Episode 127: Survival brain vs rational brain on a trail ride

On trail rides there are many situations for scary footing; boggy areas, water crossing, big ditches, hills and more. In those moments do you have a plan that covers the things your horse might do? Are the cues you use interfering or helping the horses balance?
This podcast discusses the rider fears, the reason that horses panic in these footings and solutions for addressing both horse and riders issues.


Episode 127_ Survival brain vs rational brain on a trail ride.mp3
Announcer: Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill, this is the Stacy Westfall podcast, Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. Today, I’m answering a question about trail riding and scary footing. Let’s go ahead and listen to the question.

Caller: Hi, Stacy, this is Jennifer Taylor, and I’m so glad you’re doing a series on trail riding. I’ve been actually meaning to ask you these questions for a while. So both of my horses are very well behaved on trails, except when it comes to what I consider kind of scary footing situations, whether it be kind of boggy areas, water crossings, big ditches they have to go down and up. And I, admittedly, I know that me considering them scary footing has an effect on my horses. But what do you do? What’s the best way to handle that? Is it try and make them go through? Is it stop and wait, let them check it out for an hour? I’m really struggling with that and I need your help helping me to help my horses. Thanks, bye.

Stacy Westfall: Thanks for your question, Jennifer. The good news is you’re totally onto yourself and you’re aware that your concern is likely part of the issue. What I want to do is discuss the rider’s mind, and that’s going to affect the rider’s body, which, as you’ve already identified, is also going to affect the horse. So first, we’re going to start with the rider and then I’ll transition into the horse and then I’ll share with you some of the ideas that I have that I use when I’m training my own horses. So the thought is when you are looking at a situation and you find your brain offering you a thought like scary footing, then I go ahead and I just identify that feeling in my body. And the most freaky one that I would come up with in that situation is fear. So there’s some kind of a fear when I think scary footing. The next thing that I do is I evaluate that and I think, is this fear or is this danger or is this fear pointing to danger? So when I look at some of the situations that you listed, I come up with a mixture of fear or danger. For example, I remember growing up and going on trail rides where people rode through very boggy areas. And when you ride a horse through a very boggy area, I’m talking like I’ve seen horses sink all the way up to their stomachs, the horses can get very concerned, you know, especially if they’ve had that experience before. So when I say the horse can get very concerned, very concerned can look like some of these things in a horse: so maybe you’re riding down the trail and when the horse starts to get concerned, they start questioning whether they should cross the area. That can look like a refusal to move forward. It can look like running backwards. It can look like rearing. It can look like rolling back to the left or right and leaving, running the other direction. Sometimes it looks like tentatively stepping forward, sinking a little bit and then an attempt to jump this area all in one leap, or it can look like they full-on commit and then they go ahead and jump it in several of those deer-type style bounces. Have you ever seen a deer bouncing through a field? That is not a fun thing to ride on a horse. Some horses will actually commit to jumping something like that. They will jump into it, decide it was a terrible idea, and levitate. Did you know horses can levitate? I have felt horses levitate. They will then levitate and change direction seemingly in midair and end up back where you started from, possibly faster than you actually end up back where you started from. So what’s interesting is that there are many ways that the horses can attempt to handle this situation. When I’m a rider and I’m looking at the situations that a trail could present, I keep a few things in mind.

