Monday, 19 December 2011

Competition Outside the Ring

Sometimes there’s more competition that goes on outside the show ring than inside, don’t you think?

Horse owners at a boarding stable compare training methods and horse management practices, hoping to become the barn expert. Horse show “groupies” chit chat at ringside with their assessments of competitors, judges, and show management, but never seem to compete themselves, perhaps fearing that they’d be the objects of criticism. Trainers boast of their next winner. Name dropping, gossip and gloating over the trials and tribulations of others. From Discussion boards to Facebook, horse people love to compete!

One of the quickest ways to diffuse the flaming arrows of negative comments is to throw a positive arrow back. Responding to a gossip with a positive comment about the targeted person, or a possible explanation for their unfortunate situation can often stop the conversation. Folks who believe the best about others are the real winners!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011


It’s the misuse of imagination according to renowned motivational speaker and salesman Zig Ziglar.

“What if..?” keeps us up the night before a horse show or a presentation or a difficult telephone conversation.

A nagging worry is like dragging a weight around on the end of a rope. Wherever we go, it comes with us. The longer we drag it, the heavier it seems. We’re not free until we cut it loose by putting it in it’s proper perspective. When a situation is heavy on my mind, I lighten the load by remembering…

1. To control the things I can control and let go of the things I can’t. I can prepare my horse for challenging horse show situations. I can practice tougher things than I may be asked to do in a class. I can study for that judging exam and write down my main points before I teach. I can communicate expectations in a relationship rather than brooding that “they should know” and initiate asking forgiveness regardless of a person’s response.

2. To consider what would be the worst case scenario and whether I could live with the outcome. In most cases the result, although unpleasant, wouldn’t kill me. It might even make me wiser and stronger.

3. That half of what I’ve worried about hasn’t happened. So why let worry eat up the joy of today?

Anxiety never releases tomorrow of its problems. It only empties today of its strengths. Corrie Ten Boom, Holocaust concentration camp survivor.

Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?  Jesus Christ  (Matthew 6:27, The Bible) 

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

What We Say to Horses

Leaning against the fence of the warm up ring, waiting for the next class to begin, I chatted with an amateur rider who was watching her trainer give her horse a pre-class tune up. “He gets along so well with my horse,” she sighed. “My horse just knows who’s boss. I think we have a personality clash.”

She chatted away to her horse and trainer as she climbed aboard and adjusted her stirrups. Despite the trainer’s instructions to “Just put your hands down and keep off his mouth,” I noticed his face fall as he watched the pair join the crowd of practicing horses. Before one lap of the warm up ring, the horse had lost his focus, frame and rhythm. The rider scowled at her horse and shrugged at her trainer.

Are you speaking so your horse is listening? Are you speaking the same language as your trainer?

· Do you use the same voice commands, right down to the volume and tone?

· Do you have the same leg cues (location and intensity) for go forward, move your hindquarters or forehand?

· Do you use the same rein aids for slow, flex or turn?

Now, it doesn’t really matter what cue you use (you could teach your horse to canter by saying Shazam and touching his shoulder with your toe) as long as your horse gets “the code” and anyone who works with your horse gets it too. Otherwise, all he’s hearing is “Blah, blah, blah…”

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Did I Say That?

Photo courtesy of Mcphail Equine Performance Center

As I entered the office of a friend the other day, I interrupted him as he was dictating into his computer. We’d chit chatted and swapping a few stories, before he realized he’d forgotten to turn off the dictation feature. It was awkwardly funny to hear him read back our conversation from his screen, word for word. Mindless, abstract thoughts recorded in black and white.

I think I’m more intentional about the signals I send to the horses I ride than the words I speak in casual human conversations. I’m fascinated by the work done at facilities such the Mcphail Research Center in Michigan. With motion sensors, force plates, saddle pressure mats and rein tension gauges, they measure the messages horses are receiving from riders and tack. Check out the projects they’re working on 

I often ask clinic participants to share with me exactly what aid they use to request a leg yield, left lead canter, to raise or lower the neck or to shorten the stride. Specific techniques may vary but if we can’t put it into words do we really have a plan? Would we ride any differently if we knew our aids were being measured by sensors?

