Episode 129: Physical and mental comfort zones for horses

In this episode I’m answering two questions that illustrate the dance between the horses body and the horses mind. The goal for us humans is to learn to read the body…to see what the horses is giving us for feedback. The challenge is that as we train our horses we are often working to increase their comfort zone.
I don’t know about you…but when I stretch my own comfort zone…it is UNCOMFORTABLE.
How can we tell if the horse has the discomfort of stretching or the discomfort that points towards a problem? I explain this in todays podcast!


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 two questions that illustrate the dance between the horse’s body and the horse’s mind. The goal for us as humans is to learn how to read the horse’s body and to see what the horse is giving us for feedback, but the challenge that comes with that is that we also are typically training our horses in a way that we’re trying to increase their comfort zone. And so I don’t know about you, but whenever I set out to stretch my own comfort zone, it’s uncomfortable. So as the trainer who’s trying to stretch my horse’s comfort zone, there will be moments of discomfort for the horse because of that stretching of the comfort zone, but because we can’t sit them down and ask them to write us a letter and explain what’s going on in their mind, we have to watch their body to be able to get the physical feedback about what’s happening for them mentally. That’s the challenge. Can you see how these two ideas could bring up doubt in the rider? Let’s go ahead and listen to the first question.

Caller 1: Hi, Stacy, my name is Monique from Ontario, Canada, and I have kind of a twofold question. I have a quarter horse Appaloosa gelding who’s 10 years old. I’ve had him for two years now. We’ve been doing a lot of work, progressing fairly slowly. He didn’t come in with a whole lot of training, but in the last month, he has started to leave me when I go out to the field. He’s never done that before. He’s always come up to me. I can call him and he comes to me. But in the last month, this has changed and I’m not really sure what’s going on. I make–I try to make his time with me pleasurable and, but all of a sudden this has started and I’m not really sure what’s happening. And the second part of my question is actually in the work itself, I’m having some difficulty with his canter. Like I said, he came with not a lot of training. And I don’t know how much canter work he actually had, but he wants to dip and dive and drop his shoulder and, and tuck and go. And I’m, I’ve been doing a lot of different work with him and I’ve gotten a little ways with him. I’ve had some progress, but I wouldn’t say tons. And he always feels like he’s about to explode and I’m not really sure what’s going on. He also–we had a fall while ago now, about a year ago, that he actually did slip and fall because he did that. So I’m not sure if that’s still part of it or what–what it is. But if you have any insight, I so appreciate any advice that you may have. I absolutely love listening to your podcasts. Thanks so much for all that you do.

Stacy Westfall: Thanks for the question, Monique, and great awareness is the first thing I want to say. Because, I’m really glad you tied these two things together, because there’s a really good chance that they are related. It’s interesting that you’ve had him for two years and it’s only been the last month that you’ve been having this issue in the field. So in that respect, we can see that something has changed for him. The first thing to double-check with you is, you know, is there anything that has changed in particular in the last month for you? I’m going to go ahead and, and pull some of my own ideas out of what you–what you left as the question. And you didn’t mention that you’d changed anything in the last–in the last month in particular. So I’m going to go ahead and think that maybe you didn’t make any big, noticeable change, but do go ahead and reflect on that. So if that is pretty true, though, that it’s kind of been a steady thing on your part, what it makes me wonder is it makes me wonder if he kind of feels like you’re not getting the little messages that he’s sending you. So he’s kind of sending you a bigger message, like, OK, I’m just not going to participate. So when I hear your question, the first thing that pops into my mind is, is this a balance issue or is this a soundness issue? Now, it’s also going to at some point either have started or become a mental issue, which is kind of where this whole question is going.

