Saturday, February 7, 2009

Herd bound

When I was riding my Quarab regularly he was a great partner, but take that horse out after not having been ridden for awhile and he wanted nothing to do with me. He'd spin, he'd rear, he'd take off in a mad bucking spree. I'd get on and immediately I could feel him ready to explode beneath me. At the sound of his first whinny, I'd tense up for what was to come. Of course, only minutes later, he'd explode like some wild bronc.

Horses are prey animals, and prey animals find security in large groups. In the wild, their survival depends on those large groups. Lone prey animals are easy prey to predators. So how can we expect our horse to follow us, alone, off somewhere on a trail ride or even in the arena, without first proving to her that we are a responsible leader, that her survival is guaranteed in our presence? If we don't have a solid partnership with our horse, there is no way in heck she is going to want to leave the security of her herd. Survival, to a horse, is absolutely vital. Therefore they will do whatever is necessary to ensure their survival. They will buck, rear, spin, kill both you and themselves - whatever it takes, to get back to that herd. No matter the bond we have with that horse, they have to trust that we will lead them safely and that we will ensure their survival.

""It's unreasonable to ask a horse not to be afraid. That's like my telling you to go into a bad area of town for a walk at two in the morning, and not be frightened."-John Lyons
Imagine yourself in a bad part of town (and to a horse, any area away from the safety of the herd can be a bad part of town). At night. By yourself. You're going to be spooking left, right and center, and you can bet your a** you're going to be moving along as fast as you can to get back to the safest area you know. If you have the choice, you probably won't even be leaving the house. Well, that's how your horse feels when you take him away from the herd. Now imagine yourself now with a big group of people, or even just with one really strong, bulky person. Not so scary anymore, eh? That's what you need to earn from your horse - that leadership where she can follow you anywhere, including away from the herd. Part of this is desensitization and so teaching a horse to be more confident in herself, but the larger part is having them have confidence that you can lead them safely.

So what do we do? Long-term, we need to earn that partnership with our horse. We need to earn their respect as well as their trust and their trust in our leadership. Once you've earned that trust, they will walk through fire with you, because they know you will keep them safe! It won't matter where you ride your horse because your horse will have utmost confidence in you. She won't mind leaving her equine buddies behind because she's going off with her "other" herd - you!

Short-term, you can help by making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy. Ask your horse to focus on you by having her work on patterns she knows. Ask her to move in circles, figure-eights, serpentines, ask her to perform turns on the forehand, hindquarter, sidepass, back-up...anything but forward movement. Forward movement (in this scenario) does not encourage a horse to think but instead allows them to become right-brained and reactive. Forward motion is a mechanism of flight and so by encouraging your horse to simply move forward, a) you allow her to push off her hind (her engine), which allows her limitless ways to try to get back to the herd because she can work off that hind, and b) you're allowing her to not have to think but simply move her feet forwards (which - in this case - requires no thought and all instinctive reaction). When she's by her buddies, get her to work! When she's away from them, allow her to rest. You can go through this multiple times in one session, rewarding her with rest each time she's facing away and/or is a distance away from her equine friends. Furthermore, take it a little step at a time. Gradually increase the distance between her and her horse buddies each session, working at a specific distance until she is comfortable before moving on to a larger distance. Lastly, don't be afraid to get off and play some games on the ground. The ground is usually safer and it allows your horse to follow you directly on the ground, rather than trying to follow your direction from somewhere behind, up on their back. Your horse won't "win" if you get off and neither will she perceive you as a poor leader for doing so when your gut tells you it's the right answer in that moment. In fact, you'll actually progress by stepping down out of the stirrup because a) everyone is safer, b) frustration diminishes, and c) your horse can follow your leadership easier. Safety first!! If you need to get off, get off.

Ultimately though, the key to this puzzle is to just really work on the partnership you have with your horse. A bond is great, but it is not enough for your horse to trust in your leadership. So get out there and start developing that partnership! If your horse truly trusts your leadership and wants to be with you, she is not going to worry about where the other horses are - she's going to be focused on you and content being in your presence.

My Quarab continues to remain a highly sensitive horse who has a strong need for the safety of a herd, he's not like his half-brother, who you could take out without a care in the world. So I don't take my Quarab out on a trail if I know we don't have a great partnership! If it's been all winter since we've really worked together, I can only expect that I have to earn my way back into his herd come spring. I build up that partnership (which takes little time at all) until I know he trusts in my leadership. When we're working off a solid partnership and are in perfect sync, then I take him out and we can enjoy the trails together alone without any worry!! When I earn that leadership status, that little horse is the best trail partner I could ever ask for. It's up to us though!

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