Monday, 17 October 2011

Colour Within the Lines: Self Carriage

When a horse has established consistency in his pace, straightness and outline/frame without me holding him in place, he’s established self carriage. He’s discovered, by trial and error, the perimeters of the box, encountering my aids (leg, hand, voice and seat) when he makes an unauthorized change. He finds release, or negative reinforcement, within the box.

The fun part comes when we can add “colour” within the lines. It’s expression and energy and suspension (that “bounce to the ounce”) that changes an ordinary performance to brilliant.

But without self carriage, an awareness of the boundaries, a rider’s attempt to create brilliance results in a quick stride as a horse rushes forward out of rhythm. Or a sour expression as he’s held in place by his rider’s strong hands. Or dull as he sits on the back of the box, nagged along by a rider’s constant leg.

In Jesus’ day, He was saddened by the “religious” crowd. The sour and joyless rule followers. They were so focused on obedience to the rules that they forgot who’s rules they were following and why the rules were there in the first place. Jesus spoke of a relationship more than rules. If it’s true as He said, that a relationship with the loving God who made us is really possible, than following His guidelines would overflow from a heart that wants the freedom and peace staying within His “box”. That would add colour and energy to anyone’s life!

Sunday, 2 October 2011

In the Box: Self Carriage

Boundaries. With kids or horses, establishing limits and expectations is the one of the most considerate things we can do for them. Insecurity and resentment arise when boundaries aren’t well communicated or they shift.

As decision maker the horse/human partnership, riders must clearly define their expectations of the pace, path and package with which they want their horses to travel. How long a canter stride? How slow a walk? Exactly how deep into this corner will we ride? How much of a bend in the horse’s body? Short or long frame/outline? Lowered or raised neck and head?

What kind of a “box” do you draw around your horse? My box, for example might look like this – “In the serpentine shape we’re cantering, I’d like a consistent 7 foot stride (collected), with straight body alignment going across the arena with an arced shape around the curves. All this in a medium frame.”

When my horse extends his stride to 7.5 feet, he meets the front of the box. If he steps of the “balance beam” across the serpentine, he encounters the side of the box. When he elevates his neck and ventures above the bit, he feels the top of the box.

When my horse stays inside the perimeter without me having to hold him there, that’s self carriage. There’s freedom and peace within the boundaries.

A box protects it’s contents. The rules of a household and the rules of the land are ideally for our own welfare. In my life I’ve pondered that if God exists, if He has a plan for my life, if He loves me, then His guidelines aren’t to spoil my fun but to give me freedom and peace.

I’d say, that security and confidence has given me some self carriage.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Artificial Aids

Equipment that is used to back up or fortify a rider’s natural cue (i.e. spurs, whips, martingales).

Rarely should an artificial aid replace a natural cue. Used following the first light cue, it combines with negative reinforcement, giving relief as soon as the horse responds. Used logically (light cue, stronger cue, artificial aid, reward) it motivates a horse where the ordinary natural aid might not.

Can you think of how an artificial aid can be used to replace rather than support a natural aid? Have you seen a horse become confused or dull because of this?

This is like people who yell before they speak?

Wise words from the Bible…

Intelligent people think before they speak; what they say is then more persuasive.
Proverbs 16:23

Monday, 12 September 2011

Testing What We Believe

At a horse show the other day a horse came firing backward out of a trailer, breaking the trailer tie (and the pride of the red faced owner) as she pranced free, tail flagging, touring the show grounds. Her owner had tied her up, and then went around to fasten the tail bar….

You never know the strength of a trailer tie, when it’s hanging on the tack room wall – only when it’s tested.

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. C.S. Lewis

What I believe about horses – how they think, how they learn and how to manage them has been tested over the 25 years I’ve trained professionally. Tested by those horses who didn’t fit the mold or by inquisitive students who asked the “whys” in behind the “hows” that I taught them. Tested by people who disagreed with my beliefs.

These tests have driven me to look for the evidence behind what I believe. Is it really true? Much of what I’ve discovered about horses by trial and error has, in fact, been confirmed by research. Other practices I’ve altered upon finding that they were based on tradition rather than fact.

The bigger questions in life are going to be tested, too. What is right and wrong? Why am I here? Is there a God? Success and failure, illness, accidents and the changing seasons of life test our beliefs. Is what I believe really true? Did I or someone else make it up? Is it only a tradition?