Stacy Westfall: But when I look at the most common symptoms for what you’re explaining. I would–I would end up putting it into the balance issue or soundness issue category. Now what I say soundness sometimes people get really freaked out about lameness, but even soundness, lameness, balance, the reason that dance is so interesting to me is that if you’re weaker on…for example, I’m right handed, so my left arm tends to be weaker. That is on some kind of a spectrum between a weakness issue and then as it becomes more and more off-kilter, it can become like an out of balance issue, enough to start causing what we could call soundness issues. So when I put that on there, just play around with the different words that might work, but it sounds like you have had some issues in the canter in particular that really point towards him having a balance issue, enough that as he was dipping and diving and doing some of the things that you’ve mentioned, he even fell down. So when I look at all these little breadcrumbs, all these little clues that you’ve given me inside of this question, for me, it points towards what could I do to increase this horse’s balance and look at this as a strength, balance/, you know, soundness issue. You didn’t mention any kind of lamenesses and things like that, so I’m just kind of putting that out there. So you could have that seed planted as something you’re watching. But very typically, I’m looking at these in the beginning as they’re like a strength and balance issue, because a lot of times I think people look at these big, “strong” horses and don’t think about the balance or strength issues they could have doing some of the things that we ask them to do, where we just sort of take for granted that they’re able to do it. But let’s run–let’s run through this from a horse’s point of view. Let’s say you don’t know his history. You got him a couple of years ago. And let’s just imagine that in his mind, somewhere along the way, he associated canter work with a loss of balance. And maybe that’s just because he wasn’t strong enough to canter well, and whatever it was that got into his head. You know he just had this issue because you said he had it before the fall. So he was already doing this dipping and diving. And let’s just say it’s something as simple as a lack of balance. Well, when he felt that lack of balance, it becomes an anxiety-producing thing because he feels like he’s at risk and then he probably ends up trying to evade the rider’s aide. And that leads to what we would call, the ducking and diving. And then as the ducking and diving starts happening, many riders will react to the ducking and diving by trying to catch and balance. And the catch and balance accentuates the ducking and diving, and it’s a little bit like if you’re driving a car on a road that’s icy and slippery. If you break free, a lot of times an inexperienced driver will try to, you know, really react to that and so they’ll they’ll pull the wheel or they’ll hit the brakes, both of which make the icy road worse. And so for the horse, the dipping and diving, the ducking and trying to, trying to evade to try to find his balance wasn’t a great plan to begin with on his part. He didn’t know that. But then when you try to to to help out by counteracting those, he actually can feel more anxiety. And you can see how if that starts somewhere in the horse’s training, that that can kind of crawl into their head. And it’s there as this question. So for me, whenever I suspect this could be a piece of it, I go back to the basics. For me, that would be all the way back down to groundwork, because when I was writing up the notes for this episode, I was thinking about explaining how like a soundness, balance, strength issue sometimes isn’t best solved by the exact, “exercise” that you want to do. So, for example, if you’re cantering on him and you are hoping that you can strengthen his canter work by riding, I’ve already illustrated that the challenge becomes he’s getting anxiety from the dips in the dives and ducking that he’s doing, and that’s probably triggering you to have a reaction.

