The Odd Couple: Part Two

Last month we talked about the difference between predators (humans) and prey (horses), and why a horse might have concerns with a predator-prey relationship.  This month, we want to further that understanding; we’ll explore how we can adapt the horse’s perception of humans to foster a training style reminiscent of the herd dynamics he’s familiar with.

First, it’s important to understand the horse’s brain and the difference between the two sides—the responsive side of the brain, which responds to external stimuli in a thoughtful, calculated manner, verses the reactive side, which provides instinctual, knee-jerk reactions. As humans, we are already at a disadvantage because Mother Nature has programmed her equines to react when feeling threatened for means of survival.  Our goal as the trainer is to get the horse to become less attached to this reactive side and to put a little more stock in the thoughtful, responsive side.  We generally go about this through pressure, the application and release of, whether it’s direct or indirect contact to create a favorable response, a la lead mare.

We’ve all heard the phrase timing, feel, and balance from some of the true horsemen like Martin Black, Buck Branaman, the Dorrance brothers and Ray Hunt.  If you want to truly understand this, try a simple pressure and release exercise. Ask your horse to back by applying pressure with your finger on the bridge of his nose.  This is considered direct pressure because you’re touching the bridge of his nose with your finger.   As you apply pressure the horse’s reaction is to move into, away from, up, down as he’s looking for the release. Eventually, he’s going to “give” his face by moving his nose toward his chest—ding, ding, ding! Right answer.  We just demonstrated feel by applying just enough pressure to create a controlled reaction. Timing is understanding just when to release the pressure, and balance, in this case, is not asking for too much at each lesson. The more we practice this exercise the horse will learn to respond to the pressure by giving his face (and later his feet), hence the phrase, “through the mind, through the body, and finally through the feet.

Often my clients ask what the proper amount of pressure is to apply for a reaction.  We use an acronym—S.A.T.—Suggest, Ask and then Tell.  In the horse’s world, the lead mare uses this technique when sharing her request of the moment with her subordinate horses.  First, she may just turn her head and give the “I suggest you move over” stare.  If that’s ignored she may ask by pinning her ears along with the stare (“I’m asking you to please move over now”).  If she’s still being ignored, she may escalate her request by positioning her body for a bite or kick (“I’m now telling you with a show of force”).

During this exercise, my suggestion would be me laying my finger on the bridge of the horse’s nose with no more than an ounce of pressure. (After several lessons, this will be enough pressure for the horse to give me the desired response.) If the horse gives me no response I will increase the pressure slowly, say each second I add four ounces of pressure, until the horse starts looking for the desired response.  At this time I will add no more pressure, and might even slowly decrease the pressure, as long as my friend continues to seek out the proper response.   If I add too much pressure my horse may go from looking for response to a preservation mode of reacting.  If I continue to escalate the pressure, and he can’t escape, he may even become aggressive toward me because he now feels endangered.   Keep in mind that the horse has no idea of what the desired response is at this time.  He may move his head up, down, forward, left, right and then finally back.  This is where timing is so important—when he has softened his face, not necessarily his feet, I would give the first release. Settle for the smallest change and the slightest try. That’s from our buddy Tom Dorrance.

Think about that lead mare again; if her subordinate moves his feet, she then releases the pressure and now has no reason to show force.  Using what we at Bar T Horsemanship refer to as TRUE HORSEMANSHIP, a portion of that being the release, not the application of, pressure is the reward.  The more rewards I can give, the sooner my equine friend will catch on with what’s asked of him and will rely on that responding side of his brain.  In this exercise, as with all others, giving your horse some quiet time to soak up the lesson will repay you ten fold as your journey with you horse advances.

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