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Pushy Horse, Lazy Owner

Published: 7/17/2014
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and a horse gal since age six. She teaches at Bay Harbor Equestrian Center in Michigan, riding English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

A good number of the horses I work with tend to be the rude and pushy type. They can be found in all disciplines. The discipline doesn't really matter. And truthfully, often how “educated” they are doesn't matter either, because these spoiled horses all ride just about the same.

Maybe you've worked with horses like this or have one in your yard. You go out to feed and he's breathing down your neck, walking over the top of you.

You go out to pet another horse and he pushes through the herd, bumping into you, stepping on your toes. You get to where every time you go out, your toes curl up in your boots, maybe you back up a few steps to get out of his way.

He gets pushier and pushier, and maybe every once in a while you decide you've had enough and raise your hand or lead rope up to move him off, but he thinks, who does this person think she is?

Without seeing you as the leader, in his mind, an insubordinate needs to be put back in its place. Maybe he pins his ears in response, curls his lip, or lifts a hind leg as a threatening gesture, so you realize quickly that maybe you're better off just leaving him alone.

Of course, the horse's point of view is a valid one, as the humans in his life continually reinforce his way of thinking.

Some may say it doesn't matter, because while he can be a bit “stubborn” (a term many confused owners use to describe their horse) he appears to do his work just fine. While the two things may seem as different as night and day, a pushy horse - in the pasture, at feeding time, while leading, in his stall, or wherever and whenever- closely relates to how his body operates.

These things are all closely connected by his state of mind.

When I of get one of these horses in training, no matter what level in their education they have reached, I know right where I have to start: at the beginning.

A spoiled horse is in a very unhealthy state of mind and this horse often has the same physical attributes time and time again:
  • They don't bend
  • They start out sluggish and then come unglued all at once
  • They push on you with their shoulders
  • They might attempt to run you over every once in a while
  • They wash out in their hindquarters making them very much on the forehand
  • They know how to use their weight to their advantage

While working on groundwork to develop space and respect, this type of horse really proves the connection between state of mind and physical response.

I've spent a lot of time with these horses helping them understand how to bend, how to pick their shoulders up and move them away from me.
  • While circling, this horse will often raise his head to the outside of the circle while his inside shoulder bulges ever closer to you.
  • While being led, this horse will often set his feet and "sit back" or walk at a snail's pace, hanging on the lead rope.
  • Trying to speed him up may cause a tantrum, and if you're not careful, some seriously bad habits can be learned, such as breaking out of the halter, pulling back, etc.

Cliché as it may sound, it's all about respect. In teaching your horse to respect your personal space through groundwork, you make his body accessible to your requests while riding.

A horse who is mentally with you, is pliable because he trusts you. Trust can only be established through unwavering consistency in every interaction you have, whether in the barnyard at feeding time or in the arena. Whether you want to work on flying lead changes or just walk a straight line, never underestimate the importance of the horse's state of mind regarding your leadership.Trust can only be established through unwavering consistency in every interaction you have, whether in the barnyard at feeding time or in the arena. Whether you want to work on flying lead changes or just walk a straight line, never underestimate the importance of the horse's state of mind regarding your leadership.

But take heart, because with a little persistence and some good timing, this horse will begin to peel back his layers like the proverbial onion:

  • First he will be resistant, bracey, and often aggressive.
  • As you help break through some of those braces, he may suddenly feel vulnerable, fearful, and now maybe has a little more life in his feet as they have come loose all at once.
  • Take heart, and know that now he is wide open and much more able to understand your intent. But his old world is crashing around him. Here is where good feel, timing and some compassion really pays off.
  • Soon, this horse is new, vibrant, and something he may have never been: relaxed and very willing to follow.

So maybe you could have uses a big bit, big spurs, or a tie-down. You could've handled this type of horse just fine for what you're wanting to do. Maybe you've won lots of ribbons and see no need to reorganize everything just because he gets a little “cranky.”

Maybe you're scared or a little resentful of this horse, because when you really follow through he gets more aggressive. Maybe you feel he is just obstinate and needs a little “punishment” once in a while.

