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Happy Horse training!
PS Make sure you subscribe to our new blog location!
Happy Horse training!
If you’re frustrated by your horse because he doesn’t do what you want, you might ask yourself questions like:
Or you catch yourself saying things like:
If you catch yourself in this mindset (and that takes practise!!) turn it around! What all above statements have in common are they are focusing your mind on the wrong things. They are all focussed on what you don’t want. Start focusing on what you do want!
How can you change this? Let’s take a look to those questions and change them, so that your mind will work for you, not against you. Have you noticed that your mind will fill in the answers?
What answer do you get if you ask yourself ‘Why isn’t he listening to me?’
What happens if you would ask yourself instead: ‘What can I change to make my horse more successful?’ Does that feel different? How does it make you feel?
How about this one: ‘Why does he always have to be such a brad?’
Stop using the words ‘always’ and ‘never’ from now on. Change this one into: ‘What happened today that influenced his behaviour? What can I do differently? What does my horse need (to know, or have) in order to do X?’ Do you feel space to change here?
How come he listens to [fill inthe blank/your instructor] and not to me? Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, focus on what the other person does have (or do) that makes her successful. Then do the same thing, get the same knowledge or experience.
Homework: try this out and let me know what you’ve discovered. What are you telling yourself? Could you think of different questions? How did that make you feel?
A fixed mindset is when you believe that you (or your horse) can’t change. ‘People never change’. A growth mindset on the other hand is one that believes that you can change. ‘Practise makes perfect‘. Here are some suggestions to change the other statements:
If you have a fixed mindset you can still choose to change! If you choose not to, I can’t help you. No one can. Your life will be hard and often miserable. You’ll always be a victim because you can’t change your life and it’s ‘not your fault’. I don’t think people with fixed mindset will make it to here in this blog.
If you have a growth mindset: hooray! You will be able to change you mind and make your life easier and enjoy your horse more. If you need help with implementing this into your daily interaction with your horse, your training of in riding let me know. I’m here for you.
In order to test your mindset and experience this in practise I offer a free training. I picked a common problem, something even experienced horse people like myself encounter: a horse that wants to graze when you’re leading him or won’t stop if you let him have one bite. Sound familiar? Or you just want to join my free training to see what I’m like, how I coach and to learn new skills? Sign up here: Free Grass Training Transformation.
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Often when I watch people ride I see struggle. I see a lot of frustration and it seems so difficult to learn how to ride. Truth is, that is is in the way riding is taught (in general), but it doesn’t have to be like this. Riding and learning to ride can be relatively easy and effortlessly if only these prerequisites were met. Riding certainly doesn’t have to be a struggle what it seem to be for most riders.
5 Things I would like to see more of in today’s riding lessons are:
If you are a horse behaviourist and you’re watching a riding lesson you hear a lot of nonsense about horse behaviour being taught to riders. I wish all instructors had to write at least one paper about natural horse behaviour before they are allowed to teach.
Most famous ones are the ‘be the leader’-myth and the ‘don’t let him win’-myth that refer to the idea of one alpha horse that makes all the decisions and is the dominant horse of the herd. There is no such thing in a herd. Yes, horses can behave dominant in certain situations, but decisions when to move and were to go are more based on a (part of the) group decision.
Instructors make riders believe that they have to ‘dominate’ the horse all the time. How? By being dominant in a way people are by using pain inflicting methods such as kicking the horse forward or using whips and spurs to make the horse obey. It just breaks my heart…
This is not only cruel to the horse but it is unnecessary too. I also think that most riders (who start riding because they love horses) are made insecure by behaving ‘dominant’. Horse lovers want to bond and connect with their horses.
The good news is: you can develop a friendship and still ride your horse safely. Horse lovers don’t like to inflict pain to horses, but they do so because they are taught to by the instructor, so they are acting against their own gut feeling. That’s never a good feeling.
The reason horses could be domesticated in the first place is because of their social structure. They depend on their herd members for survival and they are ‘hard-wired’ to work together.
If a horse doesn’t follow a cue there is always a reason:
Horses don’t think in ‘winning or losing’ they act on ‘surviving or getting killed’. They spook because they are afraid, not because they are ‘out to get you’ or ‘want to avoid work’ or ‘are acting out’.
I wish riding instructors would explain more about the natural behaviour based on facts/scientific research to their students and not on century old hear-say.
Horses don’t have to be dominated in order to let them cooperate, they will cooperate freely if they benefit from it. Thankfully more and more people discover the power of the use of positive reinforcement training: it works extremely well and it gives the trainer a good feeling too.
