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Paying Attention

Posted by vwkoch, in horse handling thoughts 30 April 2012 · 684 views

One of the common things today’s on-line horse trainers say is that you always want your horse paying attention to you. Certainly, if you’re trying to get your horse to do something, it needs to be paying attention, but my horse doesn’t ALWAYS need to be paying attention to me when we’re together. For example, if I’m just sitting on her talking to somebody, she doesn’t need to be paying attention to me. If I’m essentially ignoring her, why shouldn’t she be able to ignore me, too?

The on-line trainers give several examples of why horses should always pay attention. One example is the following: “…there've been plenty of cases where a horse was being ridden, forgot his rider was up there on him, suddenly saw him again and bucked.” That example has always puzzled me. I’ve NEVER heard of such a thing actually happening. When I trail ride, I often let my horses have control, with me just being a passenger, but they’ve NEVER forgotten I was there. I can IMAGINE such a thing happening, but I can’t believe it’s very common.

Another example is, “…if you're out riding a trail and they're forgetting you're on them, you could be in BIG trouble if they spook.” I guess the idea is that, if they’ve forgotten about you, they won’t respond to your control if they spook. Of course, NO horse is responding to your control while it’s spooking. It’s only after the first reaction that you are able to regain control, and my horses would respond to my directions with same speed whether or not they’d initially been paying attention to me. The speed of their response would depend on the degree of their panic, not on whether or not they’d been paying attention to me when they first shied.

Similarly, if a horse “…has a mindset of disrespect, who do you think he's gonna take care of when he gets scared?” Again, the idea seems to be that, if the horse “disrespects” you, it won’t respond to your control if it spooks. So, “having your horse's attention is … respectful.”

I agree that, if your horse isn’t paying attention when you’re giving directions, it is being “disrespectful.” However, a “disrespectful” horse is going to ignore ANY directions it doesn’t want to obey, whether it’s paying attention to you or not. As the particular trainer I’m quoting also notes, “…without his respect you can hardly teach him anything cuz he'll think he doesn't have to do it.” If the issue is whether or not he has “to do it”, we’re talking respect for consequences, which is not the same as respect for people, in my opinion. However, if there are no consequences for disobedience, the horse won’t THINK he doesn't have “to do it” --- he’ll KNOW he doesn't have to do it. You won’t have control when your horse isn’t paying attention, but you won’t have control when it IS paying attention, either. Likewise, you won’t have control when your horse spooks, but you also won’t have control when it’s not spooking.

On the other hand, if your horse is not paying attention when you’re NOT giving directions, it is NOT being disrespectful and its temporary lack of attention has nothing to do with your ability to control it when you DO give it some commands. In addition, it is possible to let a horse disobey a request without losing your ultimate control, as long as the horse understands that YOU chose to ALLOW it to disobey the request. For this type of interaction to work, you have to teach the horse to recognize when you’re making a request and when you’re making a demand, but my horses have all learned this lesson quite easily.

The trainers who harp on “respect” usually recommend gaining it by making the horse move. So, “(t)hat's one of the reasons you ask a horse to move around. It gets their attention back to you. It's sort of the equivalent of someone saying your name and you looking to see who's calling you.”

You know what? When I say my horse’s name, she looks to see what I want, just as a human would do. I don’t need to make her move to get her attention. I can just say her name.

Suppose we’re in the round pen, and I’m on the ground talking to somebody. I’m not paying much attention to her, so why should she be paying attention to me? Suppose she starts nibbling on some peeling paint and I want her to stop. I don’t have to make her move. All I have to do is to call her name. More than likely, she’ll realize I called her because I didn’t like what she was doing, and she’ll stop. If not, all I need to do is to say “No!” Then, she KNOWS she needs to stop nibbling, and she will. At that point, she can find something else to do and begin ignoring me again. When I’m ready to stop talking and start working, THEN I make her move --- not because I’m trying to gain her respect but because I want her to work. While she’s working, she’ll be paying attention to me because I’m giving her commands. If I stop giving commands and start talking to somebody again, she gets to ignore me again. Bottom line: She only needs to pay attention to me if I want her to do something.

