Laying down

I posted a video on Instagram from my lovely training with Vidar yesterday. He gave me the gift of laying down on cue for the first time, which to me is one of the most pure and beautiful gifts you can ever get from a horse.

I was not even planning to go out and work with him, but he was right outside the (open) stable when I went out to check the mailbox. So I walked over to say hi and I happened to have treats in my pocket. He invited me in to the stable and started offering behaviors. Horses have a habit of presenting gifts when we least expect it!

I did not plan for him to actually lay down when I introduced this trick to him, my goal was only to plant a seed in his mind for the future. I wanted him to grasp the downward-thinking and start understanding my wish for him to be close to the ground. But Vidar obviously wanted to do more than just think about it, he wanted to DO it! And I got some comments asking how I got him to understand what I wanted him to do, so I thought that I could share that in this blog post.

I have taught several horses to lay down before but they have all been ponies, Vidar is the first big horse that I’ve done this with. I have tried several different techniques through the years (none of them have included ropes or anything abusive, though) but this time I wanted no shortcuts. No force, no tools, no pressure. With previous horses I have sometimes used the bowing as a shortcut, but this time I wanted to start from zero and not rush things at all.

By not using shortcuts or going in and helping out physically (like using my hands to help him bow or touch his legs) I wanted to make sure that Vidar wanted to lay down. I wanted to make sure that it was his choice to lay down. And by not using tools or shortcuts or pressure I wanted to test myself as a trainer. I wanted to earn this trick even if it would take 10 years before he was ready. With this method I have proven to myself that I really can communicate with my horses without the need for tools or pressure.

But the hard part is not to get them to understand what I want from them, because horses are very smart. Much smarter than we give them credit for! No, the hard part is to get them to WANT to do what I’m asking. Like my previous blog post said:

”You can force the body but never force the mind.”

By using tools and shortcuts you can get the body to where you want it to be. But I wanted his brain to lay down, not his body. Please click the link above to read my other blog post if you can’t make sense of what I’m saying. 

So now that you understand WHY I chose to teach him this way I will explain how we actually did it. First I really encourage you to go out and look at horses. Look at what they’re doing right before they lay down. My horses usually lower their heads, start circling and step in with their hind legs under their bellies. They might paw the ground, swish their tails and look for the right spot to lay down on.

I try to use their own behavior when I teach them to lay down and that’s why I started with one of my favorite behaviors/tricks which is head down. Such a simple thing that really helps with a lot of things, including laying down. I taught him to put his head all the way to the ground when I touched his withers/shoulder/neck.

The next step was to get the hind legs in under his belly. After he got that, I could point at them and he would start stepping in (like in the mountain goat trick). 

After that I taught him the circling part. And the typical ”laying down-circles” are very different from just walking in a normal circle. The hind end swings away and it almost looks like the horse is doing a western spin at a walk. That was what I wanted him to do and I rewared every time he did that characteristic hind swing circle thing, hoping that it would help him understand what I was after.

So after doing these three steps separately I started to teach him how to combine the behaviors into one. And what did I have then?   

A horse that put his head down, stepped in under his belly and did the typical ”laying-down-circles”. And that is about 90% of the finished trick!  The ‘only’ thing left was the actual laying down which I figured would take a long time. But he surprised me yesterday by completing the trick all by himself and I couldn’t be prouder! ❤️ Thank you Vidar for this beautiful gift.

Don’t suppress emotions

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.

Bitless = dangerous

I saw a lovely picture on facebook and it made me really happy! The horse in the picture I saw is a police horse from the Houston police department and their horses are barefoot! How amazing is that? And some are actually also ridden bitless.

One of the arguments I face the most when I talk about bitless riding/driving is that it’s so very dangerous to go without a bit. But then, please tell me why the people who are making a living by keeping everyone safe would put themselves or the ability to do their jobs in danger? It can sometimes be a matter of life or death when it comes to their job and it’s crucial for them to be in control of their horses, so why would they jeopardize that? I don’t think there’s any other horse related activity that requires more obedience, calmness or control from a horse. Yet the police horses are being ridden bitless?

Their horses are working in very challenging environments, lots of noise and people. Far from the calm trailride or the empty arena most people ride in. If they can do their job without a bit there I guarantee that anyone can do it at home. Because after all it only comes down to training. Who is willing to really do the ‘dirty work’ of earning trust, building a relationship and taking the time it takes? The reason so many horses allegedly can’t be ridden bitless is because they have not been properly prepared. There’s simply nothing else to it than that.

If you need a bit for your horse to listen to you, he isn’t really listening.

I usually divide a horse into two parts (just so you will get my point, not because there’s only two parts to a horse). First, we have the brain and then we have the body. I always aim to communicate with their brains instead of their bodies, but the classical way of training a horse is mostly focused on achieving the opposite. They are putting all their focus on getting the body to where they need it to be. 

That is also the reason why there’s so many training gadgets, different nosebands, spurs and sharp bits out on the market. When you are not physically strong enough to move a heavy object you need tools. 

