Episode 97: Separating rider issues from horse issues when trail riding
Question: How can I reduce my horse’s reactivity to noise when trail riding?
The answer involves separating the issue into smaller parts and looking at each individually. By separating the issue it becomes easier to see how you can break the cycle and modify the horse’s behavior.
Episode 97- Separating rider issues from horse issues when trail riding.mp3
Announcer: [00:00:03] 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: [00:00:22] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. This is Episode 97 of the podcast. I’m so close to Episode 100, so I have a question for you. How should I mark that occasion? If you have any ideas about what I should do for Episode 100 or to mark episode 100, send them into me and you can do that through email or post on my Facebook page and Yeah.. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And I’m going to take just a minute at the beginning of this podcast before I jump into answering another question about trail riding and tell you that I just returned home from nearly 3 weeks on the road of what I’m calling “Presto’s World Tour”, and I’m calling it that because that’s what Presto thinks it was. Because apparently, even though he’s been hauled short distances around here and once down to Kentucky from Ohio. So one’s like a slightly longer trip, about 5 hours down, 5 hours back. This trip, the first leg of it was over 4 hours. But in total, we drove about 2000 miles round trip. And when I say we, that would be me driving the truck and trailer with three horses in the back.
Stacy Westfall: [00:01:49] So, I had Presto, Gabby, Willow. And it was kind of interesting because I traveled it, you know, alone, except I know it’s not really alone if you’re traveling with three horses. By the way, it’s more like driving with 3 gigantic toddlers. But a lot of people are like, wow, are you scared to be doing that alone? And I guess, no was the first thing. I mean, I had thoughts about it, but it’s so much less scary now. I remember traveling back and forth from Ohio to Maine, which is kind of the furthest point that I went. I went over to New England and drove Maine and then over to Vermont and then back, you know, back through New York. And so I hit a bunch of different points. But I used to do the trip from Ohio when I was in college, back to Maine alone, when I had much less driving experience and no cell phone. And that’s the key. You know, it’s not really alone when you’ve got so much at your fingertips. At least that’s the way that it feels for me. And, you know, there’s all kinds of stuff I’m sure I could unpack. So if you have questions about that, call in and leave your voicemails and I’ll get to those. You know, probably one of the biggest things was the change that I saw in Presto, during the trip, I really did joke even during it, that he thought this was some kind of world tour, because every time I open up the back of the trailer to unload him, he would step to the back and look around like, what? There’s more? And I’ve hauled a lot of horses and just not had one that was so consistent about looking surprised that there was more out there. So I think it was super cute.
Stacy Westfall: [00:03:34] The most interesting part when I reflect back on it were the people that I coached because I went ahead and did some individual private lessons along my route. And I’ll be doing that same again next summer. Hopefully, that’s the plan anyway. And what I want to do is be able to connect with people that maybe can’t drive all the way to Ohio with their horse. So it’s sometimes easier if I’m the one traveling. And it was so fun for me because I was watching my own horses change–mostly Presto. But what I got a chance to see was people who are working with their own horses and making those changes happen for themselves and their horses. And there were a couple that really stood out to me on the trip and I won’t use any names. But there was one lady that I got a chance to work with twice because I stopped on my way out. I stopped through New York and then on my way back I stopped again. And so I was able to work with that one lady twice. And it was so rewarding to see how much of a change she was able to make in about a two week time period between when I was there the first time. I went out and came back and she was just determined and she told me she worked her horse two or three times a day in between, and it showed it was truly amazing.
Stacy Westfall: [00:05:03] And then when I was up in Maine, I gave lessons to different people. And the one that just was so heartwarming to see was a young lady, barely a teen that came into a one hour riding lesson with me and really wanted to use 2 horses, her pony and then her new horse. And it was just so cool for me to see her come in, just so determined and knowing she had a limited amount of time and knowing that she really wanted to accomplish a lot of different things and just showing up so prepared and so ready to absorb, but also ready to just take as much as she could and whether it was with the first one or whether it was the second one. And then it looked like a NASCAR pit crew changing horse stuff between because she just really wanted to get everything out of it. And guys, that is–it’s not just your feedback on here–it’s going out and seeing you put the work in and seeing how you guys are really wanting it. That is so rewarding to me. You know, I get to see that in my own horses, but to see people taking charge of training their own horses and doing that is just so inspiring. But I really will get into today’s podcast and I am still in the trail riding season. And today I’m answering a question that came in and let’s go ahead and listen to that question.
