the job loses most of its benefit.


I witnessed a really good example of this problem several years ago when a rider was competing in a jumping event. The rider fell off his horse on about the fifth fence and the horse continued to go around the course jumping every jump in front of it. It had learned its job was to jump fences and it did so with or without a rider. That horse had been taught to be a robot.


The ultimate goal of everything we do with a horse should be to have a mental connection. A horse can see the purpose behind working in an arena if it is mentally tuned in enough to keep the lines of communication always open. The same is true for trail riding or jumping or barrel racing or mounted archery or vaulting etc.


Working horses with a job is a great way to help horses develop confidence to working with people, maintain an interest and bring an understanding to what the rider is asking. But the benefit is only maintained as long as the conversation between the horse and the rider is open and active. There is little to be gained by teaching a horse to perform a job on autopilot.


Video: I think this is a good example of horses having the job of working as a team in a quadrille.


Touched By A Human

I keep coming across articles and videos that promote the idea that touching (patting, rubbing, stroking or whatever you want to call it) a horse is an important element in the training process. I’ve seen it several times lately. The premise seems to be that horses like to be touched by people and find it comforting. Therefore, touching a horse is said to be a powerful way of rewarding a horse for doing well or comforting a horse that is worried.


I have some trouble with this theory. It is not that touching a horse is not a good thing. My concern is that those who talk about this idea don’t offer any more information other than patting, petting or stroking is a rewarding experience for a horse and we should do it often. I have yet to come across anybody who teaches about when, how and why we should touch a horse. And even fewer who discuss when not to, how not to and why not to. The theory is that all touching is all good thing all the time.


Firstly, I think the notion that horses feel rewarded by a person’s touch is an assumption that is not always justified. We take for granted that because we intend our touch to be comforting that the horse feels comforted. But if you watch enough horses, that’s a hard assumption to substantiate. Have you ever felt comforted by a touch or embrace from a person you were not fond of? How many times have you gone to touch a horse and they have looked away or their focus has escaped you? Some people assume that if a horse is within reach it is ready and wanting to be touched. But in my experience, this is not true. Horses often do well at tolerating being touched, but tolerating is all it is. A common example of this is the horse that drops its head and closes its eyes when stroked on the forehead. Most of those horses mentally escape into a distant land deep in their mind where humans leave them alone while their owner is rubbing up and down their horse’s face thinking how much their horse loves being rubbed. It becomes a practiced and mindless habit for both horse and owner.


When a horse knows a person well and they want to be touched, they present themselves to be touched. This is particularly true if they have an itch that they like to have scratched. When my horses greet me in the paddock, they present their preferred scratching spots to me first. For most of them it is under the neck or chest, but my mare Six loves to have her face rubbed. I’ll hold up the palm of my hand and she moves her head up and down against it at exactly the right pressure that she enjoys. I do this because it’s a way of touching her that suits her. I don’t just touch Six in a way that I think she should appreciate. I want to touch my horses to benefit them and our relationship, not to satisfy some inner urge to make physical contact with a horse.


When we work with a horse and want to touch them as a reward, most of us don’t give enough thought to how we touch them. I recently watched a rider trotting her horse in a circle. When the horse gave nicely to the inside rein, she reached to scratch the horse’s wither as a ‘thank you’ for a nice try. But I saw nothing change in the horse that told me it liked it or even cared (like further softening or relaxation). If that was the case, then we need to ask what was the point of scratching the horse on the wither?


Meanwhile, the rider kept the horse trotting in the circle and asking for even more effort to yield to the inside rein. I suspect the horse would have appreciated it much more and learned much more if the rider had removed the pressure to keep working rather than a scratch on the wither.


I read an article recently where the trainer was recommending people to calm a scared horse by touching it. They advised that the best way to comfort a worried horse is to get a hand on them and rub them soothingly. In my experience, this is rarely helpful to a scared horse, although it might sooth the handler or rider. The reason I believe this is because horses that are worried are overwhelmed with emotions and centre their focus on the thing that most worries them. Their focus is often so strong that the rest of the world is shut out. They generally do not even register that somebody is touching them because they are so fixated on surviving the experience. They only have room in their mind for deciding whether to run, faint, shut down or fight. Even with a horse that likes to be touched by people, stroking them will have no effect until the fear dissipates enough that the horse can register the person’s presence again.


I hope I’m not coming across as being against touching your horse, because I’m not. I do it all the time with my own horses and every horse I handle. I think it can be a positive experience in both our lives. But I think it is a mistake to assume that just by patting or stroking our horses we are automatically doing something worthwhile. I believe we need to give much more thought into why, when and how we touch our horses for it to be a useful and productive.


