Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Under Pressure: Language, Responsibility, and the Intelligent Animal

I'm a very practical person, despite my tendency to deck out everything equine in solid rhinestones. At the end of the day, kick=go, pull=stop, and I had better generally be getting more positive results than negative. I don't expect to be the best, but I do expect basic obedience.

And I don't think that's wrong.

However. There are multiple ways to go about getting it.

This spring, y'all probably remember Courage and I going through a rough patch. We basically did the same thing last spring (and both of those directly correlate with redacted). I've expressed frustration to various equine professionals and gotten a lot of different responses, none of which really satisfied me.

Here's the thing: the professionals I was interacting with weren't seeing the whole picture. Courage was. For various non-blogging-appropriate reasons, I have had two enormously shitty springs in a row. Like. Cannot even express how shitty. Really bad.

And so while Courage might have an attitude problem or struggle with spring weather or ulcers or a myriad of other potential problems, Occam's Razor suggests that the likeliest explanation is simply that I dragged all my shit to the barn with me and my incredibly sensitive thoroughbred (who mirrors everything I do) responded in kind.

I realize this isn't a popular opinion in training circles. I've been repeatedly told "the horse must give to pressure" and "don't let him get away with that" and the like.

But what if the horse already gave to the pressure I brought with me?

One (very bad) day last spring, I showed up to ride when Courage was turned out. He spent a solid half hour running away from me as fast as he could. Sweat was pouring off him and dripping on the ground. He was blowing like he'd just run a race, and he kept on running.

You could say that's because he's a thoroughbred.

Or you could observe that when I show up in a good mental state, he literally walks up and meets me.

The only variable that changes is me. My attitude, my emotions, my energy--they all feed directly into his behavior. This is why the right trainer is so important for both of us--an increase in tension creates a decrease in productivity.

Our current dressage trainer is far less concerned with showing and far more concerned with relaxation. "I have time" is the motto she lives by. I cannot even tell you how much good this has done for Courage. Instead of "pressure on, make him give", she just relaxes and everything is simple and what seems like treading water turns into leaps and bounds of forward progress.

I like to over-analyze everything, so I've tried to drag more information out of her. She doesn't say much, because so much of what she does is just feel for a horse on any given day. Still, it sparked an idea.

A few weeks back, I picked up Horsemanship Through Life, by Mark Rashid. Reading it was life altering. I'm not even exaggerating. I liked it so much that I promptly bought almost everything he's written off of amazon and bought a second copy of the book to mail to a friend.

He writes like my trainer teaches. Thoughtfully. Carefully. With the horse in mind. Without kowtowing to current training trends. One quote that's really stuck with me lately is this:

"Any behavior a horse offers is just information about how he feels. The only thing that makes that information good, bad, or indifferent is the importance we put on it."


I know it's unpopular among horse show people when I say Courage's flailing response represents me overfacing him and me pushing him too hard. Everyone immediately wants to say "IT'S HIS FAULT HE NEEDS TO LEARN TO DEAL". And maybe he does. But until I can present the information to him in chunks he can manage and I can build up his trust in me to the extent that he doesn't think he needs to check out of a situation to protect himself?

Until then, it's on me.

It's not his fault that he doesn't have a nuanced understanding of modern dressage principles. It's not his fault that he got too old to race (which he was good at) and landed in a sporthorse career where he's expected to do all kinds of new things. It's not his fault that everything that used to be the right answer is now the wrong answer and no matter what he does, he's doing it wrong.

Face it: that's fucking confusing, especially for an intelligent, sensitive animal that's used to being good at stuff.

That's what I've been working through lately. Then I read Saiph's post on Animal Behavior (it's long and so, so worth it) and I just wanted to jump up and down and scream YES THAT'S EXACTLY IT. As she so eloquently puts it, "Language is language is language, whether it be expressed with our voice and words or with our bodies, and animal body language is still a language."

This. So much this. Getting through to Courage is about much more than proper, correct riding--it's about learning to speak his language, so he can start to understand mine. Let's face it--people far more correct and skilled than myself can get on him and do all the right things, but that doesn't make him a fourth level horse. He only understands TO HERE (about training level and a third) and that is as far as it goes right now.

