Building the whole horse: The art of asking*

I work with a lot of horses coming from a background of specific training in one discipline (for example: saddlers, racehorses, dressage horses, etc). They have been ‘drilled’ in these techniques and they almost come to me pre-programmed with a limited knowledge of how to be a “whole horse”.They know their job and the specifics of it very well, but are lacking in a “whole” education.

Take them out of the arena or off the racetrack, and they simply aren’t sure what to do when they are asked for something. This is when ‘issues’ arise, and the horse appears to become “difficult”, “naughty” or “troublesome”. What he really is, is misunderstood. The horse has never been trained or given instruction in any other areas or disciplines and his knowledge of these would either be entirely absent or very superficial. His confidence is low and he is emotionally unprepared.

I’m sure you can imagine what would happen if you asked a racehorse straight from the track to go out on a trail ride – it’s unlikely to be a smooth ride.

Consider the horse with mostly single-focused training: Taking them into a new environment where things may be startling and unfamiliar, this is when the gaps in their training will begin to show; as will things like a lack of leadership or the inability to communicate effectively. This is why, when I start working with a horse, I will initially start them off in an area that is familiar and “easy” for them, and once they are beginning to trust me and any issues have been ironed out there, we can then progress to the next area ( be it the jumping arena down the road,or taking them out for a walk ) In the presence of unfamiliar stimuli or the absence of familiarity I will need to ensure even more so that he can rely on me.

Filling in the gaps

My work more-often-than-not involves taking a horse such as this and “rounding them out” – filling in the gaps and teaching them how to listen and respond, to respect and trust, how to see the question you’re asking and answer correctly. The aim of the training is help the horse and owner fill in the missing pieces in the training,we want a horse that is confident no matter where you take him, and trusts in your leadership no matter what. Of course, you have a part to play in this too!

The very first thing I do is take the horse through a few simple exercises. Here I am not necessarily teaching him a skill; I am teaching him what a ‘question’ or request looks like and seeing whether he can follow that request or whether he will question me. What I am asking is not important, it’s how I’m asking that matters. My aim is to show the horse I am a worthy leader and he can trust me.

Asking the question

At this point, I will go into some detail about the phrasing “asking a question”, which you will see me mention quite often. What I mean is this: I will ask the horse to perform a series of simple exercises (such as backing up, or going left or right), by applying pressure (which I’ve discussed in a previous post). More-often-then-not, the horse will question or challenge what I’m asking. Many times this is caused by someone having been inconsistent with the horse in the past – horses are mostly willing to trust but get confused and distrustful if people are unreliable and inconsistent with them. Most of the time people do not realize they are giving the horse mixed signals and to get the timing just right takes a lot of experience!

Essentially, horses are like people in this respect – if we are asked to do something (especially something new), we won’t just blindly do it. We’re more likely to ask “Why?”, especially if the question is coming from someone we don’t really know. Conversely, if we are exposed to consistently reliable and dependable people, we are more than likely to trust them without question, once that demeanor has been established.

Horses will not just blindly trust you – they will ‘question’ you and will often try to do things they think are a better solution than what you’re asking them to do. They can do this questioning in any number of ways, from the very dramatic such as bucking and rearing, to the very subtle, such as a sideways glance or roll of the eye.Trafalgar Square Books and Videos

A lot of people will refer to the horse asking a question as ‘being naughty’, ‘misbehaving’ or ‘being willful, instead of just being confused and unsure. I prefer not to use those terms and think they are ill-applied to an animal acting out his natural instincts because he’s afraid, annoyed, or uncertain. His attitude is more one of anticipation and expectation – if you want to fulfill his expectation and progress, you need to earn his respect by showing him you are worth listening to.

If you are consistent when ‘asking the question’, if you do not waver and maintain a steady, calm and relaxed attitude without getting upset or emotionally flustered with the horse, he will come to see you as someone who won’t be frightened off, who won’t falter and who can thus be trusted. The more consistent and grounded you are, the quicker he will come to trust you.

Once I have achieved this relationship of trust with a horse, I can then more or less teach him anything. Once that confidence has been built, it will be maintained for as long as I am that calm, consistent, steady leader, who feels worthy of the trust I’m being shown. As long as I never give him a reason to doubt me, he will no longer feel the need to ‘question’ me. This relationship-building through ask-and-answer is the single most important step in the compassionate training I do because it is the foundation upon which I base everything else.

Taking it further.      

Being patient and taking time when asking your horse a question, goes a long way towards building trust and a strong bond with your horse.

If you want to try this, start easy by asking your horse to do simple commands in a relatively non-scary environment like the arena or his paddock – somewhere he knows, somewhere close to his friends (if applicable). Start with relatively simple exercises. There are many you can do – this is not about what you are asking, but about how you ask it. The what (which could be backing up, going left or right, or any number of other things) is not important – it’s the how that matters, I cannot emphasize this enough.

As you ask him questions, so will he question you in return – initially you may get a big reaction, but if you remain calm, grounded, centred and consistent every time you work with him, those challenges he gives you will become smaller and smaller until they are gone. As you start developing that trust, you can give him bigger challenges – ask bigger questions, but don’t go too fast- if you do, the trust may be broken.

Each time maintain that calm, consistent air that will reassure him that you are in charge, that you know what you are doing and that he can trust you. By using consistency and reliability to prove to your horse that you are a trustworthy partner/leader and that he can trust you, he, in turn, will become consistent and reliable. Give yourself a break, though…the kind of consistency we are talking about here can take years to get right, and you guessed it! It only comes with practice.

Most importantly, believe that you are worthy of his trust. Without that self-belief, you’ll never manage to earn his belief.


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