Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pulls back when tied

Horses are naturally claustrophobic, which is why trailers and being tied can invoke huge fear-based reactions. Tight spaces or being restricted can impede an escape from a predator, so horses tend to naturally avoid such situations. When put in claustrophobic situations, horses can react blindly and violently, out of instinct to fight or flee. A tied horse cannot evade a predator, she's trapped, so if that flight instinct kicks in for whatever reason (if for whatever reason she feels her safety is jeopardized), she's going to attempt to flee...thereby pulling back. A reactive horse isn't thinking, she's reacting out of pure instinct. What we're asking from the horse, as humans, is for a horse to stand tied without pulling back in the first place, but if she does pull back, for her to release and give to the pressure. In the wild however, horses often push through pressure when they're trapped. Another factor that can play a role in a horse pulling back is the horse that does so while thinking, the horse that isn't pulling back out of reactiveness but rather is doing so decisively and calmly - this reaction is not as common as the reactive reaction and usually indicates a horse that has little disrespect for pressure (or the person, even) and who essentially just wants her own way.

Before ever tying a horse in the first place, a horse should understand pressure and how to respond to it; they need to be taught to move off of pressure. This can be done through the Parelli Porcupine Game (one of the 7 games), where the horse is asked to move off of fingertip pressure that is applied in various phases (touch hair, touch skin, touch muscle, touch "bone"), in various areas of the body (nose, chest, elbow/nose, hindquarter). The goal is for the horse to respond lightly - for us to be able to eventually only apply Phase 1 - touch hair, and have the horse respond to that feather-light touch. I also will throw ropes into the equation. Once the horse is comfortable with ropes all around her, I will ask her to solve puzzles: I'll wrap a 12' lead around her body, walking to her opposite side and by her head with the rope looped around behind her and apply pressure, asking her to follow the feel and turn 360 degrees to once again face me. If she's comfortable with that I'll even wrap her up twice in a 22' rope. Also, I'll toss the rope around legs, apply pressure, and ask her to release (nose and leg relax and give to the pressure). If they're comfortable with thinking through situations, solving puzzles, and releasing to pressure, they have all the tools to then tie. This way if they accidentally step on their lead, rather than exploding, they think the situation through and stand calmly or even remove their foot from the lead. When they're tied and something spooks them, they might flee backwards but as they feel the pressure, they'll give and relax, coming forward. The horse that pulls back in a non-reactive, thinking manner needs us to earn a higher level of respect; a level that encompasses her learning to stay where we ask until we ask otherwise and that also encompasses us earning a sufficient level of respect where she can respect and respond to pressure. Teaching her to release to pressure in the first place is also important for this type of horse. Another method of teaching this horse to stand where we ask is to make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy: when not tied, she works, when tied, she is permitted to relax. Lastly, both horses need to have trust in their herd leader's (us) leadership and to be developed into a calmer, smarter, braver horse.

While tying can teach a horse lots in regards to patience and releasing to pressure, there are also points in time where tying is not the best option, such as when a horse is not yet emotionally and mentally balanced. I've learned not to always tie my undeveloped horses - doing so only causes their stress levels to increase and for them to be more reactive, which in turn makes it more difficult for them to get their heads back into the game and become my partner afterward. Furthermore, when you tie them and it increases anxiety levels (ie, the horse does not eventually relax but becomes increasingly anxious), you run the risk of further cementing that response (anxiety when tied) as a habit. So essentially, there is a time to tie and a time not to tie. The time not to tie is when it causes the horse to become more hyped up emotionally, when it causes more harm than good. When they're standing pawing, weaving, bobbing their heads, and generally expressing anxiety, it's probably not the best time to tie them. You're setting them up for another session of anxiety, bad feelings associated with being tied, and a potential disaster when they eventually pull back. They're not in the right place emotionally and thus further restricting their feet is only going to create anxiety as their feeling of being trapped increases. Instead, work on developing them - creating that calmer, smarter, braver partner so that they're not anxious when restricted. Create a calmer brain and the feet will be quieter - otherwise the brain is anxious, causing the feet to move in a flight pattern, which in turn creates a higher level of anxiety in the brain...and so the vicious circle continues. I find that once a horse is at least somewhat developed, or balanced mentally and emotionally, that tying is no longer an issue. In fact, by that time, they're ground-tying, they're not needing to move their feet in flight! If they're ground-tying, tying to a post later is no problem. The time to tie is when the horse is sufficiently prepared (ie, releases to pressure, etc) and when it causes greater benefit than harm - ie, the horse who calms after perhaps some initial anxious moments or the horse who benefits from learning some patience.

Remember, it is not about the tying itself, it is about the underlying root issues that result in either success or failure when tied.

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