Jesus spoke about a wise man who built his house on a rock. When the storms of life came, the house stood strong. Have unexpected challenges caused you to look at what you believe?

Monday, 22 August 2011

Why so tense?

Stress and tension plague us in modern times. Too many voices. Too many demands. With white knuckles and gritted teeth we soldier on. We can spot the signs of tension in a person – but what about a horse?

As judges we’re trained to recognize technical errors, lack of talent and lameness. What about signs of tension? We’re talking about this more, but the more subtle signs are easily clouded by a flashy mover, which naturally impresses us and we feel inclined to reward.

Conflict behaviour is a term in learning theory describing the way horses respond when they’re confused. Short rigid necks, busy mouths, fixed ears, hasty steps – these happen when a horse feels torn between the mixed messages he’s getting from his environment or his rider. Simultaneous, opposite signals or noisy cues trigger a horse’s flight response and when there’s no way out, he acts out (often subtly) or zones out (learned helplessness).

I admit, it’s a dilemma – comparing a talented but tense horse with an average happy one. It’s enough to stir some conflict behaviour in judges! Would honing the penalty system to include specific signs and degrees of tension be a step in the right direction? What about educating our riders beyond the mechanics and posture of the sport to the science of how horses learn? ( the “whys” behind the “hows – my passion!)

What do you think?

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Timing and Intensity

Timing is everything when communicating effectively with your horse. Catching a horse in the moment he makes a decision with reward or pressure identifies that particular decision as right or wrong. Pressure delivered a second too late allows him to get by with a wrong answer. A reward given too late, discourages him from getting the right answer. Blocking the wrong choice and giving relief for the right choice is the way of an effective trainer.

Intensity of the cue is delivering just the appropriate amount of pressure to motivate a horse – no more and no less.

Blowups at the horse show occur when we get this timing and intensity thing wrong. Distractions, navigating through a crowded warm up ring or rail class, cause us to be too late in our cues. Anticipation causes us to jump the gun by moving too quickly, surprising our horses with our aids.

Show nerves result in mumbling, mousy aids that the horse ignores. Anger and embarrassment lead to jerking and kicking akin to using a megaphone in library….overkill.

Isn’t timing and intensity the key in human relationships, too?

Age old wisdom from the Bible tells us “He who restrains his words has knowledge,
And he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” Proverbs 17:27

Tuesday, 2 August 2011


Olympic athletes, professional hockey players and professional horsemen alike feel the pressure to win. Many call it greed, but sometimes it’s fueled by the desperate attempt to make a living. In the show ring or the race track, people hire successful trainers. Unfortunately some set aside empathy to use the horse as a tool for their sport.

But what defines abuse varies among the public. How a horse experiences pain or anxiety as a prey and herd animal is different from a human. He does not have human logic or motives or the ability to think in the abstract. In many cases, what wouldn’t stress a human, stresses a horse and what a human considers painful is merely uncomfortable to the horse.

I teach Equine Behaviour as part of a University of Guelph course. One thing I love about teaching this course is I get to review all sorts of studies which help sort through the fact and fiction of horse learning. We look at how various trailering, training, cribbing intervention and weaning methods, affect a horse’s anxiety, measured by heart rate and cortisol levels. It’s been an eye opener to learn that some things are more stressful to a horse than we think, while others are less.

"Our views on animal welfare are conditioned by our personal knowledge base and life experiences," explainedTom Lenz, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, in his keynote speech, entitled "Horse Welfare Wars: When Emotion and Fact Collide," at the AAEP Convention… "In a perfect world, all welfare solutions would be based on science, such as (the horses') health and biological function (as opposed to emotion). In reality, though, science is often ignored if society believes something is wrong." Lenz adds that he believes emotions often take over because society views animal welfare as a moral issue rather than a scientific issue, and they tend to be quick to blame when someone is caring for animals differently than they would.

Let’s continue to speak up against unsavoury training practices, but put on our thinking caps and check the facts before we label a certain practice as abuse.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Heads up! Heels down!

Beautifully turned out and positioned, long legged equitation riders head up the placings at top shows this summer. Lessons spent without stirrups and in two point position pay dividends in the show ring. But have you ever considered the line between poise and pose? Dignity, calm and confidence stemming from an unmistakable wisdom describe a rider with poise. There’s an air of assurance that marks an informed horse person.

