“He refuses to stop.”
“She won’t back up.”
“He hates the bridle.”
“She doesn’t like me. She is always doing her own thing.”
These and more are comments I hear on a daily basis at the barn. They can be summed up with the frustration-packed sentence: “He just isn’t getting it.”
These statements are how I know when it is time to take a step back and approach from a different angle. What is it about that horse’s personality and thought process that is creating this conflict with the owner’s personality and thought process? Often these owners have tried everything they can think of. Where am I going to go?
I’m going to go right back to the beginning. When a behaviour problem shows up in a horse, 99% of the time it didn’t happen over night. There has been a slow buildup of behaviours and thoughts in that horse that the owner or trainer has not noticed and left uncorrected. Finally, after exhausting all his other methods of saying, “I’m not comfortable,” “I don’t like this,” or “you aren’t making any sense,” the horse resorts to the behaviours that get him real relief. He tosses his head and avoids the bridle. He pushes through the bit and doesn’t stop.
And 99% of the time, these problems come up because the horse didn’t get something early on. They did not understand one of the key, foundational lessons that enables them to stop from rein pressure or drop their head for the bridle. Somehow the trainer’s message got corrupted. Now we need to go back and fix it.
I have mentioned Noëlla before. I mentioned that she had no ground manners and was just clueless about how to act around me when I was on the ground. Her biggest issue was backing up, and the lack of understanding on the ground translated to almost no backup in the saddle. Pulling harder did nothing, and by the middle of a frustrating session not only was she not backing up, but she also wasn’t stopping, and when she slowed down for a moment she would immediately speed up again, even though my pressure had not ceased. She was confused.
After that session I didn’t get back on her until I had done some major ground work addressing the real problem. Two sessions later her stop and her back up on the ground are immensely improved and in the saddle great progress has been made.
What did I do?
I went back to the very beginning and explained to her what pressure on her halter means. First was ‘go’ pressure. She knew that. Then was stop pressure. Very lightly at first I applied the stop signal. A finished response will enable the horse to stop in 1.5 strides, so after 1.5 strides I increased my pressure to achieve one light step of stopping. The remaining half step remained heavy and she barged through my pressure, but I rewarded her anyway. That is called Basic Attempt in the Learning Theory setup.
Continuing this process exactly the same, increasing pressure for the steps over the 1.5 steps I wanted, she was stopping smartly. By the end of the session her legs were no longer scattered all over the place, but were occasionally landing in a square position. In the next session we passed Obedience stage, and are moving on now to Straightness.
The books Academic Horse Training and The Truth About Horses where these methods are found in detail are both invaluable and come highly recommended from me.
So take your problem, consider it well, find the root, and attack it patiently from there.