by Laura Crum
As most of you know, I’ve been gone for a month, so my horses have had a vacation. Yesterday my son and I took Henry and Sunny up to the roping arena to help gather the cattle and give our two horses an easy day of riding. Both of our boys were good, if a little lazy—seems like they were still in vacation mode.
My other “task” while at the arena was to watch my friend Wally rope on his young horse, Smoky. I’ve written about Smoky before and how hard Wally has tried to bring this horse along to be a confident, able, happy horse. At this point Wally is pretty proud of six year old Smoky, and has just started competing on him at small ropings. And he wanted me to watch him rope on the horse and see how well Smoky was doing.
So I watched. And Smoky did great. Perfectly calm and quiet in the box, ran hard, made the corner well (Smoky is a heel horse), covered the steer excellently. His stops were a little rough, but you know, nobody’s perfect. Most of all, Smoky seemed confident and happy, and this reminded me of a subject which I thought I’d discuss on the blog.
When Wally got Smoky back from the horse trainer this past spring, the rather laconic trainer waxed lyrical on what a nice horse Smoky was and how well he liked him. He’s ready to go, the trainer said. Just teach him his job.
And this statement reminded me of a discussion (via email) that I had several years ago with Janet Huntington of Mugwump Chronicles. We were discussing what caused horses to “burn out” and grow to hate what they did and how this could be avoided. I had a theory, which I proposed to Janet, and she mentioned it briefly in one of her blog posts. Since then I’ve thought a lot about this subject and come to the conclusion that I was partly right and partly wrong in what I said then, and I thought I’d put my ideas out there and hope that you all would comment and add your insights.
So here’s my theory. Horses burn out and get sour when they don’t understand the point of what they are doing. A happy horse needs to throw in with the work he is asked to do, and in order to do this, a horse needs to understand his job.
I still believe the above theory. However, I went on (once upon a time) to expound on the events horses could understand and those they couldn’t. I can attest to the fact that rope horses get the point. They know whether they have caught the steer or not. A good rope horse will often dance anxiously off when the rider misses, rather than the calm, proud way that they walk when the steer is successfully captured. Cutting horses know if they held the cow. Jumping horses know if they jumped the fence. Race horses know if they won the race. Working cowhorses know if they turned the cow. Trail horses know if they got you from A to B and successfully through the obstacles in between. Horses understand these jobs, and (often), since they understand them, are willing to throw in with them, are even willing to work quite hard at them and are still happy with their lot. Of course, any abusive, unkind rider can change this dynamic in a hurry, but given a reasonable owner/rider, often horses are happy to do these jobs.
Then I went on to list the jobs I thought horses didn’t comprehend very well—the events where I frequently saw cross, unhappy, burned out horses. I still think there is some truth in my perception, but since I have been involved with Equestrian Ink I have corresponded with some people whose horses did truly enjoy these disciplines, and this has caused me to rethink my ideas. So, I am going to list off the events I once thought that horses don’t easily comprehend, admitting right off the bat that some of you have horses that do comprehend and enjoy these events. If you would, I’d like you to explain why your horses enjoy these disciplines and how you think your horse views his work.
So, OK, it was my perception that reining horses (and cowhorses in the reining portion of their work), pleasure horses both English and Western (and all walk, trot canter, execute figures type horseshow events—equitation, hunter under saddle…etc), dressage, halter horses, and barrel racing horses had no way to get the point of what was being asked of them and frequently grew very cross and sour from endlessly being asked to do this thing better and better for no reason that they could see.
At the time of the original email discussion, Janet pointed out that some cowhorses seemed to enjoy the dry work portion of the event and took pride in executing the figures. I didn’t argue, since she knew much more about this than I did. Since then I have heard Francesca, who writes for this blog, talk about how Kwintus likes to show off his skill at certain dressage movements and lopinon4 talk about how her horse CJ likes to execute what I think (correct me if I’m wrong) are western pleasure exercises. I have heard barrel racers describe their horse’s skill and pride. And it occurs to me that maybe sometimes horses do grasp these activities better than I thought.
So that’s my topic. Do you agree that a lot of what makes a happy horse is that horse understanding and throwing in with his job? And have you, like me, seen a lot more frustrated horses in some activities than others? What events do you think horses comprehend more easily?