Rough patches are a part of training and they're never going to go away. However, if I know that I'm bringing baggage with me that will negatively affect my horse on any given day (or week) (or month) (or quarter) (or whatever), as the human in the relationship, I need to make choices that are fair to my equine partner.

If my life problems are clouding my judgement, it is on me (and not him) to make better choices, whether that means skipping the barn entirely, only doing ground work, or just having fun with no real training goals.

Those things build trust. Unleashing negative emotions on a non-participant sucks it away and makes a simple training setback into an insurmountable problem that is 100% my fault.

As horsemen, as trainers, as human beings, we owe it to our animals to do better.

Pressure doesn't fix a language gap. Shouting doesn't improve comprehension. 

So instead of cranking up the volume on my horse, it is my responsibility to show up to work each day with a clear, calm mind and a willingness to communicate. He's going to have good days and bad days, and that's perfectly normal. I have to check my baggage at the gate, appreciate my horse for who he is, and listen to him when he talks to me.

And then, we can have a conversation about moving forward.


  1. YES, YES, A THOUSAND TIMES YES!!! I got on my pony yesterday afternoon with a "meh" attitude and left my mindfulness and focus at home. He reflected that, and we had some pretty crappy work until I buckled down (half an hour in..) and rode him the way he needed to be ridden in the moment, at which point things got better because MY ATTITUDE got better. Yeah, they have to listen and do their jobs, but I feel that as riders a lot of the time we don't realize the vast amount of input we are giving our horses via our own mental and emotional state. This is an awesome, awesome post.

    1. It's sort of blindingly obvious once you figure it out, but it takes SO MUCH emotional maturity to get there.

      And even then, it isn't linear.

  2. Love this post. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking. :)

  3. Totally been here, and agree 100%. I remember one ride many many years ago when Cash and I just could not get it together. After I went to hose him off (which he always hated but stoically put up with) and he was dancing around and just being a jerk about it. I finally yelled at him something like "QUIT BEING SUCH AN ASSHOLE" and the look on his face was basically "I WILL WHEN YOU STOP BEING SUCH A BITCH". And I was like... oh. Oh, sorry buddy. You're right, it's on me. I quit hosing, fed him a lot of cookies, apologized profusely, and turned him out. We never spoke of that incident again.

  4. Wow, I must have gotten lucky with all the trainers I've ever had because they all have taught me exactly what you're saying. I'm sorry you had people who told you the opposite but so glad that you have found a language that works for you and Courage. I am a firm believer that the horses respond to us in more was than we can imagine and it's a lot harder for people to leave shit at the door than they think.

    1. Agreed! So many of the professionals I interact with ask me what's wrong with ME when Murray is struggling, especially with concepts that we had partial comprehension of in the past (and this applies to other horse/rider pairs). But it's all true, really. You have to understand what you're into before you can read your horse right. And also, it's great to have an honest communicator of a horse.

  5. I constantly have to put my mental attitude in a box and close it if I show up to the barn in a bad mood. Simon can feel it and is NOT a fan.

  6. Good writing, great points. I've gotten pretty adept at checking baggage at the gate due to training/riding other people's horses, but there are still some days where grooming, ground work, tack cleaning, etc are in order. I think it is just part of the human experience, we are emotional beings and as such we can't judge ourselves for not always being able to compartmentalize. We can't be empathetic and still remove our feelings from certain situations. I love the quote from the author you found, I will have to check him out.

  7. Yep! Don't take your baggage to the barn with you!!

  8. Yep. JWoff always says "there's no couch at the barn"-- you're not allowed to bring your life garbage there. Winter and early spring sucked for me too, and I remember having a really terrible ride on Mo. M walked up to the ring and said "This better not be because [redacted] was mean to you." Point taken. It was. "You can't put that on a young horse," she said. And when I got THAT message and played the professional tape in my head from the minute I pulled up her driveway, the better my horse got.

    Now when we have bad days I know it's not because of that, it's because he's a horse, and because I'm not the perfect rider, but you're absolutely right. Your horse doesn't need to deal with your stuff, he needs a clear explanation of what is job is.

