Shut Down

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Dear Julie,
I’ve been thinking a lot about this problem, since I didn’t find that our instructor found the right thing to do. Instead of finding an answer, he did what a program told him to do.

I have a friend whose horse is a 16-year-old QH gelding and a former roping horse. He still has some trust issues in my opinion and he’s very brace-y when he gets upset. He will lope with her riding him, but he tends to have this “I’m running away from you” lope. He has a hard time in the corners and on a circle, but he will lope. I noticed that she tends to brace in her knees and ankles and that she has her ankles to far forward which of course doesn’t help the horse to lope confidently…

Now, when she tries to lope him on the ground with the 22-foot line, he starts his race trot and carries his head as high as he can and he simply will NOT lope. They were working with him the other day (together with the instructor) for about 40 minutes and all they got was maybe a quarter circle at best at a lope. Her horse was soaking wet and I really didn’t see any real success.

Here’s what they tried: Trot the horse towards the fence and then put pressure on when he leaves the fence. Did NOT work at all! He just ran at a faster trot. Then they tried to bring the horse closer, “reel” him in, lift line, step out, swing and touch hard on his shoulder if he didn’t leave. The horse would make a few jumps and then would race around at a trot, so immediately bring him in again and start the whole thing over etc.

WHAT I SAW:
The horse obviously “shut down” and did not respond anymore besides “running at a trot for his life” (in his opinion anyway). I think his previous owner/s literally beat the crap out of him. It looks to me as if he was abused mentally and probably physically and he somehow learned to live with it by shutting down. I believe that in this state he’s absolutely UNABLE to learn. He braces and tightens up and it makes it even harder for him to get into a lope. I have to add that I’ve been watching the owner for a few months now. I don’t want to say that she easily gives up; she rather thinks she has to live with his antics and makes excuses for him. This of course doesn’t help to turn her horse around. I find that the horse is a mix out of fear and bully, which seems to me especially difficult.

I would really appreciate your input. The owner was heart broken, the horse looked like it’s going to have a heart attack any minute and I really don’t think anything got accomplished! I tried to put myself in her situation and I’m sure I would have told the instructor to stop. At one point he actually got a decent lope off with a few additional steps but he missed the release and felt that he had to “stop on a good note”.

Looking for the Answer

Dear Looking,
You have made some very astute observations with this horse. When a horse shuts-down mentally, he is no longer thinking about his situation and looking for the right answer that will get him the release. Some horses shut down more easily than others. There are many team-roping horses out there with trust issues and a lot of baggage from the high-stress work that they do and the sometimes harsh and heavy pressure put on them. These horses respond well to slow, quiet and clear handling and do not do well with pushing them beyond the boiling point. A team roping horse that has not been trained and worked in a balanced fashion (schooling on fundamentals of bending, turning, collection) and is only blown out of the box, running hell-bent for leather, only taking the left lead and only turning left when it reaches the steer, doesn’t really know how to do anything else. In some instances, the horse has had so much physical pressure put on his mouth and sides and so much mental stress on him waiting in the box and blowing out after the steer, that he has a total melt down when asked to perform. These horses can have a lot of baggage. But it doesn’t have to be that way; there are many excellent rope horse trainers that school their horses more holistically.

When the rider braces any part of her body, especially the knees and ankles, the horse will always become stiffer, hollowed out in the back and more anxious. The reason why is that the rider is no longer absorbing the motion of the horse’s movement and instead is opposing the motion and bouncing on the horse’s back and bracing on his mouth. Bracing or stiffening joints causes the riders legs and hands to become jerky. The increased pressure causes the horse to tense; at the same time the rider is sending a message of tension through her body to the horse (you have to tense muscles and lock joints to brace). Horses will learn that when the rider tenses and braces, that pain in the mouth and back will follow. A horse’s natural response to discomfort is to run away from it, so these horses will generally speed up in a effort to run away from the discomfort. Unfortunately, that will generally cause the rider to brace even more and the downward spiral spins out of control.

In clinics when I am teaching groundwork, I am constantly telling people to move slowly and progressively and never give the horse the sense that you are chasing him. You always want him to be thinking for a way out of his problem, the problem being the mental or physical pressure that you put on him when you ask him to do something. If the pressure (either mental or physical) becomes too much for the horse, his mind shuts down and he kicks into his survival/flight (or fight) mode. From this point, you have very little to gain and much to lose.

In the situation you are describing, it sounds to me like damage was done to this horse and certainly there was no positive benefit from the training session. Perhaps there would have been if the person had capitalized on the horse finally doing the right thing by removing all pressure and leaving the horse alone for a while.

