Lessons From Versace
In the introduction post I talk about the position of the horse at the halt. I would like to talk further about this in regards to Versace and his session. Versace found it difficult to use his back end muscles for any length of time and they were easily fatigued. This is very common in young horses in for training as they adjust to a new way of moving. Balance and strength must be developed to allow for movement capable of supporting a rider. We must be mindful of how difficult this is for the young horse, and how we interpret their behaviour.
Back End Fatigue
There were a few instances in his training session where Versace demonstrated really well a young horse becoming fatigued in his back end muscles, even at the halt. Standing with his weight balanced on his back end was causing him to use back end muscles in a static way that he wasn’t accustomed to. As a consequence these muscles were relatively weak and under-developed, and fatigued easily.
In a few instances, he adjusted his weight to his front end by moving his feet and redistributing his weight on the spot. If we were viewing this horse through a lens of respect or dominance or obedience, it would be easy to think of this horse being disrespectful or disobedient in moving his feet when he was asked to stand still.
However, by acknowledging this horse was doing something (standing using his back end muscles) that would cause his back end muscles to fatigue quickly, it was easy to understand his foot movement as shifting his weight back to his forehand to give his back end a break. By being aware that this was a possibility I was able to note the shifting of his whole body weight forward to confirm this was the case. Would it have been fair to punish this horse for moving his feet? Can you imagine the possible emotional damage to a young horse, when he is trying so hard to use new muscles, and then he is punished for shifting to a position he finds more familiar and comfortable after he’s already done the thing he was asked to do for some time?
The other thing Versace demonstrated really well were a few instances where he was so unbalanced on his back end that he fell forward onto his forehand and stumbled forward a few steps. Again, if we viewed this through a lens of dominance and disrespect, we could justify punishing the horse for stepping forward and through his forward boundary. Instead, by recognising that this young boy was off balance and simply stepping forward to balance himself and stop himself from falling, I am able to simply help him back into his position where I wanted him. No punishment and no stress. In this instance the horse was not intentionally trying to push past me, he was unintentionally falling forward because of his body position and lack of back end strength.
I see all too often horses being punished for falling on their forehand and into their handler. The horse is perceived as being “pushy” or lacking respect. Punishment makes the horse nervous, the horse then sets themselves further on their forehand, and then they are more inclined to fall and ‘push.’ This is a clear instance where asking the horse to get into a relaxed posture could have assisted the horse to settle their mind and prevent them from involuntarily falling forward.
A More Gentle Approach
Asking the horse to yield to poll pressure and to get into a relaxed posture could avoid any argument or fight between horse and handler in this instance. This is where those initial foundation training steps and concepts really start to pay dividends in creating and maintaining a positive learning environment without fear, fighting or punishment. It is also easy to see from this example, that a simple misinterpretation by the handler – misinterpreting a loss of balance as a willful disobedience or ‘pushing’ – can lead to further confusion and distress in a horse who was previously trying really hard to do as he was asked.
Punishment doesn’t work. It is our job as horse handlers and trainers to recognise what is actually going on for the horse, and support them through their difficulties. In this case, the issue for the horse was needing support to build the correct muscles and practice movement using his back end to begin forming those neural connections for movement. It is our job to find a way to do this whilst fostering engagement and confidence for the horse, rather than punishing their try.