Stacy Westfall: My number one thing I keep in mind is I generally have the option of turning around and going back. So there have been definitely trail rides where I’ve been out riding and I’ve come up to something and I’ve thought, yeah, it’s just not even worth doing that. And I’ve just turned around and gone back when I’ve had that thought. The other thing that can come up as you go, like what would make it possible to cross that? What would make me OK with doing that? This is another way of saying I want you to consider all of the different options that could happen on the specific trail ride you’re going to go on because not all options happen on all trail rides. If you’re riding in the desert, boggy area, probably not as much of a concern. But you’ve got other concerns. So what I do as the rider is I evaluate all of these situations that could be on the table that the horse could present. What I know now that is different than when I was growing up is that I am able to find out more ahead of time about how my horse is going to react in those situations. I don’t have to just go out on the trail, run into it, try to force myself and the horse through it and hope we survive. That may have been a technique I used when I was younger, but now, now I–I gather more information ahead of time. I gather more information. It’s basically awareness about me and myself in that situation and particular horses, because usually you can see the way the horse thinks as you’re training them in much less unusual situations. So you can find that maybe the first time that you’re teaching a horse to cross something in the arena like crossing a tarp, what is the method they use? You can start to see the methods that they use over and over again. The way the horse addresses things, it tends to have a thought process. So if I notice that when I’m doing trailer loading, the horse tends to rush and roll back, I might start looking around and seeing like, hmmm, is this a common thing that this horse is doing? Like if I’m leading it, does it run into those things? Like where else can I see areas that point to the way this horse is thinking? So when I’m evaluating a horse and I’m thinking about going on a trail ride, I go through kind of a checklist of things I know about the horse in certain situations and the trail I’m about to go on. Now, if you kind of skip all that and you head out on the trail and you get to a certain situation, you can feel the situation escalating a little bit. You can feel the horse saying, like, I don’t know about crossing that water. I’ve got some questions. What are you going to do in that situation is keep yourself safe and collect the information that you’re getting right then and then you’re going to make whatever decision you make on that trail ride and then you’re going to come home and reevaluate. So you can either–basically what I’m saying is you can either do this proactively before you head on the trail ride or you can do it a little bit reactively. Like you get in the situation and you still make decisions to keep you and your horse safe and you write down what happened when you get home. So, Jennifer, you listed some of those areas. So it sounds like you’ve been through those some of those areas or you’ve at least come up and ridden up to some of those areas and you’ve pondered, hmm, do I make this happen? Do I wait an hour? How do I do this? So you actually have information at your disposal, even if you don’t. Like, say you’re making this up ahead of time. What I’m saying is you think, I’m going to go on a trail ride with my friend next weekend and this is what I know about the trail. Go ahead and sit down and write down all these worst-case scenarios. And what I think is interesting is that a lot of times people don’t want to think about these possible scenarios. Some of you might have listened to the beginning of this podcast and thought, I had no idea that many things could happen when you rode up to a boggy area. I never want to ride anywhere where the area where the where the footing could be boggy. What’s interesting about that is that I actually like looking at what could happen, because if you’re out on a trail ride and you start to be concerned and you try to pretend you’re not concerned, it’s really hard to pull that off with your horse. So I find it much more effective to actually admit my concern and deal with it, because I find it easier to think, this is what my mind is offering me for thoughts. You’re in total danger. Look at that sharp stick over there. Look at this thing that could happen. Look at that drop-off. Look at all these bad things. And instead of me resisting it, I actually start saying, oh, it’s actually useful information to know that there’s a sharp stick over there. And I’m glad I’m aware that there’s a drop-off. Now, if I notice that my mind starts imagining gory details about the sharp stick or gory details about the drop-off, then if it starts playing like a movie of bad things, in my mind, this is a red flag that I realize I need to take control back from my own other part of my brain. So basically when my brain starts to try to scare me into making decisions, I’m actually able to recognize that that part of my brain is there actually trying to keep me safe. It’s my survival brain taking over. And it’s kind of overriding what I’m going to call my rational brain, my ability to think. I am not interested in fighting with my survival brain. I want to actually take the information it hands me like the sharp stick, the drop off, whatever else, and I want to be able to make decisions from the knowledge that it offers me, but not from reacting to it. So when I’m out on that trail and I think the horse might leap, I might fall, there’s a drop off, the horse might stumble. When I’m approaching these uneven footing areas, I want to know what my brain is telling me so that I can take that information and make a plan with it. When I do this, if I can do this in a much calmer environment, it goes better. But I’ve also done it enough now that I can do that in a faster state of thinking. Like I can do that out on the trail. If you feel overwhelmed when you get in those situations, it’s a sign that you need to actually do this processing in a slower…like go home, write things down, look at it, make the plan. Write down, I’m afraid in this situation. My horse might leap, I might fall. Or maybe you’re afraid the horse might stumble and fall on you. When you actually start looking at the specific things that might happen, then you can send your rational part of your brain to work and you can think, do I have a specific cue system or way to address this? Do I have a cue system that will stop a horse from jumping over something, water, boggy areas, something they could step over but you’re afraid they might launch themselves over? Do I have a cue system that can address this? And then you want to think to yourself, do I have a specific cue system for maybe shortening the horse’s steps, so he takes smaller steps, which could help him rein his own brain in? Do I have a specific cue system for slowing that speed down? Can I have him take a couple steps and then stop? Or if they start getting real jiggy, what do I do? Do I have a plan for that? And if I’m thinking about I might fall off, go ahead and ask yourself what situation you think might make that happen. You might think it’s OK if my horse rolls back and ducks out, that’s what’s going to happen. That’s what–where I might lose my balance. When you know that, you can then ask yourself, do I have a plan to interrupt that series of events that would have to happen where I end up in that situation? This is where you can start to shift that and get hold of like that idea of, is it fear or is it danger?

