I know I talk a lot about emotional regulation on here and in the simplest terms the start of this is, can the horse stand still and feel relaxed around you? The answer is often a definite no for many people, which comes as a surprise to them because a lot of these horses are in a high level of training. I think it is easy to confuse compliance and obedience with relaxation, you can have a horse who stands still and looks quiet, but when any other behaviour he offers is met with punishment, you’re not actually fostering a training environment he’s going to feel relaxed in.
Excessively backing them up, spinning in circles, making them “work” when they do something we don’t like is punishing. A horse is not going to feel good around you and training if that’s what he gets when he makes a mistake. If I want him to feel relaxed around me, I have to convince him I’m a consistent, calm person to be around, not someone who’s going to be on his case and make his life really stressful if he doesn’t do the “right” thing.
At best you’ll create a shut down horse who doesn’t feel he can have an opinion but at worst it will cause even more issues down the line. One of my clients has a horse with fear-based aggression particularly around having his legs handled, the trainer they’d taken him to previously worked him until he was dripping in the round pen, then they managed to trim the horse’s feet and called it a success. However when they came to try the next day the horse wouldn’t let them anywhere near and was much worse. I’m sure if the trainer had kept working the horse into the ground every day he’d have eventually given up, but it wouldn’t have made the horse feel any better about having his legs handled. In fact it would confirm to the horse that humans aren’t to be trusted.
We’re not really taught to read behaviour well and often don’t see the signs of tension until a horse is really boiling over which can lead us to think that is where we have the problem. My horse is bad at shows, he won’t stand at the mounting block, he won’t hack alone etc. You’ll find the signs are there well before you get into those situations and we can all learn to see them.
It is really common to see people having to “lunge the bucks” out of their horse before they get on, that is just a horse with chronic stress around training, it is not a personality trait. If the management is really not meeting the horse’s needs, i.e inadequate turnout, their ability to emotionally regulate is going to be in the gutter. Watching people get cross and call their horses naughty when they’ve been on box rest for extended periods of time blows my mind, what do you expect?
I was recently training with a horse who had bad separation anxiety, we did 45 mins mostly in a halt with a bit of walking then gave him a break, we turned him loose and, to his owner’s shock, he stayed with us and quietly ate his hay net instead of running back to his friend like he normally would. I didn’t try to make going back to his friend feel bad, I just started to convince him that maybe being around people without his friend was okay and could actually feel good.
You can achieve relaxation, emotional regulation, good communication and set boundaries without even leaving the walk. There is nothing magical or bonding about working a horse into a sweat until they finally learn that the only way to make it stop is to follow you. Once you start working on your relationship at the foundation, you’ll be surprised how many of the issues you thought you had melt away.