But the emphasis put on equitation “hows” and not the “whys” can amount to pose. A rider who poses has a veneer of correct position, without the underlying foundation of horsemanship.

I wonder if riders were educated earlier about the science of how horses think and learn as the priority to correct diagonals and straight backs, we might see fewer temper tantrums at the shows. It’s natural to lose it when we think of the horse as a machine that’s come pre-programmed with all the buttons in place. Perhaps if riders were taught to think like a horse and to consider carefully every signal or aid they send to that horse, there would be more harmony and less hassle. More sympathy and less stiffness. What do I intend to say when I use this cue? What does it feel like to my horse?

Maybe it’s the overestimating of our horses’ ability to reason and comprehend as we do that leads to used up and confused competition horses…

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Unflattering Snapshots

Recently, dressage and reining have joined the ranks of western pleasure and saddlebred competition as the subject of Facebook and discussion boards with accusations of abuse from the informed and uninformed alike. This week there was a video circulating, depicting snapshots of hyperflexion, accompanied by stirring music and close ups of sad equine eyes. Elsewhere, commentaries paint with a wide brush all western pleasure horses as being miserable peanut rollers. Generalizations include disgusting head sets in the show world and anyone who uses draw reins is taking an unethical shortcut to proper training.

I’ve had plenty of unflattering snapshots taken of me – in some of the funniest I’m in the middle of an animated explanation of a riding concept while teaching a clinic. My face is just doing something weird. I’d hate for folks to think I’m weird in general. I see snapshots of Hollywood actors on the gossip mags as I’m waiting in the checkout line, purposely taken in a bad moment. Today, a photo taken on an angle of Angelina Jolie made one believe the headline that she was a ninety pound anorexic.

Any snapshot of horsemanship doesn’t tell the whole picture. A video clip of a four beating western pleasure horse doesn’t mean that is that is what the judges are looking for. A shot of a horse behind the bit may only reflect a temporary state which was resolved on the next lap of the ring.

A judge’s update I received from FEI and Equine Canada cautioned officials not to mistake permitted stretching techniques for illegal practice. Longitudinal and lateral stretching may look unpleasant in a snapshot, but these associations maintain it is permitted and beneficial as long as it is not sustained or aggressive– interrupted by periods of lengthening and relaxation. (But these periods are rarely captured on video).

When horses are genuinely abused or confused by people it breaks my heart. But I want to consider the whole story before I pass judgment on the cover photo.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Contiguous Reinforcement

Joining or touching. In horse training, when the outcome quickly follows the behaviour. It’s key that a horse associates “this” with “that”. So the speed and skill of the rider to identify the choice moment to reward a horse for his response is key. A horse learns to link a behaviour to an outcome. For instance, when asking for a rein back, he gets no relief from bit pressure by tossing his head up, but gets immediate release when he steps back. Hmmm…can work the other way, can’t it? What if a rider is unaware that she’s hanging on her horse’s mouth while standing at the centre of the arena. The horse roots his nose forward and finds quick and easy freedom by pulling on her arms. Habits are formed unintentionally when riders are oblivious to the signals they’re sending but intentionally by thinking riders!

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Negative Reinforcement

Taking away something that the horse dislikes in order to reward a desired response. Giving the horse relief or escape when he makes the correct choice.

For example, removing leg pressure as soon as the horse yields sideways. Softening the pressure on the lead rope for a forward step when teaching a foal to lead. Quieting a clucking noise as a horse lengthens his stride on the lunge.

Can you see how timing is critical? When teaching riders I help them capture the exact moment their horse answers correctly so he connects the dots and is more likely to repeat that response. Having an eye on the ground helps until they develop a feel for it themselves.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Really? (Part 2)

This blog is a continuation of the one titled "Really?"

