Watch this video for a brief conversation from a recent workshop about this topic.
Is it a training issue?
Stop trying to train away fear or pain.
So many times over the years I've heard others discuss a behavior problem and say “He needs X type of training”. They pack the horse off to a trainer who specializes in solving that behavior problem, and he or she either solves it or not. The horse comes home. The owner starts again, and in the same way, or in another form that issue pops up again. This can go on and on, until the owner (and the horse) think that it is unsolvable.
Stop trying to “train” a baffling issue away. There are very few behaviors that are strictly training issues. It serves us and the horse to look at every challenge from a (w)holistic viewpoint. Here's a case in point:
Recently I went to do bodywork on a lovely home grown jumping horse. The owner gave me no information about “issues”, however over the course of our session, in addition to the information the horse gave me, the owner made a few comments that revealed that the horse wasn't jumping as well as she expected. As I entered the stall, the owner was already there, and the horse was mouthing her constantly. Nipping at her clothes, pressing his mouth on her and looking around and repeating that behavior.
I usually begin a bodywork session with an energy scan. It calms the horses and as they feel into it they reveal where discomfort lives in their body. Often they are able to even release discomfort during the original body scan. This horse could not relax into it, so I quickly went to doing mouth work to try to ease his anxiety. It calmed him a little bit, as horses often store their emotions and express their emotions through their mouths and their tails.
Then I went on to do a full body session. The horse relaxed completely. No more mouthing. When I went on to work on his tail, I found it to be very still and stiff. Then tail work took him even deeper and finally he relaxed release his tail.
At that point, his owner mentioned that the horses who jump the “best” flag their tails. An “aha”! Behavior is dependent on function! The horse can't do their best when some part of them is in discomfort of some kind! And you can't train discomfort away. This horse was 11 years old and had been in training almost all of his life. But the mouthiness, and the “less than expected” jumping had never changed.
In a follow up text she said: “I had three really nice rides afterwards” Even after watching her horse transform and reach relaxation and bliss, and then having three great rides, she still couldn't believe or didn't make the connection that the horse has discomfort that is dictating his behavior and that he doesn't live up to her expectations because he can't. Even His mouthiness remained far less than before our session. In one session we had dramatically reduced a “behavior problem” that she had been trying to train away for years.
This horse obviously was very connected to his owner. He looked to her frequently and often just touched her, looking for assurance. He had been trying to tell her that he was uncomfortable for all those years. Imagine how much he longed for her to understand that he is uncomfortable and trying to do his best.
Another story of illustration. Many years ago I worked with an owner of several Paso Fino show and trail horses. One of her mares would not have her feet picked up, and could not stand still in cross ties.
I gave her a short program of 15 minutes a day for one week. When I returned the next week, the horse stood quietly and allowed us to pick up each of her feet. The program I gave them was easy, quiet, calm and relaxing.
Trying to “train” that behavior away would have take far more time, effort, danger and anxiety to both horse and owner, and would not likely have been resolved in 1 week.
I always find discomfort when I work on horses with behavior problems. There is a direct connection. You cannot “train away” pain or fear. The way to “solve” behavior problems is to search out the causative discomfort and reduce it or, if you are compassionate, attentive and willing, to find the right practitioner to help you and your horse remove the discomfort.
Imagine yourself as an athlete. Your coach has you on a certain program of skill building and workouts designed to increase your ability and performance. At a certain point you have pain coming from somewhere, but you cannot tell him about it. Gradually your performance declines, or at a certain requirement you refuse to do it. You take pain killers. Your coach adds more practice, or increases or changes your workout. Your performance continues to decline, as the pain killers lose their effective ness, and you reach the point where you just can' t do it.
How successful will you be at competing and fulfilling expectations? My guess is that you will not be successful, and may even be dropped by your coach, or you may quit.
This is the situation so many of our horses find themselves in today. As horses are bred for greater and greater performance, and our jumps get higher, the competition in every sport gets tougher, our expectations get higher, and yet, horses are still made of flesh and blood, emotion and thought. They have physical, mental and emotional pain, and they cannot express it in words. In order to help them fulfill our hopes and expectations we need to become detectives.
We need to carry around our notebook, like that old detective, Columbo. Asking ourselves and others who have regular contact with our horse questions about our horse's behavior. Noticing what makes him feel better, and what doesn't. Paying attention to his injuries and indicators of pain. Keeping notes.
Gradually, by noticing the clues, just like a detectives, we begin to get a picture of what, where and why the pain or fear is, and we can begin to relieve it. This is where the search for treatment begins.
I admire and respect veterinarians. I have friends who are veterinarians. It is always good to consult with your vet before taking any large or sustained action. Xrays, MRI's and other diagnostic tools are invaluable. However, they don't show many painful and especially fearful debilitations. Don't assume your veterinarian will necessarily know what is troubling your horse. For most veterinarians, if they can't figure it out, they will tell you it is a training problem.
After you have gotten a diagnoses, you get to decide the treatment. Unfortunately, most veterinarians only have drugs or surgery to offer. Many ignore or deride treatments that have shown to be more successful in the long run than their relatively new “scientific” treatments.
So I urge you to pay attention to “complimentary” and “alternative” therapies, even to the extent of Animal Communicators. Most of them are beneficial and very few have negative side effects. So even if one doesn't work for you and your horse, at least your horse won't have to deal with side effects that may be more damaging in the long run than the original discomfort.
Many therapies, like acupuncture, have been around healing beings for far longer than modern veterinary medicine. Many of them take a much more (w)holistic view of the horse as a being, and as a result, are able to get to the cause of the discomfort rather than just palliate or surgically alter the problem.
Changing behavior quite often isn't a training problem, and continuing to try to train it away will result in your horse being put in more discomfort and fear. In this new world of higher expectations and performance it is necessary to take that more holistic view and do everything within your power to find out what is bothering your horse that makes him choose that behavior that drives you wild.
This is not an unrealistic or pie in the sky expectation of us as owners. It is a responsibility and honor to serve these incredibly generous beings who agree to play our games, and try to fulfill our expectations.
Finding and relieving pain and fear can be as simple as this one hour session I had with the jumping horse. Although admittedly it will take longer and be more demanding to reduce or remove a behavior that has been there for a long time.
What ever it is, it is our duty and can be our joy to show them we understand, relieve their pain, and create a true partnership relationship that acknowledges their huge contribution to our lives. Seeing their unwanted behavior as something that needs to be “trained” away robs us of that connection and joy, and makes them slaves to our wishes, rather than our partners.
Want to become a better “horse detective” so you can find the pain or fear issues that are troubling your horse? Attend a workshop, clinic, or private session, or get mentoring online. Or attend the upcoming “Open Your Heart with Horses Retreat” in Costa Rica, where you'll learn Ttouch and Awareness techniques that will show you how you can find the things that are holding your horse back and how to connect more deeply with your horse and others. www.wholehorsemanship.com/costarica