After many successful rehab experiences with horses that had ‘people problems’, and 7 years of working with ‘airs above the grounds’ performer turned equine behaviorist Anita Kush, I realize that a large range of problems in the human – horse interaction can be traced back to a small set of unhelpful behaviors on part of the human.
Let’s get one thing clear: It is NEVER the horse’s fault. If we can agree on this, you may read on and may find something helpful here.
Bonding with our horse – what a wonderful and noble intention.
Not only do we want to get on, get along and understand each other, we want to forge a relationship that will be strong enough to carry us through the unavoidable moment of crisis – big or small. We want to have ‘something in the bank’ – on the trust level. This topic is rich enough to fill a book. But it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Let’s start somewhere…
Here 3 common mistakes and what to do instead:
Mistake: Feed snack as reward.
Do this instead: Let ‘virtue be its own reward’. The exercise went well? The horse stood calmly for the farrier or while mounting? Praise in a soft voice, be a relaxing and reassuring presence for your horse. Then feed snacks out of that context of reward, for no reason at all, just to socialize.
Mistake: Letting your horse fend for himself
Do this instead: A dominant horse is crowding your horse when you fetch her from the pasture? Your horse’s more assertive friend grabs for his feed bowl? A fellow boarder is loud and encroaches on your space in front of your horse? These and other types of situations require you to take charge. Give your horse the feeling that you are “in charge of everything” and will create a safe environment where your horse’s needs (for instance for space) are met. Be your horse’s ‘Joan of Arc’ or ‘Genghis Khan’!
Mistake: Expect obedience at all cost (i.e. “don’t let him get away with it”)
Do this instead: Look at every interaction with your horse as a conversation. E.g. you want to turn left, your horse turns right. Diffuse, deflect, re-channel – never argue with your horse. In this case: Good idea, but let’s do that my way (turning right, circling around, coming at it again, repeat until desired outcome is achieved – without confrontation!). Obedience in horses is a habit willingly built on trust, never enforced.
Follow this ‘recipe’ for 30 days, then let me know how you and your horse are doing.
In this article, we will briefly explore how our ‘frame of mind’, interaction and communication styles affect our horses – mentally and physically!
Watching a patient young father today with his unruly but content and curious toddler at our local Wholefoods, I remembered a standard sentence that I heard when I was a child: “Why?” “Because I say so.”
The memory triggered number of other phrases that people in my generation will still be familiar with:
Don’t talk back.
Children should be seen, not heard.
….. the list goes on.
Not blaming the generation of my (German) parents here, who learned their parenting skills from a generation born into monarchy. Not listening was utterly ‘un-Prussian’!
What I am saying in a nut shell: We all know that what we learned to be true at some point, may no longer serve our higher purpose and we can unlearn and relearn to better meet our own and others’ needs – including our horses!
One fundamental skill that many riders and horse people need to desperately unlearn and relearn —in my opinion—is the way they interact with horses.
Negative Effects of Confrontational and Threatening Interaction
Ever walked down the street and heard a sudden crash from a car accident? How did your body respond? You went into ‘defense mode‘, preparing to fight or run. Horses and other mammals respond very similarly – with ‘hyperarousal‘.
Here from loom, S. L. and Farragher, B. (2010) Destroying Sanctuary: The Crisis in Human Service Delivery Systems. New York: Oxford University Press. (pp. 102-106)
“Like other animals [like horses…], humans have formed a highly effective protective system that evolved in our original evolutionary environment when human beings lived in small groups of family members and were threatened by hungry predators. This defensive action system is a total body mobilization, driven by powerful neurochemicals that flood our brain and body. To survive, we must pay attention to any information from the environment that might help us, so many of our senses become more acute—eyes dilate, hearing improves, smells sharpen. Whenever threatened, our attention becomes riveted on the potential threat, and we become hypervigilant to what is going on in our surroundings. … This state is called “hyperarousal” (Horowitz 1986). Below the level of our conscious awareness, we choose appropriate survival-based action: fight, flight, freeze, appease. If we survive the threat, recuperation follows, which is characterized by rest and isolation, wound care, and gradual return to daily activities (van der Hart, Nijenhuis et al. 2005).”
Confrontational Interaction with our horses keeps the horse in a constant state of hyperarousal.
This does not always show up as a ‘hot’ horse.
