Tonight’s ride was nothing to write home about. We worked on the usual. I was too lazy to re-attach my curb rein after taking it off yesterday so I tried riding without it, and then regretted it. But my ride was relatively brief, just enough to get Liam warmed up and burn a little steam off (I cantered him down a line of poles, oh boy was that exciting!!! This horse would have made a great eventer or jumper without his ankle pins and in the hands of a braver, more adrenaline-driven rider). Then Ramon got on for another little lesson. He again shows improvement in even a short ride. But after he got off the moment of truth hit, as we were heading back to the barn.
Ramon ran up the stirrups, took the reins over Liam’s head, and stepped back as he went to lead Liam towards the door. But Liam didn’t follow. Ramon faced Liam, pulling the reins forward as Liam looked dumbfounded and backed up. Ramon stepped closer to Liam, shortening the reins to pull Liam forward again, and again Liam stepped back. What the heck?
I saw something I had neglected to teach Ramon. He is getting to be a great groomer and tacker, doing it all on his own now. His riding is progressing at an incredible pace. But I had never spent time teaching him how to work with Liam from the ground short of leading Liam from the stall to the cross ties and back again.
So I tied the reins up through the throat latch of the bridle so Liam couldn’t step on them, and I set Liam free in the arena. First I stood by Liam’s head, but a few feet away. “If I walk towards his head, marching with a purpose like I am not going to stop when I get there, which way will Liam go?” I asked, half to Ramon and half to the air around me. Away from me, of course, if I am not going to stop, he will get out of my way, moving his head as a priority over the rest of his body. What if I approach his shoulder in the same manner? Well, then he will have to move his entire body over sideways away from me. And if I approach his hind end that way? Then that end moves. Makes sense when you think about it, right?
Well then, what if I approach him head on that way? He will duck out to one side or the other if he can, but if I stay directly in front of whichever way he tries to go, he will move backwards. And if I get behind him? It drives him forwards. As I moved around Liam and moved him around me I demonstrated how it worked.
Then I moved Liam in a circle around me, as if he were on a lunge line although he was totally free. “It’s all in the body language,” I tried to explain how it worked, as I moved slightly behind Liam to speed him up, and then moved slightly ahead of him to slow him down or make him change directions. Then I brought Liam to a halt, and I turned around and walked away. And Liam followed me. “To stop him now,” I explained, “is just like in the saddle.” I did my best impression of a half halt from the ground, shifting my weight back and bringing my shoulders up more, tensing my core as I straightened. Liam, right on cue, brought his own position up and stopped right in line next to me. Then I walked on again, and moved into a jog. Liam matched me step for step trotting at my side, and again I did my half halt impression to transition him to a walk. I didn’t need to look back over my shoulder to see if he was still with me, or to make sure he stopped in time to keep from running me over. I just knew he was with me, that we were communicating. If I had looked back, the shift in my weight and the change in my focus would have disrupted the flow of communcation Liam was getting from me.
I wanted Ramon to try. He got Liam moving, and Liam smartly trotted over to me. Then Ramon got him going again, and again, annoyed, Liam trotted over to me. “Be firmer about what you want,” I instructed Ramon, “be confident that he will follow your instructions, and he will follow your lead.” Ramon tried again, and this time as Liam turned to trot towards me, Ramon made him keep on trotting. Ah-ha! Now he had Liam’s attention. Liam’s ears flicked to me and back to Ramon, now considering who he should listen to. Ramon continued to work with Liam, and it wasn’t long before the two were working together as partners and Liam was walking and trotting around behind Ramon, then halting as Ramon shifted his posture back.
“The timing is key,” I told Ramon. When Liam does what you ask, you must remember to reward him. Just as it was important to keep after Liam when he trotted towards me at the beginning, it is important to let him know when he gives the right answer. He doesn’t understand the words we speak, so he is just guessing based on what he reads. If we don’t let him know when he guesses right, we cannot expect him to keep giving us the same answer, he will try something else. If we want him to give us the same answer again, we must let him know he is right, and the reward must come right away so he knows what it was that he did that we liked.
It’s the psychology of working with horses. It’s non-verbal communication, it’s classical conditioning, shaping behavior through reward and punishment. It’s a little more complicated with horses than with dogs or mice because as herd animals horses are genetically programmed for leader-follower relationships. They must fill one of the two roles, and most are comfortable taking whichever role you don’t want. But if you want to be the leader, you must lead. If you don’t prove to be a worthy leader, most horses will gladly and effectively take over. Horses train people as readily as we train them. How many times have you heard someone say, “Oh, don’t tie him up, he will xyz” or “You can’t ride him this way, he only does xyz”. The horse’s misbehavior or dramatic episodes have trained the owner to treat him a certain way, like how Liam has trained me to keep the grooming to a minimum. He makes it so unpleasant through his nasty faces and kick-threats that I don’t even want to brush him!
It’s easy to take for granted how simple the logic is and forget that the horse operates this way, but that it isn’t second nature to most humans. It doesn’t mean getting rough or forceful, quite the opposite. It takes lots of time learning to read the body language, and then learning to finesse the timing so the horse is lead to do the right thing and then rewarded for it. Think of training like a board game. There is no punishment when you play a board game, if you roll a 2 instead of a 6 you progress less squares ahead, but you still progress. When the horse gives the wrong answer we must just keep asking in different ways, leading him closer to the right answer, even if it takes longer than if he guessed right on the first try. We squeeze our legs on his belly, he throws his head up in the air. Let him roll again. We squeeze our legs, he trots forwards. Bingo! Right answer. Stop squeezing, start praising. We must let him know when he’s right so that he enjoys the game with us.