Episode 148- Three situations where horses frequently double check the rules


In this episode, I discuss three situations where it is common for horses to ask questions about the rules. I call these moments ‘Grandma’s rules’ which is my fun way of explaining that horses are always seeking out the most benifitial set of rules to opperate by. I explain where the name came from and how understanding this can improve your view the questions your horse is asking you.

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Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. In this season of the podcast, I’m teaching about some of the common challenges that I see when teaching riders. Today, I’m reviewing what I call grandma’s rules. I’m going to explain what it is, why I phrase it this way, and why I think it matters. Then I’m going to share three different examples of places where you’ll see grandma’s rules at work. The first thing I want to start with is what in the world is grandma’s rules? So basically, if you’ve been a long-time podcast listener, you’ve probably heard me use this phrase and maybe you’ve had the little short version of the explanation, but basically, to recap it here, the phrase grandma’s rules is my fun way of explaining that horses are always seeking out the rules and that they know that the rules change from time to time. In the example of the phrasing grandma’s rules, it indicates that it changes with different people. So it also changes with individual riders. For example, if you’re tired on a certain day, you can actually get to the point where your horse realizes when you’re in that frame of mind, you have a different set of rules. So basically grandma’s rules is explaining that horses are detecting where the rules are. And I think it’s worth mentioning why I named it grandma’s rules. Basically, it came about because I have three sons, and when they were little kids and they were all in like single-digit ages, we took them to grandma’s house so that Jesse and I could go out to dinner. Grandma was going to watch the boys, and she asked if it would be OK if she could pay the boys to pick apples off the back apple tree in the backyard so that she could make applesauce with the apples. And we said yes, and as we stood there and visited, she explained to the boys she was going to pay them and they ran out to the tree and they filled this grocery bag. Like, picture a plastic bag that you would get from Walmart or somewhere. And they came back in with this bag just full of apples. She paid them and they ran back out. We left and went to dinner, and when we came back, we walked in. We were visiting and I noticed in the corner that there was a big, fluffy pile of what appeared to be empty plastic bags. And I walked over and I picked one up and there was a single apple in the bag. And I asked what happened? And Grandma started laughing, and she said that the boys started bringing them back and she kept on paying them. And it was kind of funny because you could look at the pile of bags and you could see that it didn’t take these little kids very long to figure out that grandma paid the same for a full bag of apples as she did for a single apple in a bag. So what the kids did was they moved to that easier thing as fast as they figured it out. I mean, you could just see that it didn’t take long for them to figure out and the majority of the bags had a single apple in them.

Stacy Westfall: The reason I think it’s so important to explain it in a way when we see the horses behaving and asking certain questions and–and doing different things, I think it’s really important how you view it because the way that you view your horse asking questions is going to change how you respond. So when I tell you the story about the apples and the boys and grandma, what came up for you there. Like, did you get mad at grandma for changing the rules? Did you laugh at the kids for figuring it out? Like, it’s kind of interesting because I think there’s a lot in that story, especially when you can see it from that human angle that you can then turn around and you can apply to the horses because there are different ways that the horses are going to ask different questions about rules or boundaries. Three that I see really common are when you change people the horses ask questions, when you change location the horses ask questions, and when you yourself change, the horses will ask questions. And if we can look at the horses and see that they aren’t trying to cause problems as much as they’re just trying to figure out about these moving boundaries, then maybe we can empathize a little bit with what they’re going through and we can say, Hey, you know, I’ve been in situations like that where I, you know, had some questions about what was going on there, too. So let’s unpack each one of these situations just a little bit. I see fairly frequently that when horses have the handler change or the rider change, that the horse will change. And this is an example of what I’m calling grandma’s rules. So imagine that I show up at your house and I’m like, Surprise, here I am. What would you like me to show you? And you start explaining an issue that you have with groundwork. And so I asked you to demonstrate it and you’re showing me and you and the horse are demonstrating that there’s a struggle with going across the tarp. Now, very frequently, if I’m in a situation similar to this, somebody will say, will you show me? Or sometimes I will say, would it be OK if I show you a couple things? And then I take hold of the lead rope and this is always really interesting, because when we switch handlers, a lot of times you’ll see the horses kind of perk up and they’ll kind of perk up and they’ll be like, Hmm, interesting. And I like to think of it like, they’re going, huh, substitute teacher. Do you remember being in school? Do you remember when substitute teachers would come in? And do you remember that there were lots of different kids in the class and they all had different reactions to that substitute teacher? And so a lot of times all the horses doing is–is recognizing that this is a different person and they may have different rules. And the more the horse has practiced learning that there are different rules–now what’s interesting is you’ll see this in the herd. You’ll see certain horses ask a lot of questions about this and you’ll see others they kind of just accept their position without as many questions. And I would argue there’s a direct correlation between how many questions they’re asking in the herd and how many questions they ask of us humans. But back on topic, basically a lot of times when we change people, you can see the horse change in their response, at least to the level where they’re like trying to detect the new rules. And that is always an interesting thing because all you’re doing is seeing that the horse changes rules by changing people. Now a lot of times what we’ll see if–if somebody is here at a clinic and we do this a lot of times, what we see is that the horses get a little bit more reserved when the new person comes in because they’re a little bit like, I’m not quite sure. Now sometimes you’ll have super exuberant horses that are like, woo-hoo, and they and they ask different, bigger kind of questions. But it’s more common for the horse to look a little bit suspicious of the new teacher. Just a little bit like they’re reading me a little bit different, because what that’s also telling you is that they’ve also kind of got a comfort level with the human that they came with a lot of times. And so a lot of times they’re like, Oh, there’s a difference here. I’m not quite sure what the difference is. And then sometimes inside of that, when you change that rule, you’ll see a little bit of the horse’s natural temperament peeking out there. So maybe it is like this very creative horse. And so they’ve got certain questions they ask. Maybe it’s a really reserved horse. Maybe the horse has, you know, different opinions due to the–the past history of being handled and different things like that. But you’ll see some different things, but it’s very common to see a little bit of a change, and that would be one example of grandma’s rules.

