Monday, September 14, 2009

He walks so nice too

This is sort of an extension of the blog Horses as our Reflections, my apologies if it seems I am repeating myself.

"He walks so nice too!"

The above words were ones I overheard as I walked down the street with our dog, Aly. Never mind that Aly is a girl and so it should be “she walks so nice too”…but that’s besides the point. The individuals passing us in the street were obviously commenting on our pup to one another and thought she was well-trained as well. This is the same dog that, whenever I drop her off at a kennel or return for her after a weekend away, is dragging her handlers about. She’s over 50lbs of wagging tail that has the strength to tow your average human wherever she so pleases. Yet despite her renegade leash-walking with any stranger bold enough to take hold of her leash, that pup always walks obediently next to myself or the SO, without so much as threatening to pull. In all likelihood though, the individuals passing us on the sidewalk probably would have been added to Aly’s pile of leash-pulling victims. So what does this have to do with horses?

So many times I am given horses to train or I hear of horses in training, where the owner seemingly expects their horse to be a robot. Their “he walks so nice too” is a “oh, he walks/trots/canters/spins/jumps so nice”. What people fail to understand, however, is that what we make in the trainer’s pen is not always what goes home to the owner. At times the owner can get more out of the horse than we did and at other times the horse goes home and the owner gets less out of the horse than we did (more common). So far I have been graced with wonderful, understanding owners, however as a trainer you will one day stumble upon the owner who becomes disappointed upon bringing their horse home and finding out their horse does less than they expected. As an owner, you might one day bring a horse home to find it performs at a lower level than you had expected, than you were told. Keep in mind it might not be the trainer’s fault, but rather yours.

It always bugs me when people comment on a horse “he’s so relaxed!” or, conversely, “he’s a nutcase!”, as if every horse is a tense wreck waiting to happen and this ONE horse stands above the others because he is SO calm, or as if most horses are calm, yet this one stands out because he’s “crazy”. Every horse is perfect and has the potential to be the perfect partner. Yes, horses have a base personality. We’ve got two horses, a Thoroughbred and a Quarab, at the moment who are extremely high energy – it’s a challenge to keep them relaxed and their minds busy. We’ve also got two other horses, a QH-bred Paint and a Warmblood cross, who are naturally very relaxed and laid-back. However, as a horseperson, you have the capabilities of “balancing out” a horse. The high energy horse can learn to think through situations and remain calm, while the low energy horse can learn to have impulsion and to answer with “yes sir, yes ma’am, how far how fast?”. When every horse is “balanced”, every horse really is equal. Herd situations can help “balance” a horse, and correct horsemanship can do the rest. So, with that said, it’s more about the rider/person than the horse.

Horses are our reflections – what we do directly affects their behaviour as well as their general attitude. Sometimes all the credit really should go to the horse – our horses put up with so much! Other times though, the credit should go to the person involved, for keeping the horse the way they naturally are and for further developing from there, or for developing a damaged horse into an appropriate partner. Or, for creating a complete wreck out of the horse! If you want a calm and relaxed horse who “walks nice” – create one. If you’ve got a “nutcase”, it might have more to do with you (either originally or through lack of horsemanship throughout your partnership with said horse) than you’d like to admit.

Case in point: I have been asked to do an assessment on a horse who has “catching issues”, likely, from the sounds of it, thanks to handling by his previous owner. Teaching a horse to be caught could be done in a way akin to teaching a dog to come, or to sit and stay…but it likely won’t hold long. The horse who’s been conditioned to come will only come when the appropriate conditions are met (treats, threat of a beating, etc etc) – if those conditions disappear, so will the willingness to be caught. However, the horse who doesn’t mind being caught, or who even goes so far as to “catch his owner” is the horse who enjoys being with his rider, who enjoys the work they do. Hard-to-catch is not about not wanting to be caught for the sake of being caught, it’s about not wanting to be caught for a specific reason: a pinching saddle, hard hands, fear of the rider, dislike of the work the horse is being asked to do, preference for grass, etc.

From the owner’s seat, it’s important to understand how much of a role you play in your horse’s behaviour, attitude, and performance. You might send your horse to a trainer, but your horse is not a robot! Which is why it is vital to understand your horse – why he does what he does, how to get what you want (including using the same cues your trainer used), how to further develop him, and that he won’t be the same in your hands as he was/is in your trainer’s hands. It is important to understand what your trainer is doing, why they are doing it, and how you can continue it once the trainer is gone. Horses are individuals and respond according to what we, as individuals, ask of them, either indirectly or directly. Lastly, every minute you spend with your horse you are training him - keep it in mind!

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