Episode 174: Horse bucking while leading: earning the right to be near me
1. rough, boisterous play.”this ridiculous horseplay has gone far enough”
A listener asks a question about a horse that bucks when being lead. I discuss two main concepts; how the rider views the horses maturity age and the concept of ‘earning the right to be near me’ (and me earning the right to be near them). I also share tips on how I address this and how I prevent it from becoming an allowed way of thinking and acting.
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Stacy Westfall: [00:00:00] And if you’re interesting and the place they’re around is boring, you know what you’re going to teach them to do? Focus on you.
Announcer: [00:00:13] 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: [00:00:32] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. This season of the podcast is a Q&A season. If you have a question you’d like me to answer. You can leave a voicemail by visiting my website and looking for the orange button that says, “Leave Voicemail for Podcast.” Let’s go ahead and listen to the question.
Caller: [00:00:57] Hi, Stacy. Six months ago, I bought a four-year-old mare with bad feet. She’s not debilitated, just a bit sore, but all the same, she is a rehab project and I haven’t ridden her yet because of this. So far, our relationship seems to be developing well. She meets me at the gate and she’s overall cooperative. We spend lots of time hand walking, exploring new places and things. She loves this, and she’ll often show me where she wants to go for today. She’s highly intelligent and curious. I haven’t seen her spook at anything yet, and she’s not herd bound at all. I’ve never been one to put stock in stereotypes, but she’s a Hancock quarter horse and bucking is her default expression. She’ll do it repeatedly in moments of happiness and frustration alike. She’s only four, but she’s 17 hands already, and if she does this under saddle, it’s going to be a problem for both of us. Do you think this is something she’ll outgrow? When she gets into a bucking fit I usually stop and wait for her to work it out before walking on, which she’ll then do willingly. How can I safely address this bucking behavior on the ground to avoid meeting it under saddle in the future? Thank you.
Stacy Westfall: [00:02:10] A lot of times I’ll listen to a question and then go out to the barn and ride, and when I heard this question and did that, my mind actually went in several different directions. One of the first things that I wanted to do was look up the word horseplay, and I did. It is a noun. Horseplay: rough, boisterous play. “This ridiculous horseplay has gone far enough.” The image I got in my head when I was listening to this question was a horse that is kind of just acting very horsey while you’re leading it. It actually made me think about how Gabby and Presto behave out in the pasture when they’re together. And so these are some of the images that came into my mind. And then I got thinking more about it, and I think it’s interesting that not everyone would actually agree on an answer. And the reason that this happens is because basically everyone gets to draw a different line of what is allowed, and that goes for groundwork and for riding. And listening to your question I can get the part where it’s like there are pieces of what she does on the ground that you’re OK with, like her helping point out what direction and things. But then there’s other points where like, I think we’re crossing a line that might not be good to practice for when we’re riding. And so what I’m hearing you do when you’re working on phrasing that to leave it here is you’re basically kind of trying to decide where to draw the line in the groundwork because you’re thinking about how it’s going to affect the ridden work. So then that got me thinking even more about kind of professional, different views on what I’m going to call blatant disobediences. And the reason that phrasing comes up is because in the horse show world, there are rule books. And the ones I know the best would be the American Quarter Horse Association and the National Reining Horse Association. And in the Raining Horse Association, there are things called blatant disobediences. And so in the rule book, it says that the judge will give you a penalty if your horse does–exhibits a blatant disobedience each time they do. And these include kicking, biting, bucking, rearing, and striking. So what happens when you have something super lined out like that is that it’s very clear what is allowed and what isn’t allowed. And because of that, it makes it really undesirable, if you’re training a reining horse, to have any hints of that happening because it’s going to be penalized. But on the other side of the world, I was thinking about movie horses and how movie horses are trained to kick, bite or threaten to bite, buck, rear, and strike on command, which just basically illustrates that it’s a different game and it’s a different set of rules. Not to mention it illustrates how ridiculously flexible horses can be in the training.
