How important is your horses expression to you?
I don’t mean simplistic common equestrian terms like, ‘Strong’, ‘willing’, ‘Forward’ and the like.
Using commonly bandied around equestrian jargon, because that is simply the tradition of communication and viewing horses with such words, can dangerously over simplify the complex behaviour of a 500 kg animal with its own thoughts, feelings and individual quirks.
So, HOW important is your horses expression to you?
Are you paying attention? I mean are you REALLY paying attention to them? As much as you can? Are you listening for the small and quiet signals, pre-cursors to bigger issues?
Oprah Winfery once said about life:
‘First life whispers to you. Then it speaks. Then it yells, until you cannot ignore it anymore’.
As I suspect it was with Sanson, some horses are maybe a bit more unique individuals than others. Treating all horses of the same breed with the same approach can be dangerous. Not all Arabians are crazy nervous and not all Draft horses are dead calm. Not all Warmbloods love sport and not all recreational horses love low expectations of their abilities.
Sometimes, the more experienced you are, the more work with horses you’ve done, the more you become repetitious in your outlook on them. You categorize certain horses and or their behaviours in category A, B and so on.
But are you REALLY making an accurate assessment of that horse and what they are trying to tell you? Or are you just being professional and getting a job done, and hope the horses make up the rest of the lost ground, if you can admit that you glazed over the details at times.
Next thing you know you have a horse who bolts out of nowhere, or bucks, or bites, or kicks and many other ways a horses protest can turn into a cry for help you cannot ignore.
But before they did that I can guarantee you that they had a moment of protest that was a whisper.
Which is where the term Horse Whisperer I suppose comes from. Although I don’t have much faith in that term, nor apply it to my work. Because if I was collaborating with someone on a project and they constantly whispered to me it would drive me mad, neither do I think it is an effective way to promote good communication… ‘Whispering is better’. What? How about we just communicate clearly and confidently and appropriately? Some horse might need you to ‘raise your voice’ and some need us to be low key. That’s what good communication is about, with horses or in life, adjusting to your environment.
But I think with horses it is more about paying attention to small changes, subtle emotional shifts, and movement information details.
I remember I assisted my wonderful trainer Dariusz Domagała (Darek) a couple of years back at a clinic he was hosting at a stable I frequently gave trainings at. One of his clients was a young girl, not yet 14, with huge ambitions for the Showjumping arena, and had at the time of the clinic, not yet two weeks previously had brought to the stable a freshly castrated 6 year old grey warmblood Sporthorse gelding, whom she was the new proud and ambitious owner of. I had been watching this girl and her gelding working for the better part of 30 minutes. She was sitting on his back with the expression of an adolescent Terminator, urging her horse forward into a frame and practising her trot with the joy of a burnt out meat packer. I know Darek is totally against bits, something I have a different perspective on, but he was there to teach Harmonious Seat riding technique and it is not his style to try and save people who look like they are heading for disaster. He waits for them to come to him for help. So he stood by silently watching this unfold, while he worked more closely with other clients who were listening to his suggestions.
Anyway, I could see that this girl had a lot of pent up energy in her as the style of my trainers clinics involved a lot of conversation and listening, she just wanted to bloody ride. Understandable for an ambitious energetic 14 year old.
I watched her horse. He had an overwhelmed but angry expression. Constantly flicking tail. A tightening of the eye at curves. Ever present movement ticks and tiny imperceptible changes in tempo that told me he was desperately looking for a release of pressure or some reasonableness from the locomotion his little rider was subjecting him to.
I had a bad feeling in my stomach. Like watching a big storm roll in over the ocean. But being powerless to stop it. I could see this girl would absolutely not be open to receiving any of our suggestions to slow down, calm down, redirect or back off. This horse was not yet 2 weeks in this stable and intensive training for such a young freshly castrated horse under a young rider is maybe not a good combination. I could see by her expression that she appeared determined to ‘Get the energy out of him’. I thought she was probably the one with the energy problem, not her horse.
Then, almost right on time, her horse exploded. His tiny suggestions for change, or requests for release, had turned into outright exasperation and mindless anger at this ride and he decided to take matters into his own hands. He became fully air-born for a few minutes, and with the agility of a seasoned mountain goat, flung himself about enough times to see his rider crunch unceremoniously, in front of all clinic participants, on her rib cage in the sand. The grey set off around the arena… tail high, butt farting, at a full outright escape gallop until he looked for the first calm place in his storm, and stood by a quiet persons side, hard empty looking eyes wide and looking slightly happier… slightly.
Through gritted teeth his little rider stomped over to him and like a pro, got back in the saddle. But she seemed to not have learned her lesson. Nothing had changed in her atttiude, not a moment of her horses SCREAM for change had been heard. I think she saw it rather as an affront, a humiliation and seemed hell bent on her concept that he just ‘had too much energy’ and would ride it out of him.
‘Too much energy’ is a common equestrian phrase, and the common practise is to just run it out of them. Ok, fine… but what about the horse, as an individual? What do they actually need? Giving them a chance to expel excess energy through fast, forward and athletic movement is a good idea on many levels, but do you want to be a passenger on them while they go through this? It can be a good thing to ride through together, or maybe the horse needs more space from you, not less? Maybe they need to express themselves in a safe and controlled environment, where both parties have safety and perspective on each other. What is the shame of getting out of the saddle in this moment, to help the horse through a personal crisis? Rather than just ‘ride through it’, stop, take a breathe and analyse the situation. Not that I advocate against riding as a way to solve problems, because more often than not, riding is the best solution for me too. But it is not the only solution on the menu folks.
A 13 year old, at a Natural Horsemanship clinic, with the mind of an old school horse breaker. It was rather heart breaking to see frankly. I suspected there might have been more than one problem in her home life contributing to her momentary madness.
Not 2 minutes after being back in the saddle and continuing her mindless high energy trot, again she got very violently dumped.
She got back in the saddle. Again, she got dumped.
This time I said something. Or I would consider myself an accessory towards abusive neglect.
“I respectfully suggest now that you get in the saddle and do something simple, only. Walk, stop, walk, stop and finish! Your horse is overloaded and needs more space, or you’re going to get seriously hurt’
I got nothing but a disgusted expression and an angry glare through her tears.
I have since learned that she continues to jump him and her horse performs beautifully for her. Though I have not seen it with my own eyes, I wonder how her horse feels about his life with her? Is he happy? Does his life make sense to him? If given the choice, would he want to be with his rider, in activity and without?
My point is, how important is your horses expression to you?
To me it is the difference between life and death, potentially.
For more information on my trainer Darek and his stable and methods, check out their website http://www.stajnia-stara-dabrowa.pl/ or contact me. I can help you get English information too, they frequently host international clients. 🙂