Caller: [00:06:28] Hi Stacy, this is Dawn calling from Santa Barbara, California. I just really want to thank you for this podcast and for all the other content that you put out there. A couple podcasts ago, you had given someone a tip when trail riding to lift up their shoulders and roll them back down to improve their breathing and help them relax and in turn, relax the horse. And I just wanted to let you know that has been an absolute game changer for trail riding my horse. It has improved so much. It’s transformed our trail rides into something pleasant. So that is really wonderful. I had a question for you regarding trail riding. We trail ride and we ride along the road a lot. And we also are on a college campus. So we have quite a bit of activity around and surfboards and bikes, a lot of different noises, things like that. My horse is really reactive to sounds. I have done your groundwork DVD training that you offer and I’ve gotten her not so reactive to me when I jump around and other things going on. Visually, however, she is really reactive to things like the trash truck, FedEx, UPS, trucks rattling, and motorcycles. And I’m just wondering if you have any tips or suggestions for reducing that.
Stacy Westfall: [00:07:57] Dawn, thank you for the question. And ok surfboards, that one–that may me laugh. I have no experience training horses around surfboards. But thankfully, your question is more around the sounds. I can help you with that. And thank you for the feedback. I really, again, do love hearing that these ideas go out there and help people and their horses. And it was interesting listening to your question. I’ve listened to it a couple of different times, and one thing that keeps coming back to me is, you know, the idea of this–this hard to…maybe it’s–maybe it’s hard for me to verbalize and maybe that’s why I just have to keep working on it. But there’s this dance between getting your horse to connect with you so that there is that kind of that connected feeling of the horse looks to you for leadership and yet not having the connected feeling that if you get tight, they get tight. That’s a big concept right there, and I’ll just take a first stab at it here and then we’ll just keep unpacking it as the podcast goes on. And so it’s an interesting thing when I, for example, took Presto on this world tour. I want him looking to me for leadership. And so to me, there is that first level of getting the horse connected and looking to me and that can be done through groundwork–we’re going to–I’m going to ask you some more questions about the groundwork stuff in a minute–that can be done through the groundwork, can be done when you’re riding. And all the episodes I’ve done where I’ve talked about Presto spooking and getting him to be responsive to my aides. Those are different ways that I’m almost asking him to connect back to me. But the way that I look at this is it’s going to go in a couple of different stages. And so Presto is in the stage where I’m almost trying to connect him back to me. But I think it’s important to know that there’s a stage beyond that because it will influence you in the way that you do this first stage.
Stacy Westfall: [00:10:04] So when you connect them to you, you are getting them very responsive to your aides and you’ve got to be aware at the same time of your emotions and your presence in the way you are there. So mostly, let’s just use a couple examples like, do you feel angry while you’re doing something? Frustrated, angry, so it’s kind of got this negative kind of energy to it. Or do you feel timid and fearful or do you feel like kind of a happy and curious? So there’s kind of different ways you can be while you’re executing the techniques and that matters and it matters when you’re connecting the horse to you. But let’s just say that you’re able to stay mostly curious and kind of open and you can feel other shifts. But that’s mostly how you are. Let’s say that that horse connects to you like that. Then it’s kind of interesting to me to think about the fact that as the training advances, I actually–if I take it to an extreme and I think about like a like a really well-trained horse–let’s use Roxy as an example. But you’ll kind of see this even in kids’ ponies and stuff. If you get ones that aren’t being real bratty, you’ll see that they can be smart, but not overly connected to the emotions of the handler. And so what that means to me is that when I’m doing something with the horse, like with Roxy, when I took her onto the set of Ellen, I was actually nervous. I was actually really like a nervous sick to my stomach, kind of nervous and doubtful about how this whole thing was going to go down, because I could see all these different possibilities. But I was also trying to tell myself that this was going to work–meaning I was like, I’m going to take a deep breath. But I knew it was underneath there and I knew it was underneath there. But I also knew that I had trained Roxy to not be confused by that feeling in my body. So this is where I’m going to throw out this big concept and then let you guys bounce questions off for me. But there is this concept where on this world tour with Presto, I’m willing to take the responsibility to be like, come back to me, I’m your rock. Here I am. I’ve got this. And I’m really confident in supporting him. And so I only put my–I only put myself and him into situations where I can feel that right now because that’s the level his training is. And that’s why sometimes you guys are surprised if I say that. Nope. Like, I didn’t ride him for the first few days or there were places I showed up and I didn’t ride him. And that’s just because I’m not going to put myself in the position to not be successful. So I don’t do that. But then somewhere between that stage and where Roxy ended