Stacy Westfall: [00:05:48] Now what’s really interesting to think about is that the trick horses are trained to do and not do these things. So it isn’t just that the horses were allowed to exhibit these things the whole time that they were being handled. It means that they’re actually trained to do these things with a cue. And they also are trained of when it’s appropriate and when it’s not appropriate. Although here’s the question. Which career path do you think would have a higher likelihood of leaving a horse the impression that these things are sometimes allowed? When I ask a question like that and I can say it again, but I want you to hear how that automatically switches it into the horse’s mind. When I ask you, which career path would have a higher likelihood of leaving the horse the impression that these things are sometimes allowed? And so what you’re trying to do, what I’m trying to do and trying to teach is that when we can switch in and see things from the horse’s point of view, a lot of times that really helps us clarify what we’re going to allow and not allow. And you actually did that in your question. You said, getting a little worried here. Seventeen hand horse is, uh, exhibiting a lot of bucking. Bucking when joyful, bucking when not joyful. This is a lot of bucking. And so you’re–you’re kind of you’re thinking about it. But after I do this next little section, I’m going to actually give you some more specific tips because I really, really want you to go further into the horse’s mind. Beyond just observing the body and when it’s happy and when it’s not, I’m going to give you a few more tips. So. But before I jump into that, I want to say I’m just going to share what I do with my own horses. And basically, the way that I think about this with my own horses is two separate concepts that I use all the time. One would be the idea of thinking about horses as far as their maturity age, and what age I’m treating them like they are and the idea of earning the right to be close to me. So when I’m leading a horse, one of the things that’s in my mind is what maturity age level do I want to view this horse as? So if I have a horse on a lead line. I’ll tell you this, I want the horse to behave as either an elementary school or high school or college. There isn’t anything else for me. So even the elementary school horse, right after I’ve taught them to lead in the stall and we’re moving around, but even then I’m requiring them to a pretty high standard. Like I’m not allowing them, I’m not like, Oh, look, how cute it is. I think I’ll let this, you know, blatant disobedience type thing happen. It’s a little bit more, you know, early elementary school when you’re very first training it, but it is truly amazing how quickly horses can get halter trained and be very adorable in how well they mind their little manners and line up in a straight line and follow the teacher. So I’m always doing this with my horses, and because horses mature so much faster than humans and because they’re very big and powerful, I very quickly expect them to be focused when I lead them. And the reason I choose the word focused is because I expect them to have a level of focus. Which means I’m addressing both the mind and the body. It’s not enough that they’re just following me if they’re following me sort of while bumping into me while also looking around and whinnying for friends, that’s not focused. So I expect them to have a focus on me. And that means that I’m going to be thinking about their mind and their body. The first thing to remember in this is that you have to view them as capable of doing this. Even with the foals, very quickly, I’m talking within the first, I mean, I see it happening in the first session, but within especially four or five sessions later, it’s just amazing how moldable they are, even if you’re keeping the sessions really short. So that’s something I would do with the young foal. They get really tired really quickly, and they like lots of naps and lots of nursing. And so it’s, you know, go in, do some of these exercises, get out. And it’s amazing how capable they are of figuring out that pattern and learning, Ok, this is when we’re really focused on this. This is this game that we do. This is why we play around with this. And, you know, and they learn basically how to like, I’m going to say, hold it together. They–they learn that I’m moving at a quick enough thinking pace for them, that I am something interesting. And I will make myself interesting if they start looking bored. So they’ll–basically the–the long and the short of it is the longer I work with a horse, so the more sessions I’ve had, the more I expect it to have developed the skill of focus. If you look at focus, the mental focus as being like a muscle, it’s something you can strengthen by requiring them to focus more. And this, to me, is really important because by the time they’re riding age, the first day I swing my leg over their back, I’m treating them like they are at bare minimum, like the age of a young adult that would be learning to drive a car. So I don’t personally want to swing my leg over a horse and be treating it like it’s in kindergarten or elementary school. Because when I climb on their back, I’m trusting them with my life, and that’s a little bit what I would say we’re doing when we teach young adults to drive. We’re trusting them with a pretty much a deadly weapon, which is a giant car moving down the road. And so because of that, we want to see a certain maturity in that young adult and I want to see that maturity in that riding aged horse.
