I received a request to re-post this article. So here it is.
Previously I have said that the easiest horses to train are the ones with ‘try’. By the word ‘try’ I mean they possess a readiness to search for ways to escape or evade pressure. So when we ask something of a horse by applying a little pressure the horse feels it is important enough and they are motivated enough to search through all the available options of responses to eliminate the discomfort that pressure has created. That’s what I mean by the term try and that’s what makes those horses more trainable.
I think there are 3 categories of try in the horse world and within those, there are sub-levels, which I will try to explain as I go along.
There are the horses with a lot of natural try.
These are often horses that are pretty sensitive and the thing they are sensitive to is pressure. It usually doesn’t take a lot of asking for them to try something. In fact, one of the issues that people have with this type of horse is often an over-reaction to pressure or anticipation ahead of the pressure. This is where the term “hot horse” comes from. Often their response to being asked something is disproportional to the amount of pressure used because of their worry about pressure. That’s the downside.
However, the upside is it usually doesn’t require a lot of pressure for them to search for a new idea and a way of responding to our requests. They try one answer and if that doesn’t result in peace and tranquility in their life, they try another. Then another and another, until they find comfort.
Horses like this are quick learners if handled correctly. Nevertheless, if our timing and feel are poor then we confuse them and stress them even more than before. They can quickly turn from sensitive to crazy and passed from person to person until either finding the right owner or going for slaughter. Unfortunately, this is too often the fate of retired racehorses and other victims of human error.
Sensitive horses have the potential to be the best horses in our life, but they are not suited for inexperienced people for the reasons I have already stated. Where it goes wrong is people’s inability to recognize a try in a horse and either miss it all together or they are inconsistent with their releases and confuse the poor beast until they have a meltdown. A lack of clarity is a huge stress in a horse’s life and sensitive horses with a lot of try suffer the most for this human failing. But given an owner with empathy, patience and good feel and timing, they can be amazing.
The second category is with horses that have very little try in them.
These horses are not inspired to search very hard for answers to questions that pressure presents to them. I believe there are two types of horses that exhibit this behaviour.
The first is the stoic horse. These are horses that came out of their mother with not a lot of “care factor.” They absorb pressure and trouble and store it up inside until their cup of worry is ready to overflow, then they erupt – and erupt big. But in the lead up to the eruption, they appear to be calm and quiet and not care. A rider can add layer upon layer of pressure and they shrug their shoulders as if to ask if we were talking to them.
A lot of people who have had bad experiences with sensitive horses eventually become attracted to the stoic horse. They feel safer because these horses don’t have a hair trigger when we get our feel or timing wrong or we present too much pressure. These make the perfect kids pony or babysitter for a novice rider.
The downside is that every time we want to teach them something new or change their thoughts or established patterns, it’s a lot of work.
The second type of horse that often shows very little try is the shutdown horse.
These horses often start out as sensitive with a lot of try but become shutdown with very little try because of poor training. Through insensitive training, they have learned the futility of having or expressing an opinion. Unlike the horse born with a small care factor, these horses have a lot of care factor, but it is drilled out of them until the mentally disengage from us and what we ask of them.
The most common way I have seen of killing a try in these horses is through drilling the work over and over and by flooding with pressure. Flooding is where a pressure is presented to a horse and not removed until the horse submits. An example might be to throw a rope over a horse’s back and keep throwing it until he stands quietly before you stop throwing the rope. A horse can learn to eliminate the pressure of the rope by not moving, yet the rope may still worry him. He is learning the futility of resistance and the futility of searching. It builds a mental and emotional wall around itself to keep people out. It is really difficult to have a good relationship with a shutdown horse because it will not fully mentally engage with humans.
There are other ways of turning a sensitive horse into a shutdown horse (such as continued poor feel and timing, impatience, use of ever increasing driving pressure etc), but the important point is that while these horses may appear just like those with a small care factor, they actually have a large care factor and are sensitive in their nature. It is the combination of their sensitivity and our poor training techniques that cause a horse to shutdown. This potentially makes them very dangerous when they erupt.
The final category of a horse’s try or ability to search through its options is the one where their established behaviour or set of responses to pressure are tightly linked to their perception of life and death. This is beyond being sensitive because instead of searching through the options to safety and comfort, as a sensitive horse is prone to doing, these horses will repeat the same responses and behaviours over and over in fear that a change will get them killed. They are so convinced that what they do is the reason they have lived so far, that all other options are off the table. Unlike the horse the stoic horse or the horse born with a low care factor, these horses choose to not try through their certainty of what it takes to survive. It is their survival instinct that suppresses their trainability.
This category of horse is hard to work with and in my experience is best handled with incredible patience and by going back to the absolute basics. Nothing is overlooked. Each micron of change is covered step-by-step and consolidated before going further. It is important that these horses feel confident and certain that each little change is the best path to safety and comfort. If you leave a step only half done and only half certain that it was the right step, the horse will revert and fall apart at some point in the future.
I have sometimes said that the thing we most like about a horse is also the thing we most dislike. A sensitive horse with a lot of try can be taught to work off a thought, which is fantastic. But equally they can have a hair trigger to a meltdown and that can be a problem. On the other hand, a stoic horse with very little try can be solid and can absorb a lot of trouble before over reacting, which makes some people feel safe. However, good luck trying to get them to be soft and responsive in the way a sensitive horse can be.
Of course, most horses are a mix of categories and don’t fall strictly into one or the other. In an ideal world, I’d be looking for a horse that had a lot of try and a little bit of stoicism. But until then I’m happy to take responsibility for the amount of try my training puts into any of my horses.
Photo: A try in a horse is directly related to its propensity to search when faced with a dilemma.