Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Success

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Anyone who has ever invested in the stock market has seen this disclaimer: Past performance is no guarantee of future success. Yet when we invest our resources into a well-trained horse, we expect a guarantee that the way he is today, in his current reality, is the way he will be a month or a year from now.

I wish I had a dollar for every person that has told me that the horse they bought was misrepresented to them by the seller in some nefarious way, “Surely, he must have been drugged when I rode him before purchase!” The horse was perfect at the trainer’s barn then a “different horse” as soon as the check cleared and the trailer parked at his new home—or so the new owner believes. The truth is, a horse’s training can unravel quickly when he is mishandled or when his life-circumstances change—like when he’s in a new home, around new humans, in a new herd, getting used to a new training regime. These are considerable stressors for a horse and he’ll act much different in the new setting. If a horse was in a regimented training barn or with a trainer and suddenly doesn’t have to obey rules, he may challenge the new order and act up in the new setting.

“Anti-training,” or teaching the horse the wrong thing, is quite easy to do. And since horses are extremely fast-learning animals, he can learn the wrong thing the very first time you make the mistake. A common example is circling a horse when he throws a fit about leaving the barnyard. The moment you turn him toward the barn, you have reinforced his fit. It doesn’t matter that you circle back away because he knows how to fix that, he just throws another fit so you’ll circle him again. Even a well-trained horse can be anti-trained in short order.

I would like to say that it is easy to un-train a horse, but the truth is, you cannot unlearn information. Once a horse knows something about you (that you won’t enforce the rules, you will not discipline him even when he deserves it, you won’t make him work if he threatens you, you won’t push if you get scared), he knows it. The only thing you can do is change you.


Dodger’s Challenge

Dodger and Julie
Dodger & Julie

I remember selling one of our horses to a good friend, a number of years ago (and we are still friends). Dodger was an admittedly quirky horse–although a very well-trained ranch horse—an experienced pro in all matters of ranching. He lived 13 years as a working horse on a big ranch in Texas, then two years on my ranch, then we sold him and he was taken to live in the city of Denver (an old part where horses were still allowed). Poor Dodger thought he had landed on another planet and was understandably nervous in his new urban setting. But what happened on the first day there, set some serious unraveling in motion.

Dodger was not happy in his new box stall and when she went to get him out the next morning to head to turnout, he plowed right over the top of his new owner– forcing her out of his way. How she handled that moment was critical to setting the tone of their brand new relationship. Instead of scolding him and backing him up and insisting that he remember his manners and be respectful and patient, she felt sorry for him (“he was nervous in his new home”). She decided to overlook his momentary indiscretion. But the next day, he did the exact same thing (of course), since apparently the rules in this strange new place were different than what he had known all of his life. Soon, he was pushing all sorts of boundaries and making up his own rules.

When I called a week later to see how my old horse was getting along with his new owner, I was appalled to hear how badly he was behaving! Turns out one thing led to another and in just a few days this perfectly mannered horse had become an ill-mannered pig on the ground. We talked it through and I told her what to do to fix it. In short order, Dodger turned back into the horse he knew how to be.

What horses want most is the safety and the comfort that the herd provides them. Life in the herd involves respecting authority, following rules and routines, earning the acceptance of the leader and being treated fairly. Well trained horses in particular, tend to be handled in a strict regimen and worked daily, living up to the high expectations of the trainer. Horses love structure, routine and sameness; it makes them feel safe. Horses crave and worship leadership, so going from a strong leader to a passive one is a change any horse would notice. You cannot buy respect from a horse and you cannot buy a relationship with a horse; you can only earn it.

Adjustment Time

Horses in transition to a new owner and a new home, need time to adjust to and get comfortable with their new surroundings and new handlers. It is unreasonable to expect all horses to perform at the same level in a new place with a new rider. But it is important to start your new relationship off with structure and to build your horse’s respect and trust.

All my friend had to do was scold Dodger and spend 10 minutes doing some groundwork to remind the horse that he had rules to follow and authority to respect. And that if he acts the way he is trained to act, things will be safe and predictable for him. Right away Dodger snapped out of his bad manners and after taking the time she needed to establish a meaningful relationship with the horse, one he could trust, he reverted back to his old trained self.

When starting a new relationship with a horse, make sure you get off on the right foot and build a relationship based on trust, respect and authority. This is easily gained through round pen and lead line work from the ground, if you follow a systematic approach like I outline in my From the Ground Up series. If you don’t know how to do effective ground work, get help; enlist the services of a trainer. If you buy a well-trained horse, it is probably worth getting lessons from the trainer, to protect your investment.

