The word “Kindness” has not been commonly associated with the training of horses. Kindness requires a level of understanding that I believe has been missing in the field of equine behavior. In the last decade there is so much more information available to give us a better understanding of horse behavior.
In 1975 I had an epiphany when I discovered the relationship between pain in a horse’s body and undesirable behavior. In the ensuing years it has become ever more apparent just how many different elements affect behavior. Teeth, hoof care, saddle fit, stress, fear, tight nosebands, brow bands or breastplates, nutrition, allergies, hormones, conformation, riding style, rider’s attitude, exercise, stabling, companionship, pain, stiffness and soreness all influence equine behavior. Unfortunately, more often than not, these causes of resistance are unrecognized or ignored. The term “horse whisperer” is so often heard, but I love my sister Robyn’s comment that it is time we learn to listen to the whispers of our horses. Horses whose “whispers” are ignored or misread are commonly labeled as being dominant, stubborn, spooky, nervous, lazy or are thought to have a “bad attitude.”
In several trainings over the last few weeks I’ve had three fascinating examples of horses displaying various “issues” or behaviors which had been attributed to “attitude” but actually resulted by one or another of the causes listed above.
A seven year-old Appaloosa/Warmblood mare came to my training for veterinarians and “tier heil practikers” (a specially trained animal healing training not available in the U.S.). This mare had been bought five months earlier and was said to be rideable, but had gone over backwards with a professional rider some months earlier, and according to her rider, she had no “brakes.” When I checked her body she was very tight and reactive to pressure on her neck, shoulders, back and pelvis. She couldn’t stand still and her balance was very poor even without a rider. At first I suspected it was due to her extremely low and tender heels on her hind feet that had been trimmed too short. But even with shoes and pads, she was still pushy and difficult to control from the ground.
The breeder swore she had not been like this when she was sold six months earlier. After working with the mare over the week, I was convinced her behavior had a physical cause typical of horses I have know either with an ovarian cyst or Herpes or a nervous system dysfunction like EPM.
The breeder/seller thought the mare’s attitude was due to poor riding, but after riding her for only a very few minutes, I was certain there was a physical problem and suggested that a vet check her for Lymes Disease. Sure enough, the test came back positive and the mare is now undergoing treatment.
At a second training we were asked to work with a lovely chestnut gelding of Russian breeding named Pushkin. The complaint was that he was hard to catch and very resistant to grooming. His owner really loved this horse, but could not understand why he often pinned his ears for grooming and turned his back to her in the stall. Checking out his body for soreness revealed extreme fear of even a light pressure on the neck or back. And he didn’t want his face brushed. Although Pushkin looked in good condition, we checked his teeth and discovered he had teeth as sharp as a shark with prominent wolf teeth. Several participants TTouched him with particular attention to working his neck and back and his teeth were attended to. After two sessions Pushkin was actually enjoying the sessions. His rider said he was much more relaxed under saddle and came to her readily in the stall.
The third horse was Barcelona, a lovely, 16.2 hand Westphalian Warmblood ridden and trained by Diane, a professional rider. Although he had been under saddle for four years he could not be ridden without longeing him for at least 30 minutes, with him bucking hard on the line and bucking and spooking under saddle. If she left him for a week she would have to longe him for several days before she would get on him, and she was the only one who could ride him. Every other rider who had tried had landed in the dirt when he took one of his famous leaps to the side. One interesting observation was his exceptionally high head carriage, whether in the stall, on the pasture, or under saddle. Everyone who knew Barcey was convinced his behavior simply reflected his personality. I was fascinated to see if these habits were due to lack of adequate training, or an undetected physical cause. I was not disappointed!
When I went to check out his neck he reacted violently by flinging his head from the lightest pressure. Diane said he had been difficult to bridle and she could not touch his ears without much difficulty. I worked on his neck for a good 45 minutes, by which time he had lowered his head and partially closed his eyes and I could easily work his forelock and ears. Because his atlas/axis had been sore I was convinced this was the source of his bucking and spooking. When I finished the session, I suggested Diane ride him.
She was very skeptical because she had not ridden him for several weeks, and had never attempted to do so after a lay-off without several days of longeing him in preparation. However, she is a good rider and trusted me enough to agree. When she put him on the longe line to warm him up she used side reins, but I suggested she allow him to lower his head and try his new-found freedom. Again, she was very skeptical, but trusting. Barcey walked, trotted, and much to her extreme surprise, cantered quietly with no bolting or bucking for the very first time. She got on him and rode him successfully at all gaits. One of her friends who was there could not believe her eyes.
Several days later Diane trailered Barcelona to my next training several hours away. This time we did ground work with him and discovered he was very nervous going between two bales and under the wands and was terrified of plastic on the ground. He was ground driven during the session and although he normally was very spooky in new surroundings, he was again lovely and relaxed when ridden. Under saddle Barcey has a strong tendency to pace at the walk because of his tight back and high head carriage. The roller bit made a big difference and he was able to stretch his neck and relax his back so that his walk improved dramatically.
It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I see this work, I can’t help shaking my head in wonder. Understanding horses from our TTEAM perspective gives us so many possibilities for treating them with kindness. It’s this attitude with which we can make a difference in our relationships with our family, our friends and whole human family. It’s a great reminder to “Do onto others as you would have them do on to you” whether it’s your animals or a two-legged belonging to the human family.
I invite YOU to join me in taking time each day to count your blessings.
[this article was first published in TTEAM Connections September-October 2001 Vol 3 No 5 Pp. 1-3]