Emotion and calm

Horses are emotional creatures. Their first response to most new things is an emotional one – usually fear, often turning that into inquisitiveness once they have established that the thing won’t harm them. For many years I used to wonder whether my horse was afraid or defensive or angry in some way until I realised that firstly I will never actually know what emotion the horse is experiencing at this moment and secondly it doesn’t really matter. I may not know whether my horse is angry or afraid – for all we can know there might be no similarity at all between emotions as horses experience them and emotions as we experience them – but it doesn’t change what I do. I need to let them work through the emotion they are experiencing and help them to be calm again.

The place where I begin to work on that is by letting them move – it is absolutely counterproductive to try to stop a horse from moving their feet if they are emotional – but to direct that movement and to ask them to bring their attention back to me. It seems to me that the emotion takes the horse’s mind off what I am asking them to do and gets them thinking more about whatever it is that is causing them to feel that way. By getting them thinking about what I am asking them for ( and importantly by getting them thinking rather than just reacting ) I can break that pattern a little. So I’ll ask for regular changes of direction and typically I won’t put any more energy into the system- I won’t ask them to go faster – but I will let the energy that they have put in drain out by simply waiting for them to come through.

Zorro flings himself in the air

Zorro gets very emotional about the rain- is he angry? Excited? Happy? I have no idea, but I don't want to be sat on him when he does this.

The other part of anything we do with horses is how we react to things as well. I am lucky in that I am very calm and patient by nature so it isn’t too hard for me to avoid getting too involved when a horse gets emotional. This is critically important – if the horse is emotional and I respond in kind then that is very likely to make matters worse as I will effectively be telling them  that there is something to be getting emotional about. If I can remain as a calm place that can make my presence much more reassuring for the horse when they are concerned and make my company somewhere they would like to be. 

One thing I found helpful when I wanted to get better at being this way for my horses was to think of myself as being part of the environment rather than part of the emotional dynamic the horse has chosen, so I try to imagine that mentally I am more like an oak tree or rocks that the sea washes around. Whatever the horse does happens in the environment  around me- if the horse wants to push or pull on me there will be no more benefit to them than if they chose to push or pull on a tree – I may have to do something to change what they are doing, but my plan is simply to keep putting things out the way I would like the horse to respond to them and let the emotions wash away. The quicker that the horse can go back to thinking about what I am asking them for, the sooner they will be able to think clearly again and we can go back to some useful work.

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The Starting Point

As this is my first post on this site, I thought I would begin at the beginning by talking about the first thing I establish any time I work with a horse. This is so important and the source of so many problems that I will doubtless come back to it in future, but I’ll start by talking about it here.

You have to have the horse’s attention.

When I am working with a horse I want to be able to work with their thought, to get them focussed on what I am asking them for so they are able to do it. If they are busy looking out into the distance, trying to see what their buddies are up to in the field or otherwise zoning me out then I’m simply not going to be able to get any sense of them. I need to have their attention from the start and I need to keep it the whole time.

When I am working on the ground I will start this by just doing something whenever the horse begins to tune me out. The minute they start paying attention to anything other than me, I will do it again, the moment they give me their full attention ( putting their eyes and ears on me ) then I stop. What I do depends on the horse- often it is sufficient to just stamp my foot, slap my thigh or kick some sand around, sometimes I might need to pick up my energy a little and perhaps move them around until they are listening to me rather than looking off into the distance.

Cash gives me his attention.

Here Cash is paying close attention to what I am asking him for. Or possibly to the camera. It's the right general direction at least.

Horses can be very determined that they need to pay more attention to what is going around them than they do to what the human handling them is asking them for and it can sometimes take a lot to get them paying attention to you – sometimes you have to be ready to effectively say “you think what is going on out there is scary, check out how scary I can be.” It can actually be helpful if the horse isn’t completely one hundred percent certain that you won’t eat them.

I probably lost a few readers there for being deliberately mean to ponies, but the simple fact is that if you want to see something really scary go to a show and watch the horses who are fascinated by everything around them and paying no attention whatsoever to the human on the end of the rope. Any time I see a human in a situation where they are relying on pure luck to keep them safe with their horse I find that nervewracking. There are also a lot of fairly anthropomorphic ideas about how horses see the world.  As a human in the modern world we are infrequently scared and we find it quite unpleasant. Horses are fear-oriented animals and they spend a lot of their time spooking at things and running away from them. It seems to me that because of this and because they live very much in the present, horses are only briefly affected by most things that spook them and if a horse is determined not to offer me any attention then I am quite happy to use that response to change their mind about that.

There are many ways that you can lose your horse’s attention when you start working with them and it will happen from time to time. One of the most common is where you work on a pattern for a while – either on the ground or in the saddle – and the horse learns the pattern and then doesn’t need to be paying attention in order to perform it. This is tricky because it is often the point at which the pattern starts to look really good and because much like our equine partners, we are creatures of pattern and it’s easy to do the same set of things any time we do groundwork or schooling with our horses.

The best way to avoid falling into these patterns is to be aware of them. Once you have the basic steps of a form or shape then start changing them – can you do it step by step? Can you change direction and reverse it? Can you get half way through and reverse it? Can you change one element of it but leave the rest the same? By challenging yourself like this you make life more interesting for yourself and your horse and you have a much better chance of holding their attention.

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