“If the world was truly a rational place, men would ride sidesaddle.”
~ Rita Mae Brown
People sometimes complain about how irrational horses are. I’ve noticed it’s often when they can’t get a horse to do something, and feel the need to justify the rough handling they have resorted to in frustration.
Apparently you can tell who the completely rational being is in this sort of human-horse pairing; they’re the little one who’s trying to force the big one to do something BECAUSE it doesn’t understand… Strange when it’s put like that isn’t it…. the little one tries to force the big one to do something, because who doesn’t understand…?
If you truly believe that the horse isn’t doing what you want because it can’t think rationally, then please realise that getting rougher with the horse isn’t going to magically make it understand what you want.
The ability or otherwise of horses to think rationally is too large a subject to fit in this post, so that’s a matter for another time. For now let’s focus on how we can tone down the irrational stuff in training sessions – from both horses and humans…
Let’s walk a mile…
If you step into the horse’s shoes (or bare feet) for a moment, I’m sure you will find more similarities than differences between the way a horse reacts to a confusing training session, and the way you would react to a confusing training session… We’ll put it in human terms that most people can relate to:
Imagine you’re in a class at school, learning something that you’re really not interested in. The teacher explains a few new things, but you don’t quite get it. You look out the window at the nice day outside, and see some of your friends sitting under a tree. You wish you could go and join them.
The teacher smacks a book down on the desk in front of you. You jump in your seat, and hurriedly return your attention to answering the questions that have been written on the board.
Unfortunately you’re just not getting it today. You feel like you’ve missed something somewhere. Or maybe you’re just not smart enough to handle it. The teacher asks you to read your answers to the class, but you get all of them wrong. The teacher gets angry and yells at you as if it is your fault…
The next time you head into the class you feel sick in your stomach. Is the same thing going to happen again? Will it be even worse? You fidget in your seat and look around anxiously for a way to escape… Eventually you just stare at your desk and hope to block everything out… the teacher, the embarrassment, the pain you feel… You only have to put up with them for a few hours and then you can go back to your life again… You hope the teacher isn’t in a bad mood again today…
It doesn’t take long before every class becomes something to be feared, and before you’ve even walked into the classroom the negative feelings have started. How are you supposed to learn if the only thing you associate with that class is stress and worry? And so the vicious cycle sets in… once you’ve formed that association between the stressful situation and the teacher, subject, classroom, or all of the above, the very appearance of any of them may be enough to set your brain off either on a course to anxious, irrational thoughts and behaviour, or to completely shutting everything out because it’s just too difficult to deal with.
So how do we relate this back to horses?
Clearly we, as the teachers of horses, need to do our best to set things out clearly for the horse. To constantly assess their behaviour to make sure they are mentally and physically coping with what we are asking. To back off and do something easier if we have asked too much too soon. To aim for calmness and relaxation at all times. Fortunately good training sessions have the power to undo the damage of previous, less-than-perfect training sessions.
Of course that sounds great, but no-one is born a horse trainer – just like horses, we all learn at different paces. If you’re the sort of person who dives in, and then deals with problems as they arise, the key is to look for the signs – if something is going wrong, there is a reason. Next time you’re trying to train your horse and get frustrated because they’re being “irrational”, call a “time out” and think for a bit… you don’t want to get stuck in a vicious cycle of irrationality. As the one in charge, you are the one who can decide to take a breather and think of a way to get back on the path to calm, rational training sessions.
If you are struggling, or in a vicious cycle, perhaps it’s time to enlist the help of a calm, empathetic coach or other experienced horse person. Ideally you need to find someone who has knowledge, skills, and the ability to walk a mile in all six of your shoes…