We rub, pat and stroke our horses every time they are within an arms length. It’s the first thing we do when we meet them and the last thing we do when we leave them. But we tend to put so little thought into when, how, and why we touch our horses that many of us miss the opportunity to use it to full advantage.


Photo: You can see how my horse Riley is presenting himself to be rubbed on the face.

Foals: To Handle Or Not To Handle?

I was reading an article by a horse trainer and breeder who espoused their belief that horses make much better horses if they are allowed to run with other horses from foaling to the breaking in stage with minimal handling from people in between. Years ago a veterinarian told me he believed horses should be left alone until they are about three years old. Another trainer I know once told me that they liked to handle foals from an early age, but only about once a month and no more. And there is the camp of believers who feel we should be handling and training our foals as early and as often as possible.


The one thing all these practices have in common is the idea that they result in horses being better horses for us to work with.


People who feel horses should be left with the bare minimal handling/training tend to believe Mother Nature will teach them to be a horse. I’m not quite sure what it means, “to be a horse” because I don’t know any definition that excludes some horses from being horses. However, Mother Nature can only do its job if the young horse lives with other horses in as natural environment as possible. Just keeping human intervention out of the picture alone while the horse lives in a relatively isolated and unnatural environment will not do anything towards helping the horse be a horse.


On the other hand, people who think we should start early with training young horses believe it makes the transition into a training program later, easier.


I’m a “have my cake and eat it” kind of bloke. I think both are correct in their premise, but not necessarily how they go about it.


I do agree that handling horses from an early age is wise, provided it is done well. I have said before that in my opinion the two most traumatic experiences a horse suffers in life are weaning and breaking in. Both represent major changes in their life without any understanding of why it is happening to them. I have previously written how weaning can be made easier by a slow and gradual separation of the foal from its mother rather than to be abruptly taken away. Likewise, it makes good sense to me that we can make the transition to being a riding horse as easy as possible by ensuring a horse is already comfortable getting along in a human world before the process begins.


I believe in handling foals in the first few days of life and regularly thereafter. I’m not talking about work, but simply slowly getting them comfortable around humans and include some very basic handling skills, such as catching, leading, picking up feet, touching all over, trailer loading and tying up. I would attempt to get a good handle on these tasks as early as possible. In the months and years ahead I would add and build upon these basics in a thorough way, so that when it came it time to ride for the first time it would be as unchallenging as I could make it – a virtual non-event.


The second reason for this is more practical. You never know when you might be forced to do something with a foal. For instance, it may need to be trailered to a vet hospital for surgery or it may require corrective hoof work. We do the young horse no favours by waiting until it is urgent before teaching it these basic handling skills.


What I don’t want is to a raise a horse that has lived virtually feral for 3 years and then suffers the trauma of not understanding why he suddenly has to live by new rules when we begin working with it.


So what about the view of letting them grow up learning to be a horse?


I agree with that too. But I don’t see a conflict. I don’t think it should be one or the other. My horses have to get along with people, but they also have to get along with other horses. They spend plenty of time in both worlds, so they need the skills that allow them to thrive in both worlds.


Firstly, young horses should grow and mature in a herd environment in order to learn horse behaviour and etiquette. Young horses are just like humans in the unrefined way they behave, the way they communicate and their crude social manners. It’s only by mixing with other horses and learning how to avoid getting their arses kicked does their understanding of how to get along in the world become clear. Only other horses can teach horse behaviour to a horse.


Secondly, I believe there is a link between the physical maturity, balance and coordination of a horse and the physical activity at a young age. When foals are together they play. In part, this is helpful in learning the rules of socialization, but just as importantly it aids in horses developing the athletic skills we want them to have later on. The exercise helps develop muscle and bone strength and the antics contribute to balance and coordination.


I’d like to add that if your situation does not enable your young horse to live in a herd, then you had better do some good handling from the start. If it does not have other horses to teach it how to yield to someone else’s rules, then it will need to get an early introduction of the concept from you to avoid the risk of starting a war of wills when training begins.

Photo: Foals at play. Their antics teach them balance and coordination.

The Slow Learner Horse

From time to time I hear from people how the progress they make with their horse is so slow. It seems that every day starts exactly where it started the day before. They find it hard to see improvement from one day to the next and they are constantly starting over again with each lesson being a repeat of the previous lesson.


