Recently I had the opportunity to work a real “problem horse”, one of those horses termed as “not fixable” by its former owner, including all the former trainers that had tried and failed. Such horses are exactly the opportunities I search for, I see them as great opportunities to prove not only my methods and Art of Natural Horsemanship, but also to prove that every horse can be fixed if you understand and address the core issue.
Here’s the scoop, I was approached regarding a kind fourteen year old mare that had a seemingly pleasant demeanor but was deathly “afraid” of cows and other circumstances, such as “the unknown”, tractors, riding through the village and exploring new areas. The owner, a lovely young lady named Lisa, doing quite well with what she had, was under the impression that her horses behavior was a fear based issue, centric around a specific “thing”, in this case the “thing” being cattle. When her horse was in the general vicinity of a cow or could even see or smell them from a distance, she would lose her lid. Jump, buck, rear, pull, run, back out, becoming completely uncontrollable, dangerous and mentally checked out, as if someone switched her into panic mode. Because her behavior was so extreme, Lisa made the common mistake of trying to avoid the cows at all cost. She would remove the horse from the situation immediately and because her ability to control the horse was at it's limits, she would often get off and head home. As we can see, regardless of how this problem started, she was re-enforcing negative behavior and simply training her horse to be bad. Remember this rule, “Horses are motivated through pressure, but learn through the release of that pressure”. Meaning, if you release the horse from pressure, it will continue to do the same behavior because of the reward (timing is crucial here). She stated that after she began avoiding the cows her horse just got worse and worse. This is understandable, her horse realized, when it behaved in a certain way, she gained control and was able to go home. Although, this behavior sadly began long before our lovely Lisa bought her…
The back story: Lisa received her horse with the knowledge that she could not be around cattle. The former owner got rid of her because of this issue. She apparently fought for 10 years and came to the conclusion that this horse was so “afraid” of cattle that she was not trainable. After several failed attempts of sorts (such as leaving the horse alone in a hall with cows and other trainer suggestions), her method or reaction was that each time the horse would act difficult, she would get off, lead her to the stables and feed her (same story you just heard regarding Lisa). I believe anyone with some common sense would see that this method is quite counterproductive. I would act poorly too, if every time I did so my rider would get off, put me back in my stable and feed me. She was unintentionally training the horse to behave badly. Remember, never avoid problems, rather, go straight at them, head on. Problems are opportunities to fix an issue. “We never focus on problems though; we simply work through them until we have reached our goal.” Our job as trainers or riders is to teach the horse how to handle stress, problems and other issues correctly and how to overcome & solve those issues with the proper behavior. If a horse is skeptic about something, take her to it, work her to it, and don’t quit until you have achieved “calm success” and the horse has the opportunity to overcome that issue on her own (get her nose on it). The people that always want to “avoid stress” at all cost, are idiots in my book and are causing more damage than good and setting up the horse to fail. It’s very similar to over protecting a child from the realities of life, putting them in a protective bubble, never allowing them to have difficulties or encouraging them to solve problems on their own. Then one day, they’re on their own, life hits them, they're confronted with tuff choices and hard knocks but sadly they're not prepared and have no idea how to deal with it, they lack the appropriate skills, confidents, know-how and strength. My job as a parent is to teach and prepare my daughter to know what to do and how to deal with tuff stuff, when the darkness of the world confronts her, which it will someday, regardless if I want it to or not. If I’ve done my job right, I can trust that she will make the right choices, confidently overcome issues, persevere through trials and tribulations, being a shining Light in the darkness. That process of preparation is not always easy and by no means accomplished by avoiding issues and putting her into a “no stress” environment. That is the worst thing I could do. The other primary key reason why the former owner failed is her lack of horse knowledge, her own ego and not having the proper foundation, specifically being; respect, leadership and connection. And most importantly she didn’t understand the core issue.
That’s the next question, what is the core issue? Let me tell you one thing, it’s certainly not the cow. I get this call a lot, regardless if its trailer loading, water, cows or tractors, 99% of the time it has nothing to do with any of that. Let’s break it down. Before I work any horse, I test her, speak with her and feel her (emotional feel). What I’m doing, is identifying the core issue, it’s like going to the doctor. The majority of the doctor’s time is really dedicated to finding out what the heck is wrong with you. They do all sorts of test, x-rays, scans etc. Once he finally knows what’s wrong, writing the prescription only take a few minutes. One thing trainers should never do, is write the wrong prescription. I call that “Training Malpractice”. Never write a training prescription before you have really figured out the core issue.
What I realized was the following; her horse lacked self-confidence, was confused and had no respect. Interesting isn’t it…and why the crazy behavior? Simple…when a horse is confused, it’s gets scared, when it’s scared it will “fight or flight”. Lack of self-confidents will show you the same symptoms. So theoretically, if you make things clear and build up her confidents, everything else should go away on its own, forever. If you address the fear, flight or fight, you will never have any long term success and the issue will continue to arise. Example: The number one fear of people is “public speaking”, so they say. But the fact is, it’s a lack of self-confidents, usually because of the lack of experience…after you have mustered up the courage and done it a few times, you develop confidents and the fear goes away on its own. But of course, sometimes you may need a little push and encouragement to make the first time happen. Same with our horse! The first time may need some encouragement. But if there is no respect, our ability to encourage the horse is zero to none. Here’s a hard fact, with horses, you have it or you don’t, there is no middle ground. Remember my rule, no grey areas. Always make it black or white and easy to understand. But let’s first define respect between horse and human. “Respect is the appropriate response to pressure”. Which ultimately means we have foot control and the horse takes us serious when we ask for something. The horse needs to have more respect from me, then what it’s trying to avoid. Why? Because when the choice comes between running over me or the issue, over me is not an option. Respect must be established first, because when it comes time to make a decision, time for preparation has past. Don’t exaggerate though, the trick is being consequent but cool at the same time. “We suggest things as light as possible but enforce things as assertive as needed, always rewarding our horse immediately upon appropriate response.”
So what’s the solution to the problem? First of all, we must address the core issue. The best way to do that is by establishing respect, leadership & connection through the PJH “Foundation for Life” training methods. We build up her self-confidents and made things clear. Of course, she had developed some bad habits and negative behavior. This required me to re-condition her behavior and make some difficult corrections. This is done by “making the wrong things hard and the right things easy”. Timing & technique is the key here. Repeat, repeat, repeat. “Repetition is habits, habits is training”.
What was the outcome? We fixed the problem in 4 days. Sadly, here was a ten year battle not won, which in reality should have only taken a few days. Due to ego, little know how, laziness and lack of discipline, things were made much harder than softer for the horse.
Be part of the solution, not the problem. Prevention and doing it right the first time is always the best. Fixing a problem is 400% harder than teaching them right the first time. If you’re interested in saving time, money and battles then feel free to contact me anytime and take part in my “foundation for life” training program.