Stacy Westfall: [00:12:36] Now, I do want to say that sometimes when I explain the idea of focus sometimes people think, I mean that I want my horses to be a robot. And that is so far from the truth because what I’m really doing is I’m teaching the horse that they–I want them to be aware of their surroundings. They’re not punished for being, you know, aware of their surroundings. If, if, if a horse whinnies, if they look, I need them to prioritize me and check back in. And yes, you can have both. You can have a horse, and in the beginning, when they’re first learning it, it is more common that when they look away–sometimes when I’m at clinics and I’m helping people, I’m like, the horse will be in the arena, whether the person is holding it or riding it, and the horse will hear a noise outside and you can see the horse turn and look. And I’ll say, where is their brain? And I teach the riders to say their brain is out there. Their brain is wherever. And what’s interesting is that later on, when you teach the horse how to focus on you, but if you think about it more like checking back in with you, like checking back in with you, they are really good, once they learn it, at being able to split their attention. And they can actually, you know, flick one ear towards, you know, the horse that whinnied outside and still stay with you. And that is a huge developmental stage to me. That is–that is actually one of the key stages that tells me that I have a horse going from elementary school to high school. It means that that horse can split their attention. And there’s ways I do this in groundwork, where you can see if you watch The Stacy Video Diaries: Jac and you see there was a time when I was sending him through the swimming pool, and one of my favorite clips from that whole thing is not just the teaching him to go through the swimming pool. But it was either that session of the next session, I sent him past the swimming pool and he did a really interesting thing. I’m picturing it in my mind. He was going counterclockwise around the arena and he went through the swimming pool and I had done a lot of turning him back towards the swimming pool. And he went past the swimming pool and he turned back and he kind of went through my aids like I wasn’t asking him to come back. He just kind of autopiloted and was like, I’m going back through. And I remember talking through it on that video because it’s like, Yes, I want to teach him how to think, and I want to teach him so he sees the pattern. But ultimately, what am I doing on this one? I’m also saying, Hey, good job. Glad you’re seeing the pattern. I’ve rewarded you for that and focus on me. I didn’t ask for that. Go back this direction, and that is a physical demonstration of teaching them the mental skill of being able to read me. And I want him reading the pool and I want the horses reading the deer in the woods and everything else. I want them to flick their ears and point things out. And yes, sometimes that means that when I’m riding down the trail, they’ll like, look in the direction of the other trail that leads home, but they’re checking in with me. They’ve prioritized me, and they’re fully aware in their surroundings.
Stacy Westfall: [00:15:57] I also mentioned that I teach the horses that they have to earn the right to be near me. And the reason I say this is because early on when I was trying to teach people the importance of staying out of the horse’s bubble and keeping them like keeping the horse-human bubbles separate until you have both earned the right to be near. I was teaching this concept early on and I got in the habit at expos of saying that it’s really important to teach this because people are squishy. And if horses learn that people are squishy, then what they basically learn is that they’re bigger and more powerful than us. And if you actually have a horse that knows it can actually physically overpower you this is not a good thing. And I’d been saying this for years. And then the Buck movie came out and it was like, right, exactly caught on film. That is why it’s a really bad idea to let a horse have the impression that like, Oh look, humans are squishy. Bad things happen to the humans involved and the horses involved in that situation. So if I look at it like the horse has to earn the right to be near me and I have to earn the right to be near the horse, then what that means is that there are rules as our bubbles get closer together. So if the horse has a bubble of, I don’t know, like it–and it actually changes. If you think about a very wild horse, then it feels like it’s got pressure on it when you have it in a 60-foot round pen. And yet there are sometimes, you know when you’re leading your horse and you’re not sure where one bubble ends and the other bubble begins because the horse is willing to bump into you and you’re okay with the horse bumping in with–to you. So that’s an example of the bubbles being like nonexistent or so small that there that the horses are bumping into you. And these are always questions. That’s the thing that sometimes people miss is that the horses