Here some possible indicators of chronic hyperarousal:
Shut down and dull, perhaps ‘lazy’
Shut down and occasionally explosive/unpredictable
“Rude” – another way of being ‘shut down’ (walks right over you, pushes into you, just wants you to ‘go away’…)
Aggressive (bites, kicks, aggressive toward other horses)
Tense (stiff movement, holds breath, grinds teeth, leans on bit or gets behind bit, etc.)
Possible long-term health problems resulting from chronic hyperarousal (examples):
Arthritic changes (namely in the vertebrae from staying stiff under saddle)
Ulcers and chronic teeth or TMJ problems
Stress on muscles, tendons, ligaments and resulting injuries (from lack of suppleness, chronic tension)
Possibly Insulin Resistance (see source below)
Your frame of mind—and how it plays into your horse’s mental and physical soundness
Our ‘frame of mind’ determines our reality, to a great extent. It is the filter through which we perceive the world.
We will then also behave and communicate according to this ‘frame’ and draw respective conclusions.
Example: If I am a surgeon, I will look at every wart as something that can be removed surgically. If I am an herbalist, I will think of a tincture to apply.
When entering the barn – have a ‘horse lovers frame of mind’.
And to love the horse means to strive to understand the horse’s nature and actively work to meet its mental, emotional, and physical needs!
Part of our ‘frame of mind’ is composed of things we learned throughout our life, meaning learned behaviors that become— sometimes deeply ingrained—habits. This includes attitudes relating to interaction with others and the respective communication style.
Example: If I have learned that I get ahead at the work place by behaving in an intimidating and dominant manner and that this is the way to get results, I may behave similarly at the parent teacher conference (or at the barn!).
Houston – there is trouble!
Over the years, I have observed many kinds of unhelpful and downright harmful interaction with horses, resulting in behavior and performance problems and unsoundness:
Behaving in a confrontational manner (example: jerking on the lead rope for no reason, stepping aggressively toward the horse, etc.)
Demanding obedience (example: getting impatient when the horse does not stand at the mounting block)
Intimidation (scaring the horse into compliance)
Punishment (whipping, spurring, jerking on the reins, even kicking, tying up, and other horrors…)*
And the greatest sin of all: Anthropomorphism (meaning subscribing human traits, feelings, thought patterns, motives, etc. to your horse)
(*Horses have no, NO concept of punishment unless it is immediate, swift, without anger and the horse knows what behavior invited this response.)
Number 5 is key here: Perhaps it is possible to be a tough one to deal with at work or at home, if your ‘frame of mind’ at the barn is that of a person, who realizes that the nature of the horse demands a completely different set of skills and attitudes, namely:
Asking for cooperation
Punishment only as immediate response to dangerous behavior (the very rare exception)
Deep understanding of the nature of the horse as a prey animal that lacks a human’s ability for cunning, strategizing, manipulative, intentionally malicious behavior.
Perhaps it is possible to be a tough one to deal with at work or at home, …the nature of the horse demands a completely different set of skills and attitudes.
Anthropomorphism (treating your horse as if he/she was a human) sets you up for the following interaction patterns that are not only unfair but also extremely stressful to your horse (examples):
Untimely and unwarranted ‘reward’ and ‘punishment‘ – often long after the fact, something a horse cannot relate to.
The habit of assigning human-like motives and strategies to horses. Horses live in the moment. They did not ‘plan’ to do anything more than 3 seconds in advance!
Expecting your horse to ‘understand’ what you want. (Thinking your horse knows exactly what you want, but doesn’t want to do it.) If your horse understood, he/she would be happy to do it, if you set it up right and strive to understand yourself. Example: Riders, who kick their horse’s sides and shoulders because ‘the horse doesn’t WANT to give me his shoulder’ should be flogged, tarred and feathered. Because that is what that feels like to the horse.
Constant nagging, tugging, pushing, jerking, yelling, as a response to perceived ‘misbehavior’. This includes making annoying ‘eh, eh, eh’ sounds!
Treating your horse like a pet and interpreting disrespectful behavior as ‘cute’ or as a sign of ‘intimacy’. Your horse needs to know you will keep him safe. Let him know you are doing that by setting boundaries.
Being inconsistent and spoiling your horse. You are puzzling your horse! A spoiled horse is a dangerous horse. Create consistency and predictability in every interaction.
The list goes on…
Riders, who kick their horse’s sides and shoulders because “the horse doesn’t WANT to give me his shoulder” should be flogged, tarred and feathered. Because that is what that feels like to the horse.
When looking at your horse – see a horse! Do not transfer the way you understand humans and the behaviors, expectations, interaction and communication styles you may have with humans to your horse!