More about positive reinforcement in the next article.
What myths have you heard in riding lessons that you wish are not being taught to riders? Please share.
Read more in this series The 5 Essentials of Good Riding lessons
From a traditional point of view one would say: “Just make him stop.” How? Well, let’s talk about ways that makes the horse understand. I don’t believe in punishment, because punishment is not telling the horse what you do expect from him, it only tells him to stop the behaviour in the moment.
First step in re-training undesirable behaviour should be: finding the cause of the behaviour. If you know the cause, it is easier to solve it. For instance: if a horse bucks under saddle and the rider punishes the horse by whipping him, it didn’t solve the root of the problem and probably it won’t prevent this behaviour in the future.
Causes can be: pain, fear or the horse has been rewarded for that behaviour in the past. Remember: the receiver (horse) determines if something is rewarding for him.
If the horse bucks under saddle and this behaviour is caused by pain, the horse doesn’t need training to solve the behaviour. Treating the pain will be sufficient in most cases. Check your horse and equipment and get to know his normal behaviour, learn to listen to your horse. It can be caused by poorly fitted saddles, something bothering the horse in the saddle pad, like a splinter, it can be the bridle, the bit that has been put back upside down in the bridle after cleaning, the rider is out of balance, muscle ache, back pain and so on.
Horses can buck because they want to run away from something scary and the rider is trying to prevent it. Here the solution would be to let the horse investigate the fearful thing at his own speed. For the future: practise scary things by doing a lot of de-spooking training.
It can also be a one time scare because another horse was scared or another horse scared him. Anticipate and expose your horse more to these kinds of experiences.
Imagine the horse is ridden by a novice rider or a rider that has been a bit too rough. The horse bucks and the rider is gone. Ping! Rewarded! Or the horse has been bucking in the past, rider fell off and the horse had a chance to go to that juicy patch of grass which he wasn’t allowed to touch by the rider. Ping. Reward. Or the horse bucks and he can run back to his herd once the rider has fallen off.
In these situations make the opposite behaviour more rewarding: change the rough rider into a balanced, light rider who gives lots of rewards, work on the herd bound behaviour.
There is one very effective way to change all horses that are stubborn, dominant, don’t listen, know what to do, but refuse to obey, know their job but don’t do it, are a wuss or are playing us.
What? One solution for so many bad behaviours? Yes!
It is simple too. Change your attitude about the horse.
How would that work? Well, if you label your horse as ‘dominant’ or ‘stubborn’ it sounds like it isn’t your fault, but it also sounds like you can’t influence it. But you can. You can influence his behaviour! It’s called ‘training’.
You can only change things that are in your circle of influence. You can start changing your thoughts. If you change your thoughts in a way that can help you help the horse, suddenly there is no ‘stubborn’ horse anymore. If you can see that he is not stubborn, you can ask yourself questions like:
Why did he do that?
Was he afraid?
What is his motivation? Is he getting away form something or does he want to go somewhere?
What emotions did the horse displayed?
How can I prepare my horse better next time?
You have to take responsibility, which can be scary. The flip side is in this way you empower yourself! You are looking for things you can influence. Isn’t that great? In this way you train the horse, if he is successful, the trainer was too. Unfortunately it is not really accepted to brag about your success as horse trainer, but don’t let that ruin your pride.
One of the things that I like in reward-based training, is that you have to take the horses’ perspective into account. His emotions, his behaviour and his motivation are very important. It is never the horses’ fault anymore and you never have dominant or stubborn horses.
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One of the most underestimated challenges of positive reinforcement training can be… people in your environment.
It is a journey
The journey to switch from negative reinforcement (most traditional and natural horsemanship methods) to positive reinforcement training (clicker training, on target training) is instructive and beautiful.
It is not always a straight, fast or smooth road. It is often a winding, bumpy road with lots of ups and downs, but the views are astonishing. You will see many positive changes in your horse and your relationship.
On your journey you will learn how to think outside of the box, it will teach you to become more creative. It will teach you how to think in solutions instead of problems and it will alter the relationship with your horse in an extraordinarily beautiful way.
Slowly you start using more and more rewards to reinforce your horse to do things for you. Then you might slowly stop using the tools that your horse experiences as aversive, like a whip, rope halter, training stick or spurs. So far so good, until… you encounter a hiccup.
Believe me when I tell you: this day will happen. Your horse doesn’t do what you ask him to do. You can’t figure out why or you can’t figure out a way to ask him differently so he will understand. You don’t have enough tools yet, so you don’t have an answer right away. That’s OK. It is OK to not know everything right away. What to do?