  9. LOVE THIS POST! With a sensitive OTTB of my own, this resonates with me so much. Just bought that book on my kindle thanks!!!!

  10. This was excellent. I wholeheartedly agree. There are many things that both my horse and I are still trying to figure out how to do correctly in our new sport, but we are both improving leaps and bounds now that we are in a training program with arguably higher expectations but much less pressure. I love what you said about "what used to be the right answer is now the wrong answer." I think that happens with Tucker sometimes too, and I love how you worded it.

  11. Don't hate me here, but this is so relatable to everything I'm learning about parenting. I love it, and it is both incredibly freeing and incredibly difficult. Glad you're having good breakthroughs. :)

    1. I rarely hate on people who agree with me. What would that say about my self image?!

      ;-) Though I agree--it's a concept that transfers well across species and disciplines.

  12. Love this times a million. Horses make betters mirrors than actual mirrors.

  13. wonderful post, i couldn't agree more. "i have time" - what a liberating philosophy!

  14. I love this! I've ridden a lot of horses and rarely had one who did well with the pressure-until-give. I've always thought of it like a conversation, where you put on pressure (aid) then wait for a response. You ask a question (outside leg back) then you stop asking for a second to allow the horse to respond (ideally by cantering). But if you're constantly saying something to the horse, they have no time to respond. Some horses (Rico) will simply let you go along what you're saying and ignore you or give you pressure back by leaning/slowing down. Others (Courage) will get overwhelmed with what you're saying. Like HOLD ON SHUT UP IT'S MY TURN TO TALK.

    The part about him always feeling like he's wrong is so true too. I have a client who is putting on school canter (pirouette canter) on her horse currently. I talked about the idea of pushing the horse to sit down, even if it risks a break to trot, because then we know how much he can handle. But the kid took it too far, where then the horse was breaking almost every time and I could tell that he was feeling less confident because every time he was asked to school canter, he failed. I told the kid that he had to succeed at least 50% of the time, even if that meant not getting as collected. They have to trust you that you're not going to set them up for failure. We have to be so careful to keep them confident and happy in their work.

    Awesome post!!

  15. I found Mark Rashid through "A Year With Horses" - another blogger - and it wouldn't be false to say I struggle a bit with riding that way. But having read some of his work, I try to carry it with me, mentally, when I ride. Like keeping my self soft and tension free, understanding that Dassah isn't resisting or bracing because she's naughty but because I'm resisting and bracing.

    I still think my mare can be naughty - but I'm trying to back down from those moments to get back to a place of self-awareness where I return to softness, fluidity, and mental homeostasis.


  16. Love this post! One of my favorite coaches uses the "your horse is your mirror" line all the time.

  17. I'm really glad to read this post. Too many riders reflexively blame the horse when they should be looking at themselves first.

    Mark Rashid is the best. You can't go wrong viewing horsemanship through his prism. He clinics on the west coast through the fall / winter - I think in Colorado - not so far from you. :D

    Only room for two emotions around horses - generosity and a sense of humor.

  18. Get thee over to A Year With Horses blog--she has been a Mark Rashid student for quite a long time and has written so much about his teachings. She has taken lessons with Madk himself and his students. I really think you would get a lot out if it (as have I--even for groundwork stuff).

  19. Completely agree in every way. Will check out that book.

  20. At the end of the day you need to ride him, and enjoy it and spend all the money to keep him, so you need to do what feels right. So screw all the trainers that don't get that and yay to the ones who do! I think you're right on about coming to the barn and being in a bad mood and it affecting them. Loved this blog!


  22. Loved, loved, loved this post.

    And also: "Pressure doesn't fix a language gap. Shouting doesn't improve comprehension." Amen.

  23. Love this post. Love love it.
    On Tuesday, I went to the barn in a great mind frame, I got on my horse smiling, and he was perfection. Mirrored my emotions in every single way.
    Yesterday, I got on in a slightly cranky and stressed mood, and guess what. He was slightly cranky and stressed.
    They completely mirror us.

  24. Knowing when to push through and when to back down is the crux of horse training... and it's why I will forever and always happily pay a trainer to help me!


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