Horses triggering to their instincts, is the main problem people have with not only safety but also getting their horses to perform to their physical best.
During the training of horses, we need to teach them how to handle their emotions, just as we do with our children when they are discovering their emotions; what people jokingly call the terrible two’s. We teach them how to think and use their words instead of getting emotional.
We also need to teach our horses how to work through their emotions. Instead of just saying horses are dangerous when they get emotional, we should be trying to help them (and us) to think rather than react. So the question should be, ‘how do we teach our horses not to react negatively when surprised or scared but to think their way through it’.
Some horse people just think that it is unrealistic to believe you can teach a horse to become emotionally fitter and that horses are always going to be unsafe and unpredictable. But I am here to tell you, there is a way to do just this and I think working with an emotionally under-developed horse is unsafe and unacceptable. I do agree there will always be an element of unknown, but we could be doing so much better if people could just spend as much time on teaching horses emotionally as they do on physically training horses.
Mental and emotional development of horses needs to become the norm and maybe then we can save some lives and have more fun in sports.
So how do we do this? I am glad you asked and that you have read this far. As with people, the lesson we learn for ourselves is the one we remember best. When teaching your horse, instead of using constant pressure (albeit light if you are doing well), we need to give our horses options and opportunities to make decisions. This is where the learning happens for the horse, not in contact, but when there is an opportunity for a decision from the horse.
There is a much longer answer to this, but in short we need to release and correct more often. Not be afraid of the horse getting emotional, but if it does start to get emotional, help it find release and the right place to be, without using pressure. Give direction the same as we would expect from another human if we were having trouble understanding something.
Here are a few little tasks to help you get started and to test if your horse is thinking or just “doing” when you ride them. If you are on the circle and you think your horse is doing a nice job, give them a loose rein and see if they hold the circle and the gait you are in. That means using just your seat and no cheating with pressure from your legs. If you can do a few strides you are doing okay. If you can do lots of circles your horse probably has been brainwashed or is asleep but that is another article. If your horse twangs off into the sunset, then try to bring them back before they go too far. Keep giving and taking the reins until you get a little try and you will have started teaching your horse to think, so well done.
Another favorite for me at clinics, is to see students that are in contact with vertical flex let the reins go while they are riding, and pick them up again to what we call soft feel – which is vertical flex with collection and softness. If it takes pressure to get the soft feel back then you never really had it, or, you have been holding it for too long and the horse has got to not thinking and instead just leans on your hands. Get them thinking again by picking up soft feel and letting go, until you can get soft feel while holding the reins with just your finger and thumb in the middle of the reins, which is what we call a pinch test. See what other ways you can come up with to give your horse a chance to think in your training sessions. The more you do this the better your horse will get at it, which means you are developing their left brain. This comes in very handy when you need extra effort for a task, or for them not to follow those instincts.
Another way to look at this is: Humans have a strong left-brain logic and a small right-brain instinct, and we have learned to overcome our instincts, (well most of us). Horses are the opposite, they have a small logic brain and a large and very strong instinctive side to their brain. What we need to do is even up the imbalance by developing their emotional fitness allowing them to think more, which is basically making them more of a left-brain thinker rather than just reacting to their environment.
I hope this short answer to an important subject helps peak some interest in you to start teaching your horse, so you can enjoy the results and connection that a thinking horse gives.