His name is Normandy, but he goes by Norman at home. He’s been here almost a year now; he belongs to my barn manager. I’ll start by saying he isn’t a rescue. There is no heart-wrenching history. His previous owner loved him dearly. Sure, there are little things to tweak but he’s a good match with his rider, so that makes him perfect.
Ironic that I’d write about him now; Norman is a bit less perfect after playing with his friends a little too hard. He’s recuperating from being kicked in his boy-part. (Note: I would rather use any other term for that body part but I’m not new to blogging or the creeps who google women and horses looking for a word that rhymes with corn. I’ve learned to avoid red flag google-search words. But can you imagine how disappointed the creeps are to land here?) Anyway, Norman is enjoying “special” care these days.
If we’re telling the truth, his confidence wasn’t great when he came, for all the normal reasons; he was young and coming to a new home is a challenge. He worried a bit, it’s a big, crazy world. Sometimes he needed extra encouragement, but who doesn’t? We decided to help him find his sense of humor.
If training can create problems for horses like pain, stress, and ulcers, then it can also create confidence, strength, and a light heart.
It was small things: Cheering wildly when he cantered at liberty. Praise for just being himself. Connecting through acknowledging his calming signals. Asking questions and then crediting him with the intelligence to figure out the answer for himself. Praise for the act of thinking, that important step right before doing. Like all horses, Norman was drawn humans who breathe, so we all obliged him all the time. His eyes got softer and his brows relaxed.
It wasn’t so much what he learned but how he learned it. As an example, he initially had some anxiety at the mounting block. He’d swing his hind away and each time the mounting block was moved, he’d swing away again. Rather than correcting that behavior, adding even more anxiety, we changed the mounting block.
We made it a feel-good place. While standing on top, we’d ask Norman for one step and reward him. When his head got close, he got very long poll scratches and lots of verbal praise. Then another step and a wither massage and exhales of praise. No over-drilling, instead releases and breathing. Now he comes to the mounting block, stands quietly in the perfect spot to mount. We made it easy for him. It’s finding something to reward instead of a reason to punish. Less correction, more direction.
Where to start?
Your horse is a good horse. He’s had some serious training. You can tell because he furrows his brow. And maybe he tries a little too hard. And you have expectations because you’re human.
Your horse is a good horse. You don’t care about work or training, in fact, you’re serious about not working him. Your horse is your soulmate. And you still have expectations because you’re human.
Can we all agree, whether physically or emotionally, it isn’t easy to be our horses? Every calming signal says, “Please, do you have to be so loud?” Half the time we stare at a leg so long, looking for lameness, that we make it lame. We try too hard, we love too hard, and we think too hard. We’re human and the other word for that is busy-in-the-head. We’re even busy-in-the-head about being quiet, for crying out loud.
We don’t need to have less passion for horses, but it would help them if we’d cool its temperature by going slower, cutting tasks into small, bite-size pieces, and taking time to say thank-you. The more I’m around horses, the more I believe relationship is the key to good behavior and shared trust. They don’t want to be over-faced, corrected, or dominated. They also don’t want to become bored lap-dog, snoring along with our deep breathing. Yes, I said it; breathing isn’t enough.
It’s up to us to find the middle ground but it will challenge us. Consistency in our own behavior is the determining factor, can we find a way to always affirm their best side?
Mentor a light heart by having one.
Being light-hearted is the best way to start a young horse and to encourage an elder. It’s how to train piaffe, how to cultivate a performance horse, and how to train a good trail horse. Remember why you have a horse? It can be easy to forget on a day that doesn’t go well. It is a sacred thing to have a relationship with a sentient being who is bigger, quicker, and wild in his heart. The only chance we have to keep up is to be a place he wants to be: Safe, filled with light, and with an idea for affirming that, even if a trailer or a vet call is involved. Who we are is the energy that fuels our horse’s behaviors, and we can choose that energy.
Can your horse tell if you’re faking a good mood? This is the kind of question, like Norman’s question about the mounting block, that pre-disposes a bad outcome. Maybe a better question is does it matter to him that you’re faking it? If it starts a positive tendency, who cares how it starts? We ask horses do to things out of their natural behavior all the time. It seems fair that we behave un-naturally positive; after all, the leader is the one who goes first.
Because some of us like to have lists…
How to “train” a sense of humor in a horse:
- Encourage fun in the arena at liberty or under-saddle. Play hard at work.
- Encourage the horse’s individuality and personality. Let him figure it out his way.
- Encourage him by not correcting or drilling. Let your creativity keep it interesting.
- Encourage curiosity at all times; it’s a sign of courage, always to be rewarded.
- Encourage yourself to laugh. It’s the easiest reminder to breathe.
So, this summer Norman had his first chiropractic appointment, complete with acupuncture needles. Our vet arrived with two huge Naugahyde-covered blocks. He marched forward all on his own (slack lead) with a curiosity to his ears. A small sniff and he lifted his huge hoof up to test this weird mounting block thingy and we laughed. The vet encouraged him to do more, so he pawed it and we cheered. At one point, I thought he might flip it into the air, he played and tested it, totally engaged. Oh, and the vet visit went really well, too.
How to train a horse to have a sense of humor? Easy, find your own.
Most of the things we think we need to train in a horse, aren’t necessary. The problem is actually our lack of belief in their intelligence. Or maybe our ego about our own intelligence. We can bicker about it between ourselves or we can go exploring. It’s a beautiful world out there.