up, there’s this transition to where I do actually start teaching them, once they’re confident in the stage that Presto’s at. Then I almost have to also start slightly disconnecting them from me. And it’s almost like I’m giving them confidence. So it’s like first their confidence comes from me and then their confidence becomes more internalized into them. Which also releases me a little bit from that freedom of being like…because you can almost feel held hostage if you feel like you’re completely in control of whether or not they hold it together. And what that means to me is like–so, for example, I love that you referenced the rolling the shoulder thing. So if the rolling the shoulder, taking a deep breath, relaxing really reflects into your horse, that’s great news. It’s also interesting feedback because it also means that if you change for whatever reason, like you get a phone call and it upsets you that it’s probably going to reflect back into your horse. And I’m just going to plant the seed here and say you can actually go to another level of that. Like the connection is good, but there is another level above that that’s super fun, because then what it feels like it feels like being with a friend who cares for you but isn’t overly emotionally connected. When you say something, like they can hear you, but they don’t fly off the handle with you, and that gives you more permission to be bigger with your emotions, without feeling like you have to be careful around your friend because they might fly off the handle. Also transfer that over the horse and you’ll start to get a little bit of an idea. But now let’s rewind and go back to a more specific about your question right now, Dawn.
Stacy Westfall: [00:14:48] So, the good news is you have identified the hole in the training or where the problem is. So now we start looking for how do we bridge the gap between the parts of the ride that you really like and the parts of the ride that you’re not quite as happy with right now. And so I always go back and I start looking for the different clues, like I just mentioned. The clue about like, oh, that’s interesting, you know, you roll your shoulders, you relax, you notice a big change. That’s good. And yet you can also picture that there’s some horses where it wouldn’t cause a change. So that’s why I call it feedback, because this is giving you feedback about the relationship you have with this particular horse and this particular horse has to you. So let’s go ahead and use the foursquare model to keep it kind of cleaner. And that would mean that we’re going to look at these four different quadrants: the riders mind, the riders body, the horses mind, the horses body. And the first one I always go to is the riders mind. And when you mentioned the horse being reactive to sound, the first place that took me in the riders mind thought for me was when I was learning to do mounted shooting. And that was quite funny if you’d been able to see like a video of it, because I was very reactive to sound, I–I’m relatively reactive. Or at least I was pretty reactive to the sound of like gunshots or anything kind of quick and startling. I know that about me and because I know that about me, I actually work that into the way that I train my horses. So first of all, the riders mind, if you know that you either have like a history that would make you more reactive about it. Maybe you get tight because your horse has spooked. And now that you’re part of that cycle, like you hear the truck coming and you get tight, and then the horse reads you and then the horse gets tight, you can see how that can become a cycle. So the first thing is to know whether or not you’re legitimately playing a part in that. So at the mounted shooting, I definitely was, which meant that I was much more forgiving to Popcorn, who was also reactive. Now, what I also knew was that separately, we were both individually reactive. So obviously putting us together in that situation was going to be even more reactive. So that was an interesting thing to experience because it was like I gave myself a lot of time and and kept using good techniques, trusting the techniques, but also understanding that I really was going to need to get to the point where my role had been completely dissected out of it. And so question yourself and–and ask whether or not you’re playing a part in this sound sensitivity. And one of the ways that you can play with that is like when I’m riding around and start to feel like I’m riding a horse that’s got sound sensitivity–so let’s say Presto during the–the spooking things, when I know I’m riding him around…at the end of the arena back when I’d ride him around at the end of the arena where he’s being more reactive, I could feel tension mounting. And maybe like I do feel like it was coming from him, but I also know that it radiated into me because it’s hard not to get tense when you detect that they’re getting tense. And so I would actually slap my leg. So just slap the leg and basically kind of call it out before it escalated to the point where he actually had the reaction. So this is a technique that I do a lot with my younger horses because eventually my older horses don’t react to it anymore. But I’m looking for these little things where it’s almost like, again, in their mind, I always picture it’s like the scary music is building in their mind. Dun dun dun dun. Something’s down at the end of the arena. It’s getting scary. I’m getting tight. And when I startle them on purpose, it makes me feel more in control because I’m the one that just chose it. I also–I’m pretty sure I have a plan on where I’m going to go with it because I’m the one that just chose it. But it also tends to trigger it at a lower level than if I let it actually fully build and then kind of break and happen.