My Sunny horse, for instance, loves trail riding and hates arena work. He is lazy and reluctant in the arena, once he has the edge off. He makes it plain that executing pointless circles and figures totally bores him. On the trail he walks eagerly, ears up, cooperative and steady, eager to see new country. He plainly gets the point of covering country and equally plainly cannot see the point of going round and round in a pen. Since I happen to agree with him, we get along well. The previous owner tried to use him for dressage and (I think) found him quite frustrating in this respect. So, there’s one example. I’m interested to hear what you think.
Hmm - interesting post! I hadn't thought about it much really tho' because while I've heard of horses unhappy in their owner's choice of jobs for them, I think I would know if Sera was unhappy in her job as a dressage mount. She can be a pretty opinionated mare...
She really seems quite content and happy in her "work". Bright eyes, floppy ears and moving forward. And overall look of content on her face when we are schooling.
Yes, we have disagreements and she wants to do things her way sometimes but I think that is universal.
The dressage work we do is new and different as we progress so I don't think it's static and boring at all.
She can be pissy sometimes when she does not understand what I'm asking and it is difficult for her as we introduce new things.
Tho', if I'm patient and clear, the lightbulb goes on and we are again at peace, working together again.
If I drilled her over and over in the same things I think she would definately get sour and pissy and burned out.
I think dressage horses know their "job". Sera gets praise and release for doing an action correctly.
I think it's similar to any other animal training - they know when they've completed a request correctly from praise and release. I don't know if they need to understand the bigger picture.
Maybe that is ultimately the point. You think they need to understand the big picture vs. a particular action?
I guess I don't think so. I ask my dog to sit and I don't think he knows why I want him to sit right then and there when he would rather be sniffing something much more important in his world... but he does it and he gets praise and release.
Very intersting to think about and I suppose we will never truly know cuz our horses ain't sayin! grin.
I think horses do have preferences, just like people. My mare Maisie really doesn't like arena work, and prefers the trail. Our Lily hated flat work and only loved to jump, and hated the trail.
That said, I think horses get sour for several reasons - people drill, and drill and drill, and horses rarely need this and benefit from the rider being creative with the work - drilling and endless repetition of things the horse already knows is more for the people than for the horses; they get physically sore from repeating the same actions or they're being forced to do things that cause them pain due to underlying issues such as saddle fit/dental/chiro etc.; and perhaps most importantly, if they don't have a real connection with their rider so they can feel the importance of the work - it's up to the rider to communicate this with focus and understanding. A horse that's disconnected from its rider is just another piece of sports equipment and unfortunately may just be treated that way. Just my two cents.
Shanster--I see your point. In any animal training discipline, the animal gets rewarded by praise or release or treats when he/she does it "right", and that's the payoff for them. I think there is some truth to that, but I also think, to use your words, horses benefit from getting the "big picture". I have knwn rope horses who had been owned by many people and who did not seem much bonded to any owner/rider and really almost seemed to care less about the rider. These horses still took pride in executing their job. They understood the point of the job and this gave them confidence in themselves. They did not appear sour--though perhaps a little cynical.
I do believe that you would know if Sera didn't like her job. I think any well intentioned halfway knowledgable owner/rider will sense if a horse is unhappy in their work.
And Kate, I totally agree about the drilling. That was one of my big learnings when I did train and show horses. The horses did better with less practice, rather than more, once they knew the job. The drilling, as you say, in general did them no good, only made them sore, cranky and burned out.
My horse Plumber likes team roping and hates the trail--so I agree with you that individual horses have different preferences--I'm sure not saying that all horses like the trail.
I can see that Laura... I thought maybe the cattle work had to do with the breed cuz they were "cowy" but I may not be giving horses enough credit!
I also don't have experience with seeing a horse pass from owner to owner in one discipline you know what I mean? I don't know if Sera would stay happy with another rider doing the same thing I do? I assume she would - but I don't know. I think you probably have seen more from your background than I ever will.
My experience is such a tiny slice o' the pie! :)
Hi Laura, it's great to have you back!
I think horses burn out when they do too much of the same thing. But then again, maybe it depends on the individual horse - I know Kwintus enjoys going out for a hack/trail ride, but I've known other horses who absolutely loathe doing anything other than working the arena. Or maybe they're never given the chance to go beyond the arena...so think it's a scary world out there!
As you mentioned, I honestly think Kwintus enjoys going to competitions - he likes preening in front of the judges, at least for a little while, his preeningness (!) doesn't always last throughout the program...
