Life with our horse becomes so much easier when we understand the different ways in which the different horse personalities behave when they are afraid or confused AND when we know how to handle those differences.
I have many different types of personalities in my herd, but Caretaker horses – possibly the most misunderstood horses on the planet – are a crusading passion of mine. Sooo many “problems” with horses come down to the horse trying to look after their person and being misunderstood. Sooo many problems come from a horse being a bit unsure of what you want and not being given enough time to figure it out and the anxiety that builds up because of that.
If you have any trouble with the audio player, click hear to listen to The Eighth Key to Happiness.
Later addition: Click here for an excerpt from Zen Connection with Horses about The Warrior Horses.
Written Version of the Audio
Just about every problem that we have with our horse has its source somewhere in fear and or confusion. That’s no exaggeration… Just about every problem.
While you are practicing getting good at your inner guidance system, it’s good to have an intellectual understanding of the different ways that horses behave when they are afraid or confused.
Some horses run.
Most horses tend to run away (or try to) when they afraid or confused. They spook, they shy, they jig out on the trail, they go faster and faster, they even bolt, they spin around trying to go home and this is just a tiny list of what they can do. And most humans don’t enjoy any of those things, so we apply all kinds of gadgets to prevent that from happening. It’s as if the gadget itself is going to make us safe. I wonder how that’s working for all those way too many people who have accidents on horses?
And if you think about all the “badly” behaved horses that you’ve seen, I think you’ll notice that those gadgets and the way that they are used to stop the horse from running away when they are scared or confused, ARE THE ACTUAL ROOT CAUSE of even worse behaviour, like bucking, rearing, pig rooting, just as a small handful of examples.
And all this happens simply because when the horse can’t run away from what they are afraid or confused about, they have to express their fear or confusion in some other way that is usually MUCH more anti-social to the human.
In fact, as you start to pay attention to this, I think you are going to notice how many simple “problems” are also caused by fear and/or confusion and by the horse being unable to get away from the causes of that fear and confusion.
So HOW do we fix these problems?
There is a simple solution.
Back off and take the pressure off them when they are afraid or confused and they won’t have to try and run away. With this gentle philosophy, even a novice rider can develop a beautiful relationship where the horse can learn to look after you too – as you look after them.
When you follow your good feelings and use your early warning signal that something is Not Quite Right, for change like we talked about in The Fourth Key, then you can notice your horse’s fear and confusion long before they have it expressed in their body language. It gives you a chance to do something before something bad even happens.
When you wait for The Chew like we talked about in The Seventh Key, that will give them time to think through what you are looking for (that dramatically reduces the opportunity for confusion) AND give them time to release old brain pathways that are having them react in fearful ways that are not so useful to you and to them now. (Dry Aussie understatement there. 🙂 )
Did you notice that you now have a very simple way to help a horse change their fearful habits? Do you realize what a big deal that is?
Some horses fight.
When my horse Sunny arrived, she had a natural instinct to use her teeth and feet when she was afraid and she used them pretty easily to both bite and kick and crikey she was fast. That kind of behavior wasn’t something I was used to, I didn’t enjoy it (there’s that Aussie understatement again!) and it was quite unsafe (another understatement).
As I worked with her, following the good feelings and using Not Quite Right for change, developing our relationship – her behavior got better and better. Actually I learned a new depth of inner guidance with Sunny because my safety depended on it!
At one point in my work with her, she released the incident that set that strong fight pattern up. I’ll tell you the “how” story another day. But she showed us how she was a tiny foal when she was cornered in a stable and the halter was wrestled on for the first time. She fought like crazy and it set up that strong fight pattern – in fact because of this event happening in the first two days of her life, it IMPRINTED a brain pattern of bite and kick and defend yourself first, think later.
I knew we had done a good job helping her to release those dangerous habits, when one day I was walking past the rear end of my Caretaker horse Bobby dozing under a tree (more about Caretakers in a minute) and noticed a biting annoying bot fly hovering around his hocks. So I put a hand up on his butt and smooched to warn him that I was there and slapped his hock to kill the fly.
And Sunny – startled – leaped away from me at a hundred miles an hour.
In the moment, I had mistaken whose butt it was. It wasn’t Bobby’s big butt, it was Sunny’s, who I would NEVER have treated so casually. And in fact, treating her like that a week earlier would probably have got my head kicked off.
I believe that if someone pushed her far enough, that she is still a natural fighter – it is part of what will make her a good mother – but it’s no longer boiling away on the surface, no longer a danger to me and others.
Some horses fidget.
Sue next door has a young horse called Will, who is one of the horses who fidgets when he is afraid or confused. It can be very annoying if you don’t understand that it is his expression of feeling overwhelmed. He moves around and fiddles with things, chews the rope, nips at whoever is near him. And a nip that gets you, even a playful nip, is a bite that hurts and that is not OK with me.