Stacy Westfall: [00:19:13] And so while you’re looking in your mind, you can also explore it through some physical motions like that, because if you’re like, I can’t bring myself to slap my leg, then you’re going to know how deeply you are playing a part in that. And again, maybe you have to go back to a less dramatic situation before you’re willing to do that. So you go back into a situation that you feel much more controlled in, where you can find a little bit of tension building, but not where you’re like, yes, slapping my leg would be a terrible idea right now. And I think a piece of this and this is why I like to break it out into these four different squares, is that, you know, you’ve got to reflect in your mind, which you can do sitting in your house, in your car, while on a walk. You can reflect and then look for clues in your body. And if you’re not sure how to do that, then set a video camera up or, you know, really the next time you ride, just pay attention to your body. Because a lot of times you can feel how you prepare. For example, let’s just go back to the shoulder roll. A lot of people prepare by hunching their shoulders forward, rolling down and basically starting to assume a little bit of a fetal position. Which is why the idea of rolling your shoulders open tends to change you physically into a different position in your body, but it also has that effect on your mind also. And so look for clues in your body that you’re preparing. So if you go back and watch the YouTube video where I took Presto on a trail ride, you might notice that I look a little wiggly, like I’m adjusting the saddle. There’s a lot of motion in my body. You can see my shoulder roll, you can see my left hand, my right hand. You can see these movements in my body. That’s not an accident. That’s me making sure that I’m not tensing up because I had reason to be concerned because he’s on his first trail ride and he was very tense. But in order to make sure that I’m not playing a part in that, or at least to reduce it as much as possible, I have all these habits that kind of counteract what I would normally do. So instead of kind of freezing up, fetal position tensing up, I’ve got these ideas of rolling my shoulder, shifting my saddle. Like, have you ever had your saddle that shifts a little bit to the side that you mounted on? So then you kind of step weight into the other stirrup. So I’ll kind of shift the saddle a little bit back and forth because it loosens me up and I’ll roll one shoulder, roll the other, roll both. I’ll, you know, I’ll slap my leg and I’ll slap there but and I’ll kind of do things that help me at least act like I’m more loose because again, there’s feedback going on in my body and sometimes you’re aware of it and sometimes you’re not. And then another way to look at this would be the thought of, are you feeling dramatically different in your body when you’re doing the groundwork versus when you’re mounted? So a lot of times and I kind of briefly mentioned when I was on Presto’s world tour, I was taking him out and doing ground work and I could feel fairly brave during the groundwork. I’m at a distance from him. He’s running, he’s doing his thing, and he’s looking pretty high as a kite. And I was like, yeah, I’m not going to ride that. And so I oftentimes will feel brave on the ground. So use that feedback of what that feels like when you’re doing the groundwork versus what that feels like when you’re riding and look for those differences that would change back and forth in your body.
