How to get a relaxed horse?
A week ago I had such an evening with the horses that afterwards made me think.
I worked the horses from the ground in a halter. There was nothing unusual about that, but it was extremely windy. It was such weather where the horses in the past had been given a day off - unless there was a show or a clinic ahead.
Very often, horses act spooky or are tense when it is very windy. If it is autumn at the same time, well then the training can be quite lively.
In the past, I have not felt it made sense to train in such weather. The horses were simply too unconcentrated.
But this evening the horses were completely relaxed and I knew they would be. So have they been all the other days in recent times when it has been windy.
With all the windy days we have, it's mega cool if you can also train the horses (outdoors) without problems these days.
But how do you get the horses relaxed?
We need the horses to trust us, they need to feel really safe in our company. If we can achieve this, then the horse will "ask us" if there is danger before it reacts.
We can in no way set up all the situations or show the horse all the objects it will encounter throughout life. But we can teach the horse that it can trust us. We are the only consistent "thing" that is always present. At least in training situations.
I, therefore, do not spend time showing the horse umbrellas, waving with flags or the like. I spend time building a relationship of trust.
The mood must not affect one
If you want to get an animal, or a human for that matter, to trust you, then it is important not to let your mood affect or change you. If you are angry with the boss, you can not let this affect the company with the horse.
When dealing with horses which are flight animals, it is extremely important that they always know that they can trust you. It is no use being "nice stable mum" and when you sit in the saddle the horse gets some spur and are forced to do the right thing.
What has given me some big changes in my relationship with our horses is that I never get angry. Mistakes are ignored and all good is rewarded.
Keep an eye on the horse's signals
I keep an eye on the horse's signals. And this applies when we are in the barn, at feeding time and in the handling to and from the field. But also when I groom and train the horses. If the horse shows the slightest sign of stress or insecurity, I let it stand without touching it. Depending on the horse's signals, I might step away from the horse and let the horse stand for a few minutes.
Should I come up with some examples, it could be, for example, when our old show jumper Regitse is being saddled. She turns her ears back and bites towards her chest as the saddle is lifted up over her back. She's done that for years even though she has the most well-fitting saddle, but a 22 year old lady has her own opinions. I then take a few steps back with the saddle, let her stand and then try again. After a few times, she does not respond. In the past, I ignored it. I knew the saddle fitted her, so I thought it was a bit of a bad habit. And maybe it was, but just this little gesture has made a big difference in our relationship.
Another example is Little Girl. She usually always got angry when she had to be groomed in the groin area. Every time I saw that her ears were on their way back, I stepped away. I then waited for her to start chewing and then I waited just a little longer and then tried again. Today I can groom her all over.
In training, I kind of do the same thing. If the horse has done a new exercise, if the horse starting to get just the slightest bit tense or if the horse has done something good, then I let it stand still. I let the horse stand until it begins to chew and lowers its head and neck. In the beginning, it could take a long time, maybe 5-10 min. But today it takes a few minutes (or less).
Practice the transition to relaxation
In training, it is extremely important that you work on this "transition" from being a little stressed to then being able to get down to a completely relaxed state again. And this transition should eventually happen faster and faster. We cannot possibly avoid the horse experiencing a moment where the stress level rises. It will happen when we try to teach the horse something new, or if we trail ride. The important thing is that we register it and then let the horse "recover".
Does the horse stand still on a loose rein?
The horse must be able to stand still on a completely loose rein. If the horse can not stand still, then do not try to hold it back. Instead let the horse move around on a small circle, where you only have contact on the inside rein. Do not pull back on the inside rein, but simply make sure that the horse is guided around on a circle. At some point, the horse will calm down and stop. It is important that the horse, on its own, finds the solution to stop.
Do not force the horse to stand still
The reason why one should not try to force a horse to stand still is that its nature says that it should move its legs when it gets scared. A frightened horse will in nature prepare to flee. Therefore, let the horse move and, for gods sake, do not pull on both reins, as this will just cause even more tension and nervousness.
Horses will always try to get away from pressure
Another thing to be aware of is that the nature of the horse is to get away from pressure or to make pressure disappear. The horses in nature put pressure on each other when they want another horse to move. In herds where the horses know each other well, a tilt of one ear can be enough pressure to make another horse move. This is something to keep in mind when training.
If we as riders have our legs constantly pushing the horse, and at the same time have pressure on the reins. What do we want the horse to do to make us remove all this pressure? Are we removing it at all ?? Often we do not !! Many believe that the horse is "collected" when we push with our legs while keeping firm contact on the reins.
When we "push" nature
However, the nature of the horse means that the horse will try to find a solution to escape the pressure. If this is never successful, then we can end up with horses that kind of shut off. Some horses start to seem lazy / sluggish and others become enormously progressive, but what they have in common is that it feels as if they are not fully present.
The above horses will often do whatever they are asked to do. And most riders like that. But these horses are in a constantly elevated stress level even though they outwardly seem calm. This will affect their body. They lose muscle, get indefinable injuries, colic, ulcers, and other issues. And another thing is that one can risk that these horses suddenly one day go completely nuts.
The horse needs to think about things
Horses learn best if they are allowed to "think" about things. That is, if we ask the horse to do something and the horse becomes insecure or does not respond as expected (perhaps because it does not understand the question), then give it time to find the answer. Do not use all sorts of unnecessary aids to get the horse to do as you wish. Instead of - WAIT. Let the horse reflect a little on the signal you have given. It will try to find the answer !! And when it finally does, it will be so proud if you remember to let go of all the pressure and reward. Horses learn lightning fast this way.
Training problems = Handling problems
Very often it is the case that if there are problems in the training, then it is typically not the only time that there are problems. There will often be problems with trailer loading, problems in the daily handling, aggression when feeding, problems with the farrier, etc. And in addition, there may be various health problems.
In my eyes, it is almost hopeless to have to correct something in the training if the horse is never let out in a field, if the horse lives in a stressed stable environment if the horse is not cared for by a farrier, checked by a vet when needed, gets the saddle adjusted or if it is not fed properly. And the next thing is that if you do not have a horse that is calm in daily handling, then you can not expect anything at all when you ride it.
The horse must learn that it can trust humans
If there are problems in the daily handling of the horse, then you can just as well put the ambitions on the shelf and start correcting things from scratch. And this is not about "teaching" the horse who's the boss. It is about teaching the horse that it can trust us, humans. This is the most important thing we can teach our horses.
If in doubt about how a horse should be handled, think of a child. Here you try to guide, if the child becomes insecure you stop and tell them that everything is fine. If they become completely impossible, you keep calm (you do not start shouting, screaming and attacking them). If you panic yourself, then the children definitely do it too, so you do not !! You try to take everything with a smile, you are determined, but reward when things go in the right direction.
Flight animals - how dangerous are they?
I know some will say that a horse is a large and potentially dangerous animal. To that, I would say - the horse is a flight animal. It is not dangerous unless you prevent it from escaping and instead push it into a corner. For God's sake, never let it get to that !!
Listen to your horse and read its signals
You must learn to listen to your horse and you must learn to read its signals. This requires patience and it will also require putting your expectations on the shelf. If you have no expectations, then you are much more open to the horse's signals and you will find it easier to respect the signals. Without expectations, there is nothing to be stressed or annoyed about.
When the horses find out that you listen to them and you respect them, then they start to show a very special interest in you. They start focusing on one. And if you have their focus, then everything is much easier and you get a much calmer and more hardworking horse.
But it is up to us to change. It is us who must look differently at the training and the company with the horse.