We owners talk a lot about making our horses our friends and gaining their trust, and with good reason. A horse that doesn’t trust its rider will never perform up to its potential or our expectations. But we often forget one essential piece of the equation, which is, that a horse is a horse. Period. He is not a different kind of person in a fur suit. His perceptions, actions, and reactions are vastly different than ours, and all are geared to preventing him from becoming extinct. His senses are designed to scan wide areas for any sign of potential danger. His body is designed to react instantly to the perceived danger without wasting precious time thinking about or assessing it on a scale of one (mildly surprising) to 10 (eats horses). Most experienced horsemen understand this part of equine nature very well.
But from a training standpoint we frequently forget to take stock of the way a horse thinks. And that’s where the problems begin.
Whereas we humans assess every new situation with a series of “what-ifs, ands, buts, possibilities, and maybes,” the horse sees only “if-then.” His thinking is purely causal, and his survival is mainly due to holding firmly to a strict set of edicts that can be described as follows:
- If you don’t recognize it and it looks, smells, sounds, or acts odd, run away from it. If you can’t run away from it, kick, bite, or leap at it until you can.
- Use every ounce of strength and cunning you possess to stay near the top of the herd order. If you’re the boss you’ll eat better and live longer.
- There is safety in numbers. Stay near your friends.
- Do what the boss says. If you don’t, you’ll be kicked, chomped, or ostracized from the group.
- Never pass up an opportunity to eat. It could be your last.
- Remember everything you’ve seen, heard, eaten, felt, and learned.
These herd traits actually make your horse ideally suited to be the most loyal, courageous, and hardworking companion you ever had. But he is not a good surrogate for human love needs. He won’t simply offer himself to you because he’s a great guy or because you feed him carrots and scratch his ears. First, he’ll use all of his skills to see where you fit into his herd order, and whether you merit attention or respect. You may think that by letting your horse walk all over you, you’re being kind. You may think that any form of discipline is akin to cruelty. He sees only that you can be pushed around and that you’ve given him no reason to stop. In essence, you speak different languages, and your waffling actions are making it quite clear that you are not leadership material, as he understands it.
But does he obey you? Does he stand quietly, move over when you ask, behave for the farrier and the vet, and, in general, do everything you ask? Are you his herd boss? Only when your horse learns that he must obey you, and that this leads to security and comfort, will he accept you as his leader and protector. This is equine friendship. It leads to trust, and a willing partner. But obedience is first. Without it, there is no relationship.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be the world’s finest horseman or an international peacemaker to achieve this state of being. You do have to understand his language, however, and be willing to work at some basic guidelines.
Know what your boundaries are, and enforce them always. You don’t want your horse to stand on your foot or barge past you. You don’t want him to suck back when you put your leg on him. Let him know, sharply and in no uncertain terms, that this is unacceptable behavior: If you do this obnoxious thing, then I will smack you hard. If you obey instantly in the way I want, then I will pat you and praise you and life will be pleasant for both of us.
Your horse will not resent this. He already gets it from his group’s boss, and his sense of justice accepts discipline that fits a consistent pattern. He will respect you for it, and eventually will need no more than a word or a tap as a reminder.
Be consistent. If it isn’t okay for him to nip you today, it is definitely not okay tomorrow, even if “he’s in a bad mood.” Your horse can’t make distinctions like “sometimes.” Certain behaviors are either okay or not okay. If it’s never okay to suck back, he’ll stop doing it. If it’s sometimes okay, he’ll never stop trying.
Use discipline when it’s called for — never because you’ve lost your temper. Beating your horse out of anger isn’t discipline, its cruelty. When your horse is misbehaving, know the difference between willfulness, nerves, fear, and greenness. Then respond accordingly.
On a made but spoiled horse that “knows better” than to bolt or balk, there may be a time when you have to get the point across that this is unacceptable. On a green, nervy, or fearful horse, such drastic action will only send him over the edge. He may just need your legs, hands, and voice as passive restraints until he understands that the only body in a flap is his. Then you can praise him for standing still, and he’ll trust you for protecting him from whatever monster he thought he saw.
Reward even the smallest step forward with pats, praise, and a little rest in place. Let him know you think he’s the bravest and smartest horse in the world for doing what you ask even if you really think he’s a dweeb. Then use that step forward as a platform for the next. Don’t hurry. Let him think about each step. But don’t praise him until he has made it.
It’s easy for us to over face our horses because they’ve learned one step well. Harder to remember that a horse that trailers quietly for short distances with a friend is not necessarily ready to travel a long distance alone; or that steadiness over a 2-foot 6-inch gymnastic does not mean readiness for a 3-foot course. If you are willing to invest extra time on the most basic building blocks of your horse’s barn manners and schooling, you’ll be amazed at how fast he’ll progress later on.
You’ll know you’ve succeeded in making him your friend when you turn for that big oxer seeing no distance at all, and he finds it for you. Or when that little terrier runs under his feet yapping loudly just as a huge dump truck roars past on your left, and he barely twitches his ear.
It will cheer you up a lot to contemplate these occasions the next time he dumps you because the thing he thought was a rock stands up and bleats at him. He’s still a horse, after all.