What is Your Horse Working On?

So what do I mean when I ask, “What is your horse working on?” What I mean by that is mostly “What is your horse thinking about?” while you’re working with him. What the horse is thinking about while we do our work with him is crucial. It has everything to do with the quality of the work he does, how good our relationship will grow to be and whether the lessons we are teaching will stick at all. Sometimes we barely know what WE’RE thinking about while we’re with our horse, much less keeping track of what HE’S thinking about. The horse knows exactly what he’s thinking about while we’re with him, and he knows whether we know or not.

For example, let’s use a herd-bound horse. Say we take our horse out of the field and tie him up to groom him. He’s dancing around, looking back over his shoulder and calling incessantly to his buddies. Obviously, in this example, it’s easy to tell that this horse is thinking about his friends and not about us and our attempt to groom him. In this example, our horse is working on keeping track of his friends and trying to get back to them, while we are working on grooming him. We are working on two different things.

Another example is the horse who is trying to eat, both on the ground or under saddle. The horse who is constantly trying to eat is thinking about the food and how to get to it. He is not thinking about us and the job at hand.

There are more subtle layers to this as well. Our horse can be thinking a LITTLE bit about something, or several things. For instance, he can be keeping track of where the gate is in the arena, the fact that his saddle hurts a little bit, and the fact that someone over across the way is feeding a horse grain. So maybe this horse is just a tiny bit distracted by each of these little things, and maybe it doesn’t really affect his performance in a mechanical or obvious way, but each of those thoughts bleeds just a little bit of his attention away from the task at hand (and us).

Our horse can be mentally and physically working on one thing and we can be working on another thing completely. A session spent like this will end one of three ways: either it will end with both of us still working on two different things, or it will end with both of us working on the horse’s idea, or it’ll end with both of us working on our idea. We have three choices, and how this session ends dictates how the next one will begin.

This is one of the biggest things that holds people back with their horses. People can spend a lot of time working with a horse who is working on something else. Then they wonder why the horse is not moving forward. Well, he is, he’s just moving forward on different things than the human would like. For every session that we finish with the horse working on something different than us, we guarantee that that’s where he’ll start the next one.

It can be easy to tell what a horse is working on, and it can be hard to tell what a horse is working on. The easiest thing to see is his eyes and his ears. Wherever his eyes and ears are pointed, that’s most likely what he’s thinking about. An interesting example of this is when we’re riding a horse and say, bending to the right, but his eyes are rolled around to the left. This horse won’t feel truly “soft” because his mind/thoughts/eyes are not in agreement with his bend. A horse bent to the right should be thinking to the right, so they should be looking to the right.

It can be hard to tell what a horse is working on when it’s very small and subtle, or fleeting, where he does it so quickly, you can’t hardly tell. It might be how the horse is standing, or a change in the feel he’s offering, or a tiny, tiny brace, or maybe a little lateness in his timing. There’s a lifetime in developing one’s awareness for this stuff.

Then you’ll see horses who have learned (from the humans) how to kind of multi-task. They will be working on our thing and working on their thing at the same time. I think this can happen when a person rewards the horse for doing just that, kind of thinking JUST enough about what we’re thinking about to get the job done, but no more. He’s kind of getting by, if you see what I mean.

I think a lot of what people call “disrespectful” behavior or “horsey ADD” is actually the horse working on something different than the human is working on. And he learned that from humans. He wasn’t born wanting to do that. He was born with a desire for peace and harmony and energy conservation. But if, when people started working with him, they allowed him or even rewarded him for working on something different than the human was working on, he’d become that way pretty quickly. If a horse hasn’t learned this, it’s pretty easy for him to offer to work on the same things we are.

So for me, this is something that I’m assessing the whole time I’m with my horse. “What is he working on?” “What is he thinking about?” Who is following who? Who do I want following who? There are going to be times when my horse is working on something else than I am, and I might do something about it. There are other times when my horse might be working on something else than I am, and I might just note it, but not do anything about it. But I’m always assessing that, and even if I choose not to change what my horse was working on, I still note it and recognize it. My horse can feel all those things. He can feel me recognize his thought, and then he can feel me choose to change it or not. He will know. He will know if I don’t know.

To say that this is about “getting a horse’s attention” is not quite it. That’s a small part of what I’m talking about here, but only a small part. What I’m talking about, is in small moments, and over our lifetime with our horse, what is he working on, and how much does it match up with what we’re working on?

