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.