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One problem, many manifestations


Separating the symptoms from the cause

Very often people come to me with a particular problem, and assure me that this is the only issue they have with the horse. It might be "he won't load in the trailer", or "he won't stand still for me to get on", or "he tries to kick when I pick up his feet", and they are convinced that this is the only problem there is. As we start to work on the horse, other related issues almost always come to light which are connected, but the owner didn't see them as a problem. The horse that won't stand still for your to get on, is also fussy about being saddled, for example, or snaps when you put a rug on him. The owner has brushed these other symptoms aside as "just the way he is", and never realised they were all symptoms of the same underlying problem. In the case I mentioned, most likely that the horse had difficulty accepting something moving through the blind spot over his back.  


Meet Antje and Jakob 

I’d like to introduce you to Antje and Jakob and a little of the work we've been doing in the last few months.


Jakob is a 4 year old pinto-haflinger cross, and when Antje first came to see me she was having difficulties starting him.


Although she’s an experienced rider and handler, and his training had started well, he had developed one or two tricks that she was finding difficult to handle. One was to flip his nose to the outside and just depart when he’d had enough of lunging, another was to crowd Antje’s space to the point that he was sometimes difficult and even dangerous to lead, especially if he was excited. He also had an alarming tendency to bolt when she rode him.


It could be tempting to look at this as 3 separate problems and try to treat them individually, but in fact they all stem from the same issue – lack of confidence in the human, and they are 3 manifestations of the same problem. When a horse feels that we aren’t offering leadership in a way that they understand and have faith in, they feel the need to take over the leadership themselves – or rather to make sure that they are in a position to flee if they need to. They will start testing the “flight” options, and when they find one or two that work, they very quickly becomes habit. If you look again at Jakob’s 3 problems, they are all to do with Antje taking control of Jakob’s feet, and his need to flee when he felt she was trying to control the movement.


Getting to the root of the problem

 If one were to treat this as 3 separate issues and take each problem head on, you'd be in the position of having to try to prevent or punish the behaviour you didn't want - effectively meeting force with force, and making the horse more afraid of us than it is of anything else. By going to the root of all 3 problems, we are trying to create a situation where the horse no longer feels the need or desire to behave in the way we don't want. We want to help the horse to overcome its anxieties, not to suppress them. 


So, we were faced with two aspects of the problem to deal with. Firstly, building up Jakob’s confidence in Antje as a leader, and secondly breaking the habits Jakob had developed to ensure his "escape route".


Establishing personal space, and therefore a position of leadership, hinges on the horse stepping out your space in the same way that it would step away from a higher ranking horse and following the same set patterns. The forehand should step diagonally back and away from you, and the hindquarters should step away with the inside hind tucking up under the horse. 


Antje and Jakob got the hang of the forehand yield very quickly. You can see here how he is taking the diagonal back-and-away step just from her energy and posture, and a little movement over his eye.





But he was a bit more reluctant with the hindquarters. You can see here how he has braced his nose to the right and is starting to go into flight mode.







I needed to “turn up the volume” a few times before he got the message. I'm not trying to prevent his movement or need to flee, I want to offer him a more comfortable option.


If he yields his hindquarters and looks to me as his leader, he'll find a quiet and comfortable space. If he continues to run, I'll keep asking. Here I need to make it clear that there is a choice.




It didn't take long before he started choosing the comfortable option, and yielding his hindquarters when I just move towards them.






However, when  we got to “the waltz”, that was a bit too much control over his feet, and he decided to try his nose flip trick. He got away from me a couple of times, but soon found that I just don’t give up, and that I have a few tricks as well!


If the horse turns its nose and goes, if you can get the rope around the outside of the horse, it is often possible to turn the hindquarters. If the rope is on your side, if you can pull the rope as the inside hind-leg leaves the ground, again, you will often be able to turn the horse. Take the rope low down to your hip and bend your knees, so your legs take the weight and give you balance, and your back is protected.


After a few "escapes", Jakob started to get the idea and to tune in to my energy. Here we've managed a bit of canter in step and in time with each other.


When a horse has been prone to taking off on its own, I keep the canter to just a few strides and then bring it back to trot to start with, to break the habit of seeing canter as permission to storm away.



 By the end of the session, Jakob was leading quietly on a loose lead rope, parallelling Antje's movement.


After a few weeks of practice, Jakob started to break his old habits and began turning to Antje for leadership and support when he felt worried, rather than running away!



What happened next... 

One of the useful features of the basic exercises we recommend in Thinking Horse is that they not only improve your relationship with your horse, they also show up the holes. As we have continued to work with Jakob we’ve found a few areas he wasn’t comfortable about. One was in picking his feet up with the rope and being “led by the foot”, which reflected again his feelings about having someone else controlling his feet! Another was with “switching eyes”, and we spent a lot of time on the “one rein stop from the ground” – another exercise that is all about controlling the feet. We also found the Jakob was not keen to approach someone standing at a raised level - where they would be when sitting in the saddle.


When Antje had first started riding Jakob, he had been very unwilling to stand still for her to get on, but she had considered this as a bit of over enthusiasm or naughtiness on his part, and had not realized it was a symptom of a much more wide reaching problem.


After working through all these issues on the ground, Antje is now starting to transfer them up to the saddle. I’ll have some photos of them in actions soon – watch this space!  



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 Oct 2011


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