Stacy Westfall: [00:22:54] I am not afraid to recognize when I feel fear or when I feel apprehensive, because I do think, like I’ve said in the beginning of the podcast when I was talking about fear versus danger, I really do think fear is valuable for keeping you safe. Because it can point to things that are actually possible for going wrong. So I don’t ever want to get rid of that, but I want to make sure that I’m addressing it and not ignoring it, because when people ignore it, that’s when the horses get kind of weirded out because they can feel a lot of this conflict in you. And unless they’re at that really higher level, that really will bother a lot of horses. So just a thought: some of the other things to look for would be like, what are some of those different emotions that you’re feeling when you’re doing the different things? Like…even if it’s a frustration towards the truck driver for not slowing down. That is still going to be read by your horse as a frustration. And so it’s kind of interesting to think about how how many different pieces you can play in this. So now when you’re rewinding it and you’re thinking in your mind about, you know, OK, I’ve thrown a lot at you, you’ve got what’s going on in your mind, what’s going on in your body, how you can kind of use your body to kind of dissect what’s going on in your mind a little bit. And it’s like, we haven’t even got to the next two quadrants, the horses mind or the horse’s body. When–when I’m thinking about your particular situation that you bring up in the voicemail, I’m thinking, OK, we’ve got the horses mind and the horse’s body. And the first question on the horse’s mind is like, what is different when you’re doing your groundwork than when you’re doing the ridden work? And there are a lot of ways to build a better bridge between groundwork and ridden work. So, for example, I’m going to throw out 2 right here. When people are doing ground work, a lot of times the groundwork is done. And when the desensitizing phase is done, a lot of times that is done while the horse is standing still. And if it’s done while the horse is standing still, that’s a great place to start. But when you’re riding down the trail or riding down the sidewalk or riding wherever you are and the truck comes by, the horse is in motion. So a lot of times during the ground work training, it’s an interesting thing to tease apart the fact that you can see that, do that emotional control training and you can do that while they’re standing still. And it’s almost a whole nother set of rules to do it while they’re moving. Because that’s going to be more realistic to what it is when you’re moving and riding, unless you’re letting the horse stop all the time, which doesn’t always work as well as we like to think it would. So I think you need to do both. So let’s let’s go unpack it and make a little bit more of a example out of this one. So in the approach on the ground work and making sure that you are doing it in motion, that can include things like….so let’s say you’ve done the whipping around the horse. And I actually have a video back in the trailer for the World Show Series that where I was demonstrating some of the groundwork that I do. And I kind of quickly demonstrated a bunch with Willow. And one was like whipping around her with the stick and string while she stands still. Then another way that you could add the sound sensitivity is also like I send them over tarps. So when you send them over a tarp, that’s a little bit more like them having to handle that sound in motion. Then I’ll send him over the tarp at a walk, a trot and a lope. So do all different gates over the tarp, because then that will help trigger or hopefully un-trigger some of the emotional response to sound at speed. Then what’s another interesting thought is that you could be standing there and the tarp is kind of–if I’m standing there facing the horse and the horse is facing me and that’s 12 o’clock is straight ahead of me and that’s the horse–if the tarp is over beside me at 3 o’clock, I can actually whip to the left and right sides of the horse and then I can whip over and smack the tarp. And a lot of times that startle-y sound will trigger some horses. So that’s another way that you can do that. Well now in motion, how can you do that in motion? You could be lunging the horse around and you could have the tarp and you could–the horse could go past it and you could with the tarp while you’re disengaging the horse or having them turn and face you, or you can just whip the tarp when they go past and you can start to build in these high energy spikes while you’re doing your groundwork and then look for clues while you’re doing that.
Stacy Westfall: [00:28:07] In the horse’s body, to figure out what type of reaction the horse tends to have–so the smallest one is when there’s like a little shudder that goes through their body, but they don’t actually do anything–and so you–you’ve got to figure out what part of the scale you’re on. Like, is it just like a tension that you’re feeling in their body? Because when you’re trying to get rid of the tension, you almost have to wiggle them around a little bit more. There’s like way that you have to be like, OK, don’t brace, be soft. And so there’s different ways that you’re going to handle that where it’s a different thing than if your horse is….let’s say that you’re doing the whipping around and your horse really has like a startle freeze or a startle blow-up response. So when you’re doing the groundwork, you’re basically– when I’m doing it and I’m adding those different levels, I’m trying to find out what the horse does when those things go bigger or smaller, because I’m using their body and their reactions to look at their mind and see, oh, maybe he just gets a little bit tense, but he doesn’t really–he doesn’t blow up. And then that helps my–goes back up to the rider’s mind and the rider’s body because I can see where, yeah it’s not really going to go that far. And now I’m going to work on it in these other little ways where I can keep working on these–these spots where I’m trying to trigger it in small ways while I’m doing the groundwork and bigger ways while I’m doing the groundwork to get to the point where I’m trying to trigger it all the time until the horse is just like, OK, she’s just a little weird. So, yeah, it’s a lot of different, little pieces that you can wiggle into here.