Stacy Westfall: So there’s two things going on here. There’s a mental component to try and to solve it in the same way that’s challenging. And then I actually think there’s a physical component, because my upper body has always been weak. So it’s easy for me to picture exercises that I would fail and then could have anxiety-producing results. For example, I don’t even know what it’s called, but if you just you know, if you’re out on a playground, a child’s playground, and you do like one of those hanging, like, if you just kind of like grab your hands onto a bar and you let your feet dangle and you’re just kind of hanging there, people can do pull-ups, I’ve heard and seen, from this position. I can’t even begin a pull-up from that position. So if I’m just hanging there by my hands as kind of like this dead weight and I try to begin doing a pull-up, if I were asked to do that multiple days in a row, multiple months in a row, my guess is that I would just get kind of a less happy about going to this routine because in that routine, there’s not enough little successes for me. For example, if I was allowed to do that, but I was allowed to touch and assist my, my pull up with some other part of my body, which is always what I’ve gone to, is my legs, which is why my upper body is weak. But I don’t typically focus on strengthening my upper body. But if I could have some little ways to strengthen that without just having this, this other anxiety-producing method used, then I might be more willing to go in and and and play the game. So the version of this that I would use if I were approaching this with your horse would be going back to groundwork because that eliminates the rider and that would mean assessing and looking for the tiny little wobbles that happen in the canter and even the trot. But let’s just say the canter, during the groundwork. So can you find balance issues in the canter on the lunge line during groundwork. For me this reminds me of when I was starting Presto under saddle and I could see his balance issues because I have a lot of experience. So even before I mounted up, I could see he had balance issues and proactively I didn’t want to get caught in a cycle like I just described. So I did a lot of groundwork that, that involved walk, trot, canter on the lunge line. But then I also, when he got good at that and we were walking that line of like, hey, he’s good at it, I want to keep repeating it, but I don’t want to be bored because–I want him a little bit bored but I don’t want him so bored that he’s getting–that he’s getting creative in that, like, you know, smart kid who becomes the class clown who causes trouble because they’re bored. We don’t want that. So I started adding poles to the work. So it was like, can you canter over a single pole while we’re doing this? Can you do your walk-trot-canter work over a single pole? Great. You got that. Can we do it up to two? Can we do it up to three? Can we do it up to four? And so I was increasing the physical challenge. I was increasing his balance because I was increasing using the number of poles, but I was also increasing his confidence because I was willing to go–back down to no poles some days and back up to one and explore the ups and downs like that and watch his balance and his mental state of being so inside of all of that. I’m increasing not only his physical strength and flexibility, but I’m also messing around and playing with his confidence because I’m doing something that he found easy and then I’m stretching it a little bit and then I’m coming back down. I think if you start adding some of the, the creativity to some of your, your work, it’s amazing to me what happens if the horses start seeing things as boring. Because if they start seeing things is boring, even if they’re not too hard, like maybe the illustration I just gave you could sound like, you know, you’d been doing something too hard for him, it could also just be that if he just sees the same exact pattern every single day, there can be a boringness to that. And that could be a boring that’s just kind of boring or it can be a boring that’s also got kind of this anxiety-producing, like me trying to do that hanging, pull up thing. So this is the challenge for you as the, the the rider, which I’m still going to call you, that even if you’re doing groundwork. That’s the challenge for you is to be able to make sure that there’s kind of an up and a down and that he feels like there’s something interesting. But it’s not always interesting because it’s just getting harder. Sometimes it’s returning back down to the basics. And oftentimes for me, this is doing, you know, maybe even if you just decide to do one day a week because you’re not sure how to work creativity into that, but start working some, some really interesting things into it. For example, you catch him in the field and my–my pastures that they’re living in right now don’t have a lot of grass on them. You go out and you have grazing for a few minutes and then you put him back and then 10 minutes later you go get him and you do something different. And then you put him back and then you go and you get him and you do something even different and you put him back. You can make some weird patterns if you think about it. And it’s not even that they don’t have to be work. But you could even get him. You could catch him and go out and do something he finds really simple. And then you could tie him up for a little while and then you could groom him really well and then you could put him back out. You can do some weird ways to shift things around that plant these seeds in their mind where they almost are like, I’m kind of interested in what might happen. Because I think it’s interesting, especially when people are thinking along the lines like you were very honestly in your question when you were saying, I think I’m keeping it, you know, I think I’m…I think I’m rewarding him. And there’s that little bit of doubt in your voice as you ask that question. It’s always amazing to me. I work my horse’s hard. I work my horses physically hard. I vary up and down the physical hard. And I go up and down with the mental. But there’s a pretty good chance that I’m working my horses harder than the vast majority of my listeners, and yet I don’t have issues catching them. Even when I go out, when I turn them out in these giant grassy fields and I turn them out for two hours, I still am not having trouble catching them. Which is an interesting thing because I remember growing up and having trouble catching the horses. And sometimes when I look back at it and I look at the patterns I was doing, sometimes the most interesting questions that–that I allowed my horse to ask and interact with me were happening in the, Can I Catch You? game because I wasn’t building in places where there was this very circular conversation feeling. And so when I–when I look at what I’ve done now that’s–I’m going to almost say accidental because it wasn’t like I was trying to make my horses easy to catch. But I have and I definitely have a goal of keeping the work creative. And so my horses have no idea how many times I’m going to, for example, get on and off during a typical work session. I would guess that the vast majority of listeners get on once and off once. On at the beginning, off at the end. It is not uncommon for me to get on and off three or four times. I would say that getting on and off two or three times is probably almost close to an average for me, which is a little bit interesting, right?

