We are always training the horse both physically and emotionally. Physical training is easy to measure; the horse stops better, spins faster or steers easier. Emotional training isn’t always as easy to see. A horse that is very stressed may show signs of stress through physical movements; pawing, prancing or sweating or they may withdraw and get a glazed over look.
In my travels I have observed two common mistakes:
- that professional trainers will more often make the mistake of overlooking the horses emotions and focus purely on the physical responses, i.e. better stops or steering
- that the non professional may go to the other extreme and worry more about whether the horse likes them (emotional) and be more likely to overlook the horse being pushy etc.
I think that there needs to be a balance between both. The horse needs to physically respect our space and listen to us but we also need to take into account what the horse is emotionally going through.
Just like building a relationship with your kids, spouse or a friend takes time, teaching a horse emotional lessons takes time. Often this ‘time’ is less structured time than traditional training although the main difference is getting the horse to think outside the box. This could mean that I add unusual obstacles to my ‘normal’ routine, or it could be that I take my work out onto the trail.
When I was training Jac, he was more like a blank slate. He had very little training but he also had few preconceived ideas on how things were going to go. With Al, and most older horses, this was not the case. Al has a history of training and he has learned that one system. There are pieces of that system that worked well and will carry over into Al’s next career, but there are also parts where he could improve.
Keep in mind that my main goal during this trail ride was to show Al that every trailer ride doesn’t end in hard work. I noticed the first time that I trailered Al that he was very nervous. He loaded and unloaded fine or better than fine. He jumped on, never pawed, and was respectful…but he was very nervous. Physically that meant he was shaking and sweating. I don’t need to know Al’s history to make a plan. Many times people will get hung up on wanting to know exactly what caused this type of reaction. In reality many things could have caused this, maybe he has always been nervous in the trailer or there could have been some kind of incident or many more ideas we could think up. The great news is that I don’t need to know the history to be able to make a plan for the future. If Al says he is nervous then it is my job to figure out how to make him more comfortable. Try to picture ‘more comfortable.’
As soon as I said more comfortable, did your mind conger up images of extra bedding, fans and padding on the halter? Typically when people think about making something ‘more comfortable’ they immediately think about physical comfort. The discomfort Al was having was emotional, not physical, and I know this because I hauled him with other horses. I know they were physically dry and comfortable. What Al needed was emotional training.
I hauled Al on multiple occasions and repeated this same routine; short trailer ride (15-20 mins), unload, saddle, pony, unsaddle, load, return home. On each trip Al was less nervous in the trailer and by the time I returned him to New Vocations he was not showing any signs of emotional stress when hauled.
The other effect of hauling Al was that I was able to give him lots of new things to think about including trails, crossing logs, and playing in a stream. This is some of my favorite training to do with horses.
Can you see how keeping the core lesson the same while varying the routine adds strength to the training?