"If your horse says no, you either asked the wrong question, or asked the question wrong." - Pat Parelli
Today I want to share the importance of politeness with your horse, and how this affects their willingness towards you and training overall.
The Circumstance: A friend and I recently spent a sunny afternoon at the barn to groom another friend's geldings. It had been several months since we last visited these horses, and I was unsure how our presence would be received after such a prolonged absence. We endeavored no matter what sort of welcome we received, that we would leave on good terms –even if that meant not accomplishing what we initially planned to do.
The first horse we visited was a bay named Maverick. Maverick quickly came up to us upon entering his pen and we took a moment to reacquaint ourselves with him, blowing into his nose, talking to him, and stroking him. Since he had a particular fondness for my friend I told her she could be the one to halter him. But as soon as the halter was raised, Maverick's curiosity dissipated and he backed away from us and retreated to the far corner of his paddock.
Some people might have interpreted this as disrespectful, but I knew in this case Maverick was retreating from insecurity, not out of spite. So we didn't pursue him. The horses in adjacent pens were now watching to see how we'd respond to Maverick's flight, and I knew if we chased after Maverick they'd want nothing to do with us.
Instead, we went to the next pen which held a chestnut gelding named Doc. He seemed pleased at our arrival but made no move to approach us. Mindful of his body-language we politely approached. However, once we came within twenty feet of him he took on a sour expression and laid his ears back. We immediately stopped. I wanted him to see we would respect his requests and stay out of his space. As soon as we halted his ears pricked forward again. We gave him a moment to process this then came forward once more. His ears immediately went back again. So we stopped and backed up until he didn't feel we were trespassing on his space. His ears then came forward.
This continued for several minutes, Doc, my friend, and I experimenting with each-other's space bubbles to see how each would respond to the other's presence with body-language.
It was through this I realized the offending article was neither my nor my friend's presence, but the halter in our hand. When we set the halter on the ground and moved away from it, his sour glare remained fixed on the halter –not on us. Absorbing this new piece of information, we collected the halter and left for the third paddock.
The third horse we had never met before. His name was Junior. Having closely watched us interact with the other two horses from the fence, I was curious to see how he received us. He walked right up to meet us. Being mindful of his body-language, we tentatively stroked him before walking back to the barn. I wanted to see if he would follow on his own. Sure enough, Junior followed like a shadow. Both Maverick and Doc watched from their pens as my friend and I continued into the barn, Junior willingly in tow, and proceeded to groom him.
After this the other two horses approached us upon entering their pens and allowed us to pet and groom them.
The Conclusion: These horses taught me the importance of polite introductions and remaining polite even if I was not initially received. It also showed me if I remained consistent with my actions, their initial suspicion would subside, they would become willing partners, and be glad for my company.
If horses want you to set aside your agenda there is often something of much greater importance than you had in mind to be revealed.
Just as we train them to respond to subtle aids and develop a willingness to learn, so horses want us to be attentive to the subtle signs they communicate to us through body-language, and be willing to alter our plans based off what they are communicating.
Through this experiment I learned that horses are more than happy to comply with our requests if we demonstrate the values we are trying to instill in them, because we will be more attentive to the subtle signs they express if they aren't physically or mentally ready to do something we ask.
Nuno Oliveira expresses this concept beautifully in his quote: "A horse will never tire of a rider who possesses both tact and sensitivity because he will never be pushed beyond his possibilities."
When we allow a horse to express itself with subtle body-language and respect it they will not have to go to such extremes as bolting, kicking, biting, bucking, etc. to get a reaction from us. Our horse will be much happier to work with us because he has a voice we listen to and does not feel forced to shout in order for it to be heard.
Through this we will have greater success in our training goals because we have a basis for communication and an animal that will not be difficult or evasive to our requests because he knows he won't be pushed beyond his abilities. This is what enables horse and rider to rise to greater heights than either could have previously imagined.
Application: The greatest thing you can is to simply spend time with them without an agenda.
- Read a book in their pasture. If reading isn't your thing clean the water trough, check the fence, pull some weeds, or pick rocks. Anything that keeps you busy in their presence without directly interacting with them unless the initiate it.
- One of my personal favorites is to eat a meal with them. After feeding them their breakfast or dinner I settle down close by and eat my own plate of food.
- Take them for a walk. Planting treats at various points along the way will build his curiosity and confidence.
- Sometimes simply going to the barn long enough to give them a treat and a few kind words is enough.
The goal is to establish with your horse that he is not simply a tool used for riding. When you break up the amount of riding you do by spending time with your horse, he will eagerly anticipate your arrival because he looks forward to being with you.
- True Horsemanship Through Feel by: Tom Dorrance
- Become Perfect Partners by: Kelly Marks
Questions or comments? I'd love to hear from you!
Is there a specific topic, training method, or question you would like me to write about? Feel free to share it in a comment below -it may choose it as the topic of my next post!