Where Are You Starting?

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I’m not entirely sure why this can be a touchy subject, but I’m going to give this a go, because I think this is an important subject — to the horses. You know me, by now, probably, and you know that I’m not one of those folks who believes that horses should never be ridden or subjected to our human whims. I kind of like figuring out how to do things with them, and that includes a lot of things that probably would never be their idea. But I sure don’t want to be a part of why their life sucks, if I can at all help it. That’s why this matters to me.

Whether we have a horse that no one has touched before (and those are fairly rare), we have a well-broke horse someone else has made, or we have a troubled or remedial horse someone else has messed up, all those horses are, in the core of their being, the same horse. They all started out the same. They are all herd and prey animals, H.O.R.S.E.S.

I’ve lived my whole life with horses. Many kinds of horses, from 4-H horses of all types to show horses, to off-the-track-thoroughbreds, to horses of all breeds, shapes and sizes at clinics across America and Europe, to give-aways and rescue horses, to the Quarter Horses we develop now. As different as all those horses have been, they’re all still horses. They are herd and prey animals who once were little babies, bending their knees in that super-cute way to get down to learn how to graze. I feel like what all those different horses were trying to teach me was not what makes them all different but rather what they all have in common.

In their core, at the basis of who they are as a species, all horses have the same needs. Now, there are going to be people who disagree with me, and who will claim that their horse is “special”. I don’t think horses are designed at the factory to be “special”, as that would, in the wild, trigger a pretty unfortunate example of “survival of the fittest”. Horses are designed to graze 18 hours a day. They are designed to eat a lot of poor-quality forage and to live in a semi-arid climate. They are designed to travel long distances to procure food and water. They are designed to be part of a community, and in that community, the community is more important than the individual. Every member of the community is designed to fit in and not draw the attention of predators to the group. They find safety in numbers and crave the company of other horses.

No matter what breed our horse is, or how old he is, or where he came from, or what he does as a job, that’s who he is, at his core.

So that kind of gives us what I call our “starting point”. What I mean by “starting point” is what the horse is , what he’s dealing with, what’s already weighing him down, what pain he’s already living with, or what’s already distracting him or twisting his mind when we show up on the scene. The starting point is the place from which we build. A lot of horse training traditions assume we have a normal, natural starting point. Like anything, if we start with a different raw material, the end product could be very different. My own preference, in my horsemanship, is to start from as neutral a place with a horse as possible. Things just seem to work better for me that way.

But a lot of times, we are not working from a “natural” or “neutral” starting point. A lot of times, we’re working with a horse that has other people’s fingerprints all over it. Or a horse who didn’t really grow up at its mother’s side and in a herd, learning to act like a H.O.R.S.E. Or a horse who has had some horrible experiences or been rewarded for the wrong behaviors. Or maybe it’s a horse who has just been totally stressed out by multiple factors. Maybe he’s already lame, or half-blind, or has a bad back or bad feet. For me, before I even get started with a horse, I want to identify where my starting point is. If I have a horse who has never lived in a herd, it may be difficult for him to understand how to give to pressure, and that may end up being a lesson best taught by a horse, to a horse. Or perhaps he’s used to being fed only two or three times a day, and his food is restricted. Well, I bet that horse would become pretty distracted if I was trying to train him while there was any food source around, because he’d be craving that food. Or maybe he paces, or has chronic diarrhea, or he has to “blow off steam” before he can go to work. That’s his starting point, and it’s not necessarily a good one.

Equine behaviorists talk about “The Three F’s”, the three essential elements of physical and mental survival for the horse: unlimited access to Forage, Freedom and Friends.

Now, before you freak out, I realize that not all of us can live on a 10,000-acre ranch somewhere with dozens of horses. I get that. But that doesn’t change the horse’s need for the “Three F’s”, and our responsibility as horse owners to provide those to the best of our ability.