Back to default
It is perfectly normal to fall back to your old tools or habits of using pressure, force or even to inflict pain. Don’t blame yourself for it. Becoming aware is the first step in changing! Hooray!
If you are prepared for this day, and it will happen, you can just simply say to yourself. “Hey, you know what? I don’t know what to do. Let’s figure it out first. Let’s find help and try again another time.” Really, it is OK not to know what to do! And it is also OK to stop your training until you do know how to solve your training problem in a way that is acceptable for you and your horse”.
Remember what is most important
Choosing to make your horse your priority can be extremely hard to do. Especially when other people are watching you work. Imagine that the farrier has come to trim your horses’ feet. Your horse is afraid of the farrier or there is something else that causes your horse not to cooperate the way he normally does. It can be hard to listen to your horse and figure out the ‘why’. Your horse probably has a very good reason.
In most cases it is OK to say: “Sorry, my horse is not prepared enough yet. Let’s do this another time.” Do what you need to do in order to protect your relationship and the trust you have build with positive reinforcement. In Dutch we have a saying:
Trust arrives walking and departs riding. Which means that trust is hard to build and easy to loose.
Do you really want to risk your relationship with your horse so the farrier can do his/her job right now? It can be dangerous for everyone if the farrier is more a traditional person. Or would you rather choose to make sure the farrier and your horse are safe next time?
Would you like to know how to deal with peer pressure at your barn? It is all covered in the Ultimate Horse Training Formula, HippoLogic’s online complete home study course.
Ultimate Horse Training Formula, Your Key to Succes
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Maybe a better title is “Parents and children in barns”. It is so normal to teach children “Don’t run in the stables, don’t pet strange horses and don’t walk behind a horse”. Does it help? I have seen so many times that parents, mostly moms, keep yelling the same phrases for years. Without results. Why would that be?
I am not a psychologist but I did read a lot about Neuro Liguistic Programming (NLP). The brain works like this: it focuses on the most important piece of information in the sentence: “run”, “pet” and “walk”. The brain has trouble focusing on the negative (the don’t), so the brain processes the rest: “…run in the stables”, “…pet strange horses” and “… walk behind the horse”. Does that make sense? Do you see it happening? Yes, that is how the brain works. Do not think about an elephant. (I’ve always had trouble thinking of an pink elephant). A simple rule is: focus on what you do want to happen in the barn. On how you do want your child to act around horses.
Here are my rules in the barn:
These rules were wonderful for a 3 year old. Along the way, kids get more responsibilities and that means rules can change or other rules are added.
Have you ever had the experience that you followed your horses’ lead and you found out something unexpected?
One day my clients horse was very obstructive. He wouldn’t let her mount, he kept walking away and when she finally managed -with a lot of patience- to sit down, he bucked. That was a bit out of character, so I asked her to dismount. The moment she did, her stallion immediately acted much nicer.
I asked her a lot of questions: did she know why he was suddenly bolting? Could he be sore from the day before? Did something change in the herd? Could one of the mares be in heat? And so on. Alle the answers were ‘No’. We decided to check his saddle. In the meanwhile I asked if she had done something out of the ordinary. She said: I saddled him in the outdoor arena. I put my saddle on the (wooden) fence. We checked his saddle and we found a huge splinter/piece of wood in his saddle pad that was bothering him. We got rid of the splinter, saddled the stallion and all problems where gone instantly.
We want friendship, partnership and to be a team with our horse. We always want the horse to listen to us. But shouldn’t we listen as often to our horse as the horse listens to us in a friendship? We are a team, right? Is your partner or team member allowed to vote or have a voice?
First sign your horse wants to talk to you
‘Disobedient’. If your horse needs to tell you an important message, he always will act differently. That is his only way to communicate he needs to tell you something important. I put the word disobedient between quotation marks because I don’t believe in disobedient horses. I do believe they have good reasons not to please us, if they do. ‘Listening’ to your horse isn’t listening. It is observing your horse. He is not ‘telling’ you his message, he communicates it through body language and actions. Remember that.
How to ‘listen’
OK, I actually mean ‘How to observe, so you can get the message‘. First, let go of your own agenda! What!? Yes!
Think about what you want from your horse when he is ‘not listening’ and he is trying ‘to speak to you’, then let your agenda go for a moment. You are not ‘losing’ anything when you give up your goal in that moment. You can only win. The horse wins. It will be a win-win situation. That will strengthen the team spirit.