Stacy Westfall: So it’s these, these things like that–that it’s like, I can’t even tell you if it’s two or three, but it’s not just one. And so there is creativity in each of the work cycles. So even though my horses are typically going through at least a minimum of four work cycles, although I’ll tell you, it’s probably even more than that, it’s probably closer to at least six, maybe bumping up to like eight work cycles. Those work cycles might only be five to eight minutes apiece. But there’s a lot of cycles and there’s a lot of ups and downs and there’s a lot of, in my case, on and off. Maybe I get off to put on, you know, skid boots for sliding, or maybe I get off to put down a pole or put up a pole. Maybe I’m getting on and off for all these different reasons. And those are not 100% day after day, exactly the same thing. And those are some of the things that can make things interesting. So sometimes I think people think the horses are, are resisting work. But I’m telling you, my horses are working. I think sometimes they’re resisting boring. And then there are cases where maybe they’re giving you feedback that they’re struggling with something, like the canter, and maybe the feedback does lean a little bit towards like, I want to be heard that this is being strong, this is being difficult for me. Make sure there’s enough up and down, that there’s a creativity in there. Any and all of these could be a piece of what you’re describing, Monique, so just keep that in mind when you’re evaluating it, because there is a challenge between finding out that physical and that mental comfort zone for the horses. Probably the biggest red flag that you gave in your entire voicemail was the quote, “always feels like he’s about to explode.” Now, when I listen to it again, I thought, I think she might be saying that he always feels like he’s about to explode in the canter, but when I listen to it multiple times, I was thinking I’m not 100% sure that you meant in the canter. For the sake of argument, I’m going to say it’s in the canter, but if it’s not, then that gives you a red flag that, you know, he’s got this tension everywhere. But if it is just in the canter, then–and even if it’s not, we’ve got to look for is a way to shift him out of that. Because as you can imagine, if he’s carrying enough tension in the general work or specifically in the canter work or he’s got this feeling of he’s about to explode, he’s trying to tell you something in there. He’s trying to tell you a story about how he’s viewing this work. He’s trying to tell you a story about his physical limitations. He’s trying to tell you a story about things that need to shift in order to get him more comfortable so that that feeling of about to explode can be diffused. So I’m asking you to get curious about it and say, where does that start? And what can you do to create a situation where, let’s say just for the sake of this conversation, that you did mean that he feels like he’s about to explode in the canter? That would imply that he doesn’t feel like that in the trot. But do you feel tension in the trot? Where does that tension build? Can you trot at a slow trot, which is like more like a three or four? And can you trot at a five and a six and even a seven and an eight? And if you trot at that higher speed in the trot up to that six, seven, eight, do you feel more tension in him as he builds that speed? Is that an overlap or is he really relaxed in all of his trot work and it’s legit only in the canter work that he builds tension? When you get curious about where that tension builds so that you can find that, that feeling like he’s about to explode, that’s when I think you’re really going to start seeing the rest of the story that he’s telling you about his body. A lot of times if I take this to a completely different example, like a horse bucking, a lot of times the bucking is the first time someone feels the horse actually explode and then the person can start rewinding backwards and saying, well, I did feel tension in the canter before that. And now that I’m looking at it, now that I recognize that the buck was about to happen, now I recognize that I actually can feel a building tension in the faster trot. All of these places are places where you can work on it. I would want to see a horse like this be able to extended trot and canter at a–at at least two different speeds of the canter on the lunge line on a relatively loose line. That means that there’s a drape. It doesn’t have to be–the lunge line doesn’t have to be dipping so much it touches the ground, but it shouldn’t be pulling tension. I would want to see that horse carrying himself that well without the rider on his back to know that he’s got the strength and balance on his own before we start adding all of the other layers that come with the rider. These are some of the ways that I try to unpack that physical comfort zone and that mental comfort zone. Because at some point we’re definitely always aware of that mental comfort zone because that’s ultimately what’s going to get us the highest performance in their physical is when we’re really, really, really seeing the mental. Now, let’s go ahead and listen to the second question.

