I had two great questions from our online student Erica that I just answered.
Q1 – I always notice your movement with the horses and see you moving backwards a fair amount. I was always taught that we must do everything possible to NOT move backwards, because doing so would indicate ‘being moved’ by them, or being ‘less’ in rank. and conversely we can bring about more confidence in an insecure horse by letting them move us. As I watch our herd I always notice that horses lower in rank are moved easily off their spot, while the herd leaders are not usually moved unless challenged.
Can you explain a bit for me?
Thanks for your questions Erica. For your first question, I don’t like to have rigid rules like “we must move the horses feet and not let them move ours”. Yes this is a common belief and there are times when I will want to ask the horse to move, but it depends on the situation and the horse emotional state. My number one priority is to avoid conflict with the horse. I try very hard to always have our interactions kind and communicative. I want to be what I want to see! If I have a very anxious defensive horse, it is common that they will want to step close to you. Defensiveness is often confused with dominance. We really need to read the anxiety levels. A dominant horse isn’t usually anxious. Sometimes my youngsters (yearlings & two year olds) can get pushy with me, but there is no feeling of anxiety. They are very confident in their expression. If they are rude to me by pushing into my space, I will ask them not to and to move away. If they respond in a pushy way, I will often move them off at a trot to really show them it is not ok.
When I work with defensive anxious horses the feeling is very different. We need to take a moment to define the word “defensive”. A defensive horse is trying to defend themselves because they feel fear which shows in their anxiety or elevated energy. If I was to become bigger and move these horses it is likely that I will reinforce that they had a reason to be defensive. The next step for them is the need to defend themselves which can show in aggression. This is the opposite of the direction I want to move in. Each situation is unique, but I like to think about creating space. I don’t want them close to me if they are anxious as it might not be safe, but I need to think outside the box. If I step back from a horse like this, I’m not inviting them to follow. I ask them clearly to stay where they are. I find that this can really reduce their anxiety and help them to think and not feel so worried and reactive. Over and over I have seen this have very positive results.
Q2 – Another question I have is that I see often how you reward your horses by touching their mouths and that they seem to enjoy that. I’m pretty sure you are not offering them food every time, and that they seem to want to lick without biting. Is this true? Are they feeling rewarded and connected (obviously) with you when you offer to connect with them this way?
For me the most important part about touch is that it is mutual. Humans have such a strong desire to touch horses, pat horses and love horses in our monkey touching ways. Many horses don’t really like this, they put up with it but they are not asking to be touched. When we have done something really good with a horse, we want to reward them and our go to is touch (or treats). During training I rarely use food, so the touching you are seeing is just touch. Treats have a negative effect on the significance of what just happened because they pull the horses and our minds out of the special experience, to the treat. We want our horses to stay focused on the joy of what just happened and the good energy passing between us. Some people are against touching a horses mouth because they worry it will create biting. With our young colts who are mouthy, I don’t touch their mouths as it does encourage them to nip, bite and “boy” play which I don’t want. The problem is, people create these rigid rules which are not relevant for all horses. For example, Expresso takes a huge amount of pleasure in licking my hand when he feels good about our work. If I was strict with a rule like no touching of mouths, I would never know this beauty and the incredible feeling of love and gratitude that I feel from him. It’s so strong he often brings me to tears.