It is an old-school of thought but one in which I believe very strongly: whenever you have trouble with a horse getting something (which probably means you are not a very effective teacher to your horse) always return to something more fundamental so that your horse can find some success and be in a better frame of mind.

There is a dilemma because once you have asked a horse to do something, if you don’t reinforce your request and follow-through; you have trained the horse to ignore you. However, if you are not as effective in teaching your horse or communicating with him and you keep asking something incomprehensible to him over and over again, and putting more and more pressure on him until his mind shuts down, you have taught the horse to be frightened and reactive to you, but he hasn’t learned the skill you were hoping for. Knowing when to push and when to back off a horse is a pre-requisite for being a good horse trainer.

There is no one system that could ever account for all the variances and intricacies of horses. The judgment and horse sense you need to train horses comes from the experience and wisdom gained from working with many, many different horses.

Timing is another essential skill needed to train a horse effortlessly. Although you hear a lot about repetition in training horses, if your timing is good you’ll need little, if any repetitions to train a horse a new skill. It is hard enough to teach people the physical skills they need to work horses from the ground or from the saddle, but to teach them timing is really difficult. Getting people to understand that to the horse, it is all about the release- of both mental and physical pressure. I’ll bet that with this exact scenario, if they had just stopped the horse and let him chill out for a few minutes here and there during the session when the horse made some kind of effort in the right direction, he may have made some progress toward the goal.

Of all the training systems, programs and techniques in the world, the one thing that they all have in common is that ability to give a timely and significant release to the horse and the judgment to know when to press your horse and when to back off. You only have 3 seconds with a horse to reward, release or correct, in order for him to make an association between his actions and the release/correction. It is a well-documented fact that the sooner within those three seconds the release/correction comes, the more meaningful it is to the horse. So by the time you have to think about what the horse did or what you should do to correct or reward, you are well past the optimal time period for training your horse.

Unfortunately, there are lots of horses out there like you describe, with baggage from bad handling. These horses will turn around dramatically, in the right hands with a trainer that is competent, clear, consistent and kind.

One final thought has to do with asking the horse to canter on a 22′ line. This is an awfully small circle for a horse to execute at a slow and balanced canter; it would be less than a 15-meter circle. There are some articles in the Training Library on my website that detail my opinion of cantering a horse (unmounted) in a round pen, which is closer to a 20 meter circle. For most young horses and for all un-athletic horses, this is very difficult, even when they are at liberty. A much smaller circle and the interference from the human on the other end of the rope make it hard for the most athletic of horses to canter, especially if they are untrained. In my experience, you are more likely to cause balance problems with the horse or problems with its purity of gait by working at the lope on a line or in the round pen.

I hate to pass judgment on a person when I have not personally witnessed the event, however, since I have known you for some time and know that you are an astute student of horsemanship, I am taking your descriptions of the event at face value, and it does not seem like the horse left the training session a better trained horse.
–Julie Goodnight

Issues From The Saddle: When To Start A Colt Under Saddle

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: My granddaughter and I started our yearling colt this year. He was schooled in halter. We’ve had a saddle pad and surcingle on him. He is used to the English saddle and carries a sweet iron bit beautifully. We can turn him with the bit from the ground as well as back him up. I want to start ground driving him soon. He seems to enjoy all this including a trail course we set up for him. He took reserve in yearling halter and reserve in trail in hand. We have lunged him, trailered him, clipped him (needs work on this). I guess I just want to know if we’re pushing him too much. We are not going to actually ride him until late next year (lightly) then send him to WP trainer as a 3 year old. I would appreciate any input you can give me.

Thanks in advance. Barb

Answer: Barb,

I am assuming that your yearling is now in his 2 y/o year. It is good that you are concerned about pushing him too much and as long as you have that concern, it probably will not happen.

The problem with starting horses too young is two fold. First, there is physical immaturity and methods such as round penning and longeing are way too physically stressful for his immature muscular-skeletal system. The second problem is mental immaturity (short attention span) and the risk of putting too much mental pressure on him and causing resentment to working.

As for the physical problem, as long as you do not round-pen or longe the colt much or ask him to pack around heavy weight, you can avoid this problem. Working at the trot and especially canter on a small circle at too young an age can cause permanent damage to his physical soundness. So you should definitely avoid this type of work. The mental maturity is much more difficult to avoid. Generally, by the time you realize that you have pushed the colt too much, it is too late and he is already sour.

To avoid mentally stressing the colt, make sure your sessions are very short, 10-15 minutes, and very fun for him with lots of variety. Remember, colts of this age are supposed to be playing with the herd out in the field and learning the socially accepted rules of the herd. So make sure he gets plenty of time to play in the herd and that his work is more playful with lots of rewards. If he is kept confined in a stall, the chances of burnout greatly increase.