Any person who has worked with enough horses will come across those they appear to be geniuses and each lesson is a big step forward from an earlier one. But they will also come across horses that leave the impression that calling them mentally challenged would be a compliment. It’s as if nothing good is retained from one lesson to another. They can be incredibly frustrating animals to work with and it’s not hard to wish they belonged to somebody else. Lucky for us most horses fall somewhere in between the two extremes. I say lucky for us, because the really quick learners make us look stupid by showing the world every little mistake we make, and the slow learners can frustrate us enough to make us want to take up collecting mouldy cheese as a hobby.


However, I believe it is not always accurate to describe the fast learning horse as smart and the slow learners as dumb. I believe many more factors go into a horse’s ability to learn than their mental acumen. Yet, I don’t doubt that all horses have different capacity to learn and different levels of smarts – just like humans. I just don’t think it is the only factor we need to consider when training horses. In fact, I don’t even think it is the most important factor when choosing a horse for a particular discipline.


Let’s look at the type of horse that does not appear to improve very quickly. What could be the cause?


Of course, it is possible they these horses are just not good at retaining how to put two and two together. But considering that virtually everything we train horses to do is stuff they can do naturally, how hard can it be? Most of the time all we do is add a cue to do what they already know so that they can do it when we need it.  Yet, some horses struggle to trot when asked to trot, turn when asked to turn etc.


For me, when I think about how smart a horse is to learn, I think more about their incentive to learn and my ability to teach than I do about how intelligent they are.


Let’s look at the incentive to learn.


A major part of learning new stuff is the ability to let go of old stuff. A horse responds the way he does because in his view it is his best option. He may not be correct, but that doesn’t matter because it is what he thinks. In order to try something new, he needs to be convinced that the old way is no longer the best way. A horse’s readiness to try something new will depend on how important the old behaviour is to him. Normally that would mean how closely he links his response to survival. The more certain he is that his behaviour is the thing that is keeping him alive, the harder it will be for him to try something new. So a horse that appears to be a slower learner may be just a horse that is convinced that survival depends on repeating old behaviours.


You’ll often find that a ‘shut-down’ horse exhibits the kind of behaviour that makes them seem to be a slow learner. They are certain that their survival depends on being relatively unresponsive and their ability to try new answers is severely squashed – they have very little try. Whereas reactive horses are always looking for a better answer because pressure worries them. They will often offer a response even before being asked – they generally have a lot of try.


The other part of the equation to consider with regard to working with horses that are slow to learn new responses is our role in getting a change in a horse. With a horse that takes a lot of convincing to make changes, we have to ensure the changes it makes run deep enough inside the horse to be able to be retained. Often at the end of a session, we finish satisfied that we made good progress and the horse is doing a lot better than when we started. Then the next day begins with the horse exactly as he was at the start of the previous day. Why did he not retain the lesson from before?


This is when we need to look at ourselves and what we are trying to achieve.


At a clinic last year, I was helping a woman overcome the problem of her horse falling in on the inside shoulder when being lunged. She had been working on this for months at home and had achieved some improvement. Still every day, when she lunged her horse, it dropped the inside shoulder until she spent a few minutes fixing it, and then it was okay until the next day.


I asked to lunge the horse for a while to see if I could get a better change. It only took a minute or two and I was able to give the horse back to the woman. The horse no longer fell onto the inside shoulder. The next day the woman lunged her horse at the start of the session and it was dropping the shoulder again. I immediately asked if I could take the lunge. The horse did not once try to fall on the shoulder. I handed the horse back to the owner and she had to work again to stop the horse falling in. She looked at me frustrated and wanted to know why her horse fell on the shoulder when she lunged it, but not when I lunged it. It appeared to her and everybody else that I did nothing different.


I explained that when I addressed the issue the previous day I got a deeper change than she did. The difference was that when she corrected the horse falling on the inside shoulder, she got the horse to lift its shoulder and then asked it move on. When I corrected the horse from falling on the inside shoulder, I asked it to lift its shoulder, feel softer about it and then move on. The owner corrected the mechanics of the movement, whilst I corrected the emotions that caused the issue. Her way achieved a momentary improvement that was not retained the next day. My way allowed the horse to make a deeper change that it was able to retain the following day.


This is what I see a lot with people who work horses that are the same every session. The changes they get by the end of their workout are often not deep enough to be retained by a horse that needs to hang onto its old responses. They might get away with it on a horse that is ready and willing to let go of old habits, but not on horses that need to cling to what they already know and understand.


