It’s funny, isn’t it, how we accept that there are consequences about some things but not others. If you don’t do your work assignment you will get a letter of warning and quite possibly fired. We still procrastinate about getting it done, but understand the risks. We know there will be a consequence, but… If we over-eat during lockdown, when we put our work clothes back on, they may well have shrunk mysteriously, but…
And, how many of us think of consequences when we are co-living with animals? We allow the kitten on the tables because it’s cute, and easier for us to feed him up there so the dogs don’t steal his food. Ah, now he’s a big cat, we chase him when he pinches food off a plate, that sits exactly where his bowl was when he was a kitten. We let the puppy crawl into our beds at night to stop her crying, but as an adult dog, shedding hair and with bone breath, she gets chased. How can we have one rule once, and another rule later?
What about with our horses. I had a young horse in for backing years ago. When you put her on a lunge line, she would run at you and rear up, trying to stand on you with her front feet. She had been doing this to her owner, which is why she was sent to me. I later found out that as a foal, she had been taught to put her hooves on her owner’s shoulders to “give them a cuddle” and this behaviour had become firmly engrained. Just because you think it is nice and cute today, or that it’s something you want, really think about it long term.
Another long ago client wanted to teach her horse a trick while the horse was off work for some reason, and she still wanted to train something. She taught her horse to say please, asking for a carrot. The thing that the horse had to do, was hold her front leg in the air, like a dog asking to shake paws. When the horse was back in work and I went to school her, do you know how irritating it was to groom, tack up and lead the horse, when she kept pawing at you with her front hoof, asking for carrots? If you are going to train a behaviour, you need to make absolutely certain that you have thought it through. And, it’s a huge problem in ridden horses.
An unplanned, and really interesting issue was with a little riding school horse. He’d been privately owned by a teenager who was a nervous rider. They would all, as a group of friends, ride to the beach quite often and as soon as the horse’s hooves hit the sand, the braver kids would kick into canter. Our nervous rider would be coming along at the back, knowing this would happen. As she saw the first riders get to the sand, she’d grab a hold of a big chunk of her horse’s mane. He’d lurch into canter after his buddies, and they’d be off, at speed, down the beach. I met the horse several years later. He had been sold to a riding school and I was teaching a school client on him. As I was about to start the lesson, one of the regular instructors shouted out to me – just don’t let the rider grab his mane…. When he had arrived at the school, the instructors had discovered an issue. Anytime a novice rider was a bit wobbly going into trot or canter, or had lost a stirrup, this horse would suddenly canter off. They worked out – the rider would feel insecure, and either the instructor would yell, “grab the mane” or the rider would instinctively catch a hold of something. And, all those years of cantering off on the beach… You know what the horse had learnt? If the rider grabs the mane, the job of the horse is to go into canter… That nervous teenager had taught the horse a cue, and the cue had a consequence.
There is one horse who, when I teach his human, I stand outside the fence. I refuse to go into the arena with him. He’s dangerous and unpredictable, and when he is pushed a little harder and asked for something which he feels is challenging, such as a turn on the forehand in both directions, having to move both the right and the left hind, he barges in towards the person on the ground and tries to run them over. It’s a nasty behaviour and very deliberate. And the reason he does it? He was taught to roll over a yoga ball as a natural horsemanship game, and since then knows if he threatens to roll over the person, the person runs out of the way. A very dangerous consequence…
Now, one of the most common issues. We, as riders either prefer a horse with more whoa, or more go. I’m a lazy rider, I hate having to use my leg, so would rather have a horse who will take me forwards. Other, more cautious riders feel unsafe on these horses and would rather one who, if in doubt, stops. I had a horse, again many years ago, who looked wild and impressive. He was a massive black Thoroughbred, big-boned and broad for a TB, was very forward going, and would gently dance his way along the roads when I hacked him. One of my staff, an instructor who taught the beginners, coveted this horse and desperately wanted to ride him. One day, I let her hack him out and she came back almost in tears. The fire breathing dragon horse, who I enjoyed, was terrifying for her when she was on top. She stuck to the steadier horses after that ride, actually figured out she preferred more whoa.
What’s this got to do with consequences? Recently I was teaching a lady on her horse, who lacked go. He’d become dead to the leg and the “go” button was a bit broken. Please, please, she begged, I really want him to go forwards with more impulsion and less work from me. And so, what did we focus on? We got the horse travelling forward. DON’T use more leg, get more reaction from LESS leg, was the lesson aim. Transitions, exercises, moving him around. Do less, be stiller and lighter, allow the horse freedom to travel more forwards. It worked like a charm. The horse suddenly found the hand brake off, he lifted his back, stretched into the rein and travelled forward beautifully.
“Whoa” cried his rider – “he’s running away with me”.
“Uh, no”, was my reply, all he is doing is travelling actively forward, lightly on his feet, having found go.
The lesson’s hour came to an end with a worried rider who was convinced that her dull horse was running away uncontrollably, when actually, he was just moving out well, doing exactly what she had asked for. The consequence of asking for go? You get go….
By all means, train your horse, teach him things, refine your own skills and riding abilities, but…. Think carefully about what it is that you are training. Are you really ready for the consequences?