4 simple steps to improve interaction and relationship with your horse
STOP THINKING OR SPEAKING OF YOUR HORSE AS IF HE/SHE WAS A HUMAN!!!
If you have developed this habit, it takes practice to break. For the next week, simply observe how you think and talk about your horse. Does it sound like you are talking about your favorite nephew or some bully in class? Take a deep breath, acknowledge you ‘anthropomorphized’ your horse, and move on. After this first week, you will feel the NEED to change this.
ASK – DON’T TELL!
Start by changing your vocabulary around that.
I worked with my horse all morning. NOT I worked my horse all morning.
I am asking for a rein back. NOT I am making him rein back.
Later, you can expand on that by framing every request to your horse in an ‘ask’, not a ‘tell’.
DON’T THREATEN YOUR HORSE
You may think you don’t…. But many of us do. Example: I recently stood next to a horse in conversation with the owner, the working student was holding the horse. The working student incessantly jerked on the lead rope/halter every time the horse so much as breathed. It was clear that the expectation: BEHAVE was communicated in a manner that horse must find threatening. This is a hard habit to break as it requires a lot of awareness. My tip: Read the original horse whisperers (Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt). After that, you may find more wisdom in modern horsemen/women but you will know what to look for.
OBSTAIN FROM PUNISHMENT
This is a tough one. The horse was ‘bad’ (anthropomorphism) and needs to be punished, isn’t that so? Don’t we hear trainers say— time and again—“Don’t let him get away with it!” or worse “Whack him!”. We don’t want to be bossed by our horse, we don’t want him to get the upper hand and ‘push our buttons’. Right? Wouldn’t this make us look stupid or incapable? No worries… The only worry you should have is how you look in the eyes of your horse. Don’t punish. Redirect, start over, reward.
Don’t punish. Redirect, start over, reward.
Exception: My rule is, if a horse shows learned, dangerous misbehavior such as biting humans, I do punish swiftly, clearly, without anger (that’s tough) and without letting this moment linger on. 1 second punishment, the next second we simply move on—on a good note. NOTE: You need to be consistent, meaning react the same way every time this behavior is displayed. Otherwise, you are making the problem worse.
Horse are horses! Do not interpret horse behavior within the frame of mind applied to human beings, who have completely different needs, behaviors, motives, and agendas.
Learn non-confrontational interaction with horses!
Don’t threaten your horse! (Get help in identifying what these threatening behaviors are!)
“Riding is not about “riding”. It is about everything that happens before we even get to the mounting block.”
A guest blog article by Horse Behavior Specialist Anita Kush
In my practice as a coach to horse owners and trainers, who seek a more mindful connection with their horse, I come across many, who have become caught up in a vicious cycle of unfulfilled expectations, shattered hopes and dreams, disillusionment, and more – albeit adjusted – expectations. The way out of this cycle is to start asking ourselves the right – and perhaps uncomfortable – questions:
When I arrive at the barn, what do I really see?
Is it what is before me? Or is it my vision of what I want to be or achieve? And is my horse – my colleague in this endeavor – a partner or a slave to my ambitions and desires?
Is my goal predicated on a picture in a magazine, a moment frozen in time, a video, an idea, a concept, a wish, a book telling us that – yes – I too can look like and be THIS…if only I will follow a certain method or buy a certain product or gadget…
What is meaningful horse work?
It is work that is considerate, fair, helpful, firm (when necessary) and facilitates long term understanding in relationship of the two parties involved.
What is the difference between “disobedience” and learning?
Is it possible that what we interpret as disrespect or unwillingness to perform certain tasks, may be in reality lack of understanding? The horse showing us what he knows and that he is unable – not unwilling – to fulfill the request? Or that perhaps our question isn’t clear. What is accomplished by demanding that certain things happen – even though it may be physically or emotionally impossible for the horse to comply?
What is the process of learning that we need to understand?
Making mistakes and struggling means: Your horse is trying to figure out a way to accomplish what you are asking. He is not avoiding the question!
“Remember, it is not about the task, it is about how we come to it. Is it with willing cooperation or grudging resentment? The choice is ours.” (Anita Kush)
Riding is not about “riding”. It is about everything that happens before we even get to the mounting block. Getting on is the culmination of the totality of the relationship between you and your horse. No gadget or video can give you the answer. There is no one size fits all method or equipment. See beyond mechanics and arm yourself with deeper knowledge.
The horse has all the answers! Look at the horse in front of you: He’ll always tell you the truth and live up to your expectations. Learn to expect what you want to see – a non-confrontational, cooperative and mindful interaction with your horse!