are always, always assessing where they stand in the herd or among things. That’s one of the reasons they’re so trainable. They’re kind of like feeling out the boundaries of things. And so at the end of the day, when I teach people that the horse has a bubble and I have a bubble and mine goes down like my general bubble is about a four-foot space around me. So my horse is in the pasture. They might come running up to me, but mine stop at four feet away from me. I want them to then be invited in. So they can come in further but there’s an actual moment of invitation versus they run me over and then they’re like, Oh, wait, what? No, that’s not, that’s not allowed. So basically, the story of this, if we go back to like a–a more untrained horse, the bigger the horse’s expression wants to be–and again, the Jac video series is really good because Jac was very expressive–and you’ll see that I wasn’t leading him up close to the halter. I had him and I kept him far away from me on the end of the lunge line, I didn’t have the round pen set up initially. Because the bigger their expressions are, and sometimes when you get a horse in and they don’t have a lot of education, then some of those blatant disobediences are sort of just things that’s kind of their communication style. They’re like, I happen to rear a lot, kick a lot, buck a lot. These are some of my expressions. And so they are away from me. So they’re at the end of the lunge line. They have to be farther away from me. I don’t allow that behavior up close. So the closer they come in, if they’re 20 feet away, they’re at the end of the lunge line, they’re out by the end of the edge of the round pen then stuff’s happening, and I’m kind of addressing it, but I’m not, I’m not addressing like the behavior itself. I’m sort of like, OK, and then turn, I’m basically engaging the mind by engaging the body while they’re further away from me. I’m like, OK, and turn and do this and turn and go back and go here and go there and go here and go there. And now you look settled and now you relax. I’m–I’m playing around with the mind and body while they’re at a distance and they need to be showing those mental signs of being much more grounded and stable, the closer they come into me. And sometimes this is just that they are young and they need to blow off some steam, like you’re, you know, very early horse training, and sometimes it is that that the horses just haven’t learned that there are different rules and they will express themselves big near people because it’s been allowed. I’m just explaining, I don’t allow it.
Stacy Westfall: [00:20:47] So coming back to your question a little bit more directly. What you mentioned was that there are moments of happiness where you see the bucking and moments of frustration where you see the bucking. My question to you is, if I said to you, refocus her before that happens, what aids would you use to refocus her? What does she know? What is she capable of? For me personally, if I know she’s wanting to do the bucking and that stuff, I want her further away from me. But some things that come into mind are stopping, backing, turns, lowering their head. All of these are different depending on like, you can ask a horse to drop its head down when it’s more in high school and you see something coming and you’re kind of up close to it. But lowering the head for me isn’t a great one when the horse is actively doing the blatant disobediences because that’s an elementary school thing and they actually need to be further away from me. But so much of this actual answer comes from getting ahead of the problem. You actually need to practice seeing these things coming, and it actually sounds like you could do this right now. So if you just sat down and wrote down what triggers her, but don’t just say, you know, this person cantering by triggered her. Really, really look at where were you? Is it when you’re like, Does she do it in the barn aisleway? Does she do it in the stall? Does she do it when you’re leading her? Is it when you’re further away from the–the other horses? What–there’s a whole bunch of things happening. Don’t just attribute it to one thing. Like somebody cantered and that triggered her. Try to make it even more broad focus and pick up a lot of the different things. Because even just something as simple as how often does it happen? It happens a lot more at the beginning of the week. It happens less at the end of the week. It happens more at the beginning of the leading, or it happens most in this situation. That’s going to tell you a lot because I’m going to give you the advice of getting ahead of it so that you can actually practice preventing it versus stopping it once it’s already started. So you’re going to start to see that there are places where it’s a little less likely to happen. And inside of all of this reflecting what aids does she know, what cues does she know that she isn’t responding to in those moments? So you’ve already said it’s happened. You didn’t–on your voicemail you said you didn’t really try to stop it. And I would get curious about if it’s not