Focus on what your horse needs in that moment. Open your mind. Focus on what you know about horses natural behaviours and needs. He needs safety, clarity, health, his herd and so on. What do you see: Does he wants to flee, does he freeze, what does he wants to do if you let him? What clues is he giving you?
Give your horse responsibility
Let your horse ‘talk’ to you by giving him a bit more freedom to see where he is leading you. What does his strange behaviour tell you? Can you think of a reason? Focus on his needs. If he is bucking, check the saddle, the saddle pad, the girth, his back and so on. Does he refuse to go into the arena? Where does he want to go?
Figure it out
Try to think of reasons why he doesn’t want to do what you want him to do. Especially when he normally doesn’t act this way. What has changed since the last time you asked this specific thing you want him to do? Did you change something? Did you do something you normally wouldn’t do? Do you think this is related? Can you check that?
Accept ‘not knowing’
Sometimes you don’t know the answer(s). So you can ask your horse again to follow your lead. If he still doesn’t want to please you, follow your gut. Not your ego. Your ego can’t stand that you don’t know the answer to the questions ‘What is wrong, my dear?’, so it will urge you to make decisions that makes ‘you look right’ (make the horse obedient).
Breathe, check in with your gut feeling. Just take a moment or two if you need to. Accept that you might not know the answer, sometimes you will never know. You only will know you did the right thing by listening to your horse and changed your plans or goal for that day. Sometimes you’re lucky and Captain Hind Sight makes it clear to you. Then you will be very pleased that you listened to your horse, not to other people.
I have hundreds of examples of listening to horses messages. What are your horses’ stories? I’d love to hear them.
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I get that question a lot lately. A horse has to to what the riders asks, is a motto most riders have. Otherwise he is ‘testing you’, ‘disobedient’ , ‘disrespecting you’ or ‘he will become the leader’ and what not. Not my horse!
The other day at the barn someone said to me: “You do Natural Horsemanship, right. So if your horse doesn’t listen to you, you don’t have much you can do…”. That was an interesting remark.
First of all, I try to not be associated with Natural Horsemanship anymore. The way I motivate and train horses is the opposite: I add rewards. All the NH methods I know use negative reinforcement (adding a reversive first and taking the aversive away as soon as the animal responds in the proper way). This method is also known as Escape Learning or Avoidance Learning. I did that, been there, not doing it again… Why?
I discovered a method even more powerful and more reliable to train my horse and bond with her: positive reinforcement. Adding a reward if the horse shows the wanted behaviour.
Secondly, if my horse doesn’t ‘do as I ask’ That means I have a job to do: find out why.
Since I shifted to 100% clicker training I never use ‘increasing pressure’ anymore. What a relief! I never liked using my whip or ‘phase 4 with my carrot stick’.
I don’t feel that she is ‘testing me’ in a negative way, ‘disrespecting me’, ‘trying to become the leader’, ‘disobedient’ and what not. Why? Simply because I removed those expressions out of my equestrian vocabulary, because I don’t believe these myths anymore.
Since I emerged myself into the way animals learn and what motivates them (learning theory of B.F. Skinner), there is no need for me to use reversives like accumulating pressure, pain or the threat of accumulating pressure.
I also don’t use punishment anymore to ‘teach a horse’, because now I know punishment is meant to stop a behaviour/undesired behaviour, not teach a better behaviour.
When I was making the video of Kyra and me cantering with a flag, she didn’t want to canter at first. That is so unlike her. I take this sign seriously, because I want a two-way communication with my horse. So yes, that means that she is allowed to an opinion. Even if it can be inconvenient sometimes.
When she doesn’t do what I ask her to do, I ask myself: ‘Did I asked the wrong question or did I asked the question wrong?” If she is still learning, I will check if I set the situation up for success and ask myself what I can do to improve. Note here that I am not focusing on “who is wrong”, I am focusing on what can be improved. That what you focus on, becomes bigger.
Anyway, I found a friendly way to ask Kyra to canter for me. She did it and I gave her a big jackpot. That is the biggest reward you have. In this case: dismount her, get rid of her saddle and allow her to take a nice roll.
I found out that she is changing teeth (molars) and she might have had a headache or felt not well altogether. I always find out later what was going on if my horses didn’t want to work for me. Horses always have a good reason. Mostly pain-related or they spot (real) danger. That’s my experience.
Have you ever experienced something similar? That a horse didn’t want to do something and that you found out later what their reason was? Please share your story below.