Controlling Emotions in Horse Training
By Will Clinging
Over the past few months I have been working with Jax, my current resident project. Jax is a six-year-old Friesian-Hanoverian cross gelding who has a few common issues which unfortunately were causing him to become unreliable to ride, resulting in his owner losing her confidence and thus her enjoyment of riding. Readers first met Jax in my column, Starting Over, in the October 2012 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
During this time I have learned much about Jax and his behaviour. In my last article (December 2012 issue of Canadian Horse Journal) I talked about how the weakness in his back was making work under saddle difficult for him. As a result we have been doing a lot of tension-relieving exercises and strengthening work on the lunge line, and he is definitely getting stronger. During the work on the lunge I saw some things that gave me more insight into his behaviour.
The arena I have been working in has a roundish pen set up in one end. I also have a manure tub against the wall on the outside to make cleaning up easier. My Border Collie, Sass, who is almost always with me and generally a big help with keeping the horses from escaping the round pen, likes to stop behind the manure tub. One particular day I was lunging Jax and things were going fine until Sass, who was doing her usual job on the outside of the round pen, came to a sliding stop behind the manure tub. As Jax passed by the tub, she took off again in the opposite direction. This, for some reason, startled Jax and he gave a bit of a jump forward. The movement caused some footing to spray up against the arena wall, startling him again, but this time he came completely unglued.
This was not an unusual situation, but this particular incident was different because I was convinced that Jax was not scared. He was mad. I will not call it angry, but certainly it was an intense frustration that caused him to melt down.
It is important to understand the intentions behind a response especially when the response is explosive. A fear based reaction calls for a different training approach than that used for a confused response, and different again if the same action results from frustration. These three different outcomes make for three different identifiable intentions for the same stress factor. The intentions are important to understand.
Offering your horse support when he is scared will boost his confidence in himself and you, and will empower him to be responsible for his own actions. Photo courtesy of Troxel
A fear based reaction is a survival mechanism that shuts down the brain and fills the body with adrenaline, increasing intensity and speed to improve the horse’s odds of survival in a potentially life threatening situation. Instinctive reaction can be seen as aggressive by its action, but is defensive in its nature.
A confused response is more deliberate but based mostly on evasion or getting away from a stress factor that is upsetting but not overwhelming. Responses to stress factors not thoroughly understood or feared can also lead to responses that are in line with what we were asking of the horse but are performed accidentally.
A frustrated reaction can lead to what essentially amounts to a temper tantrum. It is usually a violent refusal that is not based on fear, used to remove the stress factor through avoidance, increased resistance, and, sometimes, aggressive behaviour. Such a response can mean that the horse has lost control of his emotions and has allowed frustration to control his actions.
Understanding the intentions behind the horse’s action is essential in determining whether to support an action or correct it. It also determines to what degree you should support or correct. This will affect the confidence of the horse either positively or negatively.
Basically, if the horse is scared and gets in trouble, he will become more afraid and rely more on his instincts to survive. This creates increased sensitivity to stress, causing him to panic more and more quickly with less and less pressure. This horse will not have the skills to think about the situation he is in, and he will not be rational when asked to perform simple tasks. He will assume that everything is a threat and he will be unwilling and incapable of learning, with no confidence in himself or his handlers.
If the horse is scared and gets some support to remove his fears, he will learn that he can deal with his fears. This helps change his reactions to responses where he is not overwhelmed with fear, and can start to understand what relevance things or actions have. This allows him to think about finding comfort, which in turn supports learning based on reward and encouragement, empowering him to be responsible for his own actions. That acceptance of responsibility will keep him out of trouble and increase his confidence.
When the horse’s explosive behaviour is due to frustration, it is more difficult to deal with. Correcting this behaviour requires a certain level of intensity. There is a fine line between aggression, and confidence, and assertiveness. The amount of physical force used can be the same; the difference – just like with horses – lies in our intentions. Any action from us made in anger or with maliciousness is never acceptable. You need to have the intensity to get the horse’s attention and to strongly suggest that his behaviour is not acceptable, but you also need to show the kindness that says: I will not hurt you no matter how badly you behave. It is very difficult to strike this balance of emotions.
It is a great responsibility for us as handlers to really think not just about what we are doing, but also about why we are doing it. The wrong course of action on the part of the handler could have serious consequences for the horse.
So… back to Jax. When he exploded, I was pretty sure that his actions were caused by frustration. I was able to get Jax to pay attention again, slow down, and relax, but my tolerance of his explosiveness had to change. He needed to know that if he could not control his emotions, there would be a correction just as intense as his own actions had been. This, of course, did not go over well with him at first, but he relented and was able to regain his composure, even seeming apologetic. The next day, there was a similar outburst with a similar outcome for him. Since then, he has tried to be in better control of himself, and his attitude towards me has changed for the better. He has always been easy to deal with on the ground but has become more affectionate and involved when I am with him.
Under saddle, as he continues to grow stronger, Jax is gaining confidence being ridden without his anxiety level increasing. He is not waiting for trouble and I think he has stopped expecting things to go wrong. There is still a lot of work to do before he is totally reliable, but he is on the path to recovering his confidence in himself and his rider. We still need to work on developing his balance, especially at canter. Although his back is stronger that it was, he still has a ways to go. He is still a long term project but I am feeling much more comfortable with his progress over the past month or two.
With a horse like Jax, and many others out there, the road to success is slow and full of complications. Complicated horses often have complicated, multi-faceted solutions. Looking only at Jax’s behaviour would not give us all the answers; nor would addressing only his physical weakness. An open mind, empathy, and the willingness to change direction with your approach to training will eventually reveal the path to success.
Main article photo: Just Chaos/Flickr
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.