Stacy Westfall: So I feel fear come up when I’m out trail riding, but I know how to shift it away from turning into actual danger so I can use those fears that are pointing at danger. And then I can say to myself, I know how to handle that situation. And if I don’t know how to handle that situation, I don’t pretend I do because the pretending doesn’t show up well in my body and my horse usually knows it. And then my horse is like, yeah…I don’t think you’ve got this. So those are the ways that I address it and I want to spend a little time now talking about it from the horse’s point of view, but you definitely correctly identified you will be playing a role. So do arm yourself with what it is you’re concerned about when you say scary footing. Like, play that out in your head. Hopefully you can do that like without even being in the situation because you’ve already gathered enough information. Play that out in your head and then answer the questions that your brain is giving you that are–that’s playing that out to be a scary situation. Inside of doing all of that thinking and pondering and addressing the thoughts of like what could be scary and what could happen, terrible and bad. Good news, when you’ve done all that, you’re actually identifying with your horse. So sometimes I think people don’t want to address the thought of it being scary. Well, your horse is already considering it scary if they’re having weird reactions. So when you address the situation in your brain about what could be scary, you’re actually kind of identifying with the way your horse is looking at it. So horses are wired for survival. And from the horse’s point of view, in a lot of the situations that you described and a lot of the situations that come up on the trail, the horses will often feel a little threatened. And that might be an interesting way to think about like a ditch or something like that. But the reason that a water crossing or a boggy area or, you know, in and out of a ditch can feel threatening to a horse is because they can feel a loss of balance. And that loss of balance is a threat to their safety. And so some horses are more protective of their bodies. Those tend to be horses that can be really good to trail ride because they pay attention to their feet. But then they’re also a little bit threatened when they lose their sense of balance. So have you ever been out–and maybe for me it’s happened when I’ve been feeding horses in a really muddy pasture–but have you been ever walking through mud and you had one of your boots stick in the mud, but you were kind of committed to walking? And right at that moment when your foot stuck in the mud, you can feel your foot kind of coming out of the boot. But you–part of your brain was like, stop, don’t step out of the boot. And another part of your brain was like, you’ve got to step out of the boot because you’re going to fall on your face. Well, that moment right there is actually a perfect illustration of what happens for a lot of horses when they’re losing balance. So what happens is they’re out on the trail and they start to step in like a boggy area or they’re stepping down or up something and they feel a slight loss of balance and they feel like they need to do something with their body to catch themselves. And in that moment, they can get into a little bit of a panic state. And in that moment, a lot of horses will shift away from listening to the rider. And sometimes that might be something that they do because the riders actually kind of clamping and holding and doing something that interferes with like, say, their head movement. And so they really do feel like they can’t, you know, catch their balance because of the rider or they just feel threatened and they want to shift into more of a panic. Get out of here, jump the mud, jump the water, rush up the hill, rush down the hill, rush through the bog. Those are common reactions when you think about the horse feeling a loss of balance and feeling threatened. It’s interesting to think, has this horse been prepared for this, has he had prior experience, good prior experience to this? Did he grow up doing this on his own? Was he ponied doing this? Has he had this experience with other people where it went well? Or is this his first time ever crossing something like this? Has he ever practiced? Is there a way I could give him practice? A lot of trail horses are expected to learn these things on the job, and some horses are way better at thinking their way through