The best trainer in the world can train a horse to do almost anything for him, but he cannot train him to do it for you. You would have to build your own relationship with the horse, learn his cues, make your expectations/intentions/determination/capabilities clear to him and then lead in a way that makes him want to follow you. That may take an hour or a month or a year—that depends on you, not on the horse’s past performance.

You and only you are responsible for the investments you make and past performance is no guarantee of future success. But if you are smart, aware, take responsibility and give guidance, your investment should grow. Treat any new relationship with your horse as a serious investment; be smart and accept responsibility for your own actions and make sure your investment is growing.

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Relationship Fix Series

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Relationship Fix Series

 

Bonding Dos and Don’ts

 

By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco

 

Top trainer Julie Goodnight discusses how to show your horse affection without deteriorating your leadership in your herd of two.

 

How do you show your horse affection while also maintaining respect? There’s nothing wrong with having a bond with your horse. In fact, it’s desirable. But you have to show your affection and bond with your horse in a safe way and in a way that your horse appreciates. Horses don’t think like we do—especially when it comes to how to bond and show affection. Be aware and make sure not to instill human affection behaviors on the horse—such as kissing on the lips. Instead, find out what your horse likes.

We, as humans, are so drawn to the head of the horse. The head and lips are so soft and smell so good. You may want to get your head next to his and love on him. But horses have blind spots around his head and many horses don’t like to have you so close to their heads. For the most part, the head is a good place to stay away from. The horse’s head is big, weighs a lot and moves quickly. I can personally vouch for several concussions and some busted teeth from having my head too close to a horse’s head. Even if it’s a horse you know well, he may accidentally turn quickly and spook–moving with force.

Affection in Horse Terms

Kissing and hugging are human ideas of affection. Horses do spar (play fight) and bite at the lips but that’s more of a reason not to kiss on the lips. That’s a reason to keep your horse’s lips away from your lips. You don’t want him to think you’re playing and be bitten.

Horses only have one known affectionate behavior that isn’t associated with reproduction. Allo grooming (also known as mutual grooming) occurs when two bonded horses face each other and give one another a deep massage with their teeth. Horses mostly groom around the withers and down the neck and back. The more dominant horse in the pair will tell the other horse when to start and stop the grooming sessions and both horses will let each other know where they like to be groomed. .

When I show affection to my horse, I like to mimic this grooming behavior by approaching the horse as another horse would. Then I like to find the horse’s “sweet spot.” If I’m bonding with a new horse, I approach the horse slowly then put my hand out (palm down) to allow him to sniff me. That’s just polite to the horse. Next, I go to the withers and rub him to show him I’m friendly.

Scratching and rubbing on the horse’s favorite “sweet” spot is a great way to show your affection. How do you find this spot? Horses pucker their lips when they feel pleasure. With your fingers all pressed together, dig in with your fingertip pressure in a circular motion and rub around your horse’s withers, neck and chest. When you find a spot he likes, you may see your horse slightly move his lips or you may see your horse reach high in the air, wiggle his lips and show his teeth. Many horses like a deep pressure—if he doesn’t like that deep of a pressure, he’ll let you know by moving away.

Sometimes I give my horse a hug at the withers. On a rare occasion you’ll have a horse that wraps back and hugs you as you stand at his shoulder. That could be another affectionate behavior of the horse but it is less studied. I have had that happen just a few times in my life but it does feel like a bonded and sincere behavior. I’ve heard of a few other similar reports and would love to see research about it!

Know the Consequences

What happens if you pamper and kiss on your horse without first setting boundaries? Your horse may become oblivious to your actions and disrespectful of your space. He may at first turn his head away from you. Then he’ll bump into you. That’s not accidental, that’s sending you a message. If your horse is oblivious to your existence, that’s not a relationship that is bonded from the horse’s perspective.

Horses want a leader and respect and want to bond with a leader. If the behavior is allowed to go on, the horse may escalate from turning away to more aggressively dragging away or turning and biting. Make sure to pay attention to your moves and think about who “owns” the space at any given moment. I can invite a horse into my space but he can never come into that space without permission. Be very aware of space when you’re around your horse. Make sure your horse is conscientious about your space and careful not to crowd you.

Boundaries have to be established before you choose to be “touchy feely” with your horse. If you don’t set boundaries, horses can push you around and run you over. Horses can also manipulate and “train” the people around them. They may train you to give them attention if they paw or reach for your hand with their lips. Think of a Golden Retriever that comes over to you when you sit down. He’ll bump your elbow with his nose until you start to pet him. He has trained you to pet him when he asks for it. Similarly, your horse may be training you to be subordinate by using horse language—moving you out of his space instead of understanding that he must move from your space. You may not be in danger when a dog trains you. When a horse is in charge, there are safety risks.

