Why Foundation Matters

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It is commonly acknowledged that the foundation is the most important part of a building or structure. A faulty or weak foundation can cause a litany of problems throughout a whole building from cracks in the plaster to doors that stick and don’t swing freely. If the foundation of a building fails, no matter how nice the structure is that has been built on top of it, it all falls in. One of the things about a foundation is that it’s not the “fun” part of a building. The foundation of a building is usually mostly hidden, rarely aesthetically pleasing and often the source of much resentment when a homeowner has to spend money on it.

A horse’s foundation is really no different. From the first time that a horse has contact with a human, we are building his foundation (or not, as the case may be). Hopefully his foundation is strong enough and correct enough to hold up everything everyone is going to want to build on top of it throughout his life and career. Faults in the foundation can cause small problems, or can cause the whole thing to “fall in”. Like a building’s foundation, a horse’s foundation is often taken for granted or hidden from view. It’s not a “fun” thing for a horse owner to spend time and money on.

A foundation isn’t just about giving a colt a good and thorough start, although that’s very important. That’s perhaps where it’s easiest to see the progression of foundational skills and ideas. It’s easy to see why a person would want to teach a young horse or a baby horse foundational skills, because clearly they don’t know anything because this stuff doesn’t come “installed from the factory”, so to speak. So it’s easy to accept that young and baby horses need foundation work.

But what is not so easy to see is the fact that many, many issues that grown-up horses encounter later in their lives can actually be traced to weak, faulty or non-existent foundation skills or ideas. Just like a building with a faulty foundation, a horse with a faulty foundation gets along alright until they don’t.

Years ago, when I learned about foundation skills and ideas, I went to work applying them to young and baby horses. But then I got to thinking about the grown-up horses I was seeing with “quirks” or “issues” like not being able to tie, or being bad for the farrier, or running people over. What I thought about was how easy it was to teach a young horse (blank slate) to do all those things nicely and confidently, and how HARD it could be to teach a grown-up horse to do those things nicely and confidently once they’d had trouble with those things for a few years. I started to apply what I’d learned about the foundation in a young horse to the grown-up horses I was seeing, and kind of reviewing all the foundation skills and ideas with every grown-up horse I could, and I was pretty shocked with what I found.

What I found was that a lot of the grown-up horses that I reviewed actually “flunked” the foundation work that the young horses passed with flying colors. So the young horses actually checked out better than many of the grown-up horses that I got my hands on. What I started to understand was that a horse could be fairly functional in some ways and have a foundation piece that was pretty out-of-whack. He’d somehow learned to work around that missing piece, or maybe people had taught him how to work around it, but he still knew that piece was missing. So as I did all my own information gathering and tested grown-up horses’ foundations, I discovered that it was difficult to get the owners and riders of those grown-up horses to understand that the horse actually had a problem that reached all the way back to his foundation.

Horses don’t “connect the dots” the same way humans do. One of the things I’ve noticed through years of studying this is that “x” doesn’t always cause “y” in a horse. In one horse “x” might cause “y” and in another, “x” might cause “m” or “b”. Things in a horse aren’t always linear and they aren’t always consistent and systematic. Humans love horses, but generally they hate this particular thing about horses, the “it depends” aspect of horses.

So let’s look at an example of what I’m talking about here. We got a 5-year-old mare in for training a few years ago. Her owner had had her under saddle for a while, and said she was reluctant to canter, and actually, it was nearly impossible to get her to canter under saddle. So I did what I’d learned to do, and I took the mare back to “the beginning”, which means into the round pen and then through her ground work. I noticed some things. The mare was not good switching eyes behind her, and she was not good with things in her blind spot behind her. For instance, if a dog went through her hind blind spot while she was on the hitch rail, she would pull back. She didn’t want you in her blind spot in the round pen.