Starting to ride him as a ‘long’ two-year old is a great idea. As long as you don’t overwork him in the meantime, I think you will be fine. My specialty as a trainer is starting colts and through the years, I have learned that there is a huge difference between a 2 y/o and a 3 y/o, not only physically, but especially in the mind. I prefer to start horses as a 3 y/o, unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, such as sales or competition.

As long as your colt is bright eyed and happy to see you, keep doing what you are doing. Keep a close eye for him beginning to resist or dread his work sessions and know that is an early warning sign to back off. Don’t expect too much from him, especially when it comes to his attention span and give him lots of mental breaks in your work session. Good luck!

Julie Goodnight

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Issues From The Saddle: Rearing Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie Goodnight

I am writing to you in regards to my horse’s problem with rearing, as someone that is experienced in horse behaviour I can not find the cause that is triggering the behaviour, it’s like one minute is his normal self which a good natured, relaxed and laid back and the next minute he is running backwards then twisting himself inside out finishing with a rear that the black stallion would be proud of and then he is back to his normal self as though nothing has happened. I can’t work it out there is nothing the rider has done there is nothing in his environment that upsets him and there is nothing physically wrong. I have no reasons to explain his behaviour if I had I would be able to solve the issue. The only thing left is a neurological disorder or he is trying to tell us something but I just don’t get it. Do you have any advise? I am at a total loss!

Leonora

Answer: Leonora,

The behavior you describe sounds pretty volatile and dangerous, so first I would caution you to be careful about your own personal safety and to consider getting a professional evaluation of this horse. Since you do not give much history on this horse or his training and experience, and since I cannot actually see the horse in action, I really cannot say what might be causing this reaction or what the solution might be, but I can give you some things to consider.

First, I think it is important to rule out a physical problem. It is quite possible that your horse could have a problem in his back, ribs or hips that causes him sudden pain after moving a certain way. I would have this horse checked out by an equine chiropractic or vet that specializes in performance horse problems. Once you have ruled out a physical cause, you’ll have to look to the horse’s training.

Rearing is a behavior caused by one of two things: either a refusal to move forward or when forward movement is inhibited. Regardless of the cause, the solution is always to get the horse moving forward. Most often, rearing behavior is a fear response. From the description you give, it sounds to me like this horse is refusing to move forward. Horses don’t do anything without a reason, particularly when it comes to moving. Are there any common factors when the behavior occurs? Place, time, weather, tack, other horses? Does it happen every time you ride or only occasionally? Does he ever display this kind of behavior from the ground? If he doesn’t, I would want to check his saddle fit carefully to see if there could be some physical cause. It is hard for us to appreciate the level of awareness, the keen senses and the hyper-vigilant state that horses live in as prey animals. Their sight, hearing, smelling and instinctive survival is so much keener than ours that we are often tempted to say that the horse is acting a certain way for no reason. The truth is that they may be sensing something we are totally oblivious to. Horses don’t do anything without a reason. I am inclined to think that this horse has something physical going on or that there is something in his environment or in his experience that is frightening him. I would have him checked out by an equine chiropractor (ask your vet for a referral) and have the saddle fit checked by an expert. Once you have definitively ruled out a physical problem, I would look to the horse’s training history. Has he always been this way or is this something new? Was he given a proper foundation in his training or was he just rushed along by someone that didn’t really know how to put a proper foundation on a horse? Has there been an incident in his experience that may have caused him to get hurt or loose his confidence? Is there something in his environment that could be causing a fear response, such as another animal or object or something he has made an inadvertent association with? When we get horses like this in training, first we will definitively rule out a physical problem, then start the horse over from scratch in his training as if he had never been saddled or ridden. We would do both round pen and lead line work with the horse and take note of any “holes” in his training. We will proceed with saddle training once the horse is solid in his ground work, again taking it one step at a time and taking time whenever necessary to lay a proper foundation on the horse.

You would be surprised how often horses just have a saddle thrown on their back and someone hops up there and starts riding without ever really teaching the horse what is expected of him. Modern horses, for the most part, are so willing and kind that they will let you do just about anything that you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt them. They will gladly go along with you and will try to figure what you want them to do. But when the horse is not systematically taught to respond in a certain way to various cues and if he is not given the time and consistency needed to truly absorb the training and generalize it to different places and situations, his training can unravel in an instant. I am sorry I cannot give you more specific advice. I know from my years of working with horses and riders that sometimes what the rider describes is not at all what I would see, if I were able to watch. But hopefully this will give you some food for thought. Be careful with this horse.

Julie Goodnight

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.