He’s like a big gawky teenager who doesn’t know what to do with himself, shuffling around being a pain in the neck.
The thing to understand with horses like Will, is that HE IS OVERWHELMED. He is afraid or confused and like all the other horses who express their fear and confusion in different ways to him – we need to back off, take the pressure off him and wait for The Chew.
So think about it – if we punish one of these fidgeting horses for nipping for example – then we are punishing them for being afraid or confused. What kind of a relationship would that give us, to punish a horse for their fear or confusion? You can’t see my eyebrows raised into my hair line but I hope that you can hear it in the tone of my voice. 🙂
If you don’t back off, slow down, break things down into baby steps or do whatever it takes to help a horse not be afraid or confused – then you are adding pressure to fear or confusion.
And adding pressure to fear or confusion can only create MORE fear and confusion. And how are they going to deal with that?
Some horses faint.
I’ve never personally come across a horse who faints when they are overwhelmed with fear, thank goodness, but I have heard of a couple.
I don’t like to think of horses as victims but to think of a horse fainting with fear is quite shocking to me – specially when it’s easily and simply solved by systematically listening to our horse and using our early warning signal to respond to fear and confusion in its early stages.
Some horses freeze.
Natural Caretaker horses – this is one of my favorite subjects.
There are a whole heap of incredibly generous horses in all kinds of different breeds who are The Caretaker Horses. Caretaker Horses tend to look after us and our kids before they look after themselves.
You can often recognize one of these horses by the fact that they could be going forward better. If you have a horse that you think needs you to carry a stick, a whip or spurs to go forward properly, then I expect that you have a very precious NATURAL Caretaker Horse.
Caretaker horses can be found in any breed, but there are many breeds of horses who tend to be Caretakers too and lots of Warmbloods, Connemaras and Morgans come into this category.
This story about our tiny miniature Blondie tells us more about Caretakers – but while you’re reading this, I suggest that you all pay special attention to the signs and symptoms of a Caretaker Horse.
Blondie was one of the scaredest horses I have ever met – right up there in the top ten and because of what I do for a living, I have met a lot of scared horses. But many people wouldn’t have noticed how scared she was, because Blondie is that precious, precious horse who stops when they are confused or afraid and that personality trait made and makes her just perfect for looking after my tiny granddaughter.
Picture it folks – when a plastic bag suddenly blew across her path, she jumped a little, but then she stopped and kept Bree safe. When the dog rushed behind her suddenly, she jumped a little and then stopped and kept Bree safe. When someone lifted an umbrella, came up to her with a pram, crept up behind her with a pushbike, frightened her with the loud roar of a motor bike – all of these things she stopped and kept Bree safe instead of running away.
Her general behavior is to stop, freeze and not go forward until she is OK. Isn’t that just the most perfect personality trait for our beginners or our nervous riders or even just as we get older and the ground gets harder to fall on?
And what do we do with these incredibly generous and precious horses when we don’t understand what’s happening? We crack them over the butt with a whip. “Get that horse moving!”, “Make her do it, she’s just being stubborn!”. We tell the kids to ”kick that pony up”. We use spurs to drive them forward.
We can’t have it both ways.
If we want horses with personality traits generous enough to look after us and our children easily, then we have to deal with them gently when they stop, freeze or won’t go forward. We have to deal with them from the knowledge that they are afraid or confused – NOT pig headed, stubborn or being a bad horse.
I’ve seen horses and ponies with their minds broken by being misunderstood in this way. Their personality trait is to stop when they are afraid or confused and they have had the stop beaten out of them. When this happens, they can’t look after their person any more.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes with Blondie, but generous little soul that she is, she has forgiven all of them. I’ve gone bulldozing through her fear threshold too hard, too fast and too often – because it’s way too easy to do that when a horse is as generous as she is and stands still when she’s afraid.
Here’s something that is incredibly important…
It’s just as important with these horses to help them feel safe with all kinds of things – as it is with the horses who run or fight when they are afraid.
We need to help them find their Comfort Zone with all kinds of things that they are going to see and experience – either routinely – or as they get out and about and meet more scarey things. Maybe it’s even more important because it’s way too easy for us to leave them in fear or confusion.
So… what do you think?
Which of these types of horses describes the way that your horse has been acting lately?
I expressed it like that, because I suggest that you don’t get hooked into defining your horse too much – they can change in the moment. A Caretaker can get a fright big enough to make them run and Sunny, my “fight” horse, like most horses indeed, wants to learn how to take care of people – it’s just that she can’t do that when she is afraid and/or confused.
The Ninth Key, coming up, is another biggie.