[If you are interested in a consultation with Anita Kush, please see her bio here or call +1847 791 0494.
In a nut shell: ‘Cinchy’ describes a horse that shows an adverse reaction to the saddle cinch or saddle girth, either during the saddling process or well before – for example when approaching the horse with the saddle.
These adverse reactions can range from subtle (tense facial expression) to aggressive (kicking or biting). Any response apart from a relaxed acceptance must be viewed as a defensive response on part of the horse.
Why is my horse ‘cinchy’ or ‘girthy’?
When looking at anyunwanted behaviors in horses, we are looking at 3 possible scenarios:
An unpleasant physical experience at this moment (pain, discomfort, etc.)
An unpleasant emotional experience at this moment (fear, panic, etc.)
A memory of an unpleasant physical or emotional experience, which is now anticipated (but may not occur…)
A google search shows: Most trainers address a negative reaction to the girth or cinch as a behavior issue. This is an unfortunate misrepresentation. As responsible horse owners, we need to consider physical pain and discomfort first, then rule it out or address it in order to then successfully address the behavior issue or habit that may be associated with this discomfort.
Physical Discomfort as Cause for Cinchy Behavior
Asking ourselves ‘could it be pain?‘, we need to start looking at the girth area, mainly the area of the deep pectoral muscles. Here some tips:
Run your fingers (carefully) from the center of the rib cage (under the horse, sternum) up towards the saddle area, across the ascending pectorals (see image). Look for reactions: Anything from muscle flinching in that area to more volatile reactions like kicking and biting. NOTE: Be careful! Start with very soft touch, take it up a notch only if no reaction from the horse. Never press harder than would be comfortable for you. Practice on your own leg first.
Did you get a reaction? If yes, it is time to investigate girth fit, tightness, material, placement, etc. Your horse is in discomfort!!
More clues: Is your horse ‘short-strided’ or tight in the shoulder? This could be another indicator of discomfort in the deep pectorals.
The detective work in finding out what causes the discomfort in the girth area (meaning in the deep pectorals) does not stop at riding equipment.
You also need to look at feet, any hidden front leg or shoulder discomfort, tightness in the poll, imbalance in self carriage. The underlying problem can also be a subluxation of any of the underlying skeletal structures (vertebrae), often called a ‘rib out’. Contact an equine chiropractor to rule out this very common cause of girthyness. More often than not, it is difficult to find the reason if all factors have been sufficiently addressed and girthy behavior persists. Gentle bodywork that addresses the entire system of the horse’s body and rules out compensation patterns – such as the Masterson Method of Integrated Equine Performance Bodywork – will often be the key to resolving the hidden causes of girthy behavior.
Reasons for girthy or cinchy behavior can include:
a saddle with a tree that pinches in the whithers
a saddle with protruding screws or knotty, aged flocking
a saddle that does not conform well to the shape of the horses back (bridges or rocks)
Girth/cinch or pad problems:
a saddle pad that bunches
a saddle pad that is too thick, thus making a well fitting saddle fit like a shoe, that is too small
a soiled saddle pad (for example plant debris, sand, old hardened sweat etc)
a synthetic saddle pad that ‘heats up’ during the ride and promises discomfort later on
a pinching girth/cinch or buckle (especially Western cinches with the buckle in the wrong position)
a too tight girth/cinch
Physical problems (sometimes caused by above)
Sore spots, abscess, insect bites or other wounds in the girth or saddle area (infected tick bites)
Back pain: the horse anticipates back pain when being ridden and thus has anxiety around the saddling process (for example: back-pain due to muscle spasms or hock problems).
Sore feet: The abdodimus pectoris muscle can get tender and sore when horses have pain or soreness in their front feet because of the way the horse moves to avoid the pain.
The horse associates the process of being saddled with a stressful experience, such as
feelings of panic or claustrophobia (often caused by starting the young horse in a hurry)
a negative riding experience, either in present or past (former owner, trainer)
unsoundness or painful illness (such as any digestive issues, ulcers, hoof sensitivities) that become very stressful when ridden
Equine massage or body work can help with any muscular issues, whether they may be primary – such as muscle spasm – or secondary – such as sore ascending pectoral muscles due to sore feet.
However, the first recommended course of action is to uncover the root cause, involving professionals such as vet, farrier, equine chiropractor, acupuncturist, etc. After the root
cause for the discomfort is remedied, the secondary discomfort and tension due to compensation can often be helped within only a few sessions of equine massage or body work.