When I talked with the owner about this, she added a couple more troubles to the list: this mare had also had trouble backing out of a trailer, and had trouble getting her hind feet trimmed. So we spent extra time getting her confident about things in and passing through her various blind spots, but especially the ones behind her hindquarters and behind her head. We got her good switching eyes behind her through round pen work, rope work and ground work. Then we polished up the rest of her ground work and then we rode her. And you know what was almost the first thing she did? She offered to canter.

Now, the way we chose to help her was not the only way to help her. I’m sure there were several things that folks could have done to help this horse. This way suited us and it suited her, that’s all. But there are other ways that would have worked as well.

We got another horse in a while ago who was just very anxious. He was described as “hot” and “high-energy” by his owner. He could not stand still on the end of a lead rope, he was fussy and distracted. You’d ask him to do one thing and he’d do three or four things very quickly and it was difficult to release for the “right” thing because he was throwing so many things out for you. A lot of people would have said, “That looks like a good barrel horse,” or, “Make him an endurance horse.” But this horse, though he’d been ridden some, he didn’t really even understand how to lead properly. He didn’t know how to yield to pressure, he didn’t know how to go AROUND a human being instead of THROUGH a human being. He didn’t know how to calm himself down or how to ask a question of the human. So of course he appeared “ADHD”. What I saw was a very anxious horse who was “employed beyond his paygrade” or being asked to operate at a level for which he was not prepared.

When we went back and reviewed this horse’s foundation (went back and restarted him like he was a colt), very few things checked out. Basically, this sweet, kind horse had been getting by on his good nature and kindness, not at all on his education. Once we started giving him the building blocks of a foundation, his mind calmed down and his personality completely changed to a mellow, quiet, thoughtful horse. He began to look more like what people would think a trail horse would look like and much less like a “hot” and “high-energy” adrenaline junkie.

There are a lot of reasons why a horse might not have a good foundation. Some folks just don’t believe in it, that’s true. Some people think a horse can get all the information he needs with “on-the-job-training”. Sometimes a horse just falls through the cracks, gets to a certain age, or gets passed from one owner to another and no one ever really checks in with him to see what he does and doesn’t know. Sometimes a horse is so good-natured and nice-minded that it’s just easy to skip things because the horse just doesn’t seem to need it. Sometimes it’s a money thing and a person can’t afford to pay to have a good foundation put on their horse. And sometimes, people just don’t know about it and think that maybe horses come with the foundation already installed “from the factory.” But there are lots of reasons why horses don’t end up with good foundations.

I’ve been thinking about this a long time, and I’m afraid I’ve kind of settled on a couple ideas that I’m not sure I like the truth of. But I do think I’ve found them to be true. One is that many, many troubled horses are troubled because their foundations are lacking in some way. I think a lot of rescues and horse sales are full of horses with poor foundations. A lame horse with a great foundation can make a good therapy horse or kids horse. But a horse with a poor foundation and all the issues, problems and anxiety that goes with that, he’s now a “project”, or “special needs”. Some horses have physical problems, or have genetic issues, and that’s the source of their troubles. But many, many have poor foundations and the structure has failed. This is totally preventable.

Another truth I reluctantly accept is that “a foundation lasts a lifetime, good, bad or indifferent.” For some reason, what horses learn FIRST seems to stick harder than things learned later, so it seems like a foundation is a foundation and that’s what’s at the bottom of the horse, whether we like it or not. We can work hard and put a bunch of stuff on top of a poor foundation, but there may be some permanent ramifications to a poor foundation that we just can’t overcome. There may be some scientific basis to this finding, based on current studies in neurology. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more evidence of this because I have found it to be anecdotally true. I hate the idea that certain things might actually cause enough of a neurological change to limit a horse’s potential, but neurology is a mysterious and extensive subject on which scientists continue to shed more light.

