Monday, August 11, 2008

The Horse's Perspective

And now for your daily dose of crippled musing, because I have nothing better to do than sit around and think about horses (well, not really, I actually got some stuff done today!).

The horse's perspective. I mentioned this awhile ago, but here's what it comes down to for me.

When I'm training (and by training I mean any time I interact with a horse, on the ground, in the saddle, whatever), I try to refrain from only thinking about myself. What do I want? Am I riding well? What exercises am I going to do to get my desired response? Well yes, that's all well and good, but I also do my best to question how I am affecting my horse. Why does she react the way she does to this cue? If she's anxious, what is the cause of her anxiety, and what can I do to alleviate that -- does she need to be pushed through it, or do I need to change what I'm doing? Do I need to be more insistent to get what I want, or do I need to soften? Do I need to repeat this drill until she relaxes and falls into it, or is that going to frustrate her? Do I need to be moving slowly or quickly through my ride? Do I need to challenge her, or let her build up small successes?

The answers are different every day.

All those questions are basically a way of shutting up and tuning into the horse. Because I'm a creature of presumably higher intelligence, I need to think about what she's doing and respond to it thoughtfully rather than simply reacting to it.

Here's a few examples.

When a horse bucks with me (say, while picking up the canter), my first reaction is to get their head up, sit up, and boot them forward. But McKinna never bucks, ever -- so if she bucks with me, then instead of reacting, I need to respond. If she's bucking, something is probably quite wrong, and it's likely that I would ride her for a bit to see if I can get a feel for what's going on, then possibly dismount and check tack or longe. If I'm on another horse, say one known for bucking to intimidate riders, you can bet I'd be riding his sorry self forward in a major way, making him work work work.

When my horse scoots forward in part of a circle, my first reaction is to resist strongly on the reins to say knock it off. But several things could be going on: perhaps the horse dropped his outside shoulder and drifted to the outside rushing. In that case, I need to give the horse more support from my outside leg and rein. Maybe the horse is feeling pressured, and rushes forward to escape; for this, he needs less rein (but still support) to help him relax, come back down, and then gradually build up contact. Maybe he's just spooking at something in the arena; this means I need to take charge and get him working his butt off next to that scary thing until he forgets it was ever there.

Different reasons for what they do, different responses.

Along with this must come an understanding of how your aids affect the horse. I know that if I tense up, my horses tense up. So I try to stay relaxed (and hold my temper, which is usually a bit harder). If I kick because I don't get the response I want, McKinna freaks out and worries for the rest of the ride; I know that using the whip gently will get a much better response. On the other hand, on Bailey, sometimes a boot in the side was exactly what he needed to wake him up and get a point across.

When I rode Bailey, if I insisted on too much contact too soon, he'd feel claustrophobic -- so when I rode, we warmed up with loops and serpentines on a long rein, where he felt comfortable enough to bend and relax into my hands. Then I asked for contact.

It's a delicate line between understanding your horse's reactions and giving in to your horse's reactions. If my horse freaks out about a dressage whip, I am not going to refrain from riding with a whip; I'm going to get my horse used to them. But, being considerate of his state now, I would calmly and slowly introduce the whip -- not plunge him into whip use all at once. If my horse scoots forward at the slightest contact of legs, I'm not going to ride with my legs away from my horse's sides -- but I will be understanding as I ask my horse to accept contact with my legs, and when riding, I will always keep in mind that this will probably be a light-sided horse.

In short: don't get pushed around (please), but do understand why your horse is reacting the way he is, and either adapt your riding in acceptable ways (e.g. my warmup with Bailey) or calmly help him through his initial reactions (e.g. fictional whip-shy horse).

A final note on understanding your horse's perspective -- I am a little bit of a worrier. I am always inclined to blame pain for nasty behavior before I will blame a horse for just being 'that way.' I will always consider tack fit, physical condition, dental care, and so on before I believe that a behavior problem is 100% the horse's fault.

That does not mean that horses get away with being rank. As Mugwump says, it doesn't matter WHY, they just aren't allowed to (buck, rear, kick, bite, ________).

But in return for this unyielding demand for safe behavior, I have a responsibility to ensure that my horses don't have a reason to be rank. This is really important to me, so listen up. If you are going to ask your horse to always behave and never buck/kick/etc, you need to make sure they have no physical reason to do so. If this means a vet check, chiropractor check, dental exam, saddle fit check (for the umpteenth time, even), then just do it. I brought a chiropractor out to check out McKinna even though she didn't really show any signs of back pain. Why? Because she's a little stiff in her canter, but most importantly, because I wanted to be confident that when I asked her to work hard for me, she was physically capable of doing so.

I don't take crap from my horses. They need to do what I ask. In order for me to feel comfortable demanding this of my horses, I must have the peace of mind that they are not hurting anywhere. I need to listen to them. If McKinna hurts herself, and tells me in subtle ways that she is sore (head tossing, refusing to listen, reluctant to pick up a gait, or any other uncharacteristic misbehavior), then I will listen and check her out, instead of pushing through it until she resorts to more drastic behaviors to get my attention.

I know McKinna is in perfect health, so I feel no guilt when I ask her to work hard or when I push through an issue. I know her blocks involve a lack of either understanding or physical strength; both of those I can bring her through. She, in turn, trusts my judgment and does what I ask.

So there -- that's my big point. Don't let your horse get away with shit, but make sure they're pain-free so that you can be guilt-free when you get after them for something.


Leah Fry said...

Well okay, missy, I will LOL! I promise I will check all that stuff yet again.

manymisadventures said...

Not directed at you, I promise! This post's been cooking in my mind for several weeks now, so don't worry ;)

rhinestone said...

That's a great post! Too often people have one universal response to misbehavior, and treat the symptoms, not the underlying cause of the behavior. Blue used to not canter on the right lead for his life. The answer to getting through that turned out to be hock injections so that he could. I called the vet out because I knew he knew the right lead, since he'd always switch back when I asked. But he wouldn't pick it up the first time, and he had a tough time with corners, where that outside hind leg has a lot more workload than a straightaway.
At the same time, though, you can't let them get away with everything. One of our horses bucks at the crop. That isn't a physical issue, that's him trying to scare us out of using the crop. Response? Teach him that kicking out and bucking doesn't make the crop go away, and eventually he did learn that the proper response to a crop was moving forward.
You've got some great insight!

Stelladorro said...

This is booting my but into action to call the chiro. Stella doesn't like to bend right, she's never liked to bend right. Originally, we thought it was just a training issue, but we've been working long enough that she should have gotten over it. So I think it's that somethings out of alignment.

*sigh* gotta dig out that number

Leah Fry said...

Not to worry. I wasn't taking it personally, but if the shoe fits...

Redsmom said...

Thanks for this very well thought out post. You are a wise trainer and your horses are lucky to have you! Take care of that ankle.

BTW, I was in band (trumpet), majorette (baton twirler) and I was drum major my senior year, so I enjoyed your band camp posts, as well!

manymisadventures said...

Glad to see it's inspired a few of you ;)

Redsmom, that's cool! I don't know if I ever mentioned it, but I played trumpet the first year I marched and then was DM for 2 years. I also played in wind ensemble, jazz band, and musical.

It's funny how many horse people I run into who are involved with music -- at my eventing camp, myself and three other ladies had a nice discussion about marching band. One lady's daughter was in Beijing for a really really really big marching band to play for something related to the Olympics.

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