Caller 2: Hi, Stacy. I have a question about my filly accepting the bit. I’m using a smooth snaffle and I’m following your Smart Start book, slowly getting her to wear the bit without reins and then lunging her with the halter over. And I’ve had her teeth done, her wolf teeth removed, so it’s not a dental issue, but I just wanted to see is there any way to help her accept it? She just mouths it, especially whenever I up the pressure, so I have a feeling it has something to do with more of the mental quadrant for her. Is there anything to do or should I just wait and over time she’ll get more comfortable with it? I appreciate everything you do. Thanks so much.

Stacy Westfall: Thank you for your question and thanks for mentioning the dental was checked, that is a great place to start. And I will throw one other idea out there and it is this: that any of you listening, you can have the dental work checked, but don’t be afraid to have it double checked by someone else, just the same way that you might go to a doctor and have them check something and if you’re not 100% confident a little while later in their diagnosis, it’s not uncommon for people to go get a second opinion. And I for sure am comfortable doing that with my vet work on my horses if I have a question, if I’m not 100% confident and I definitely would do that with the dental, too. So any time that if you continue to have issues but you’ve had it checked with one thing, I think it’s totally OK to get a second opinion. I’m not saying that this is for you in particular right now. I’m just putting it out on the table because that’s a thing in my world. So let’s move into the idea that you think it could be more in the mental quadrant. And you’re kind of curious, do I wait over more time? Will she get comfortable with it? What can I do to help her accept it? And based on the way that you phrased the question, I think you’re still in the stage where she’s just wearing it. So to me, that means what you described and that means that you’re not–you’re not actually pulling on the bit, the bits just hanging in her mouth. And for me, when I do that, just to clarify, I pull it just to the corners of their mouth so that…it’s…they will eventually learn to pick it up and hold it. But in the very beginning, I put it just to the corners so that they’re–it’s just kind of naturally in that–that kind of comfortable spot there. And it sounds like you’re in that stage where she’s just wearing it and you’re not using it. Now, here’s one of my bigger questions and everyone listening, go ahead and imagine what you think the answer is. You say that she changes when you “up the pressure.” So everybody listening, try to imagine what “up the pressure” means. So when I’m playing this little game, I’m picturing you out there and you’re lunging her, as you illustrated, you’ve got the–the halter is on there. So you’re actually hooked onto the halter but she’s wearing the bit. She’s in a rope halter and the bit’s not being used. You increase the pressure. I’m not clear how, but I’m going to make something up here. So I’m going to say that you ask her to canter in a smaller circle. Like, for example, if you’re doing the four-leaf clover pattern, you can actually lunge that. And so if you’re doing that, then that means you’re going to be able to make a smaller turn because you’re going to kind of have four little circles inside your pen. So if you’re doing that, that means that you’re going to have to be able to handle her head, the rope halter. You’re going to be bending her to ask her to go in that smaller circle and you’re going to be steering her. And to be able to do that, you’re going to have to be using the stick and string or your body language or your energy. Like for me, a lot of times I’m like, I’m holding that stick and string up, I’m encouraging them to keep going at the lope, and so when I think about upping the pressure, I think about doing something like that. Now, what’s interesting is when I paint that picture, which was the first one that popped into my mind when I thought, “upping the pressure,” When I try to imagine her chewing there, what’s interesting is if it happens there, sometimes I’ve seen horses chew there when I’m pulling on the halter, but they’ll actually chew there when I’m pulling on the halter, even without the bit in the mouth. So let’s slow this down and think about it a little bit more.