And I guess that there’s a lot to this. Because we don’t want the horse to be “vapid” or kind of “empty”. We don’t want his thoughts to be missing, and we don’t want the only thoughts in there to be ones we put in there. He has his own thoughts and he has his own things to work on. But I guess for me, I’d like to feel a desire for him to “be with me” and an ability to yield his thoughts when I ask. Now, of course, a lot of that is on me, because this whole thing was my idea in the first place. But I do need my horse to do his part of our work together, or it’s just me pushing and pulling an unwilling beast around out there. It’s a lot better, in my opinion, if we’re partners who are working together on a project or a movement, or a feel or a moment.

Ray Hunt said a lot of things about this kind of stuff, about us feeling out to the horse and then being aware of what the horse was sending back. He used the word “reach” too, and I’ve always loved that word and the feel of it to me. So I practice, whenever I’m around the horses, I’ll reach for them mentally, then I’ll reach for them physically and see if I can get that working with them. I’ll see how connected we can get and have the horse be okay with that. I don’t think there’s anything that feels better than reaching for a horse and having him reach for me at the same time.

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The Challenges of Women Working with Horses

Let me start by acknowledging that I’m not a scientist and this is in no way a scientific treatise on the differences (real or imagined) between men and women.

Rather, this is more a look at some anecdotal observations I personally have made over many years of helping horse owners work with their horses. Over years and hundreds of interactions, some patterns have formed and have caused me to think about some things.

So whether my observations correspond with your own or not, good horsemanship is always about personal awareness and presentation, and male or female, these observations apply to all of us. So, as has already been said, “If the shoe fits, wear it. If not, it wasn’t meant for you anyway.”

I feel like I’m uniquely qualified to talk about the challenges of being a woman who works with horses because I, of course, am one. The primary difference between me and my average female student is simply that I spend (and have spent, over the span of my life) more time working horses than they have. Even so, we are more similar than we are different. We all have many demands on our time, we’re not getting any younger, we have partners who want to see us enjoy our horses and not get hurt and we have made a lot of sacrifices to have horses in our lives. We all have a lot in common.

But let me tell you how this all started, because it started a LONG time ago for me. When I was in my early teens, I entertained Olympic dreams – I wanted to ride on the Olympic show jumping team. So I started following the team and studying up. And way back then, at 13 years old, I noticed something very interesting that still appears to be fairly true today: that at the local, grass roots level, the horse community was/is mostly female. But when I got to looking at the professionals and the top people in most horse sports and disciplines, it was/is mostly men. Now, that’s a generalization and there are exceptions, but if you think about it, it’s mostly true. So where does that switch happen and why? I’ve been wondering that for almost 40 years. I still don’t have the answer.

So anyone who works in the horse business will tell you that women drive the equestrian economy by their sheer quantity. Most of the riding students out there are women. Most of the owners of horses in training are women. Most of the competitors at horse shows are women. But most of our instructors and trainers are men. When we picture who we want to emulate, who we want to look like and ride like and “copy”, most of us picture men.

So ladies (or anyone else for whom “the shoe fits”), let’s chat about a couple things I’ve noticed over the years. Firstly, I’ve noticed that women (generally speaking) have a hard time separating pressure from emotion. Women tend to use very little pressure until their use of pressure is driven by some emotion like fear, frustration or anger. In our horse work, this is a cardinal sin, and it seems like we’re just set up for it. It’s a battle to change it. Think of the mother in a parking lot whose kid runs out in front of a car – her passionate scolding (and perhaps punishment) of that child is driven by fear, not by logic or rational planning and thought. Same with our horses. A lot of women will go along with a horse, using very little pressure, letting things slide and become inconsistent, right until some emotion is triggered. Then watch out!!!!!! Lots of pressure and lots of emotion. The pressure tends to come AFTER and BECAUSE OF the emotion.

Horses don’t operate well that way. Horses need to know that things are going to be fair. I think they’re way more concerned about fairness than they are about gentleness. Their value system is a bit different from ours. So when a woman goes from a bit of pressure to crazed-out emotional banshee, it doesn’t make any sense to him and he’s going to lose confidence and understanding.

Women can also relate increased levels of pressure to “fighting”. “I don’t want to use more pressure because I don’t want to fight with him”. Pressure is just pressure. It can be measured in ounces or pounds per square inch. Pressure does not have to equal fighting. I don’t think the horse sees increased levels of pressure in an emotional context. One horse can get kicked very hard by another horse and the horse that got kicked just goes and finds somewhere else to be, away from the pressure.

