Understanding the Confused Horse
By Will Clinging
When we work with horses there are certain situations we are bound to run into sooner or later. We have all had a horse refuse to do something we asked him to do. When we encounter this situation, how should we deal with it? There are different forms of refusal and they should be dealt with appropriately. There is the confused horse that did not understand what you asked, or the resistant horse that does understand but refuses to perform. For the scope of this article, I will concentrate on the confused horse.
Confusion is an emotion that we do not always allow our horses to feel. When you work with your horse, think about the horse as being always right. Most horses want to please us, so when they respond to a cue, they respond the way they think we want them to.
If your horse does not respond the way you wanted him to, it means you gave him the wrong cue. Think of horse training as a game of Jeopardy!: your horse always has the right answer and you must come up with the right question. When we do not have the right question — and the horse is not doing what we want — we can become frustrated. This frustration can cause us to get stronger with the same cue, but the horse still will not perform. The stronger we ask, the stronger the horse becomes in his resistance until we either force him to perform with gadgets, or we overpower him.
Sometimes a confused horse will respond with aggression and that must be dealt with before finding a new question. There are some horses that have never had to make a decision. They are often horses low in the pecking order and ones that have never had any responsibility. There are horses that have had little or no handling and horses that have learned how to evade. Some of these horses, when faced with the stress of training, refuse to think their way through a situation. There is the potential for these horses to lash out aggressively at the source of the stress. Changing the way you ask for a response will not always change the way a horse reacts when in this frame of mind. The aggressive behaviour cannot be overlooked; if it is not dealt with effectively and the horse is put away, we could be confirming that the aggressive behaviour was acceptable. When we resume the training on another occasion, the horse will continue to be aggressive and the behaviour will be more difficult to deal with each time it does not have a satisfactory ending. Although this is a rare reaction it is something to be aware of as aggressive tendencies require different solutions.
Sometimes a confused horse will respond with aggression; this behaviour cannot be overlooked and must be dealt with effectively. Photo: Canstock/Michael Jung
Horses have the ability to think and make simple informed decisions. Horses need to be encouraged to think because they rely mainly on their instincts to get through life. When they are thinking they need to be positively reinforced or they will stop thinking and continue to rely on instinct. This is another reason why a horse needs a strong herd leader: The leader is the one that thinks and the rest just rely on her ability to do so. If we allow our horses to feel confused and encourage them to think their way through confusion, we will develop a horse that feels good about trying to do what we want.
Encouraging a horse to work through confusion is not difficult. There are a few things that we need to be prepared to do in order to help our horse. We need to be aware of his emotional state and I like to do this by watching and acknowledging his expressions, including the look in his eye and his posture. Does he look confused, or angry, or scared? If we trust our own instinct about how the horse feels, we can adjust the way we are asking so that we help the horse to be right. The confused horse will be indecisive about what to do; the mad horse will intentionally resist; the scared horse will instinctively react in a way that will ensure his escape. A horse will not stay confused for long before he turns his brain off and quits trying to be correct. If you see indecisive behaviour, that is when you need to change the question you are asking and lower your expectations with regard to what you are asking for. Back off and give your horse some time to stop and think. He will either be correct, incorrect or he will do nothing; it could be that in doing nothing he is processing the cue you gave him. Allow him to make the commitment to be right or wrong. The more indecisive he is, the more you may need to change what you are doing. If you do not change you will not get a better answer from him. If confusion is not noticed and allowed to work itself out, we will create increased resistance in the horse. If we have increased resistance, it will be only a matter of time until we have complete refusal. If you are in doubt, don’t get stronger, wait longer.
Main article photo: Canstock/Michael Jung
This article originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Pacific & Prairie Horse Journal.