Stacy Westfall: As soon as I finished with this kind of imagination game of like, what, “up the pressure” could mean, I then immediately went to, wait a minute. I wonder if your idea of increased pressure, increase work, is smaller than my idea. So I’m not quite sure when you say, “increased the pressure,” what that means. Because there’s a couple different things to look at here. If you’re doing tiny amounts of increasing the pressure, for example, let’s say that you’ve got her on the lunge line, she’s walking. You ask her to go to a jog and you noticed that when you ask her to go to the jog that you added energy and she went to the jog and was kind of chewing on the bit. When I picture that scenario a lot of times in my head, when I, when I draw that–that out. When I look at the most common way that that would play out, I’ve actually got a horse that’s pretty relaxed and quiet and it’s carrying the bit and I’m asking it to go and it’s almost a little bit bored, and when I ask it to go, it goes off, but there’s a little bit of chewing. It’s just sort of like–it’s like chewing bubble gum, imagine it like chewing bubble gum, and so the horse is just kind of going along and maybe–maybe it’s walking and it was just kind of like daydreaming and then you ask to go and it kind of went, but it didn’t take very much energy and it kind of went in there and they kind of started chewing the bubble gum and they kind of went along. And so I’m–in that picture I’m not quite sure whether the horse is like bored and kind of like just chewing because, you know, that’s an option there, or whether we’re picturing a horse that’s more chewing, more of a frantic kind of a chewing during a higher increase of pressure. So it’s, you know, got this franticness to it or whether we’ve got the one where I’m lunging my horse and I’m asking it to canter that smaller circle and so I’m actually pulling and bending that horse at the canter like I will be bending the horse when I’m cantering on its back, and so there’s a physical pressure on the side. So I’m not sure how much pressure is on the horse’s mouth. I’m not sure how much pressure is on, like the aid that’s asking the horse to go. So these are some of the different things you can think of when you’re–when you’re increasing the pressure, because there’s a couple of ideas inside of that. Number one, if you’re increasing the pressure and she’s kind of got a little bit of a bored look, you can imagine that the chewing bubble gum thing happens. It’s–like you’re more likely to be chewing your bubble gum when you’re kind of like half present or bored then you are when you’re kind of really focused. Have you ever noticed if you’re chewing gum and you’re really focused, you kind of stop chewing gum? The thing that just popped into my mind is like, Mom, if you’re listening, I’m going to tell you. I just remember when my mom would get nervous driving. She would actually she’d be like she’d want to turn the radio off and she would want quiet, you know? So if the road was icy or slippery and she was nervous, she kind of wanted to reduce all of those things. A lot of times when the horses are really focused on learning a new lesson, that’s when I’ll see them reduce the chewing. Now it can’t be at the level of introducing so many new things that they’re having like an anxiety-produced, you know, like, oh, my goodness, this is overwhelming amount of information because that’s actually not necessarily chewing because of the ask it’s chewing because of like the–I got to get out of here. This person is like, overwhelming me. So as you can hear, there are several different ways. But the most effective way that I get them to stop chewing is I make sure that I’m walking that line of like I’m creating enough new things that they’re kind of focused on me and they’re looking at me and they forget to chew. So as we’ve discussed in the beginning of this, this is a learning curve when you’re learning how to do it, but