I guess the take home message is that not all horses that are slow to progress are stupid or dumb. A lot of them have good reason to keep doing what they do and it is our failure to convince them to change their ideas that makes progress come slowly.


I know we all prefer to work with horses that are quick to learn and every day is exciting to work with them. But I think we probably all have a lot to learn from the horses that find it hard to make changes. They can be the best teachers.


Photo: Amanda is doing a great job of helping Cowboy feel better about the flag. She is changing his feelings and not just his behaviour.

Out With The Old - In With The New

I was working with a student a few months ago who I knew from past years, but whom I had not seen in a long time. She had been concentrating on educating her horse in dressage and had been competing for some time with good success thanks to some help from her dressage instructor.


I was surprised by how resistant to the feel of the reins the horse had become since I last saw it. When I rode the horse it felt like a plow horse bearing down on the shoulders and through the reins. The woman had done some good work with her horse since I last saw them together, but she had paid the price of losing softness through the reins. This was no surprise to the owner. In fact, it was the main reason she had come to the clinic. She didn’t know how to get her horse off her hands and free up the shoulders. She knew that until this was addressed she had reached the limit of how far her horse would go in competition.


I began by working on the horse to disengaging it’s hindquarters in response to the inside rein. When I rode the horse I felt how hard it pushed from behind like it was pulling a wagon loaded with rocks. I wanted to loosen up the hindquarters and get them to step under the horse more so that when I asked it to rebalance and lift off the forehand it had a set of hindquarters in place to carry the extra load as it shifted from the front to the back. I needed the hind end under the horse, not parked out and pushing forward. Until that happened the horse would not be able to free up the forehand.


After I got a nice change in the mare, I had the owner ride her horse as I talked her through the process. Immediately I noticed the rider was applying inside leg to direct the hindquarters. I pointed this out and the poor woman dropped the reins, stopped using her legs, turned and looked at me with an expression of exasperation.


“But I’ve been taught the rider’s legs control the hindquarters and the reins control the shoulders. That’s how it’s supposed to be done!”


I felt sorry for the woman because she was obviously aggravated at what appeared to be a contradiction between her dressage training and what I was asking her to do. It not unusual that we are confronted with a training approach that clashes with what we already know. I feel sorry for everybody who believes they’ve finally understood something and then find out somebody else tells them it is wrong. How frustrating.


At another clinic last year, a lady brought a horse that would chronically rush when asked to trot or canter. The horse leaned on the reins and slowly built up more energy like a kettle building up steam. It took a lot of effort for the owner to slow it down or get it to stop.


When I suggested that she give the horse more rein and use only inside rein to ask for a turn small enough to encourage the horse to slow down, she was miffed. She was not happy that I was asking her to do the opposite of everything she thought was the right thing to do such as ride the horse with the brakes always applied. I was accused of telling her that everything she had learned in 30 years was wrong. She was no happy.


The thing that these two episodes have in common is that both owners felt challenged and distressed with ideas that seemed to oppose what they thought they already knew.


But why would they feel that way?


I believe it’s because they think of riding and horsemanship as something you learn from somebody else. When a person with years more experience, a good reputation and a record of success, tells us how to do something, we tend to believe them. – especially if it makes sense. Maybe they know what they are talking about. Maybe they have had fantastic results with lots of different horses using the same approach. Maybe they can even get those ideas to work with our horse.


However, when we have been trying to apply our teacher’s teaching for weeks, months and years without making much headway we need to ask why. If an instructor tells us that we should ride or train a certain way, but our horse tells us something different, which are we going to believe?


In the case of the women with the “plow horse”, it made perfect sense to her that the reins control a horse’s shoulders and the rider’s legs control the hindquarters. She had no reason to question her instructor because it seemed so obvious that two different parts of the horse must require two different methods of control. It didn’t even occur to her that using her reins to direct the forehand and the hindquarters was something worth trying. In fact, it was such a total contradiction to what she already knew that the idea was hard to accept. It created a conflict between what she thought she knew and what she was trying to achieve. If I hadn’t ridden the horse and got a good change, I doubt she would have given my suggestion a second thought.


As riders and trainers, we constantly face these conflicts. Every horse, every instructor, and every clinician tell us something that appears to contradict something we thought we already knew. We are always in conflict with what we presently know and what we are about to learn. It is the essence of learning that we are always in an adversarial debate between what we learned yesterday and will learn tomorrow. But if we are not making progress with our horse using what we already know, there is no risk in trying a different idea.


Photo: Belinda doesn’t seem conflicted at all about my approach to working her horse – unequivocal rejection!