My foster horse, King, is delightful to work with. He loves people so much that when we are out riding, he wants to walk up to people and say hello. Because of how big he is, it freaks people out! He has a cheerful, happy personality, like a big dog. He’s also very chill and non-reactive. His time with the Amish exposed him to so many things that it’s hard to find something that upsets him. I have yet to see him spook at anything. All of that makes him what I consider an “easy” horse in the sense that he doesn’t buck, rear, bolt, spook or work himself up into a nervous state of energy.
He is the most linear horse I’ve ever worked with. What I mean by that is when we work on something, it progresses in linear fashion. He gets better each time. For example, he used to be unwilling to walk away from the barn alone. We worked on it just a few times, and now he walks off alone just fine. He used to get upset about being in the arena alone. He would stand by the gate and refuse to walk more than a short distance away. We worked on that too, and now he is able to walk around the arena calmly. It’s not perfect, but it’s definite improvement. A lot of other horses seem to take one step forward and two steps back. That’s when training can become frustrating.
In the past, I know that I would have asked King for too much. I would have seen how easy he is, and I would have pushed him for more. I know that I would have overwhelmed him without meaning to, and some of his confidence in me would have been lost. I know this because I know how my mindset used to be, that I should get as far in training as fast as I can. A key thing for me was learning when to back off.
The biggest thing my mule taught me is how to allow horses (or mules) to have a choice. When a horse tells me no by being uncomfortable or refusing, I am able to respect that now. Before, I would have tried to force the horse to comply. That’s how I was taught- that you have to make the horse do what you want or else he won’t respect you and his behavior will get worse.
Now I’ve learned a better way. When a horse tells me no, I stop. I pause and ask myself if I’m asking clearly. Am I asking too much too soon? Should we quit and try again tomorrow? I stop and think about how I can make what I want to do appealing to the horse. How can I make him want to do it too?
I think that a lot of naturally good natured horses are turned into problem horses because their owners overwhelm them and ask too much. I could easily have done that with King. His only issue is that he doesn’t like to be alone and separated from the herd. The herd instinct is probably the most primal instinct a horse has. To be alone is to be dead, essentially. Being alone is how wild horses get picked off by predators. Somewhere deep down in his brain, King knows that. Rather than force him, I give him time to think and realize that he’s actually fine and nothing bad happens when we walk away from the gate or the barn. In the past, I might have pushed and pushed and pushed and let it turn into a battle where he felt his only option was to dump me and run home. That’s a lesson I learned from my paint mare, Heidi, because she would not hesitate to dump me. Every single horse I’ve owned or fostered has taught me something very specific that makes me better for the next horse that comes along.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by my own level of patience with King. It took a while to get to the point where I was genuinely willing to wait as long as it took for him to be okay with going out alone. We still have work to do. He doesn’t like to go into the woods alone. We’ll keep working on it though, and I know that as long as I don’t push him too hard or too fast, we’ll get there.
There’s no rush. I’m not in a competition where I have 100 days to get him ready. I’m alone at the barn most of the time anyway, so there’s no one to impress. We’ll keep plugging away at it and I’ll be very careful to preserve his happy, cheerful attitude. The worst thing I could do would be to give him negative experiences under saddle and give him a negative association with being ridden.
This is the part of horse training that I find fascinating. Horses will make you a better person if you let them. There is so much to learn about our agendas, our lack of patience, and our tendency to resort to force when we don’t get our way. I wasn’t a patient person a few years ago, and I still had a lot of ego wrapped up in my horses’ outcomes. My personal development is all thanks to the different horses I’ve gotten to work with. That’s well worth whatever I’m paying to have them in my life.