these things on the job and others aren’t. So what I like to do is I like to prepare my horse and convince myself that these things are a good idea ahead of time. So some of the different ways you’ve heard me talk about on the podcast before, I–I pony horses on the trail. So I ponied Presto a lot out on the trail because there were a lot of ups and downs and water crossing and mud, and I could actually watch him struggling with his own balance, knowing that I wasn’t somehow interfering. Knowing that I wasn’t, you know, having the urge to pull on the reins or do something because of my fear. I was allowed to, I let him explore his own body because I was ponying him. So in that way, I gave him experience. Other horses, when I didn’t have a pony horse around, I have kept a rope halter on under the bridle and I’ve carried a along like a lunge rope, a lunge line, kind of a rope. And I’ve actually sent horses up and down things. I’ve sent them over things. I’ve sent them across water crossings and ditches and over trees and through mud. And I’ve done different things where I’m like, you know, I’m going to, I’m going to dismount. I’m going to let you learn this with your own body first, and then I’ll get on and ride you across, and that’s amazing if you’ve done that kind of work in the arena. Amazing how just that little bit of transferring out to the trail will give your horse a lot of confidence. I think this is why you’ve also seen an increase in the–those trail challenges where the horses are doing these obstacles that look a lot more like, you know, kind of jumping up a couple steps onto a platform, kind of a thing, like a dirt platform. So those would be manmade versions of the horses having to do ups and downs that they could potentially experience a natural version of that when you’re riding them. So you can actually give them ways to practice their balance. I’ve flooded parts of my arena at clinics to make a mud hole for people to practice them, which is another thing. Sometimes people, when they’re riding on the trail, will avoid taking control in the little tiny areas. So say you’re riding down the trail and there’s a little mud hole and you are like, oh, I’ll just let the horse make a choice and they walk around it. While that seems innocent on the surface, that little mud hole that you could have asked him to walk through and you could have chosen that to be a conversation with your horse, that can be a tiny opportunity for training or a tiny lost opportunity. Because a little tiny mud hole that you direct them through is like a little tiny, boggy, squishy footing area. And if you let them go around and around and around it and then you get to the big area and they’re like, yeah, I choose around it or not at all, it’s kind of not a surprise because that’s what they’ve been practicing. So how can we get this horse some experience? So if the–if you do ride up to it and you haven’t been exploring those little, little mud holes or those smaller things, sometimes you get to the big thing and that’s the first time you see, ah, my horse says, no, I’m not going forward right now. When you run into those situations and the horse starts giving you some kind of feedback that is where you want to gather the information of when the horse says no or I don’t think so or I’m not sure or whatever version of that. That is when they–when, when you experienced that “scary footing” and the horse starts to give you feedback that makes you somehow think it’s scary footing, pay attention. So what is he–what is he refusing to listen to for your aide? What is he questioning? And this is a–this is a whole conversation about cues, because sometimes when people are out on the trail and they let the horses make a lot of decisions, they don’t realize that sometimes those horses aren’t learning how to respond to certain aides and they get used–the horse gets used–to making those decisions. And then when the rider rides up to this boggy area and horse goes, yeah, no, I don’t think so. That’s when the rider realizes they…the left rein, is not working great. The right rein is not working great. The gas pedal is not working great. The brakes not working great. They, they can’t bend and move the horse in a certain direction while they bend in another direction. Some of those things that show horses learn how to do the body control that some people consider to be like more like show type things. A lot of those cue systems are actually a higher-level version of a more basic system.