An excerpt from sport horse vet, Dr Alex Emerson’s excellent blog illustrates the idea that I expressed in the blog preceding this one titled "Really?" He shares his frustration with the opinions of the “expert” practitioners of alternative medicine…

I’m not opposed to capitalism; everyone is free to make a living. And I’m always open to suggestion, if someone has noticed something I haven’t, or has an idea that is alternative to my own. But it drives me (and my colleagues, almost to the man) nuts that these people are often getting called before we are, even though they often charge more for their “therapy” than we are for our exam, which often leads to an actual diagnosis, and occasionally, more appropriate therapy. Don’t get me wrong – I strongly support acupuncture and chiro practices (I’m trained in, and practice chiro everyday), but I believe in it being practiced by veterinarians. Not lay people who learned massage or pseudo chiropractic in a couple of weekend courses from another layperson. I’m happy that those people can make a living, but it’s annoying that in some cases, we have to answer questions that they raise about a horse, that they don’t have any business raising.

In the end, calling a vet first usually saves money. …We have much better diagnostic skills and equipment on average, than we had not too many years ago, regarding these hard-to-reach areas. This has expanded our therapeutic regime in return. Many of us have learned how to apply chiropractic (the real kind, learned from chiropractors), acupuncture, ultrasound guided injections, shockwave, etc, to genuinely alter disease and dysfunction.

I’m not saying that alternative voices don’t offer something important to the mix. Indeed, my experience is that there are a few out there, who in spite of a formal education, can change something in a horse that vets and farriers were unable to.

They have special skills, and belong in the horse community as part of the management team. But they aren’t a first line of defense. The most appropriate first expert is one who spent a handful of years and many thousands of dollars learning every aspect of anatomy, physiology and pathology of the animals they are treating, and have dedicated their lives since graduating to improving their skills. They are licensed by the state as experts, and carry insurance in case things don’t go as planned. But just as importantly, they attempt to practice defensible medicine, rooted in scientific fact instead of anecdotal whim. There’s a lot of great research going on right now that is expanding our knowledge base of how horses function, and what to do when they don’t. Use someone who reads that research and can figure out how to apply it.

I have been driving cars for many years, but I barely know what it looks like under the hood. If you brought me your car and asked me why it’s making a knocking sound, I’d be happy to give you my opinion. But you probably shouldn’t pay me for it.

Dr. Emerson provides sports medicine services for Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, KY and Wellington, FL.

Monday, 20 June 2011


Recently in a discussion about bits at a Pony Club clinic, I encouraged the teen riders to think critically. There’s a lot of opinion out there that we eat up as fact. In a later blog, I’ll talk about some of the bit- myths out there in contrast with the excellent research that’s been done lately on the equine mouth.

I love to learn. But I sort through all the theories gathered in reading, on the internet and in encounters with professionals and ordinary folk by sifting it through the grid of truth. Have I considered opposing views? Is there repeatable evidence to back up this opinion? What long standing reputation is behind the opinion? (Their track record of success). What do the respected researchers say on the subject? What does common sense say? What does my own experience tell me? Do I have enough experience in this area to trust my own convictions?

Is that really true? I urged the teens to ask this about all the claims they hear every day – from music, magazines and other media.

The Bible comments on this age old issue…

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won't be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Ephesians 4:14

Monday, 13 June 2011

Taking the Lead

Thinking like a horse causes us to see that a horse’s desire for companionship stems from survival, not compassion. As a prey animal to be alone is to be vulnerable.

In people friendships, there’s a give and take – a time to serve and a time to receive. A time to take the initiative and a time to selflessly allow the other to make the decision.

In the equine world it is lead or be led. Life is good when there’s a stable hierarchy. The sentinel or Alpha horse calls the shots, deciding when it’s time to eat, time to change location and time to run from danger. If humans are going to ride, groom or transport a horse, we’re the Alpha. Nothing messes with a horse’s mind more than letting him “lead the way”.

Suggestions to take the leadership role: 
  • Be clear in your body language. Be readable in all your cues. Horse show nerves cause us to deliver mousy signals. We’re distracted and our legs and hands send mixed messages. In the absence of leadership your horse will fill the void. 
  • Guard your personal space. Periodically ask your horse to defer to you by yielding his personal space. Back your horse up from time to time when you’re leading your horse around the show grounds. Transitions and leg yielding under saddle are small ways to confirm your leadership role. I slip moments of collection or half halts into every trip in the show ring – periodically connecting the horse to me. 
  • Be the decision maker all the time – how deep are we going to ride into this corner? What length of stride to I want to trot? Where do I want my horse to face when I mount? How fast do I want to walk back to the barn? Unauthorized decisions must be methodically corrected or they’ll multiply and end up in a contest of wills. 
  • Keep emotions out of the picture. Any discipline is swift, appropriate and over within a second. Alpha horses don’t hold grudges.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Positive Reinforcement