And the final truth I’ve come to accept is that some humans have a hard time with the idea that a horse would need a foundation, and particularly that a grown-up horse’s problems might be caused by something that far back. A minority of people who work with and have horses know about foundation skills and ideas. A person could ride horses their whole life and it could never come up. It could just be one of those things that we didn’t come across in all our lessons and our clinics, and maybe the horses we had had good foundations… right until the one that didn’t. Knowledge of a horse’s foundation is not just for people who start colts, and not just for trainers or people who have troubled horses. All of us are doing one of several things if we have horses: we are either keeping a broke horse broke, untraining a broke horse, or training an unbroke horse. All of these endeavors (except the middle one) require that we either install or preserve a foundation.

So what constitutes “a foundation”? Well, it involves preparing a horse for what WILL and what MAY happen, in a progressive manner. So for me, this part includes round pen work, ground work in a halter, then saddling and bridling and preparation for riding. Each piece of work done relates to something practical the horse will need to know to be a useful riding horse. Then once riding, the foundation involves preparing the horse for what will and what might happen there, progressively. A lot of this is about sensory things, and mechanical movements. The foundation I’m talking about is “generic”, in that it is not breed or discipline-specific. This foundation is about helping prepare a horse, any horse, to live in a world not of his making, a world humans make for him. Humans, therefore, have the responsibility to prepare the horse to live, work and thrive in that world.

I’d go quite a bit further and propose that a horse’s foundation should also include conceptual things like:

The horse understanding how to “be with” and pay attention to the humans around him in a calm, confident and attentive manner.

The horse being able to change his thought from what he’s thinking about to what we’re thinking about or asking of him.

The horse being able to “self soothe”, to calm himself down after becoming anxious, excited or scared.

The horse being able to pause in a situation and check in with the human before reacting instinctively (like fleeing, for instance).

The horse being able to distinguish when a stimulus is directed at him and requires action (a “cue”), and when it’s just something that’s happening in his environment.

The horse being able to accept direction cheerfully, calmly and unemotionally, with no change in his expression.

The horse being able to accept restraint and to accept being inconvenienced.

The horse being accepting of “unexpected touches” on his body.

And there can be a lot more to it than all that, of course. And lots of folks get by with a lot less than that. That’s just some ideas I’ve run across that the horses have kind of pointed out to me.

A foundation lasts a lifetime. Let’s make it a good one.

 

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I Wish You Peace

From the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary online:

Peace:

  1. :  a state of tranquility or quiet: such asa :  freedom from civil disturbance <Peace and order were finally restored in the town.>b :  a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom <a breach of the peace>

  2. 2 :  freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions <I have been in perfect peace and contentment — J. H. Newman>

  3. 3 :  harmony in personal relations <The sisters are at peace with each other.>

  4. 4a :  a state or period of mutual concord between governments <There was a peace of 50 years before war broke out again.>b :  a pact or agreement to end hostilities between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity <offered the possibility of a negotiated peace — New York Times>

  5. 5 —used interjectionally to ask for silence or calm or as a greeting or farewell

at peace

  1. :  in a state of concord or tranquility <The problem was settled and his mind was at peace.>

 

The horse, whatever he does, is seeking peace. Think about that. WHATEVER he does, he is seeking peace. Peace like the definition of “at peace: in a state of concord and tranquility,” that kind of peace.

Now, that sounds nice, it sounds kind of soft and fluffy and touchy-feely and we like that. So we are attracted to this idea. We say, “Yes, the horse is seeking peace, and I’m good at providing him with it, or I’m working on getting good at it.” But there’s actually a lot more to it than simply “not bothering” your horse.

What brings a horse peace is different than what brings a human peace, and humans are about the most self-centered creatures out there. As much as we try, it’s hard to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”, and the greater the species divide, the harder it gets. It’s easier to anthropomorphize, to simply attribute human actions, thoughts and emotions to the horse. But that is a grave error, as it actually deprives the horse of the peace he seeks while, ironically, delivering peace to the human.

So what brings a horse peace? Well, there are two sources of peace for the horse, as I see it. We’ve got what naturally or instinctively brings him peace, and then we’ve got what learned behavior has taught him will bring him peace.

