Ever wondered this; 'What is WRONG with my horse?!!'
A recent call to Ted centered around that question. Layne Lewis was concerned about her horses recently developed behavior patterns.
The horse in question, Harley, is an experienced (as in 1700 AERC miles) gelding whom Layne has owned since his birth eleven years ago. Recently he has become difficult to work with, showing resistance and disrespect. Having been the rider and trainer of this horse for years Layne had the horse checked for possible physical causes of this behavior. Not only did Harley check out fine physically; Layne considers that he is in fact in probably the best condition of his life.
Frustrated and becoming even more concerned Layne decided to talk to a trainer with a reputation for being able to help with a horses manners. Layne knew of Ted through mutual friends in the endurance community and gave him a call.
After some conversation Layne and Ted decided the best thing to do was get together and have a private lesson session to evaluate what exactly was wrong with her horse. A private lesson was accordingly scheduled to try to provide the answer to the question 'What is wrong with Harley?' and also hopefully determine how to begin the process of fixing what was wrong with her horse. Since I saw only short snapshots (a total of about two minutes!) of the lesson Ted wrote the rest of this blog post.
The following is Ted's narration of how that lesson played out;
The big red horse trotted off to the far side of the round pen, alternating between sniffing the ground and lifting his head to look as high as he could. Perfectly normal, I thought, a prey animal assessing his surroundings, determining limits, evaluating escape routes, possible dangers, threats, etc. Doing everything a horse in his natural environment would do. The only thing abnormal about this behavior was that my round pen is about as far from a horses natural environment as he could get. So why was he acting this way? What was missing between him and his owner? I wished he could talk... I hoped one day would be enough for us to figure it out. The words I had heard Layne say over the phone came back to me, "I'm looking for answers." she had stated with an intensity that left no doubt she wouldn't stop until she found them. An intensity that Harley was very familiar with and that we were to discover was in large part responsible for me having an opportunity to meet Layne and Harley.
As I entered the round pen, Harley paid no attention whatsoever. 'He couldn't care less if I'm in here or not,' I said to Layne. Over the next several hours as I worked through many of the Downunder Horsemanship Method fundamental exercises with Harley he became more and more respectful, responsive and trusting. He certainly wasn't ignoring my presence at all anymore. Showing up less and less were symptoms like re-activeness, defensiveness, anxiety; the traits he had exhibited just a few short hours before when he was first turned into the round pen. By the end of the day Harley was no longer acting like a prey animal needing to fend for himself; instead he was part of a team, he recognized that he had certain obligations he was expected, even required, to fill (two eyes on me please) and certain expectations in his handler which he could be confident would be filled (your comfort, safety, and rest are with me).
As we spent these hours working on Harley and Layne's ability to perform these exercises we were evaluating and discussing everything about the situation with Harley, among the many things we discussed were horse psychology and personality types. As we observed Harley and had these conversations it became apparent to both Layne and I exactly 'What was wrong with him'. Harley, an eleven year old, been there, done that, 100 mile ride ready, confident in his own abilities super horse, was lacking mental stimulation. His interaction with Layne was limited to 'Hello there. Must condition!', therefore Harley's perception was naturally, 'Here she comes = another grueling ride.' Conditioning rides for most horses, particularly with a focused, goal oriented, intense rider (like Layne) are just that, only a conditioning ride. They can become not only drudgery, but boring drudgery for a horse who needs more mental stimulation than what just an intense workout can provide. As Layne commented, this is a particularly easy mistake for a competitive rider to fall into, in essence 'conditioning but not training.' Interestingly enough Layne felt that she made this mistake both consciously and unconsciously. Consciously in that she was aware that she essentially chooses to condition versus train, but unconsciously in the sense that she never really gave it a whole lot of thought and certainly not in the sense that Harley might be lacking mental stimulation due to her lack of letting him be 'more'.
While horses are very forward thinking and can and do travel long distances in nature, it is typically on their way to comfort and safety. Not directly away from comfort and safety as we often expect them to. We have to remember that horses are first motivated by comfort, safety and food, and then and only then, stimulation, physical and mental. As with all training, maintaining balance is our job. Cold versus hot, left versus right, go versus whoa. In this particular case it was the balance between physical and mental stimulation which was a problem. Allow your horse to tell you who he is and where he needs balancing out. Some horses are office workers, some are like smoke jumpers, some are social butterflies and some are not.
Even though they can't 'talk' we can indeed learn to pay attention and 'listen/see' what they need from us as trainers and handlers. With a mutual bond of respect and trust there is virtually no limit on where you can go together, but it is our job to steer.
With Layne's newly developed understanding of just what type of interaction was missing from her work with Harley, things have changed. Gone is the resistance, poor attitude, misbehavior, apprehension, etc. Harley is back to being an enjoyable equine partner and Layne is equipped with the knowledge and tools to deal with lapses.
Harley and Layne are doing very well enjoying each others company again with a new perspective on their time together.
I am thankful for the chance to interact with horsemen and women like Layne who are always striving to be their best for their horses and themselves.