So here’s something easy to work on. At all times, we could put our pressure on a scale of 0 to 10. We could know at EVERY moment what number our pressure is at and why. We could know what the horse needs to do to get a release. This is just good horsemanship, but emotion will cause us to lose track of these. If we start to feel emotional while working with a horse, in extreme cases we may need to stop (though now the horse gets a release and that may or may not be a good thing) but if we can keep going, a helpful thing to do might be to ask the question, “What would I do right now if I weren’t (insert emotion here)?” and do that. Focus on being effective, clear and fair, rather than the emotional values of being “loving”, “gentle” and “likeable”.

We could also be watchful and aware that we adjust our pressure BEFORE we start to feel emotional. Just changing the timing and relationship between those two things could change our presentation to the horse a lot.

The next biggie is another one related to emotion. I was talking with my husband Glenn about this topic, and I think he summed this next one up really well so I’m just going to use his words. “Men,” he said, “Don’t tend to make horses a love object.” I had to think about this one a bit and work a little to not take offense! But once we get over our brace, think about it. To lots of men, horses are just that – HORSES. To many women, if you listen to them talk about their horses, they could be talking about a child, a friend or even a lover or boyfriend. This is a form of anthropomorphizing and while I don’t know what it means about the human involved, I think it might be a bad deal for the horse. The horse is a horse and he’s got his own values and he operates in his world in a way that’s different from humans. When we try to make him have a “human-like” position in our lives, that puts pressures on him that he isn’t designed to tolerate. So it will cost him.

If we give our horse the emotional position in our life of a child, friend, lover or boyfriend, we get into that place where we can’t make good decisions for the horse. Simple training glitches become the source of relationship crisis and drama. We start to concoct long-winded stories about our horses’ pasts and futures that are mostly fiction but that we’ll retell over and over again. We’ll saddle him with the responsibility of making our day or giving meaning to our existence. In the worst cases, we will stay with the horse when it’s obviously a bad match because “I love him and he needs me” or we’ll fall passionately in love with a horse who doesn’t even like us and wants nothing to do with us.

At the end of the day, it is BECAUSE the horse is NOT a human that makes this deal so fascinating. But humans are really pretty egocentric, and I think it’s very difficult for humans to really see the world from any other perspective than their own. It easiest for us to describe a horse’s actions like they’re human actions, and attribute a horse’s behaviors to familiar human emotions. And women, especially, seem to have a difficult time separating human emotions and motivations from a horse’s actions.

Lastly, let’s talk about the most obvious challenge for us women: size and strength. Luckily, most of us are interested in a kind of horsemanship that does not rely on brute force to get things done, but even so, horses are big powerful animals and there is some strength and size involved at times. Stamina can be an issue as well, as many times we may need to choose between using a higher pressure for a short period of time or less pressure for a longer period of time.

Many of our teachers in the horse world are men. Some of them are a foot or more taller than their students and outweigh them by sometimes 100%. Sometimes we can’t use the techniques and movements that our teachers use because we just don’t have the size and strength. That’s just the way it is. Lots of teachers will claim that it’s not a matter of size or strength, but I’m here to tell you that the horse can tell a difference between someone 5’4”, 120 lbs and someone 6’4” and 250 lbs. That person who is 6’4” can get up over the top of a horse from the ground, while the 5’4” hasn’t a hope. Hopefully, mostly we can work in an area where that doesn’t matter, but at times, it’s a real “thing”.

I have spent a lot of time modifying the techniques I’ve learned from men so they work better for a person my size and strength. I’ve become okay with the idea of outlasting a horse if I can’t muster up enough pressure to get a change quickly. I break things down into smaller parts if I have to and I don’t hesitate to use tools to increase my reach or physical presence. I try not to use an amount of pressure that I couldn’t maintain for a long time just in case we’re there for a while. I also make sure I’m physically fit enough for the kind of horses I’m working, as I don’t want to have to quit on a horse in a bad spot because I’m just too tired to carry on.

Women have a lot to offer horses and the horse world, no doubt. Many women have been fabulously successful in horses, in all disciplines, breeds and competitions. Whether you’re male or female, if any of these challenges ring true, we can all help each other work on them so the horses can benefit. If the horse is always right, and we want to leave the horse in the horse, then we have to respect where he’s coming from and do our best to be the person he needs us to be. Who that person turns out to be, at least in my experience, can be a bit of a surprise to the human.