Defensiveness in Horses
This guest post will guide you away from misinterpreting your horse's behavior, and help you improve your training methods.
By Tony Haines
I am blessed to work with horses of all different breeds and disciplines. Either starting their education under saddle, or helping them with various issues, or helping owners get along a little better with their horse. I am also blessed to occasionally be asked to teach clinics. I don't call them horsemanship clinics, because they are equally as applicable to the Natural Horsemanship student, as they are to the aspiring cross country super star (and the term can seem to bias prejudice even though any interaction with a horse is horsemanship). They are not broadly applicable because I am great at any of those disciplines, but because I focus on teaching people to hear their horse's side of the story (and why what they do that works, works; and why what they do that doesn't always work, doesn't always work). A side of the story that is often encouraged to be completely dismissed by less empathetic or less thoughtful trainers, educators and coaches.
One of my pet hates in this industry is the "don't let the horse win" mentality. Why shouldn't it win? We love them don't we? Yes of course we do, but there is a little extra difficulty in getting the horse to feel like it is winning when doing what we ask, and it requires that we see things from their point of view, based on how the horse has evolved to think and feel, not how the human wants to do things.
Horses were said to have come into existence about 55 million years ago, as a small animal around the size of a dog, with toed feet. They evolved quite successfully for millions of years, but relatively recently (I'm thinking less than 100,000 years ago, but my memory may be eluding me), their numbers began to drop rapidly. Nearly all species of horse were sent extinct, except for a very few ancestors of the modern horse. So why did the modern horse survive, when others that had been evolving successfully for many millions of years did not? Research of fossil's suggest it is because the modern horse is basically extremely paranoid and extremely agile.
Some human intervention for structured breeding has lead us to a horse with a pretty good temperament, but they are still an animal that does not have a frontal lobe in the brain, and they rely a lot on the 'limbic' system within the brain. The limbic system is basically a 'shoot first, ask questions later' mechanism that resides very close to the spinal chord, so messages get to the body as quickly as possible – an evolutionary masterstroke to shave milliseconds off a flight reaction which could mean the difference between life and death. They also have a 'disassociating' mechanism to cope with the trauma of being eaten alive when they do not escape a predator. We call a horse in a state of disassociiation 'shut down'.
Obviously, I am no scientist or academic, but this is the basic drift of how we came to have the modern horse. If we keep in mind that the animal was designed to evade danger, or shut down when it has not been able to escape a predator, we can begin to alter our mindset to be more succussful with our training of them.
The more and more I work with horses, the more and more I am convinced that there is no such thing as a difficult or naughty horse . . . .
They don't have the brain centre to be unreasonable. Everything they do is what has kept them and their ancestors safe forever and a day.
Black and white and as pure and simple as that.
This is where we can make it easy for ourselves and more peaceful for our horses. If we understand a horse is purely and simply physiologically built to protect itself, we must accept that often the horse is protecting itself from us.
We can have ever improving results, if we continue to learn to erase any need of defensiveness from the horse. How?
1) They need to feel safe. We MUST be PREDICTABLE and CONSISTENT and pay attention at all times. This is why we must address anything we believe needs addressing, as soon as the horse presents the behaviour. It scares and worries a horse to be chastened after a behaviour has been going for more than a moment, because they don't join the dots with our actions, therefore, we can't tolerate something until we can no longer tolerate it and then over react, if we are to help our horse feel safe around us. And if we miss a chance to make a correction, we have missed it. Wait til next time…
2) They need to understand us. We need to ask them what we want, then show them what we want. We can use any number of training methods, but it just has to have the effect of making the horse accidentally give us the answer, then with repetition, the horse will 'cut out the middle man'. I like to use pressure, but use it as a guide when teaching the horse. How do you guide with pressure? Think of it like two magnets repelling each other. Put your pressure towards the part of the horse you want to move, and aim it so it 'pushes' the horse towards the answer. When first teaching the horse how to respond to a cue, or checking it remembers, I use only enough pressure to encourage them to move. It doesn't matter where they move, as the repelling nature of the pressure will guide them the right way, but if we use too much pressure, too soon, we will worry the horse before it fully understands, which will cause our enemy.... Defensiveness! I like to build education in extremely small increments, to the point of rewarding just the head moving in the right direction, or the weight shifting in the right direction early in the lessons. But we MUST build from there.
3) They need to be motivated. Once a cue has been taught well, we can then use our pressure as a motivator. We need to look for opportunities to reward our horse, so pressure must always come only after the cue slowly been given, but it must come immediately after the cue and continue to build in intensity. IF the horse has been taught the cue well and knows the answer, it will often then be unmotivated and 'lean into' your pressure, because it wants to resist the request. This is perfectly OK! It is what they do with each other. It is VITAL that we consistently build our pressure now. We don't want to get after the horse now, we just want to show it that we are still guiding it towards the answer, but it has a little understanding on how to give us the answer, so the building of pressure tells it we are not going to stop until it gives a good answer.
But we must instantly reward a good answer. They must put in an effort to get away from that pressure and not lean on it, so if we have built to a lot of pressure, they must be looking to really get away from it. Anything less will confirm their thought that they really don't have to put in much effort, and that will lead to resentment in their work. As will constant unnecessary pressure, because they will think there is no answer to the pressure so they best defend themselves against it. So we must show them there is right answers they can make and that will make them feel like WINNERS.
4) They need to not feel trapped (they need to be heard and to be able to explore their options). The horse must be able to move its feet when worried. If it can't it will feel trapped. This is why techniques such as ‘bagging’ are maybe not as great as we used to think, and it is certainly why pulling two reins on a worried horse simply adds fuel to the fire... we are trying to trap them when they feel the need to flee. Some horses may appear to be ok with this, when in fact they are shutting down. They may feel so unable to escape what they feel they need to escape from, that they go into a disassociative mode, no different than if a lion was eating them alive. Seeing horses shut down breaks my heart! If we feel they should stop, we need to come to a compromise. A wide open inside rein is a good one while mounted. It gives them a small circle to walk out their worry on, and makes it hard for them to buck/rear/bolt/brace which keeps us safer. I call it horse yoga. If they are stepping up and under with the balancing inside hind foot, they are building self-carriage muscles. Once they calm down and decide to stop, they have a still mind and the thought of escape is usually out of them by now. The body AND the mind have found a stop, together.
Being with your horse needn't be a fight. But that takes some empathy, thought and understanding. They need to feel safe with us. This is important mentally for the horse, and extremely vital to our safety on and around the horse. Defensive horses kick and bite and barge in the wish we would just leave them alone. But it is also vital to soundness, and RIBBONS! Why? A defensive horse carries 'resistance' to us. This culminates in stiff/poor movement, which moves the horse away from correct movement, and we know long term incorrect movement leads to all sort of body issues, from constantly needing chiropractic work, to more serious things like kissing spines.
Blaming the horse leads us to a 'punishment' mentality. Punishment leads to... defensiveness. Show your horse how to be at peace with you, and watch your relationship and performance blossom. There is no room for anger or blame in education.
Thanks for listening and happy horsing!
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