I have decided to start a blog on training and horse behavior to help teach you and share this journey of horsemanship and discovery that I am on. In that last year one thing has stuck out to me as being the pillar of horsemanship. I feel in some ways this pillar is addressed in the wrong way in regards to “natural horsemanship”. I have always seen it as something important but have misunderstood it and am now on a journey to try to better understand the horse. This pillar that has now become my hill to die on is engagement, and not the engagement you are probably thinking.
We often think of physical engagement as being critical in training, and it is, but mental engagement is far more important. After all, the horses mind controls the horses feet. To me, having a horse’s vision, hearing, and complete focus on you is the key to solving almost any behavior issue. If a horse is there mentally present with you waiting for you to make his next move he won’t be doing any of the bad behaviors we seem to always be trying to fix. He also won’t be looking and listening for things to be afraid of because if the horse is distracted it might be missing something from you. A perfectly trained horse is 100% responsive and sensitive to every cue and completely unresponsive and desensitized to all outside pressures in the world around us. I am convinced this will never happen but I think with time and doing the correct things we can get close.
I have found a common thing working with most problem horses and that’s most of them having no ability to focus on the handler. They are more worried about outside noises and things they see then the person trying to work with them. Wild horses or horses with little handling seem to have very little problems paying attention and seem to be curios about you. This brings to mind the Tom Dorrance quote “never knock the curiosity out of a young horse”. So what does this mean? Sometimes it is our pressure that makes their attention go elsewhere.
The worst way to lose a horses focus is to make the horse completely disassociate from you. We use pressure to show horses the way to a right answer. When the horse finds the answer and we then take the pressure away the horse begins to look for the right answer as a response to make the pressure go away or to avoid it all together. The key is we want the horse looking to us for that answer. When we put too much pressure on a horse the horse begins to take its focus off of us and onto other places to be rather then us. Horses that have this happen usually block out the situation all together taking their focus off of the trainer in several ways. This could be going into a mode of self preservation such as bolting, bucking, pulling away, or bracing and looking off into the distance with wide eyes and ignoring the handler. One of the most common is a horse pulling its head away when being bridled. If this happens, what do the horses eyes do? They look away. Recently I have had a good example of this in a Friesian sport horse that has had a bit of a troubled past at a dressage trainer. I have been working with the horse and it has never bitten the halter when I put it on the horse and the owner asked me one day why he never did that with me when every time she goes to put the halter on he puts it in his mouth. I was not aware of the issue but seeing it was sure it was an attention problem. This issue with focus was not due to the amount of pressure but the lack of her engagement with the horse.
This is the second reason horses don’t pay attention to us. We don’t pay attention to them! We basically desensitize a horse to everything we do because nothing we do means anything. We lie to our horse. Everything you do with a horse means something at the beginning until we teach them that is does not. We pull on a halter and teach the horse to follow it and then teach the horse to stay out of our space when we lead. Well, then we are distracted by something and we accidently pull on the rope and let go without the horse moving. We just told them the pull on the halter does not mean anything. We are talking to our friend and the horse walks into our space and you did not notice and correct him so now your horse does not understand your space. All these things they have had to pay attention for no longer mean anything so why pay attention to them. Every second of every moment you are with, handling, or riding your horse is teaching it something and you must be aware of that. If you are not aware your horse begins to block out what you are doing and starts to worry about the rest of the world. You staying focused will help your horse stay focused.
So, understanding this we now start the journey of real horsemanship. Not just merely getting a compliant horse but a mentally engaged and willing partner. One looking for you for direction and curious about your every move setting them up to learn what we are teaching them. We will get more into things as I continue this blog and I will be working on videos to demonstrate different ways to get your horses focus and keep it on the ground and under saddle. Always feel free to ask me questions and I will try my best to answer them.