Where instinct is concerned, it’s important to understand that the horse is a herd and a prey animal, so he is going to naturally find peace in being in community with other horses, and he’s going to find peace in his ability to run away if he feels threatened or scared. If we take a moment to think about that, many to most of the things we want to do with horses go against these two instincts. We don’t want him to be attached to other horses, and we don’t want him to flee if he’s scared. So really, we’re in the business of taking his peace away from the get-go.

There are two solutions to this problem. We can just do nothing with our horses and just leave them in the field so they can experience peace. That would work, in that it would likely bring the horse peace. But frankly, that’s not why many of us have horses. Ray Hunt once said, “I’m just trying to see how much I can do with a horse without troubling him”. Some of us are more like that. We want to see what all we can do with a horse (not how LITTLE, but how MUCH) and not trouble him. That’s the discussion and the work I enjoy exploring. If I’m not going to just leave the horse in the field, how to I help him find peace in a world where all his peace cannot come from these instinctive places?

That brings us to the other place a horse can seek and experience peace, and that’s through what I’d call “learned behaviors”. These are the ways that humans teach a horse (intentionally or unintentionally) that he can achieve a state of peace and tranquility. Now, as a person who works with horses for the general public, I can safely say that one of the biggest things we do in that work is to move the peace and tranquility to more appropriate places. What I mean by that is that it is easy to teach a horse that he will get peace from rearing, pawing, being anxious, running away, pulling back, bucking, biting, pushing, dragging, bracing, etc. That’s why I can say that whatever a horse does, he’s seeking peace. A horse who is dragging someone away from a horse trailer is simply seeking peace. Experience has shown him that he’s more likely to get peace further away from the trailer than in it, so that’s where he’s trying to go. All he’s doing is seeking peace.

It is hard to imagine that a horse would spend so much what we see as “negative” energy to achieve something allegedly “peaceful”. But that’s how horses and humans are different. The horse seeks peace, and he’s willing to pay just about anything for it. He will do things that cause injury and illness to himself if he believes it will bring him peace. We can literally teach a horse anything if he thinks it will bring him peace. He does not distinguish “good” from “bad” like we do. If biting you brings him peace (he bites you and you leave him alone, or he bites you and you give him a treat), he WILL do it again, seeking that peace.

So what does this mean, at the end of the day, for those of us who want to DO SOMETHING with our horses? First of all, when it comes to the horse seeking instinctive peace in his herd and flight behaviors, I’m going to work to moderate (not eliminate, as then he wouldn’t be a horse anymore) those responses through progressive and rational preparation and training. I’m going to help him learn how to be confident in me and in himself in situations when he wants to get back to his buddies or to flee. I am going to honor the fact that those things are in him and that my job, as his guardian (and “trainer”, if you like) is to prepare him for the way things are going to be in the world we have constructed for him. None of our horses jumped into our pastures! We bear a profound responsibility to prepare them for what we want them to do. Horses are very adaptable and teachable, so this stuff just takes work, not magic.

Then there’s the weird ways that humans have allowed and enabled horses to gain peace. This stuff can be hard to change, and it can be hard to chase down in a horse just because it’s so bizarre. There are horses that when you pet them, they get excited. Not fearful but excited, as in elevated mentally. Now, that’s not peace. Excited is something humans like to see, in our dogs, our kids, our horses, our sports teams, you name it. We like to see things excited. But in the horse world, “excited” is basically equivalent to “anxious”. If we show up and our horse gets “excited”, then he’s no longer in a state of peace, and it’s our presence that took that away from him. I don’t want to be “that person” in my horse’s life. So what I’ll do is I will shape things, in our everyday life and in our work sessions so that my horse gains peace in the “right” places. I will give him peace (and peace is not petting if petting scares or excites him) when he’s doing something I think is good, or when he’s doing something I will need in the future.

I will watch carefully for places where my horse lacks peacefulness and try to help him with that. Sometimes a horse just needs to do something a few times to gain the confidence that will give him peace, and sometimes I’ll need to more assertively tell him what he needs to do to get that peace, and then make sure the peace is there for him.

