It is common to see dramatic-looking, explosive behaviour during training, it is seen as just something that has to be worked through. However, a lot of that reactive behaviour is caused by the human asking questions the horse doesn’t know how to answer yet, coupled with a horse who likely has negative associations with training from previous experiences and quite often pain/discomfort issues going on in their body.
If a horse has learned that humans add increasing pressure if they get the answer “wrong”, especially when pain is a factor as is so often the case, they are going to be anxious during training and more likely to just react and panic than take the time to think. All of this is counter-productive as high-stress is the enemy of learning.
Many years ago I was riding for someone and we’d taken a few babies to their first arena hire. One of the horses was really spooky and anxious, eyes on stalks trotting round. She decided to try and trot this horse straight over a cross pole, the horse slammed the breaks on about 10 feet away from the fence. Immediately she started kicking and growling, then got someone on the ground to chase and hit him with a lunge whip until he eventually went over. All of that because he was underprepared and anxious. If she’d just walked the horse around for a while and walked over some poles on the ground until he felt more comfortable none of that would’ve happened.
You might wonder if it matters if you get to the same end result, but it isn’t the same end result. That horse just had an ugly, scary, unpleasant experience put into the bank. A year down the line he was labelled extremely sharp and would deck people regularly, it didn’t end well for him. All because we have the audacity to treat them like this and then call them difficult when they can’t cope.
We are so quick to get greedy and ask for more, or change the question, just because the horse has done it a few times. We need to make sure the horse not only understands, but feels comfortable with the ask before we move on to the next step. If your horse is struggling with something, think of how you could break the ask down even further. Ask easier questions or maybe consider that the horse isn’t physically capable of doing it comfortably. This is what setting a horse up to succeed looks like.
If you consistently train in a calm, thoughtful way and meet your horse where he is at in the moment you will help him to develop a calm, positive association with training and in turn have a horse who is less anxious, less reactive and much easier to train. Think about what kind of experiences you are putting into your “relationship bank”, there is much more to training than compliance when we start to consider how the horse feels. 🐴