If you can’t get the object (the horse) to go forward fast enough you use a whip. If you can’t get the object to slow down fast enough you use a sharper bit. If you have problems with collecting the object you use draw reins. If you can’t lead the object you use a stallion chain. If your object is moving in the wrong way you put on a lunging harness. If your object responds too slowly you use spurs. If your object is afraid of things you use blinders. If your object is putting its tongue out you put a noseband on.

Do you get what I’m saying? For every problem – there is a tool to be found. A quick fix that magically solves all your problems. Us humans love tools, learning to use them is part of the reason we evolved to the beings we are today. But it’s time to stop trying to go through every tool in the toolbox and actually use our brains instead.

Think of it this way. If I get my horse to a state of mind where his brain is willingly following me and wanting to be with me. Do you think the body will follow the brain?

Or… If my horse refuses to turn so I pull really hard until he finally turns because he gave in to the pain/pressure. His body moved in the direction I wanted, but do you think the brain was turning too? I know this sounds confusing but keep reading, please. What I’m saying is that the body will always follow the brain, but the brain does not necessarily always follow the body. 

If someone bent your finger back until you had to get on your knees to relieve the pressure, would your brain be with you on your knees? Would you suddenly think ”yes, I want to be on my knees now”. Or did your body give in to the pressure even though your brain really wanted to keep standing up? When the pain is gone and your finger has been released, what will happen? Your brain will take over again and you will get back up since you never even wanted to be on your knees in the first place. See, you can force the body but never force the brain.

If you are constantly trying to control the horse’s body (by using tools), what do you think will happen on the day when your tools are no longer working or you remove them (i.e. by going bitless)? The brain will take over instantly and the horse will do what they wanted to do all along. Maybe they’ll run off, go out on a field to eat grass or trot back home with you left on the ground.

But! … What would happen if someone offered you a free back rub, your favorite chocolate or something else that makes you happy. The only thing you would have to do to get it is to get down on your knees for 2 minutes. Would someone have to force your body down or would your brain happily choose to sit there?

You see, when the brain is actively making a choice there’s no need for force. The body will always follow the brain so as long as you have the brain on your side, you’re all set. 

If your horse is choosing to trot next to you with a lead rope on, what would happen if you took the lead rope off? The horse would still trot next to you because that’s what the brain wants to do.

But if you were using the lead rope as a tool to pull your horse forward (controlling his body with pressure/force) and then took the lead rope off, you would get a different result. Without the tool that was controlling the body the brain will take over and it will do what it wanted to do all along, like running away or simply stopping (depending on his/her personality). 

So please remember to try to minimize the use of tools in every way possible if you want a good relationship with your horse. Especially when it comes to liberty training! When you come across a problem, don’t go searching through the toolbox. Use your brain instead!

Are you having a dialogue or a monologue with your horse?

One of the things I get asked a lot is ”what is most important when you are working with horses?”. It’s a hard question to answer but I’ve really thought a lot about it lately. What is it, exactly, that I aim for and how do I get there?

If someone hands me the lead rope of a horse that I’ve never met before I usually feel very misplaced. I actually don’t enjoy handling other people’s horses in most cases. Why? For me it’s kind of the same as trying to communicate with a stranger who doesn’t speak my language. I can often make myself somewhat understood by exaggerating my body language and pointing to show them what I mean but I miss the ability to really talk and have a meaningful conversation.

So the number one goal with any horse that I meet, own or train is always to teach them my language. I want them not to guess but to understand what I’m saying. I want them to understand my ‘words’ so well that they can put them in a full sentence and make sense of it.

But that’s the easy part! Anyone can talk TO a horse, but listening is a lot harder. The reason listening is so much harder is because so many horses are quiet. There’s simply nothing to listen to. And we all know that communication takes place when two individuals are having a dialogue, right? So why is it that so many horse trainers claim to have such a good communication with their horse when the training is in fact nothing but a monologue?

It’s just the trainer’s voice echoing against the horse like a brick wall. What kind of communication is that?

When I’m working with my horses I always encourage them to use their own voices. To speak up. To make themselves heard. I try to engage them in a conversation. To have a dialogue. It’s important for me that they are confident enough to talk to me – always.

If there’s something that I’m asking that they would rather not do, if they have ideas they want to try, if they are too tired or if they need to eat or scratch their leg. No matter what it is I always try to be sensitive to their wants and needs. When us people decide that our goals, our accomplishments, our plans, our thoughts and our needs are more important than theirs – that’s when everything goes wrong.

That’s when our horses shut down and stop talking to us. That’s when we no longer hear a voice talking back at us when we try to listen. I always encourage my horses to speak freely and loudly. I wish that I was perfect and all they needed to do was to whisper, but sometimes they need to raise their voice for me to hear them. 

By punishing their ideas and ignoring their needs you are basically telling them to shut up over and over again. And believe me when I say that they will. How long would you try to communicate with someone who didn’t listen to you? How long would you try to speak to someone who were ignoring you and showed no regard for your feelings? I myself would give up pretty quickly.

So the next time you are watching someone doing amazing things with their horse, take a closer look. Is the trainer having a monologue or a dialogue?