Stacy Westfall: Another way that you can see grandma’s rules happening is when you change locations with the horse. And so that could be changing locations like going to a horse show or hauling somewhere new to go for a trail ride or hauling over to a friend’s house to ride or any kind of change of location like that. And when you change locations, I always like to imagine it’s like taking the kids out to eat at a restaurant when they’re young. And what I remember about taking my kids out to eat at a restaurant was that they had some different questions about like restaurant eating. And you can–I can still go out to eat and I can see other kids and I can see and you can even hear parents saying things like, you don’t behave like this at home or, you know, they’re explaining it to somebody else, like this never happens. Or you kind of overhear that if you’re out at a restaurant. But a lot of times when we change locations, the horse will either ask old questions…so maybe sometimes you hear a rider say he hasn’t done this in forever, or they’ll ask new questions. The horse might ask new questions and and the rider will say, like, they’ve never done this before. But a lot of times when the location changes, the horse will have different questions. Sometimes that is purely happening from the horse having questions about the environment change, and sometimes that’s coming from the fact that you change when the environment changes. So it’s very common for parents to be embarrassed by a child’s behavior in a restaurant so they–so the parent behaves differently than they do at home, which can then kick off an entire cycle of new questions that are asked by the kids when they’re in public because they detect there’s a difference in the way the questions are being answered because they’re in public. Have you ever noticed that? So it’s interesting because with horses, if the horse is…let’s say that the horse travels somewhere and they’re kind of, they’re more excited. The energy level–let’s say they go to a horse show for the first time. There’s a lot of horses. The energy level at the show grounds is up because there’s a lot of different horses moving around. And let’s just say that this horse gets off the trailer and is really up and has all these questions. If on top of that they detect that the handler has also shifted into a different way of being what I see a lot of times in that scenario is that we then see more of what the horse would have defaulted to without training. So sometimes that means we see more insecure horses, naturally insecure horses that are looking for a leader, if they detect that they’re that their handler/rider is not going to be the leader because maybe they’re, you know, they feel maybe the handler feels a little bit overwhelmed and they unload and the horse’s acting up a little bit, and that handler kind of shrinks. Oftentimes, that insecure horse will escalate even more because a lot of times with insecure horses, they are kind of saying, like, I don’t got this and you don’t got this and I’m looking for somebody that does got this. Like, who’s got this? And so a lot of times one of the real common ways that you’ll see insecure horses show up is a lot of times they’re looking for another horse because they’re looking for leadership and they’re kind of hardwired to like, if they’ve got a horse with them on the trailer that they typically look to, maybe in the pasture, you might see that dynamic show up. That’s one example. But the other way it can show up is you can unload the horse from the trailer, the energy level can be up, that horse’s energy can be up, and that can be a very confident horse. And if they notice that you kind of shrink the confident horse can take over. Now what’s interesting is sometimes it’s hard for handlers to tell whether that’s an insecure horse that’s looking for a leader or a confident horse that’s taking over because you can kind of almost hear in the illustrations that both horses could possibly go higher energy. But what’s interesting is my main point for this podcast is that this is an example of grandma’s rules. This is an example of the horse recognizing something’s changed. Change of location could just be a change of location, and the person stays consistent. And in that case, then the rules would become more firm in that they would be like, OK, I see the location changes. I see we went to the restaurant but–but mom is willing to draw the line in the sand at the restaurant the same way she does at the kitchen table at home. And that answers the horse’s question, whether that’s a confident horse that is trying to take over or the insecure horse that’s looking for a leader. And this is why it becomes important to understand that even when you change locations, the horses are looking for some consistency from you. And so this is another opportunity, though, when you change locations for the horse to be asking questions about grandma’s rules. Did something change in you? Did something change–are you a different person? Which actually leads me to the third way that I see this show up a lot, and that is a change in you. That means you’ve been listening to the podcast, you’ve been watching YouTube videos, you’ve been signing up and taking courses, and you’ve been studying, learning, and changing the way you’re doing things. And sometimes your horse wants to know what the new rules are. And you would think that that would just be like, Oh, thank you for telling me that now you want me to do this, but a lot of times it sounds a little bit more like the horse going, are you sure? You used to be OK with this. How about this? How about can we do that the old way now? How about now? And sometimes the horse is thinking like, you can see them going like, why the change? Let’s go back to this.