The final on-line trainer’s example of why horses should pay attention is because “(t)he more they're used to giving you their attention, the safer you're gonna be in the long run.” I don’t agree that making a horse pay rapt attention to you (or else!) when you’re not giving orders has anything to do with safety. However, horses and people do always need to be aware of each other and of their surroundings. If your horse is not aware of either you or its environment, something in the environment may startle it and it might trample you trying to escape. When you are around horses, you always need to be aware of that possibility and stay aware of the environment yourself --- including where your horse is and whether you are in a pathway it might use to escape something.

However, my experience has been that a horse will just naturally keep an eye on you if it considers you its friend --- just as it would keep an eye on its friends in the herd, so it knows what they’re doing. A good horseman will also just naturally keep an eye on his horse, for the same reason. It’s a tendency to maintain a peripheral awareness of somebody important to you, as opposed to the kind of “paying attention” involved in giving and receiving orders. If I have my back to my horse and I turn to look at her, she will usually look back even before I say anything, because she’s peripherally aware enough to notice that I’ve moved, so she will look back at me to see what I’m doing.

When I’m giving orders, I want my horse to pay attention to me. When I’m not, she’s welcome to ignore me, but I do want her to be aware of my presence. Such awareness not only makes me safer but it shows that she cares about me. I want her to care, but I want her to care because she likes me. I want to be friends with my horse --- not just the boss, not a dictator, not a nuisance, not a pest, and certainly not somebody to be feared. When it matters, our horses need to follow our orders, but they also need to enjoy being around us. That kind of relationship is what we should all be trying to achieve.

Picking Pockets And Pooping

Posted by vwkoch, in horse stories 18 April 2012 · 474 views

OK, my horse has achieved professional pickpocket status. I’m not sure how she did it, because she hasn’t had much practice, but she managed to pick my pocket without me even noticing. What a pro!

This horse knows that taking food from my pockets is forbidden. If a carrot is sticking out of my pocket, she will nuzzle all around it to let me know she’s starving, but she won’t touch the carrot itself. However, it’s become obvious that she thinks the rule only applies to food.

What did she do? Well, I was squatted down brushing her front pasterns, and she put her head down at my level. She does so most of the time when I’m brushing her feet, just to be friendly or keep an eye on me or whatever, so I didn’t pay any attention to her. When I stood up, though, I noticed she had something black in her mouth. Because I had no idea what it was, I told her to drop it. She reluctantly let me have it, and it turned out to be my glove.

Now, it wasn’t as if my gloves were sticking out of my pocket. They were shoved deeply into the pocket of my winter coat, so she would have had to reach into the pocket to get to them. How she managed to do so without me noticing, I don’t know, but I think it represents a professional level of talent. Guess I’ll have to pay more attention when her head gets near my pockets now. I’m going to need to explain that the “no pickpocketing” rule applies to everything, not just to food.

However, she regained her standing as a “good girl” by her actions later that evening, which also really surprised me. This horse is quite well “housebroken.” She only poops in the corners of her stall or in the corners of the arena. When I get on, before we start working (or in between exercises if need be), we go to a corner (or another designated “rest stop” if we’re outside), and she takes care of business so she doesn’t have to go while we’re working. There are manure buckets in the arena, and I back her up to the buckets so she poops directly into them, saving me the need to clean up after her. (See http://forums.horsecity.com/index.php?app=blog&module=display&section=blog&blogid=80&showentry=214 for more on this arrangement.)

Tori also almost never poops while tied (or just standing) in the aisle. She knows we’ll soon be riding or I’ll soon put her back into her stall, so she waits for the proper moment. Usually, when I get on, she just saunters to her corner to poop (or pee), but sometimes, she walks quite briskly and poops immediately, so I know she’s been holding it. The only times she poops while she’s in the aisle is when I lunge her instead of riding, so she doesn’t get to poop in the corner of the arena. Then, if I leave her in the aisle too long while I’m cleaning her stall and grooming her, she will poop in the aisle --- massive amounts that make it clear she was TRYING to wait.