Adding a reward for a correct response. Something the horse desires. A treat, pat or voice command, for instance. Treats are a highly motivating and are used a lot in the training of marine mammals and dogs, but not as much in horses. Something to consider: Can feeding treats to horses open up a can of worms – a whole new set of problems? Or is it the timing of the treat delivery? Do horses consider patting really rewarding? What about a vocal reward? I’ve got some thoughts on these things that I’ll cover in future blogs.

Next week – negative reinforcement – it’s not what you might think. Until then, let’s be thinking riders!

Sunday, 5 June 2011


Reinforcement: An outcome a horse receives which increases the likelihood that a response will occur again.

Following a behaviour with a reinforcer (an outcome or a payoff) will cause it to happen again. Do it again and a habit is born. Something to consider: We can intentionally or unintentionally back up a horse’s action if he receives a payoff for it. A good trainer will make sure that every correct answer results in reinforcement so it’ll happen again. Hmmm…think of the ways novice or distracted or misinformed riders can reinforce bad behaviour…

Next week I’ll talk about the types of reinforcement we use. Until then, let’s be thinking riders!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Learned Helplessness

Equine Behaviour Term of the Week: "Learned Helplessness"
Individuals learn to be helpless to avoid a negative experience.
They believe they have no control over their unpleasant or harmful conditions, and their actions are futile, so they lose motivation or their “want to"
Have you ever seen this happen to a horse being trained for the show ring?
Do you think people can experience situations where they feel helpless too?
“Let’s be thinking riders!”

Monday, 30 May 2011

My horse/My friend? Part 2

I recently read an article explaining the concepts of Equine Facilitated Learning, a discovery/recovery program for people using horses as the teachers. The authors praised the program’s ability to enable self discovery and personal transformation through the horse/human connection. Comments from EFL participants spoke of quality time with the horse, opening a deeper connection, receiving a message of horse wisdom, consensual leadership, and letting horse lead the way.

Now, I’m all for self examination. The Bible encourages us to “ponder the path of your feet” and Socrates concurs that an unexamined life is not worth living. Friends, family and riding coaches are good at pointing out areas in us that need examination, but if we’re humble enough to listen. But I have to draw the line at the EFL practitioner’s claim that horses, as teachers, “share their presence and unconditional compassion.” I learn from horses as I would learn from a mirror. They naturally reflect the best and the worst in me. No motives, empathy, desire to help – they just do what they do without thinking about it.

Monday, 23 May 2011

My horse/My friend? Part 1

Anyone who’s been dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend questions themselves later if they read too much into the relationship…I guess he wasn’t that into me after all…

Can we read too much into our relationships with our horses?

Earlier this year in Horse and Rider magazine, readers shared how they would describe their relationships with their horses. “Someone to rely on.” “Mama’s boy.” “Peas in a pod.” Comments included “My horse shares my moods, always listens to me, and tests me all the time”.

Everybody is designed with a desire to be understood and loved unconditionally – warts and all. Can we expect this from a horse? Do horses share human emotions or do we gravitate towards relationship so much that we read their responses are from love, humour or scheming rather than pure instinct.

I believe we do our horses a disservice by failing to understand their uniquely equine mind.

When we attribute motives and emotions to them that are uniquely human, it’s called anthropomorphization.

Film makers and the retail industry bank on the trend over the past 50 years to see horses as companions. But here’s the rub – the viewpoint of the horse and that of the human is very different. As someone who studies and teaches equine behaviour, I’m increasingly aware that God has wired these animals differently than me.

  • Horses are prey animals. Humans are not.
  • Horses operate best in a hierarchy – there’s peace when everyone knows their place. Humans must not.
  • Horses learn differently than humans.

Thinking like a horse is really the kindest thing we can do for our horses.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Arena Mirrors

As I rode by the mirror this week, I checked to see the outline of the horse I was training - had he hidden behind the vertical or did his frame match the one I had in my head? Although he felt soft in my hands and forward in his trot, I’ve come to realize that what I feel doesn’t always match what is.

