I was driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike heading home from a client’s farm this morning. I had the radio on, listening to “Can’t Help Falling in Love”; it was an Elvis remake. I was struck in that moment; my life became very small. I’m watching all these cars on the highway, like a scene out of a movie. All these people have different agendas, they are all going to different places; changing lanes like a puzzle pieces fitting together. Where are they actually going? And in the grand scheme of life, how much does it even matter?
Ok... I’ll stop with that philosophical riffs; and you’re probably wondering how this has anything to do with horses?
It doesn’t... but sometimes it helps to be humbled. If I wanted to get philosophical about horses, I’d say we can’t. With horses, it’s pretty black and white. Horses don’t have the cognitive ability to think philosophically. They don’t have the ability to analyze; their reaction is driven by self defense; Act or react. And they do all this with the mind equivalent to that of a three-year-old child. Yes they’re big and yes they’re strong; but they have no idea that they are. Now, I’m not a scientist and I don’t have a degree in animal behavior. But, I do have an education that allows me to understand problem horses and I have worked with hundreds of horses that have had strong behavioral issues; bucking, biting, charging, refusing, no forward, striking, kicking, rearing, feral... what else is there. All of these behaviors are a product of one two ideals: that’s what they do because that’s what they were taught - or - that’s what they do to defend themselves.
So, then why would a horse buck if they have kissing spine? - because they are trying to defend themselves from back pain. Why would a baby horse strike out at you if you are trying to pick up a foot? - because when horses play they grab legs with their mouths; if your horse doesn’t understand what you are asking, he will try to defend himself. When I was at my certification in 2006, I remember John saying, “all horses want to be doing is be in a pasture eating grass”. Everything we do with them is not natural. Horses have to be taught everything we do with them. What a halter is, what leading means, how to pick up their feet. Wild horses do none of this; they walk up between 10 and 20 miles a day searching for food and water.
Now, let’s take a step back. I’m not saying we let our horses live like they are wild, we have done a lot of domesticating. We have turned horses into pets that rely on us for everything. So, in order to co-exist, they and we, have to learn parameters through which we can interact. In that dynamic, we, the humans, are in charge. I don’t say that in a derogatory sense. But, we do have to have control for safety; we are the more cognitive species. So, how does this all relate to training. If you recall in my blog “Don’t be So Emotional”, I talked about physical communication. Horses learn by body language, not by voice. They learn through repetitive cues, not 100’s of times, but 1000’s of times of being asked the same cue and giving the same response. Once they learn this response, they never for get it. Sort of like when we were kids and we were so impressionable; like sponges, we never forgot. That’s why therapy is so popular today. Well, you can call me your horse’s therapist.
So back to where are we all actually going?
The horse industry as a whole is always in a rush. Horses are being started younger and younger, being asked to do more at a young age. Is there a world award for the best trained young horse? No! So why are we in such a hurry? In the reining world, horses are at futurities at age 3, which means they are being started at 18 months. In the hunter jumper world, once a horse gets past age 6, it should be doing 3’3” or 3’6”. But why?
Brunello, owned by Liza Boyd and Janet Peterson was 18 years young when he won USEF Horse of the Year in 2014. That should be the standard, but it’s not. The pressure is real. But the horses are the ones who suffer. The throw away’s, the ones who are pushed when young and don’t make it, are sent away because trainer egos don’t want someone else to be successful with a horse they didn’t get along with.
How do we stop the cycle? Create accountability with organizations that want the horse to be successful. The hot topic now is that USEF, the preverbal backbone of the horse industry in the United States, is facing a well-deserved back-lash at the moment for sighting safety issues at World Equestrian Center Ocala. They have since withdrawn all licensing for shows at that venue. But what’s the real reason? The National Snaffle Bit Association (NSBA) is also sanctioning those shows. The NSBA has an impeccable reputation with regard to putting the horse first; USEF, not so much. USEF is more about money, high show fees, high membership fees, horse fees, name change fees, licensing fees, and creating programs for the minority, not the majority.
So where am I going with all this? Be humble. Your horse relies on you to make good decisions for him or her. Don’t be in a rush, because where are we actually going? The only think that is going make you accountable is yourself. Give your horse the best possible chance to be happy and successful. If it were your human kid, you would give it everything. Horses and animals don’t have a voice. I’m not preaching. But I am saying, slow down, take a breath and make sure you are doing it right... From the Ground Up.
I may seem pretty chill on the outside, but I’m a pretty emotional person. Ask any of my close friends, I’m insecure and kinda introverted; I watch and learn. Like I said, That might sound contradictory to what you see on the outside, but it’s true. Most people that are any good at anything are usually insecure, but they can also be inwardly confident. You’d never hear us say anything boastful out loud though, because if we do and screw up, it’s emotionally disastrous. We usually hide the confidence; the more important aspect of all this is that we don’t make mistakes. In fact, we’re afraid to make mistakes because if we do it equates to a lack of success or a lack of knowledge; and in the final twist all this insecurity and confidence...that what drives us.
Did you get all that... because when training horses, none of those attributes are helpful. The key to success with training horses is to be emotionless; not insecure, not overly confident, not sad, not mad - NOTHING. No emotion. Blank. Indifferent. Phlegmatic.
Like humans, horses are, in fact, emotional animals, but in a physical way; not like humans. Horses display their emotions through actions; pinning their ears, kicking, striking, chewing, yawning, through their eyes, etc. So when training horses, somatic, or physical, emotion is more effective. Therefore, human actions like screaming, yelling, getting mad or frustrated do not translate to horses like they do to people. It’s our body language that gets their attention.
As an emotional person, it took me years to learn the physical language of horses; but I studied hard.
Whenever I train a horse, I told talk to them. I watch and learn. The things I always look for are 1) what are their ears doing? Are they moving towards me and listening or away and focusing on something else. 2) What are their eyes doing? Are they looking at me, are they blinking are they soft or not wide open. 3) What are they doing with their head? Is it high or low. 4) What is the posture of their body? Are they relaxed or stiff or rigid. 5) Are they standing quietly or are they fidgeting and unable to stand still. All of these are examples of how horses emote.
There wasn’t one horse that taught me this... it was hundreds of horses and thousands of hours, experimenting with cues and getting responses; responses I didn’t want and responses I did.
The most important takeaway is that horses respond better to an unemotional “trainer”, one that gives consistent and calm cues minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. A trainer that is in a hurry, that is mad, yells or is forceful and not consistent will have less much success, or none at all.
The one thing I stress to my clients when they are working with their horse is be relaxed and consistent; give the cue in the same calm manner Every. Single. Time. You. Ask! And if you have to teach it 1000 times, then teach it 1000 times, because that’s how long it’s going to take. And that’s ok because once your horse learns it, I guarantee your horse will never forget it. He will remember everything... from the ground up.
John Lyons Certified
Horseback Riding Lessons
Jessica Forliano is a John Lyons Certified Trainer specializing in Problem horses / behavioral issues and starting young horses and ponies under saddle. Her passion shows through the accomplishments of each of horse or pony she works with as they reach their potential in the show ring.