My point here is not to debate horse management practices. Rather, it is to simply propose that as horsemen, we need to be aware of what our “starting point” is in our horse. We could be starting with a horse who may already have abnormal psychology due to the lack of the “Three F’s”. In those cases, we are not starting from a place of normal psychology, and many of today’s training traditions assume we’re starting with a horse with normal psychology. If we’re not starting with normal psychology, then we’re probably going to need to start further back than we think, and we may even be put in a position where we have to try to teach a horse things they learn best from other horses.

It’s worth mentioning here that a “herd” really needs to be five or six or more horses. In order for a “herd” to have normal psychology and “natural” interactions, we really need about that many horses. Two horses is a pair, and horses don’t naturally live in pairs (they live in small herds or “bands”), that’s a dysfunctional grouping for horses. Three horses is a pair and a spare, four horses is two pair, and five horses may either be a small band or two pair and a spare. Some company is better than no company, but socially functional herds or bands, I believe, give the horses a richer and more natural social experience.

I’ve kept all kinds of horses all kinds of different ways in my life, from keeping them like little princes and princesses in show barns, to fending for themselves in frozen pastures in the Rockies. But I hadn’t really thought about the horse’s “starting point” until I began working with give-aways, rescues and OTTBs. These were horses who came with known issues and struggles. What I learned from them was that they really kind of needed a “reset button” of some sort. They needed to be “unplugged and plugged back in”, so to speak. The way to do that, I figured out, was through the “Three F’s”. I got them out on grass, in herds of five or six or more, in fields where they could run around together. Then I’d go to work on the training part of things. I figured that if I had a better starting point, I’d get a better result in the end.

Now, I know that not every horse owner can provide the “Three Fs” in a fairly unlimited way, but I think it’s only respectful to the horse/every horse for us to be aware of the fact that as far as he’s concerned, that’s just how he is. If we cannot or will not provide the “Three F’s”, then we simply need to be aware that there is going to be some sort of cost to the horse for that. For horses who have other challenges as well, the lack of the “Three F’s” can be devastating.

A lot of our horse management is designed for human convenience, not to create a good, natural “starting point” for the horse for training purposes. I understand. I don’t like trudging across a 20-acre pasture to go catch my horse. I don’t like the stress of watching new horses get to know each other. I don’t like the inherent risks of turning horses out together (I’ve seen two broken legs in my career), I don’t like maintaining miles of fencing. I don’t like the cost of taking care of grass. I don’t like scrubbing water tanks. But we do it, so the horses can have a good “starting point” for us to build the rest of our work on.

It’s been hard for me to learn to let go of a few things, like pristine show-ready coats, the easy accessibility of a horse waiting in a stall, and perhaps most of all, the warm/fuzzy feeling that I’m pampering my favorite horse and giving him “the best” of everything with deep shavings in a fancy stall with super expensive feed and blankets. Now, my “love” is expressed through taking off his halter and returning him to his herd for a day of grazing and carousing with his buddies. Yes, he’s always got a nick or a cut somewhere, and he’s shaggy in the winter and bleached out in the summer. I certainly get my “steps” in every day catching horses, and some days that sucks. But I have seen miracles worked in horses when they’re given the gift of a normal/natural “starting point” via the “Three F’s”. I’ve seen incredible changes in soundness, mental stability, body condition and general health. I’d have been hard pressed to accomplish those changes some other way.

It’s worth noting that having a poor starting point is another reason why some trainers might rely on learned helplessness as a training method. If our plan is to get the horse “checked out”, then it doesn’t really matter what we start with. We also can look at the starting point in the context of the “Worry Cup”, in that, if our horse’s worry cup is half full (because he’s in isolation, or doesn’t get enough forage, etc), there’s not much room left in there for anything else.

Every horse is different, we say, and while that’s true, every horse is the same, as well. This stuff about the “starting point” is not super sexy, and it’s not something that makes an interesting video or DVD. But for those of us who enjoy the study of horsemanship, we know that Ray constantly pointed to “what happened before what happened happened.” Well, what happened before I even showed up was how my horse’s management and lifestyle has influenced my raw material.