In life, horses, people and circumstances can act as mirrors to reveal character in me that needs changing. Mirrors reflect the best and worst in us. A frustrating training session can bring attention to other areas of life where our patience and knowledge run out at the same time… we just don’t know what to do so we start jerking, kicking or swearing. When we’re left standing in the lineup after the class is placed, the green monster of jealousy can rise up, along with our tendency to start blaming others to hide the shame we feel. A client who disagrees with a policy can reveal an arrogance in us that repels others, keeping us from deep friendships.

Interacting with horses and humans has sanded off a few of my rough edges over the years. I’ve developed empathy – considering the point of view of the other. Horses are not humans with fur. I’ve got to learn to think like a horse in order to train effectively. When I consider an equine point of view as a grazing, herd dependent, prey animal, phrases like “He’s just being ignorant” “She’s such a mare!” disappear. Instead, I take a hard look at the “code” I’m using to communicate what I want – are my cues conflicting or vague? Seeing other people as uniquely created, gifted and loved by God entrenches the fact that it’s not my way or the highway! Avoiding the mirror because we’re afraid of what it might show doesn’t make the flaw go away. Challenging horses and humans are an opportunity to learn and grow!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Behind the Bit

“Headset” is a bad word in my vocabulary.

Thankfully, most judges these days aren’t fooled by that horse with his nose tucked in, looking past the head to analyze the balance, rhythm and relaxation of the whole picture.

I often describe the horse as in a box, a shape or frame. The rider sends him forward from her legs  (the back of the box) into her hands (the front of the box). The horse rounds his top line and softens to the bit and the energy springs upward rather than running forward. But when the front and the back of the box are rigid, or their boundaries inconsistent, the horse learns to  
  1. lean on them (the heavy horse)
  2. fight them (rooting the reins out of the rider’s hands) 
  3. or avoid them (behind the bit). 
Once a horse learns how to escape the noisy or inconsistent hands of a rider, he’ll tend to hide behind the bit even with a rider of educated hands, avoiding the annoyance before it begins. In horse psychology, this is called “avoidance conditioning”. He’s found an escape route that works and it becomes his default whether or not the threat is still present.
Kinda like cringing in the dentist chair after he’s pricked you once or twice with that sharp little tool. Hard to relax.
“Hurt me once, shame on you. Hurt me twice shame on me”. So the saying goes. So many folks protect themselves from further hurt by avoiding confrontation, love or risk. 
I’ve found the behind-the-bit horse can be corrected by teaching horse to accept my hands. With flowing, “rubbery” arms, I follow his neck out, alert to any slight inclination from him to reach out in response to my legs sending him forward. I follow every little stretching attempt with a fluid, arm….time after time… until he finds the sweet spot.
We’ve all been hurt and embarrassed in life. Avoidance conditioning says “never again!”
Forgive. Learn from mistakes. Rise to the next challenge. 
When I sense God asking me to stretch myself and I respond to the challenge, I find a sweet spot where He meets me, despite my fear.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

It's More Than Horse Shows

I went to my first horse show when I was 13. The judge advised me that the yellow macramé browband I’d created for my gelding’s bridle was not really customary show attire. I didn’t really understand the difference between hunter or equitation, over fences, showmanship or halter/line classes. I just signed up for ‘em all, hoping that my horse had read the show program.

After spending my teen years showing my hunter on the A circuit, going off course as much as staying on track, I took an education break before crossing over to the Quarter Horse world as an adult. There, wiser and more experienced, I was blessed to find myself regularly in the winner’s circle, now in both English and western tack. My then-husband and I hung up our shingle as professional horse trainers in 1985, hauling horses to AQHA shows across North America every weekend.

In 25 years as a professional coach and trainer, I’ve worked with easily over a thousand horses, and coached even more riders. What I’ve learned from horses and their people! What I’ve learned about myself in the fishbowl of the show ring! Horse shows have enriched lives for so many, and been the catalyst for the train wreck of others.

I’m still learning – asking questions, reading, studying and riding. Digging deeper through the hows to the whys. Give me the thinking behind those technical skills! Thinking riders become excellent horsemen, not just ribbon winners. As a coach and trainer, I love being part of the process.