Stacy Westfall: [00:29:52] I’m going to throw a couple more at you. So, for example, have you ever done a lot of noisy things around your horse when you’re doing your ground work or you’re ridden work? Any of these ground work things, by the way, can be translated into ridden work in a controlled environment. So that same tarp or that whip, you can–you can ride and whip the ground. You can ride–I do it all the time, I ride and whip the walls of my arena. Sounds a little strange. Great for desensitizing. I ride over the tarps at different speeds. If I had a horse that was sensitive with noise, there have been times that I’ve done rocks in a bucket, shake those. Milk jugs, empty milk jugs with things in it, like you can really make some noise and they’ve got a nice handle on them. Those plastic jugs do where you can like drag it behind you. You can put it on a baling twine because that’s always hand. And–and you can make it so you’re like casting and fishing, like throwing it towards the horse and dragging it back and–and then you can drag it from on when you’re riding them and you can fill up a bag full of cans and you can use that to desensitize and do things. I’ve done cap guns like the toy cap guns that have little popping noise. And that little–that’s kind of–that was a one that they suggested during the mounted shooting training. And all of these things you can do and your horse will start to get more desensitized to the idea of noise. But I’m going to close with one final story. And this is not a suggestion for how to approach your training. It is a suggestion of how to think about what the horses are thinking. So I went one time up to Minnesota to do a clinic, and when my husband and I got there, it was very interesting because the people were super excited and they basically had like no ground work training program that they had–they hadn’t been using anybody’s ground work training program. They’d seen me at an expo, super excited. And we went out there. And I love noticing odd differences. And the first odd difference I noticed when we started doing the groundwork was that there was this total…there was a disconnect. There were two things that were going on that didn’t make any sense. Number 1, the horses were bombproof. Like completely quiet to all noise, sound, motion, whatever. Yet there was no real refinement. You couldn’t move them around or back them up or turn them any special way like…and that’s an interesting thing, because typically, as the horses get more trained to be bombproof, they’re also getting more refinement. But that doesn’t have to be the case. But it was so interesting to think, what happened here that made this possible? So we actually started talking to them and we’re like, this is amazing. Like what’s going on here? This is a little strange. Couldn’t spook them, couldn’t startle them. How could you do one and not have the other? And the answer was pizza. You did not hear that incorrectly. The answer was pizza. So this barn happened to have…somebody along the way had said, whoever gets bucked off has to buy the whole barn pizza. So what this caused was a whole group of riders that bought into this idea that then also we’re basically trying to do things to get each other bucked off, which might include riding by and trying to spook your neighbor’s horse. That might include the one that sticks in my mind as they demonstrated, like riding by and taking off your baseball cap and throwing it underneath the horse beside you. Again, I am not suggesting this as a training technique. I am suggesting this as a thought of this is what caused the horses there to all be totally bombproof and yet not have the refinement. And it was because everyone had embraced this level of, I’m going to call it playfulness, this level of playfulness where they were willing to do pretty big things. You know, whether it involves speed, whether it involved noise, whether it involved throwing things, whatever it involved. They were willing to act like…grown up–like little kids, but in a grown up version where you could do it at this even bigger scale to the point where the horses were all like…yeah, we’re fine. That does nothing–you–there’s nothing. We’re totally bomb proof. And, it was so interesting to me because I love the places when you can find these interesting…I’m going to call it a disconnect, because is it the path I would choose? No, it’s not the path I would choose. But there is definitely a lesson to be learned there about how you could take that level of of creativity that was–that existed there. You could take that level of creativity in maybe a slightly safer way. You could work that into the ground work and then eventually the ridden work that you’re doing. That’s what I have for you this week. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.
Stacy Westfall: [00:35:31] 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:
SUBSCRIBE TO THE PODCAST HERE:
WHY IS MY HORSE...?