“It’s alright,” the barn owner reassured me, “for every two steps you take, you will take one back as well.”
It did not make sense to me at the time, but I accepted it – it certainly was an answer to my frustrations! Since then, however, I have learned otherwise.
If you are communicating effectively with a horse, there is no reason to actually take steps back! There are a few situations, however, where your horse might seem to digress in its training. Take note though that your horse is not actually digressing but that you might rather just be working out kinks – working out existing, underlying issues in the foundation. Once the foundation is solid, the training can continue in leaps and bounds again. You are temporarily going back and re-building the foundation, without actually "taking steps back", so that you can then pick up where you left off to continue progress. This is of course assuming that you are communicating with your horse efficiently and training in a successful fashion! So, assuming that the issue is not you, here are a couple of phases I have found some horses to go through:
We just recently acquired a 6yo Paint gelding whom we call Cody, who was apparently abused by his original owner (we’re the third owners since the abuser). As a result, he is extremely suspicious of strangers and wary of peoples’ intentions – very fearful at times. Our first ride out, he did everything I threw at him, without question. By our third ride out on the trails now though, while he still does everything I ask, he is starting to question me a little. He might pause outside the gate, “are you sure we should go out on a trail ride?” Or before a creek “are you sure this is the way to go?” Once I assure him that yes, we indeed should be going out on a trail ride or yes, this is where I’d like you to go please, he plunges ahead willingly. But there’s that one moment of question, where he just makes sure.
Why would he do this when before he would just go where I asked without say? Why would he start questioning me now?
Answer: because he is now becoming comfortable enough in my presence to do so.
With the fearful horse who has been abused, they do what you ask without question, for fear of the repercussions that may occur if they don’t. They might not even be all that reactive about it, but they won’t question you – they dare not. However as you work with them and earn their trust, they become more comfortable with you, and so they also feel more comfortable with questioning your leadership because they fear repercussions that used to occur, no longer. As you further develop your partnership with your horse, however, you begin to work more in harmony, in true partnership, to the point where they do not question your leadership (they might pause or flick their ears, but they won't flat-out balk or such).
The horse who pushed me into Natural Horsemanship is our Warmblood cross gelding, Koolaid. He was three at the time and none of our (light) under-saddle work was resembling…well…under-saddle work. I could count myself lucky if he so much as trotted a couple of steps. A canter? Hah! You could forget that! My 4H leaders at the time had no brilliant ideas and in the mean time, he was becoming worse. He was pushy, he kicked when he pleased, he was nippy, he struck, he reared, he bucked, he resisted – he could be downright dangerous when the mood hit him. When I attended the Parelli tour stop that year, I was awed, and determined to forge a partnership with Koolaid akin to the one I had seen Pat and his stallion Casper share. Someone forgot to tell Koolaid though. Throughout the first three years of his life, I had unwittingly created a monster. All my handling from day three of his life onward had made him comfortable around me, but I had failed to earn his respect (major mistake on my part). Now, all of a sudden, I was challenging his authority with the Parelli NH games. He’d been playing games with me all along, getting me to move my feet, making sure I was below him in this two-beast hierarchy, and when I started knowingly playing the games with him he’d been playing with me all along, he stepped it up a notch to make sure he stayed on top. Suddenly we seemed to digress even further. At least pre-Parelli, he would walk under-saddle, or follow me on the ground! He became even more dangerous* and I felt like all the work I had put into him thus far was falling apart. In reality, we were returning to the foundation, to the roots, and fixing things from the inside out. So, temporarily, it did seem like we were going backwards, when in fact we were simply building a stronger foundation - and addressing the underlying issues to do so - so as to later leap ahead. I have found the same will occur with any horse who has (usually inadvertently) never been taught to respect humans. At first they might rebel (even lightly) against someone asking them to step down from that little pedestal that has been created for them, but if you keep at it diligently, they come around and that foundation of respect that was previously missing is built so that you may continue in all areas of training, in harmony.
* I am not saying that PNH, specifically, might bring out dangerous behaviour in your horse, but that any work that challenges your horse’s authority might cause them to retaliate. The key (as I later learned) is to push your horse to grow but not to retaliate towards you – challenging a horse who thinks he’s top horse can be dangerous and is usually not necessary. However, some retaliation may occur when you start to play with your horse, particularly games that involve dominance (ie, where you ask your horse to move his feet, etc) – this is normal for some horses. Please seek professional help if you are having difficulties with your horse – safety first at all times!
Another phase that I find some horses go through is a hard-to-catch phase…most often with left-brained horses. Right-brained horses are typically naturally very willing and want to be part of a herd, want the security of a herd – which they soon learn you can offer. Left-brained horses, however, I find are more comfortable being by themselves and are ok with not being caught. Left-brained Introverts especially, I find, don’t really care to work. The first week, everyone is happy to be caught – working with you is new and intriguing. By the second week, however, they’ve got it figured out and don’t really care to be caught. Week three, same deal. In the mean time, you’re working hard on creating a partnership where your horse enjoys being around you. By about week four, however, they’re figuring out that being caught isn’t so bad after all. They enjoy being with you and even playing with you in the arena, and even become keen on being caught.
These “backwards” phases (when we are doing things correctly) are simply the result of having to build (or re-build) something that is lacking in the foundation – respect or trust, etc. It’s like a house with a crumbling foundation. You pick up the house, re-build the foundation, then set the house back down on its new, solid foundation and all comes together! If you were actually going backward, you’d have to work your way all the way back up to the top – knock down the house and re-build the house and foundation from scratch, but since it’s simply an issue with the foundation, you can cement the foundation and still have everything at the “top”. Keep in mind that these are just phases – if you keep on working on the path to success, everything will eventually come together. How do you know if you’re on the right path? You don’t always, which is why it can be important to seek help from a professional who can teach you to communicate efficiently and who can tell you what is and what is not normal or to be expected when you’re on the correct path. Keep in mind though that phases such as the above can occur, be normal, and that you just have to have the tenacity to work through them!