Why we should be teaching our horses to be curious

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You’ve seen it, right?

The horse that prances, snorts and shies on a trail ride, at a competition, or even at the trees blowing in the wind.

Maybe you have even been on that horse.

It’s not exactly a pleasant scenario to be in, and can take all our skill and energy just to keep riding.

Horses are inherently animals of prey and therefore their instinctive reaction is attuned more to flight then fight. Therefore, a horse that is ‘high strung’ or displaying those types of behaviours is nearly completely using the instinct part of the brain, which disengages the ability for the horse to be able to use the parts of the brain to think, process and learn

A moving object, different colour, change of location or interaction with unfamiliar horses or people – all of these things can set your horse off into instinctive mode, even if they are normally well behaved in your home paddock.

It’s a heavily (and sometimes heatedly) debated topic on how to overcome these issues and we are going to weigh in on it ourselves.

So let’s have a quick look at some of the commonly recommended solutions.

Desensitisation:

When we use desensitisation skills we are teaching our horse that the best response is no response. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the horse is ok with what is happening to it just that the right response is no response. It also means that the horse has no way of telling us that it’s not coping. If the best coping mechanism is no response and our horse is scared of something and so shows no response we say aha!! See! My horse isn’t scared anymore! What happens is it copes until it doesn’t and then gives us no warning that it’s not coping and explodes. This is how most horses are “broken” in and if they don’t pass this qualification they are considered dangerous horses, unsuitable for riding.

Another term for this process is flooding. We “flood” the horse’s sensory processing mechanism until they no longer respond. This doesn’t mean that the horse has processed the stimulus. It just means they are not responding to it. This therefore isn’t helpful to us when we need to resensitise them to get them to respond to our cues and aids. They are then left with the choice of which stimuli will they react to and the reactions are generally extravagant and “out of character” because they don’t know how to process the stimulus or how to react they only know not to react.

Be the boss/leader:

Being the boss is a critical skill in our working relationship with our young, green, uneducated horses but not always a priority in our mature and educated horses if they have had a good education.

A well educated horse learns to look after its rider. A well educated horse has been exposed to lots of different environments and situations and has come out the other side unscathed and so becomes confident and knows what to expect when put in new and different situations.

The younger, greener horses are still learning and need a competent leader that they trust to show them how to deal with their environment and show them they are safe. An older horse that has lots of homes and instability in its life and learning can become agitated and scared when it goes into new environments because it hasn’t enjoyed the stability and knowledge that it will be going home and ok.

This skill of being the boss can be misinterpreted as being the bigger bully. Every instructor that I’ve ever had has told me that you need to be scarier than what the horse is scared of. This never fixed the spooking but it made me really good at hanging on!

Developing good leadership skills with our horse is one of Equestrian Movements core training principles. It sets our horse up with trust in us to keep them safe and allows us to introduce them to scary situations and show them how to handle it. In the long run it is the key to developing a good relationship and rapport with our horse. Setting boundaries and following through allows us to show up as good leaders so that our horse trusts our leadership skills and follows us into different environments with trust that we won’t let harm come to them.

This takes time to establish and a lifetime to reinforce. You can’t do your leadership exercises in 1 day and then try and cross a busy highway with them. You are challenging just outside their comfort zone and then allowing them to retreat and recover and process that it wasn’t that bad.

Remove the horse from the ‘scary situation’:

As we spoke above if we have put our horses into a situation that they really are unprepared for and overwhelmed there isn’t anything we can physically do to help them handle the situation. We end up damaging the relationship we have been working so hard to build because if we can’t show up as a good leader in this situation then we have lost our horses trust and respect which is hard enough to earn the first time let alone try and earn again once it is broken.

Punishment:

These are common principles that are resorted to when trainers lose their cool and aren’t able to think outside the box or have patience. We undo all the hard work we have put into our relationship skills. At equestrian movement we teach to not emotionally engage in the situation because this is when you can end up lashing out in frustration. If you and your horse have done all the ground work leading up to this point with the pressure release and relationship building skills you should need to resort to physical punishment.

There is a fine line in using pressure release and it becoming a form of punishment. Both are forms of negative reinforcement but in pressure release there should be the opportunity to choose and a clear pathway of consequence that is resulting in the increase of pressure.

Physical punishment is using force without the horse understanding why and how to get away from the force and using a force that results in injury to the horse i.e. blood drawn, bruising etc. When we use a force that the horse doesn’t understand why, it is not learning how to react correctly, only how to get away.

The kind of force is very important to recognise because the damage is done mentally and emotionally. Some horses are just very “thick skinned” and so require a more intense “pressure” to find their point of responsiveness. People can be scared of using this strength because they don’t want to hurt the horse. What we teach here is to think about how hard its paddock mate would have to kick or bite your horse to get them to go away from their food. They would use just enough to get them to go away but not enough for them to get hurt (hopefully) even though you know they could really hurt them if they wanted. This is part of using pressure/release. Increasing the intensity of the aid to just enough they take notice of you but without hurting them. The level of intensity will differ across breeds and previous training. How much the horse has been shut down by desensitising techniques also plays a role here.

What is Teaching Curiosity about?

The aim of teaching curiosity is about 3 key reasons:

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  • Safety

  • Emotional Balance

  • Continued Learning

A horse that is taught to be curious has the capability of reducing its’ automatic instinctive and look for cues from it’s’ rider as to what it should be doing.

A horse that is curious is listening. A horse that is curious is open to learning. A horse that is curious is able to apply his mental and emotional reasoning capabilities and lead even the greenest rider through safely.

A horse that is curious may be interested in the rustling bushes or flying flag, but not tense and prepared to bolt.

A horse that is curious will be interested in you lifting its’ leg (you may get a nose in your back) but won’t be pulling back or kicking.

Teaching your horse to be curious allows new situations to be faced without fear, without flight, without fight, but with open emotional and mental awareness, capability to learn and process, and the development of the bond between horse and rider.

Teaching curiosity reinforces leadership, trust,

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