Your horse being the dominant in the herd of two becomes a problem when you want to ask a horse to do something he doesn’t want to do. If he’s the boss from the moment you enter his stall, he’s not likely to follow your leadership as you tack up or from the saddle.

Pay Attention and be Affectionate

Notice when horses move into your space and make sure to move them out of your space immediately. You want your horse to be careful about your space and conscientious of your moves. This doesn’t mean making your horse fearful, but using visual and corrective pressure to move the horse out of your space so that you maintain your safety.

Of course I’m all for affection. There’s nothing wrong with being affectionate and offering praise—when it’s deserved. Once you know the rules and establish boundaries, you will know your horse and you can stretch the rules if you want to. Make sure the affection you give is appropriate for the horse and is something they will appreciate. If your horse is mindful of your presence, your affection is appropriate to how horses communicate and you don’t reward bad behavior, you’re on your way to a respectful and bonded relationship.

Off To A Good Start

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Off To A Good Start

Are you raising a foal or young horse? Make sure you’re setting up a good relationship with respect from the start. To start your young relationship off on the right path, you’ll need to consider how a young horse thinks and envision how you want your horse to act later in life. All that training starts now. Your expectations must be clear and you must set about systematically to teach the horse what you think of as “good” behavior. In his young world, good behavior includes kicking, biting and running hell-bent for leather in any direction he pleases. That’s not how you want your young horse to act, so start teaching the new rules soon.

 

Horses know how to act like horses; that’s it. If we want them to act in certain non-horsey ways when we handle them, they have to be taught the proper response. We call that horse training. However, in the horse’s herd, he learns in the first days of life to recognize dominant horses and dominant behavior. He learns to respect authority and respect the space of others. He has trouble with the latter, even in the herd, so he gets spanked regularly (by kind but firm “aunties”). Because of this, young horses can be easily taught to respect your space and follow the rules. They can also be easily taught the opposite if mishandled.

 

I am not a big fan of over-handling baby horses—I’ve seen too many foals become insensitive spoiled monsters with many bad habits that must be “un-trained.” And I’ve seen how easily and quickly you can train 2 or 3 year olds that have never been handled; who have no preconceived notions about people. But, if you are going to handle young horses, there are basic manners and expectations of behavior that they should learn early on.

 

Spatial issues are huge with horses of any age. Just because the foal is young and cute, doesn’t mean he can’t run you down or kick your teeth out. Often, when inexperienced people are raising foals, big mistakes are made early on and the behaviors are well-engrained in the horse, long before the person has an appreciation for the scope of problem. Foals love to be rubbed and scratched and will quickly learn to lean and push on you to get your attention. Next thing you know, you have a horse that pushes you around and has learned to lean into pressure instead of move away from it. Those are bad traits when you’re riding a horse.

 

Because young horses are very oral by nature—constantly exploring their environment with their nose, lips and tongue—biting can be a big problem when handling youngsters. There’s a progressive set of behaviors in horses in which lipping behavior (when the horse puts his lips on you and nuzzles) leads to nipping (a small quick pinch with the teeth) leads to biting (the most aggressive and deadly behavior of horses). These are all progressive signs of dominance leading to aggression. If the lipping behavior goes unchecked, the horse begins to nip and if the nipping goes unchecked, he begins to bite. As the horse goes through this progressive behavior, he is simply testing his boundaries. Just as with human toddlers that may test out biting, this behavior should be “nipped in the bud,” as early as possible in the progression.

 

It has been my experience that people bring these behaviors on themselves by allowing horses to be in their space and by nuzzling, smooching and playing with the horse’s muzzle all the time. In the herd setting, there is a “linear hierarchy” which means that each and every individual of the herd is either dominant over or subordinate to each and every other individual. This means that between you and your horse, one of you’ll be the dominant leader and one of you’ll be the subordinate follower in your “herd of two.” It’s best to set this pattern early on in the relationship you are developing with your young horse.

 

If you establish basic rules of behavior (respect my space at all times, follow my lead, stop when I stop and stand still when I ask) and you correct him 100% of the time he makes an infraction, he will learn these important ground manners quickly. Also, any time any part of his body moves toward you, vigorously back him out of your space, so he learns where your space begins and ends. This will help him to learn to keep a respectful and safe distance from you and to be respectful of your space.

 

If you are raising a young horse or even retraining an older horse that missed out on learning good manners, it’s important to know what your expectations of his behavior are so that you can set clear rules and boundaries. If you’re not certain what your expectations should be, get some help. You only have one chance to make a good first impression on your horse.

 

Doing it right from the beginning may be critical in your horse’s success later in life. You have to be the leader and the enforcer and not coddle, cuddle or condone. When he is a teenager with 800 pounds of exuberance, you’ll be glad you did.

 

 

–Julie Goodnight