Equestrian Spirit

Do what makes your heart sing

How I became the unteachable student

If you know me in person, or have had any lessons with me I think you would understand the sentiment that "I forget that I'm quirky". Because for me, I'm just being me, I don't know how to be any other way. Over the years I have embraced whole heartedly quirky horses, in my opinion they have character, personality and bring something to the table to help me grow as a rider and a person. 

The most common problem I see with problem horses is that they feel misunderstood. They can't get their message across to their handler and so the behaviour has to get bigger, louder and more "dangerous" for their handler to take a step back and question what is wrong with them. 

This is hard for me to communicate because, again, I feel like everyone thinks like this until I realise they don't. 

I grew up with the standard do, do, do, make, make, make style of teaching. I didn't know any other way. When I moved to Brisbane I had a very inspiring mentor and boss that challenged the way I trained and rode, to see the horse as an equal and work with it as such. I seriously went down the rabbit hole with this, but it bought me to a better place of understanding, where I could see, feel and hear the horse and not just use it as a performance animal, a tool that would stroke my ego for "how well I could ride". Now at the time I undid a lot of my training style, I was in the process of letting go of my limiting beliefs, my limiting training techniques and was starting to see some amazing results with regard to the interaction I was getting from my horses, their willingness to participate in the work, their keen interest in learning and opening up a pathway of communication. See if we are constantly telling horses to do this, do that, you're wrong, you're naughty, you're not doing a good enough job, you end up with a very frustrated, confused animal that is completely demoralised and broken down to robotic action. They are not inspired to dance, learn, adapt and strive but to just get in, get it done and hopefully get a pat and let out to the paddock when their done. This idea that they are "just an animal" is so utterly flawed at its foundations. Just because they are an animal doesn't mean that they can't learn, think and feel. They still have all the same biochemical pathways. Just because they don't have tear ducts and a voice and therefore can't express their feelings the way we do, doesn't mean the don't feel.

Ever heard of the expression happiness is just a chemical? Well those chemicals are serotonin and dopamine and yes horses make those chemicals. They also feel stress (cortisol). The hormone prolactin increases when we are sad (horses also produce this hormone). Plus many of the other hormones whereby variations in the concentrations affect how we feel and think. To say a horse does not feel or does not feel sad would be to say they do not produce hormones and do not produce biochemical interactions of the nervous system. These hormones are messengers that have evolved over a millenia to help our internal environment react to, digest and understand our external environment. Driven by survival it was why experiences that will improve our survival chances feel good and experiences that will not feel bad. (Don't agree? I'd love to chat it out)

To affect positive training you need to:

  • Allow them to express their grievances
  • Allow them to make their own decisions
  • Allow them to express their personality
  • And then through consistent discipline allow them to express themselves, their personality, their wants, needs and desires in a positive way that is conducive to progress. Shutting them down each time they try is a sure fire way to a lack lustre, depressed animal. 

So back to my story, I had come leaps and bounds in establishing a relationship and a 2 way conversation with the horses I was working but it did mean that I lost some of the quality in my training. Basically because I wasn't hounding, forcing and making but because I was allowing the horse to figure out what I wanted and try. And I started to feel the difference between when they weren't doing it because they couldn't, when they weren't doing it because they didn't understand, when they were and weren't giving me their 100% and when they weren't doing it because they were challenging me to see if they can get out of it. Let me be absolutely clear with this statement:

Getting louder, stronger, harder will not make a horse that doesn't understand what you want understand. It will not make a horse that cannot do what you are asking do it. All it will do is leave giant gaps in your training where the horse and you have compromised on one aspect or another in achieving your quality. 

So in my lesson one day we were working on a task and I knew my horse was trying his little heart out and my instructor was saying more, more, more and stronger, stronger, stronger and I stopped and I said "there has to be a better way". I guess she must've been fed up with me by this stage because she told me I was unteachable and walked out and refused to teach me anymore. This absolutely shattered my world. Me!?! Unteachable!?! But I'm such a good girl!! I've always got the good grades!! I've always done as I'm told!! I've always tried my hardest!! And this person, who was my mentor, my inspiration and my coach guiding me forward in my riding journey quit on me because I was unteachable. And I get it, because she didn't know any other way, and the person who taught her didn't know any other way and the person who taught them didn't know any other way. The only way to get a horse to do what you want to the quality that you want is to make them. You have to push, push, push, push. Well I'm here to tell you I no longer subscribe to that way of riding and there is another way. 

Inspiring your horses quirks, personality and self expression

  • Consistency... because horse loooove routine
  • Discipline... because we still need to be safe around them
  • Teach them how to learn... because they need to learn how to focus their brain power like when a child goes to school. 
  • Use your training to develop their musculoskeletal system correctly... because a horse that feels good for exercise will enjoy it
  • Allow them to try, to get it wrong and to make mistakes... because hand holding only gets you so far the horse needs to make the mistake to learn it was a mistake. 
  • Let your training get messy... because if you are always trying to cover up your mistakes you will never ride for each stride you will always ride to correct the previous stride.
  • Encourage them to seek your guidance... because if they are not seeking our support and guidance than why are we even doing this!?!
  • Let them correct you when you get it wrong... because your horse knows better than you how the exercises make them feel and what parts of their body are stiff and tight and need warming up
  • Spend more time with them out of the saddle than in the saddle... because if you really want a relationship with your horse you need to let them be themselves and when you are trying to keep yourself safe you because lets face it the ground hurts, you can't always allow for that. 
  • Cross train, find training exercises they enjoy and do them more often... because horses get bored of circles too!
  • Look for lack of resistance not complete submission... because the quality you are looking for could be wrong or unachievable at this stage of development and reward is the best way to encourage the horse to seek the right answer.
  • Use positive reinforcement in your training more than negative... because if you want an inspire horse seeking the right answers it comes from the reward no the reprimand
  • Let them be horses... because they are horses. Don't try and change them, if you don't like the heat get out of the kitchen!
  • Teach them how to process pressure/release... because the tool we use to communicate with is pressure from halter, bit, legs etc.

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