I’m curious if you start watching for the places that she’s not chewing, what you would find, because here is an even bigger thought: How much of your focus is on her chewing? You might be amazed at how effective people can be at training horses to do exactly what they don’t want them to do, because that is what draws the most attention from the human. So imagine this example from the horse’s mind. Let’s just imagine that this horse is, you know, pretty comfortable with the lessons. And so the horses, that example where it’s walking and the rider asks them to move up to the jog and the horse is kind of right in that bubble of like, I could be doing this a little bit more confident. Not that, you know, not a big deal. So the the rider starts to–and this is still groundwork and I’m calling you the rider–the rider starts to increase a little bit of pressure and the horse jogs off. And lets just say that the horse jogs off and you’ve been doing this for a while and the horse is a little bit bored and the horse jogs off and it kind of pulls on the rope halter just a little bit and it kind of messes with its mouth. It kind of chews, it kind of chews or does something. And you immediately are like, oh my gosh. Like even if you don’t think you do much with your body, but in your mind, you’re like, oh my gosh, the horse is chewing and–it’s so funny. Every time I say that, I notice that when I do that, I, like, roll my shoulders forward into that more like fearful mode and I like drop myself lower even though I’m sitting here imagining it and I’m nowhere near a horse. If I think the phrase, oh, my gosh, did I just do something wrong? Have I done too much? Is she chewing? Am I hurting her? If I start doing those things, I want to withdraw. What is fascinating about this is that even if she just started chewing because of, let’s say that the rope halter pressure, because she was, you know, half asleep and she jogged off and she was headed towards the gate and she was like, oh, I forgot I was on the lunge line. And so she pulled on you and then she started chewing and then you started worrying. What’s really interesting is that the horses, a lot of times, are way more in tune to the up and down of your energy than you think they are. And so if you start consistently reacting to her chewing, she will start experimenting with, hmm, am I actually controlling some piece of this? I think when I do this, I might be having an effect on that. And I’m not saying she began with this like she wasn’t out in the pasture outlining this massive plan. What I’m saying is that if you’re not careful and you start really getting, I’m going to call it obsessive just for a minute, but if you just get really, really, really worried about something like the chewing, still not saying this is what you’re doing, just taking it to an extreme so you can see where it can go. If you get really worried about the chewing, you will probably start having a reaction whether you know it or not, every time you notice it. So then if she’s really in tune to you, she’ll start noticing that there’s something that you’re reacting to. And if she’s real accurate, she’ll figure out what it is, that’s chewing. This is actually exactly the same line of thinking that gets horses repetitively doing anything you don’t want. For example, if a horse realizes that rearing triggers you, it’s not exactly that they’re trying to be bad. They just realize where the release of pressure comes from. And so if, for example, you’re pulling on the on the halter and you notice that she’s chewing and you you are really worried and you release, then she’s going to just notice some of these different things in you. And it’s just a curiosity thing. A lot of times when you watch little kids and they’re asking a lot of questions, if they ask a question of an adult that triggers something in the adult, as long as it doesn’t really scare the child, like they’re curious why you got triggered.