That evening, I’d ridden her and she’d pooped, so her house-breaking was operating in full force. I was cleaning her stall, and I’d left her untied at her “grooming station.” (I tie her only when strangers are around, because she doesn’t need to be tied. People get worried about loose horses, though, so I tie her when strangers are around to keep them from worrying about her. That evening, I was the only person in the whole barn, so I didn’t have to worry about worrying people.)

Tori’ll usually stand alone (napping) for about 30 – 45 minutes before getting bored, which is usually plenty of time to clean the stall. The aisle floor is concrete, so if she starts moving around, it’s easy to hear, and if I yell at her, she’ll stand still again. That day, cleaning the stall took longer than usual, but when I heard her moving, I didn’t say anything, because nobody was around to be bothered if she wandered the aisle. What I expected was that she was coming down to the stall to check on me, but instead, she walked purposefully on by toward the end of the barn. I came out to see what she was doing, because it was unusual for her to be heading somewhere with such determination. The barn door at the end of the aisle was closed, so there wasn’t anywhere she could go (and she knows not to leave the barn anyway), so her behavior was definitely puzzling.

Everything soon became clear, however, as she reached the barn door, turned parallel to it, and backed toward a manure bucket in the corner where the aisle met the door. She needed to poop; she’d spotted the bucket; and she’d decided she didn’t need to wait to be put back into her stall. She missed the bucket by about a foot, but I thought she’d done pretty well for a horse who was used to having me do the aiming for her. I gave her a treat; cleaned up the mess; and sent her back to wait at her grooming station. I have to admit I was impressed by her initiative.

I’ve never tried to teach her to poop in a bucket on her own. I thought about doing it with a bucket in her stall, but I decided not to because she has a bucket as a toy and I was afraid she’d get confused. I did put a bucket in her main poop corner once just to see what would happen, and what happened was that she pooped all around it. At the time, I thought she didn’t understand the purpose of the corner bucket, but now, I think maybe she just didn’t know how to aim. I suppose I could teach her how to aim on her own, but I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble. Cleaning the stall is not a big deal because all the manure is already in piles in the corners. Usually, there aren’t that many piles (and only one corner) because the stable employees clean once a day, too. So, I’ll probably never bother to teach her to do it on her own, but she’s certainly made it clear that she understands the function of manure buckets in corners. She just doesn’t know how to aim. Because I know that some guys aren’t very good at aiming, either, I can’t fault her for missing the boat, so to speak.

Anyway, she thoroughly redeemed herself from the pickpocketing episode by trekking almost the entire length of the barn (about 30 yards) to try to poop into the manure bucket so she didn’t mess up the aisle. She clearly IS a well-housebroken horse. I always love her but some times I love her more than others. That night was definitely one of those times.

When Horses Get Scared

Posted by vwkoch, in horse handling thoughts 02 April 2012 · 1,952 views

When horses get scared while you’re riding, there are all kinds of ways of reacting to the situation. I would like to discuss just some of them. Sometimes, the way people react when horses get scared just makes things worse.

The hardest-to-deal-with reaction is for a person to respond to a scared horse by getting scared himself. This reaction is usually a result of having had a previous bad experience when a horse got scared; for example, being thrown and badly hurt when a scared horse shied. It’s a hard-to-deal-with reaction because it’s something the person can’t help.

The problem with getting scared yourself is that it just makes the horse even more scared. Most people know they need to be unafraid to deal effectively with a scared horse, but being unafraid is easier said than done. Unfortunately, I have no magical solution to this problem. You can’t pretend to be brave, because the horse knows better. Some people get over their fears, and some people don’t. My purpose is not to try to solve this problem for people but just to note that it exists.

Another possible reaction is to reassure the horse; e.g., to pet him and talk to him soothingly. Some behaviorists discourage such a reaction because they say it rewards the animal for being scared and will therefore just make things worse. If an animal is genuinely scared, I don’t think that reassuring it serves as a reward, but this possibility IS something to think about in some situations.