Stacy Westfall: So, a great illustration of this would be say that you had owned your horse for three or four years and when you were leading it from the pasture, back to the barn or wherever you were going to saddle up that a lot of times the horse would be leading you. Like, so the horse is kind of dragging you along and let’s just say that for two or three years, you just thought it was kind of convenient that you were both headed in the same direction. So it kind of didn’t matter to you if the horse was slightly dragging you back towards the barn. As long as you guys were both going in the direction of the barn, you were OK with that. But then you started studying and learning and you decided that, you know, when you were leading them back to the barn in and out of the barn, you wanted them to stay with their eye beside your shoulder. And so you’re leading the horse and then you’re coming back from the pasture to the barn and you start noticing that the horse is passing you. Sometimes these are like these little old habits. They’re these little invitations to return to a previous habit that you and your horse shared. So again, let’s say that for a couple of years, you allowed the horse to sort of kind of lead the way back to the barn because you were just OK with the fact you were all ending up in that direction and you weren’t real specific. But now, because you’ve been studying and you’ve decided that you want to implement a certain thing, sometimes when you change the rules and you start being like, I want you to stay beside my shoulder when I stop, I want you to stop. When I back up, I want you to back up. Sometimes as you change, the horse is going to ask questions about that change. They’re going to say. Are you sure about that? Or maybe they’re kind of OK with it for a week or two and then you have a day that you’re tired and you’re not quite as clear about where that is and so you kind of let your guard down. Maybe you’re walking and you’re checking your phone. And so you don’t notice that the horse is passing you a little bit and then you decide to let it slide that day and then you go back and then you start trying to correct it the next day. A lot of times these are going to be moments when grandma’s rules are going to come into play because what the horse will do is a horse will say, Hey, I have noticed sometimes your rules are here, but when you’re tired, sometimes your rules are here. And when you’re fill in the blank with a different emotion, sometimes your rules are over here. So sometimes the horse will legitimately notice that when you go to a show or, you know, a trail ride, you go out in public, you do something, a lot of times the horse will notice that you’re behaving differently there than you are at home. And so that becomes the change in you and the change of location. And the reason I think it’s important to address this and to think about it is is because basically at the end of the day, the reason why this matters is because all of this points back to how consistent are you about your rules. Now, it’s interesting because I’m about to ask another question and maybe rules…maybe–maybe you can come up with a different word you like better. But how consistent are you about your boundaries? How consistent are you about your rules? Are there rules that stay the same always? And are there rules that change? Because what’s really interesting to think about is that as your relationship grows, as your communication with your horse grows, some rules do change for me and some rules don’t change for me. So some things stay really the same for me, and some things are different, and it makes me think about when raising the kids. It’s like the toddlers. I saw those single-digit age kids like they were younger and they were asking those questions, and it was easy to see that those questions they were asking were coming from a kind of an innocent place. But then like as the kids become older, as they’re teenagers, as they’re young adults, or if you jump all the way up to whatever age you are or whatever age you want to pretend in the future. Like how do the rules change and which rules stay the same when you’re thinking about human behavior and toddler versus teenager versus, you know, adult going into, let’s say that like we’re picturing somebody who’s going to work? Because what’s interesting is that if you can recognize that sometimes the rules change and some stay the same, if you can start to see how that works in your human life, I think it’s going to open up some doors for how that works in the horse world. So for example, for me, when I’m leading the horses, I’m not always crystal clear with my horses. There are times I’m leading my horses and I’m checking the phone. And there are times that I go to hold them accountable, and there’s times when I let things slack just a little bit. I’m OK with knowing that there’s some flexibility inside of there. To me, part of that is a conversation. But for me, I have really clear safety lines like there’s a safety line and there are ways that my horses are never allowed to invade my space. So it’s not that the horses are always perfect, but it is that they’re not invading my space. I don’t allow, for example, my horses to rub on me. Now that’s different–now I can see that I’m taking off a bridle and they have an itchy face, and maybe I reach out and I scratch or I do something, but I personally don’t allow my horses to rub on my body because I have a fractured front tooth from a horse that asked a question about rubbing their head on me and happened to come up under my chin, shove my lower jaw into my upper jaw, and fractured my tooth. That’s the day that I decided I wasn’t going to let horses rub on me anymore. And so it’s interesting that everyone’s going to have different boundaries and sometimes you’ll have different boundaries with different horses. I’m interested in you being aware that your horse is aware that the rules are changing, because oftentimes what I see are riders who don’t understand that the “inconsistency” they’re seeing in their horse is actually the horse reading the handler/rider changing the rules. And so the horse is actually flowing up and down with those rules. That is an example of grandma’s rules. I hope that helps you see your horse with a little bit of humor and maybe from a different angle. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

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