Stacy Westfall: And so it’s a fascinating thing how that curiosity, when the horse is doing it towards you can become a powerful tool if they’re doing that. And that’s why some of those horses that are really like curious about things are interesting to work with because they’re highly observant and they’re watching you as closely as you think you’re watching them and they have no agenda and they’re super accurate. So what is really interesting is to think about where is your focus so that you can just be aware that maybe you don’t want to play into that. So what you could do is you could start saying, OK, I’m going to take a deep breath and I’m gonna–I’m gonna to work her the next five times that I work her and I’m going to really focus on where she’s not chewing and the spots where she stops chewing. So does she stop chewing when I ask her to trot or when I do an inside turn or when I send her over a tarp? Or is it when she’s moving up into the harder work or is it when she’s pulling on the rope or is it when she first steps into the slope that she stops chewing? You know, so if you start opening up your mind to how much of the time she’s not chewing, that could be a thing for you to help break that habit. One of the best ways to break the habit is to actually start looking for all the other signs that she could be giving you beyond just the chewing, especially if you’re worried that the chewing is a sign of something negative. You can start looking at the rest of her body, the bigger picture. So it’s almost like sometimes riders will get really zoomed in on something and the horse’s head tends to be one area, whether it’s in the groundwork or the ridden work that riders will get really focused on. So you might start saying, well, what’s happening with her tail? And what’s happening to the rhythm of her gait? So I’m watching her legs and her footfall and her feet. What’s happening with her neck? Is it straight? Is it bent? Is it tension? Is it high? Is it low? What’s happening with her eye? Is it in? Is it out or do I see it looking to the outside? Do I see it looking to the inside? Do I see her outside eye because she’s looking in with both eyes? What’s happening with her ears? Is the inside one on me is the inside one flicking back and forth? Are both doing the same thing? Are they both looking around? Is one out? Is one in? Can you hear how there could be a lot of other things you could be watching here, aside from just the chewing? And so especially when you add something like a tarp and, you know, she has to cross over a tarp and she has to do an inside turn and then she crosses over a pole and then she does all these different things as you’re noticing all of the things, the tail, the neck, the eyes, the ears and the mouth, as you learn to move your focus around, it will teach you to see the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is going to give you more insights into what the mouth could mean. And it will probably help break your reaction to whatever’s going on in the mouth. This is exactly what I do when I’m first introducing the bit and I typically see a massive drop off between the first day that they–that they wear the bit and the tenth time that they wear the bit. Now, in my program, I’m clipping right along and I’m pretty accurate at how to push that mental and physical comfort zone enough to make them engaged and curious, but not enough to discourage them or cause them anxiety. You know, it’s that it’s learning to read them so that you can walk that line and that you can make it kind of interesting. So I see the change pretty, pretty consistently in that time frame. So the bigger question for you is, already looking back, is it 10% of the time she’s chewing or is it 90% of the time she’s chewing? And then you start playing around with your focus, being on all these other things and adding some other things that would–a lot of times obstacles are really good for having them have focus. So teaching them to roll the ball, teaching them to go through the baby pool, teaching them to cross over interesting things. A lot of times those are the moments when I will start to see that they’re really not chewing that much. But I think it is because it’s not so simple that they’re–that all there is for them to wonder about is this new thing in their mouth and you. And so that you would think that those limited things would be good but sometimes what it does makes it more of a challenge for you to only be thinking about that new thing and, and them and then they’re just thinking about that new thing and you and you can pretty easily see how that new thing, in this case, the bit, can become the focus of everyone’s attention. So if you start adding some of those other things in there, a lot of times you’ll see that it kind of just the whole thing diffuses itself. And if you continue seeing it and you haven’t added any pressure to that mouthpiece or anything like that–again, keep in mind that when you do pull on the rope halter, I’ve seen horses and I remember in that Stacy’s Video Diary, Jac YouTube series–I remember before, and I took him to the dentist. And that was actually the first he had two dentist appointments and I forget if I showed both of them or not, but I know I showed the first one because he was actually you could see him opening his mouth when I was pulling on the rope halter and he didn’t even have the bit in his mouth yet. So that’s when you saw the video where he had dental work done. But he also had follow up dental work done by another equine dentist later. So, again, I’m a big believer in double-checking and making adjustments and all that stuff. So that’s where I would go. I would–I would start to look at the different patterns but I’d also make sure that you don’t participate in the pattern. Because if you start moving your focus around, it’ll teach you to see the bigger picture. You’ll gain information about the mouth, but you’ll be able to balance it out with all of the rest of the story that the horse’s body and the day-after-day work is giving you. And I think that’s going to help you see the full picture a little more clearly. Thanks again for listening and I’ll talk to everyone in the next episode.

Announcer: If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com for articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

Links mentioned in podcast:

Stacy’s Video Diary: Jac…dentist

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