Eventually, I want my presence in his proximity to bring my horse peace, not because I give him sweeties, but because in his horse way, he understands how we interact and where he stands in my presence and in the relationship. Then, I want him to gain peace in his work with me until he understands that by working for me and doing things that are not his idea, he actually gains peace and tranquility.

I’m thinking that’s a lot to ask, a lot to achieve, and a lot to strive for. It’s past pressure and release, past positive and negative reinforcement and past conditioned responses. It might include all of that or none of that, but what I’m talking about is the honest attempt to be able to identify what actually gives a horse true peace and separate it from what makes us feel good. Then the greatest challenge is to turn the job we want him to do into a source of peace for both of us.

This article first appeared in Horsemanship Magazine in the UK, which can be found here: http://www.horsemanshipmagazine.co.uk/

On Being Enough

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Years ago, I was attempting to take my off-the-track-Thoroughbred out on the dirt roads around the farm by ourselves, with varying amounts of success. It was a little stressful for both of us. A friend asked me how it was going, and I told him, “Well, my horse isn’t sure he’s okay being out there all by himself.” “Kathleen,” my friend replied, “he’s not by himself. He’s with YOU.”

Then a little voice said in my head, “Yes… but I’m not ENOUGH, obviously!”

And I think therein lies one of the harder things to get right in our horse work. Being enough. At any moment in time, with this horse and that horse, taking into account all the variables present at any given time, being just enough. And not too much.

What do I mean about “being enough”?

At any given moment, there are things a horse needs from us – from direction, to support, comfort, blocking, insistence, repetition, reward, release, relief, you name it. In any moment, there is something the horse needs from us so he can do his best and mentally feel his best. And getting THAT right, being on time and accurate with that thing the horse needs right then is incredibly difficult. Sometimes we are too much in the moment, and then others times, we’re not enough. It’s hard, it’s contradictory, and it’s really important to the horse.

For instance, I’m getting to know a new horse who is at our farm to further his education. He doesn’t know much, but he’s not a blank slate either, if you see what I mean. There are some unexpected things in a horse like that. He got me thinking about “being enough”. This horse, if you pet him, he mentally elevates. He gets excited and then he thinks about biting. Now, I’m petting him to soothe him (my intent) or I’m petting him to reward him for doing something correctly. My intent is NOT to excite him and make his mind busy. But whether I like it or not, that’s what petting does right now. I didn’t make him that way, he came that way. In order for me to be enough for this horse, I need to be less. I need to not pet him when he does something right, but instead just let him quietly soak and think and stay mentally quiet so he can feel the relief in doing something right and being with a person without becoming mentally elevated. For now, in this case, I need to be less in order to be enough.

Then there’s River. He’s a colt we’ve brought along for ourselves here at the home farm, so we know him pretty well. He’s laid back and easy to get along with and cheerful and willing as he progresses in his life and work. I realized the other day that if I’m riding him out and about and he looks at something, I take my legs off him. And I KNOW that this colt likes the support of the rider’s leg gently “hugging” him and directing him. I also know that for decades I rode Thoroughbreds off the track, and if they were out and looked at something, it was a pretty wise move to get your legs off them so you didn’t add fuel to the fire, so to speak. But when River looks at something and I take my legs off, I’m now not enough and he becomes less confident. In order to be enough in that moment, I need to override my reflex to take my legs off and keep that soft, supportive contact with him so he can carry on. If River gets worried, I may need to increase the support of my legs so I can be more in order to be enough. In that case, I may need to be more to be enough.

And this is the hard thing – to be just enough in every moment. It’s all too easy to be too much or be too little. Sometimes simply who we are is too much or too little – maybe in certain moments, or maybe all the time. That’s hard to swallow.

The horse is the authority here. Only he can tell us if we are enough or too much, and he is always right. In any moment, he can only do what he can do. He responds to what he feels and sees right then. That’s just how horses work. He may or may not respond to us the way we think he will, and then we have to adjust so that we are just enough. Not too little, and not too much. Enough.