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Have you ever heard someone say the words, “that horse is untrainable”, “it’s crazy”, “it has issues”, or “it is dangerous”? I have been in a few instances where I have heard people label horses with those titles. From a training perspective, I’ll never forget the saying from Gary Convery, who was the first mentor I worked with; he taught me about work and psychology and helped me question why I was doing things the way I was. His saying always stuck with me, and he said, “there are no bad horses; there are just people without the time or the patience to understand them.” And I think that’s very fitting for so many cases. Horses are not black and white; they don’t all fit into the same template. A lot of horses don’t fit into the pressure and release mentality; they get overwhelmed, freeze or go catatonic when they’ve got a lot of pressure put on them, others can handle being pressured into something, and some work well with positive reinforcement. So, we have to be willing to adapt based on the horse.
I believe horses react out of either a physical state, whether it be pain or discomfort or because of a mental issue, which could be PTSD-type symptoms where they’re stressed out beyond relief or don’t know how to handle their emotions. It’s one of the reasons why in the Harmony Horsemanship program, we emphasize the calm connection section of our training, which is all about getting the horse to a calm and relaxed or calm and alert state to be ready to learn. And it’s about helping your horse manage that emotional control piece and that self-regulation, meaning that they recognize their emotions, and they can handle their feelings, and they can find that place of calm connection with us.
I’ve seen such drastic improvements in horses when we can put a focus on finding that connection first before we start trying to teach your horse how to do anything. Whether your horse is half asleep or full of energy, or anxious, finding a connection can only benefit and prepare them for whatever it is that you want to train them to do. With that being said, there are a lot of horses out there that suffer from pain or stress, and this has a real impact on them.
There are horses that I’ve had that have come in for training and have been very reactive. Pinging ears as I’m going to dismount or backing in the canter. And when we’ve done back X-rays, we have found mild causes of kissing spine and other lameness issues. These issues that are causing pain will eventually cause them to be reactive. It’s like if you tell somebody nicely, I’m in pain, or I can’t do this, and they keep pushing you, it’s only a matter of time before you snap and lash out. For a horse, that can look like bucking, rearing, biting or striking.
They can also have mental challenges, struggling with stress and anxiety. If you follow me on Facebook or YouTube, you will have seen videos of my horse, Elisia, who is training for the thoroughbred makeover. She has low confidence in new environments and displays this by becoming very antsy and on high alert, and sometimes will rear. I have to focus on getting that calm connection off-site so that way every time we go somewhere, we can be relaxed and calm, so when we go to new places in the future, she remembers that calm relaxation is how to handle that. So, in this case, she is not untrainable; I’m helping her work through her issues the best I can, rather than just writing her off.
I try to get people to relate horses to people because it helps us realize some of the things they may be going through. Like people, horses can have chronic pain, mental illness, anxiety and PTSD. So, we have to consider that there may be an underlining issue that is causing a certain type of behavior, and it is our job to ensure we look at all the variables.
So, do I think that there are untrainable horses… I think some horses are more challenging than others; some horses suffer from pain or have mental health challenges. I think spending the time to help them with their emotional control and self-regulation and looking at their physical state will ensure that these horses will less likely be considered untrainable.
On the other hand, there are very dominant and aggressive horses because they’ve been allowed to get to where they’ve learned such behaviors. If you’ve followed me in the past, Peanut was a quarter horse that was given to me because she had gotten so aggressive that she would chase people out of the paddock. When I started working with Peanut she tried to kick me. and before I get to any conclusions about pain and things like that, I had to assert a lot of passive leadership with her and sometimes assertive leadership. We need that in some circumstances to protect ourselves and keep us safe. For example, if you are coming at me to attack me, I will not politely walk away because that might exasperate the problem and teach you to kick or bite me. I don’t believe in using force, but I look at it as if I am an electric fence where if you come over and touch the fence, you’re going to get zapped. But if you back off and respect the fence, you’re not getting zapped. After some time, establishing the leader role using passive leadership. She started to look at me like an equal, as another leader. She was given to me for being dangerous and a lost cause. And we were able to work through her issues and developed a great partnership.
So if you’ve got a horse that’s deemed untrainable, start with your leadership, make sure you have passive leadership established, do your calm connections exercises (if you don’t know what those are, check out harmonyhorsemanship.com), make sure that the horse is calm and connected to you. Look for signs of pain, work with a chiropractor or a massage therapist. Look for signs of pain discomfort that could be causing them to react. Make sure to connect and establish passive leadership, help them find comfort within themselves, and teach them how to work with people.
For more information on how to become a passive leader check Harmony Horsemanship Academy at https://harmonyhorsemanshipacademy.org/p/hhacademy (add as a link).
Thanks so much, bye for now.