Stacy Westfall: So when you go out and you ride the trail horse and–and it offers you these doubts or questions or thoughts, sometimes taking the horse home and working on higher quality transitions like, let’s say, the ability to do a walk-to-canter transition might seem like, why does my trail horse need that? But when you teach a horse a high-quality walk-to-canter transition or canter-to-walk, both, any of these. When you start teaching these to the horse, you’re actually teaching collection, forward motion, shoulder control. And those are all the things that you need with a lot of the common obstacles that you run into on trails. So while it might seem unnecessary to refine your trail horse to that level, when you start running into issues on the trail pay attention to the aides that the horse is questioning and go back and you’ll probably find those same questions when you try to refine those aids in the arena. And this is partly because there’s a mental understanding issue. Some of that’s coming from maybe not having them cross the mud when there’s an option, but it’s also because of the more refined aides. So let’s look at it this way: when you ride up to the border crossing–let’s go into a water crossing scenario. You ride up and there’s a water crossing and let’s say it’s a little running river, so you can’t really, like, walk around it. When the rider starts trying to aim the horse at it and the horse is thinking, now, I’d rather turn around and go back the other way and the rider, you know, directs the horse back using the right rein, directs the horse back using the left rein, and–and uses leg pressure, when the rider is doing all of that and it feels like the horse is not very responsive, so it feels kind of heavy as you’re doing that, what happens is at a certain level when the horse gets heavy to the aides then the rider is actually throwing the horse off balance as they’re trying to cue. So the rider thinks, I’m just turning the horse to the right to get them to face the water again. But when the horse feels that much pressure and that much bend and they are not responding, so the rider is pulling, that actually further makes the horse off balance, which further makes them feel threatened, which makes even more of that survival-oriented mindset come up in the horse. So it’s interesting to think that if the horse was more responsive to the lighter aides of bend and move your shoulder and go forward and step here and step there, that when they’re a little bit lighter, that…that as you’re giving them the aides to–to the cues to step forward, to step to the right, to step to the left, you’re not robbing the horse of as much balance as you would be if the aides start getting heavier and heavier.

Stacy Westfall: So how do you know if you’re on track with this conversation or whether this is something you need to go back to the arena and do? For me, it’s a little like the 80/20 rule. So if you’re approaching something out on the trail and 80 percent of your aides are working, you’re like, hey, take a step forward and the horse is like, I’m not sure, but I’ll also take a half an inch step. Good job. If they’re kind of they’re questioning you, but 80 percent of your moves are working, you’re probably in a pretty good zone. Where back to your question, Jennifer, it won’t take you an hour if 80 percent of your cues are working there. It leaves a little wiggle room for that horse to have like 20 percent questions. But he’s listening to your cues and you’re making these little tiny steps and you’re moving things around. And he’s asking questions and he’s saying he has doubts and you’re–you’re reassuring him by closing your left leg and by redirecting with this rein, and by releasing and letting him look here and then closing this leg. And so it kind of feels like a conversation that’s kind of moving not super fast because we don’t want him thinking reactively, but it feels like it’s progressing. If you’re in the middle of that conversation about crossing the water and it’s escalating where you are now, most of the time, like a lot of the time, the horse is not responding to the aides. It’s throwing bigger and bigger moves. It’s really throwing its shoulders. It’s it’s lunging away. It’s lunging this direction. It’s resisting a lot of your cues. It’s running backwards. These are signs that you have more homework to do before you get in that situation. When you go home and you start strengthening these cues, then what happens is you build the horse’s confidence and ability to balance as they’re riding over these things because they’re listening to more subtle cues. Then you can actually have a slower conversation without robbing the horse of the balance and by using like, take a step, good job. So you’re building the trust of your aides and the trust of your judgment because now you’re going to pay more attention to the small mud puddles and those little places where you’ve been letting him avoid certain areas on the trail. Because now you can see that having him trust your decisions in the small things, like when you spend 15 minutes discussing, yes, the left side of the trail is dry and the right side of the trail has mud, and we’re going through the muddy side that’s only two inches deep of mud, when they start to see that you have good judgment there, even though they kind of resisted you and you stayed steady and you had that conversation and they stepped into the little mud puddle and they were like, oh, I was pretty sure I was going to sink to my belly, but that was only two inches, they start to trust your judgment more. And then that’s when they’ll trust your judgment more in the bigger things. I’ve been really enjoying doing this a lot with Presto this year, because I finally have reached this point with him where I can see that the arena work, the groundwork, the ponying that I’ve done is paying off out on the trail. So last year I rode him about 50 miles on the trails, and this spring I’m already up to