There is no room in good horsemanship for ego and fear. If we're all honest with ourselves, we're not always willing to make the necessary sacrifices. But the more I learn from the horse, the more I really see that without us, he is just fine. He is often much happier without us.

He doesn't need us in his world. We chose to put ourselves there, and if we feel we need to be in his world, we owe it to him to find a way that suits him best.  What really suits him best is leadership – not in terms of who is boss and who is not, but as Tom and Bill Dorrance would have it : a “feel following a feel.”

If we can learn to present the right feel for each horse, there will be less argument, less dust flying, and a lot more peaceful, willing partners.

View Reader Comments:

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7/17/2014 Dr. Steve Peters
I always look forward to Amy's articles. Well written with lots of "horse-smarts". Readers can gain much from her teachings.
8/24/2014 Joan Muller
Love this Amy for your appreciated saavy, but also how your comments touched on the often moot question: "Why do many earnest folks have trouble gaining success from the good observations/techniques they pick up from skilled clinicians, take home and use with apparent lack of success on their own horses, then conclude that 'it' (meaning natural horsemanship overall, or just a small piece) doesn't work?" I'm wondering how often it is that horseowners are in fact "successful," acting on a good plan, but don't realize it because they hit a layer in the horse that lies between what they're starting with and where they might well end except for that inconvenient, snarky place where the horse realizes you changed up the game and says "what the hay." No one wants to end there, on a brace with accessory drama, but I've talked to lots of people who were convinced they were wrong (though they often had great instincts) and were thus cowed because the horse didn't instantly respond with softness and finesse (an immediate, hoped-for behavior they believed was necessary to validate that they were doing something right). At the risk of oversimplification, this 'it-might-get-bad-before-it-gets-better' scenario, as part of the many stages relationships shape through, isn't often the focus at clinics. A real good demonstrator gets through layers pretty efficiently and the stuff that lies between the stuff encountered doesn't hang around long. I understand that in a limited timeframe, it's more productive to demonstrate what/why your goal ought to be. But I've always sympathized with an owner (including myself) when disappointment in how things are apparently going wrong leads to its own mayhem, like adding another layer of disrespect on a horse and the owner's resorting to measures of desperation. This is part of our learning curves that don't get much glory, but I'm always grateful when I hear someone talking about cleanly and conclusively finishing or clarifying a sentence with their horses as an option to just yelling louder. Thanks for talking (feelingly!) about un-layering in a realistic way and giving it a home in the big picture.
9/3/2014 Amy
Joan, I loved your thoughtful comment. I have struggled with that myself a lot, whether from what I took home from a clinic, lesson, or book, I remember many times going home to my own horse and thinking, hmm this doesn't work. Maybe I didn't wait long enough and let my horse push on me, or maybe I couldn't see the small try, or it got better and then slid back so I thought oh boy I need to try something else. Sometimes the training process is sticky, messy and not very linear. That an be hard for people to see, and most clinicians on a time crunch bring a horse that already knows the ropes to show us how. It's great to see it done well, but I also really appreciate seeing the nitty gritty of the whole process. Many times I've watched a more skilled person work through the same things I have with more success, and thought, $&@!! I had it, I just needed to wait!!
9/10/2014 Beth Covert
Another great article and again at the right time. Our (my horse and mine) relationship has been damaged when I started with a different trainer. She lost respect for me, because I wasn't a strong leader, and in her eyes, I was no longer respecting her. I've taken back training control and am seeing improvement as I work on the little, daily handling issues that will translate to a better partner in the saddle.
9/12/2014 Amy
You are right, Beth, the little things make a big difference in the big picture. It can be hard to find the balance between loving and respecting your horse and being a good leader. Many of my students are middle aged women. When their horses push on them, I sometimes ask, what would you do if your child did that? Usually they answer, well they'd be in big trouble! So I say , why does your horse get to do it? How is he supposed to respect you then? For some reason when it comes to horses many people seem to have a harder time finding the balance...

"There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man." - Winston Churchill