allowed near you–The other thing, like I wouldn’t allow it near me. And so even if I just started asking her to back up that would make it a lot harder to buck. So to me, I will actually interrupt the mindset, preferably before the horse is actually going to the physical expression of the bucking. But when I interrupt the mindset, it’s usually by distracting, by asking them to do something. So it’s very much like going through a grocery store with a young child, and you don’t want them asking about all the candy bars. So you’re like, Oh, look at that picture over there and you’re pointing further away, you’re distracting them. But because you’ve already run into this, I’m curious, was there ever a moment where you tried to interrupt it? And if not, that’s OK, but if you do try to interrupt it or get ahead of it is an even better way to say this. If you think, you know, she pretty much always does it when I lead her past so and so’s paddock then ask yourself the question of if you were going to experiment with interrupting it before it even happened, what would you do? And that might depend on the footing and what cues she knows. But basically what do you need for trained aids or cues to communicate with her better? Because if you can imagine that you could lead one through a very chaotic place and if they were like, Oh, I think she just asked me to drop my head, Oh, I think she’s getting ready to ask me to move to a trot. Ok, now she’s slowing me down to a walk. Now we’re going to halt. Now we’re going to square up our feet. Now we’re going to back four steps. Now we’re going to pivot 180 degrees. If that horse is thinking that detailed, they’re not going to be thinking as much about everything around them. So get curious about why you’re not interrupting it. And it might be because you don’t know that the skills work and I would say, practice those physical skills in a very not loaded situation. That’s why it’s going to be important that you study what situations are more highly, highly likely to trigger her and which ones aren’t. Because inside of all this, I’m always wanting to set up situations where the horse is most likely to be successful. One of the ways I personally do this with my own horses is I give them plenty of turnout time to blow off steam, especially before I go put them to work. I turn them out, preferably with other horses. There are also times like right now when the weather is kind of sketchy here, even though they’re living out in paddocks 90 percent of the time with other horses. Then when I bring them in to the really nice footing in the indoor, I even take one day a week and let them–I turn them out there and let them run like crazy things in really good footing before I expect them to focus because I’m setting them up for success by letting them blow off all that steam. What I’ll do is I’m really particular about initially in the training, controlling more of the environment to try to help the horse be successful. So if you want to just put a visual on that, that means think smaller places like I’m not going to take them to a super exciting place to do the training. I’m going to think boring. Maybe it’s a round pen. Maybe it’s the same place in the indoor arena, time after time, after time. If they’re in a pasture and that’s where you work them, then you take them to the pasture. And you don’t say what would be the hardest part of the pasture? Like, what would be the easiest part of the pasture to do this in? What’s the most boring place that I could do this work? Because boring–I think sometimes people think boring sounds bad but boring can also be rephrased to mean, less likely to trigger unwanted behavior. And then the really interesting thing about picking a boring place is that if you’re in a boring place, it’s actually going to require you to be not boring. And if you’re interesting and the place they’re around is boring, you know what you’re going to teach them to do? Focus on you. Now, once my horses have practiced this in this boring environment and they’re like, wow, she’s actually giving me directions and wow, look at–you want me to look at the swimming pool? What? But this is really interesting. See how interesting I am when I’m working with them? Once they’ve practiced this, then that’s when I start moving into places where I would phrase it, it’s just got bigger challenges. So taking them out and leading them around in someplace where there’s a lot of stuff going on is a bigger challenge of getting them to mentally focus. I think that keeping these two concepts in mind, the horse’s maturity age and the idea that they have to earn the right to be close to me and I have to earn the right to be close to them, I think by doing this, I’m setting the horse up for success both mentally and physically now and in the long run. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.
Announcer: [00:29:06] 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: Episode 11
Stacy’s Video Diary: Jac: SWIMMING POOL: The swimming pool video starts around 7 minute mark
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