over 60 miles. And I can see the specific questions that he has when I’m out there. And it’s fascinating because I ride the same trails, but the same trails are never the same trails because the deer come jumping through or it rains and there’s mud and there’s different things. I can see the questions that he has and I let him give me feedback on what he’s seeing. So if I feel him looking somewhere, I’ll look and I’ll let him look and we’ll look and I’ll be like, oh yeah, I do see that deer over there. Good job. But for the most part. I am guiding where I want his steps, and I’m doing this right now because I want to continue, I want to listen to his feedback, but I want to continue controlling where he steps because his judgment isn’t great yet. As I watch his judgment getting better, I’ll have little moments where I’ll give him a little bit more freedom to make some decisions and I’ll watch how he does that. But I want to make sure that he will listen to me. I know that there are a lot of people that believe in giving the horses the free rein and letting the horse make a lot of decisions. And as the horse has more experience and later in the training, I do more of this, but I always want to know that I have the option of being in control. Sometimes when you let the horses make decisions, a lot of times you’re not really understanding how much of that control they’ve now taken back until you get into a high-pressure situation where, let’s say, somebody else’s horse spooks and every horse starts going and then you’re like, what? My horse always stopped and now he doesn’t anymore. And a lot of times that’s been lost in little tiny pieces. And then back to the judgment idea. Some horses have grown up in footing or situations where they do have good natural instincts, so maybe they grew up on a terrain where they were running up and down hills and rugged terrain, and they have really great footing on that kind of terrain. So you could argue that you could give them their head and let them make decisions. But then you’ve got to be able to say, can I ride all of the decisions they’re going to make? Because some horses make some really big decisions that they can do but that doesn’t necessarily mean the rider can go with them. Plus, there’s a lot of situations on trail rides where I don’t want the horse making decisions because, again, like if one horse spooks and they all decide to go with it or there’s a culvert or there are things that horses don’t know how to judge–they might be able to judge, you know, a muddy bog or something like that–but they’re not always going to be able to judge all the other situations that you can see. So you just want to check in. It doesn’t mean I’m saying they can never make decisions. I for sure love it when I get to the point where I know I can pick up–it’s sort of like I imagine when pilots put a plane on autopilot and it’s like, yeah. autopilot can exist. But you want to know you can take the control back at any moment and have 100 percent control. So you want to check that. So for me, Presto hasn’t earned the right for that–that–a lot of that control. But typically on the way home at the end of the rides, when he’s a little bit more tired and we’ve climbed the giant hill, there’s some area up through there where I give him more choice. And when I give him his head a little bit, I also watch to see and I’m gathering information. How does he make these decisions? Does he do the shortcut? Does he do the…does he avoid rocks? Does he go over whatever’s in his way? Does he suddenly zig off the trail and go to the left like Gabby does? Like, I don’t even know. She’s just, like, trailblazing for some reason. I’m gathering information in those little moments and then I just check back in and say, like, yup, that was a good, you know, fifteen feet that I gathered information and now I’m going to continue practicing moving you, moving you, moving you. And Willow, I let her make a lot more decisions and she totally willingly gives me control back at any moment. And it’s interesting to think that so many horses like Presto, for example, I know where he grew up, he grew up in very controlled pastures. He didn’t grow up out west running up and down some mountainside. He didn’t grow up dodging holes out in, you know, prairie dog country. He didn’t grow up in these different areas. He grew up in controlled pastures. So it was normal that when I started going up and down hills ponying him. He came from flat areas. He’s going to struggle with understanding his own body up and down hills.

Stacy Westfall: I remember learning that on my own two feet when I was a kid. Children, when we watch our own kids, when you watch children on playgrounds, they learn to balance and explore by running and falling and tripping and doing all that stuff. Horses learn the same way, too, you just don’t see it sometimes when you’re watching them learn. And then if you do see it, you’re like, oh my gosh, I can’t believe the horse fell down. But horses learn balance in a very similar way. And just like humans, some horses have much better natural balance and judgment than others. And so it’s interesting that you can watch some horses and you can say, you know, they look a little less coordinated. So I think I’m going to hold off on, like, letting them make the judgment. But the interesting thing is that horses, all horses can improve when they’re given the chance to have more experience. So how can I get this horse more experience? The goal is to keep everyone safe while that experience is being gained. Thanks for your question, Jennifer, and I hope that gave you some ideas of ways that you can address those issues that you are having with your horses when you’re out on the trails. I love training on the trails, and I’m very curious to see how many miles I’m going to rack up this year trail riding Presto. Thanks, everyone, for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

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