One part of the ”art of horsemanship” that I don’t agree with is the idea that the horse should suppress its emotions. They don’t want their horses to show fear, be stressed or overly excited.
And to some extent I get that. I want horses that are calm, confident and happy too. The difference is that I don’t aim for my horses to not show fear, I aim for them to not feel scared. I don’t aim for them to not be stressed, I aim for them to not feel stressed. Do you understand the difference? Instead of training my horses to be obedient and suppress their emotions I train them to be confident and expressive.
If something scares them they have the right to show fear. If something makes them anxious they have the right to be stressed about it. My goal is never for my horses to just shut down and stop reacting to the environment. It would be convenient, yes, but it’s not what I’m after. Instead of desensitizing my horse to singular objects like a tarp, a whip, a car, a mailbox, a tractor, a plastic bag, an umbrella etc… I try to see the big picture.
Because what happens when we come across an object that we haven’t worked with before? The horse will need to be desensitized to that object too. Even after desensitizing my horse to 500 different things we will still face new objects that my horse isn’t used to yet. So I think the other way around. What if I can get my horse to be in control of his own reactions?
Then what would happen? If I get my horse to be in control of his reaction to fear, he won’t try to run away when something scares him. If I get him to be in control of his reaction to stress he won’t shut down when something makes him anxious. If I get him to be in control of his excitement he won’t buck me off when he is full of energy. See, I never want to suppress or remove the emotional side of a horse. I never want him to stop feeling. Instead I try to get the reaction under control.
You see, feelings are universal! Fear feels the same whether you are scared of a mailbox or an umbrella. Stress feels the same whether you are stressed about going in the trailer or if you are left alone in the stable. It doesn’t matter what my horse is afraid as long as the fear itself is under control.
So instead of saying ”don’t be afraid of this object, or this object, or this object, or this object” I say ”when something scares you, this is what I want you to do”. I train my horses to stop when they are unsure about something instead of running away. I train my horses to not get high on adrenaline when something stresses them out. Then it doesn’t matter which object we meet.
When we meet a tractor for the first time my horse will not think ”a scary object, I have no idea how to act around this”. He will think of the tractor as ”fear” and know exactly what to do with that emotion. ”Oh this is fear, I stand still and wait for it to pass”. The same goes for excitement!
Imagine being out riding on a field and the horse is all wound up, ready to take off at any second. Instead of thinking ”I must release this wierd feeling in my body NOW” my horse will think ”oh, excitement, I know what to do with this. Head down, deep breaths and some chewing should help”. It’s amazing to see the horses actively helping themselves when they are given the right tools! They don’t want to feel scared or stressed or frustrated. But most of the time they just don’t know what to do with their emotions, and that comes out as ‘bad behavior’.
So by training them to react to their emotions in a positive way the brain will eventually be stronger than the instincts. And that’s when you can really start trusting your horse! A horse that thinks is a horse that’s safe.
I might also add that it’s my responsibility to never put my horses in situations that they are not ready to handle. I ALWAYS aim for them to never feel insecure, scared, frustrated or stressed when I’m working with them. But of course there will be times when they are experiencing these emotions despite my best efforts, and that’s part of life. But the goal is always to prepare them enough so that they feel confident and happy with the challenges that they face.