For example, most horses react first and think later, but both things can happen very quickly. If the horse shies, then decides everything is okay after all, THEN you reassure it (when it’s no longer scared), it MIGHT learn to shy in order to get rewarded. However, if you’re reassuring a horse to try to keep it calm while you’re standing under a tin roof in a hailstorm, you’re unlikely to be teaching your horse to act afraid in order to get rewarded.

What most people are taught to do is to distract a horse that’s getting scared. In other words, if a jacket hanging on the rail of the arena is making the horse nervous, you might ask him to circle to get his attention on you instead of on the jacket. Then, you can circle closer and closer to the jacket until you’re going by it without any reaction from your horse.

Distraction works quite well with most horses, but it doesn’t work with all of them. My current pet horse is off the charts with regard to reactivity, and distraction doesn’t work well with her. I can distract her, and thereby get her closer to the jacket (to use the above example) without her noticing, but when she DOES notice it, she explodes. If I just let her watch the jacket warily while I make her pass it (a little closer each time), she eventually settles down and goes by without ever having exploded, so I DON’T use distraction with her.

Another possible reaction is to let the horse stop and look at whatever is scaring it. Many trainers discourage this behavior, because it puts the horse in control, but it works pretty well with horses like my current extra-spooky mare. She’s very curious, so she’s motivated to check out scary things and, because she trusts me to protect her, she will approach them on her own if I encourage her to do so. (Never try to FORCE a scared horse closer to something. Doing so will just result in an explosion.) She’s also very oral, so she’ll try biting the scary thing once she’s relaxed. When she gets to the biting stage, I know it’s okay to go back to working (as long as the bitten thing doesn’t move when she bites it!).

The worst possible reaction to a scared horse is to punish it. Sometimes, people punish a scared horse on purpose, and sometimes, they do it by accident. The latter happens when a person doesn’t notice that the horse is scared. All he knows is that the horse didn’t do something that he asked it to do. He punishes the horse for ignoring him, but in essence, he’s punishing the horse for being scared.

It’s even worse when somebody purposely punishes a horse for getting scared. That kind of behavior is simply abusive. Punishing a horse for getting scared is like punishing a kid for being afraid of snakes. Does anybody really think such punishment will make the kid less scared? Well, it won’t help the horse, either! In fact, it will most likely just make things worse.

What happens when you punish a scared horse, on purpose or by accident, is that you give it yet another reason to be scared. In some cases, it will then explode in fear because you’ve raised its fear to panic level. Even if it doesn’t explode the first time, it will be more likely to explode when something scares it in the future because it will not only be frightened by the scary thing, it will also be afraid of getting punished for being scared.

In other words, punishing a frightened horse just makes things worse, and it could very well make a relatively normal horse into a dangerous one. ALL horses, even the most bombproof ones, are subject to being startled by unexpected scary things, so shying is perfectly normal for ANY horse (although the bombproof ones rarely do more than flinch). Horses can’t help it --- they were born that way. If a horse is punished for shying, though, it will learn to shy first and then buck or bolt or whatever to try to avoid being punished for shying. A rider who was unbalanced by the shy will probably be thrown by the subsequent buck. However, such behavior is not the fault of the horse. It is the fault of the person who punished it for something it couldn’t help --- for getting scared.

So, there are many ways to react when a horse gets scared while you’re riding it. Some are good, and some are bad. In some cases, it just depends on the horse and/or the situation. A rider needs to be able to recognize when a horse is getting scared and to be able to react in a way that will help calm the particular horse he is riding.

When a horse gets scared, it can be scary for the rider, as well. Because horses are reactive animals, riding is not the safest of sports. The danger can be minimized, though, with a good, knowledgeable rider and a relatively calm horse. Everything in life has its own costs and benefits, but I’ve always thought riding was definitely worth the risks involved. In my opinion, there’s nothing better than the feeling of being in harmony with an animal as beautiful, powerful, gentle --- and yes, timid --- as a good horse.

April 2012


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