From watching ponies do pony games, it seemed to me they were having a wonderful time zooming up and down while their riders swooped down to grab things, then grinding to abrupt halts quarter-horse style.
Some horses clearly love to jump, too. I know Steph's horse (the owner of my stables) is far happier on a cross-country course than in the dressage arena. Whereas Kwintus can barely hop over a pole on the ground without putting his life and mine in danger.
I know Kwint would rather do flying-changes any day than appuyés, even though he's quite good at them. And some figures he clearly finds downright pointless!
Interesting stuff, my dear.
Shanster-- I don't think you give yourself enough credit. You seem like a very insightful horseperson to me.
And Francesca--I have loved your posts about Kwintus. The image of this older dressage schoolmaster who loves flying changes and performing in front of the judges really opened my eyes to a new image of dressage horses.
Its funny, my horse Plumber enjoyed trail riding when he was a young horse. Then he spent ten years as a competitive team roping horse, and got very accomplished at that job. When I tried to return him to trail riding, he gave every sign of distaste. No, I don't want to be out her in the spooky old woods, he clearly said, I know my job and I'm good at it and that's what I want to do.
My mare worked for praise, bless her solid, give it everything I have heart. I remember teaching her to spin, she would hesitate after each step, flicking her ears back and forth is this what you want? I would say good girl, and with each good girl and pat of her neck she got more and more confident and by the end of the session was beginning to put some speed on. I don't think she ever really cared about what we were doing in the arena or on the trail as long as I was happy with her. Well, I take that back, her very favorite thing was to play in water, bury her face up to her eyeballs in it, and swim if it was deep enough. But since they didn't have swimming classes at the local shows we didn't focus on that much.
My gelding knew that his job was to take whatever or who ever was put on his back into the ring and come out with ribbons, and he was really displeased with the idea of doing anything else, to be honest. It took years for him to see the merits of a nice relaxing trail ride when he'd much rather be loafing in the yard. I don't know that he enjoyed his job much, he seemed to look at it as this is what I have to do to go back home. I do know that since I didn't show much he made it his mission to be a pain in my behind, but that was pure pleasure on his part :D
Interesting! My mare, an OTTB/polo pony had a MAJOR work ethic. She needed arena work. At least three times a week otherwise a trail ride was just gonna suck. period. (I miss her so much)
My QH gelding, willie, likes to work. He also likes to sit and and eat. he likes to sleep. He likes whatever. I'm lucky here. This guy is very accepting of his life. Whatever his life offers him, he says, "ok, this is cool". He's also spiffy and bit hot and gives me some shit sometimes. (I think he is addicted to the adrenaline rush he gets from a spook.)
There are definitely certain horses who need a job. Willie's job seems to be whatever his day brings him. I would have another one like him or two and be thrilled.
BTW, while you were on vacation I read the last four books you've written. Fun! I enjoyed them. Thank you for your writing.
I'll write now before reading other comments, then add on.
I personally think that breeding has a lot to do with a horse's appreciation for pattern and rail work. I've seen pattern-bred horses and pleasure horses go through the training barn, and the well-bred ones with champions in the bloodlines almost know what there is to do before they're trained to do it.
I watched Mocha's half-brother play at practicing sliding stops after he came home from the reining trainer. He'd go about 30 feet out from the side of the barn, run as hard as he could toward the barn, stop, pause, jog back to his starting point, and do it. I watched him do it for a good five minutes on his own.
Bred to do it? Dang right. For Mocha, it's spins and flying changes (she changes leads so easily I had to have a ground observer confirm she was doing flying and not one stride simples).
What makes a pattern horse or a pleasure horse is a strong instinct toward balance and rhythm in movement, in my opinion. Not every horse cares about moving in balance and rhythm, but for those that do, they'll look for that balance, that rhythm. I didn't think horses were that solid about it outside of getting pissy about slipping in mud, but Mocha changed my mind on that one.
Additionally, for a pattern horse (dressage, reining, Western Riding, etc), a horse with a strong interest in figuring out a pattern in what the rider asks is another key factor. Mocha enjoys it when I throw more and more things for her to think about while we work. Quick changes, quick transitions, stuff like that keeps her mind occupied and focused on me. She likes puzzles. She likes stuff in the arena.
But--she's bred for pattern work and cutting, with Doc O'Lena bloodlines top and bottom, Gay Bar King bloodlines top and bottom, plus a few other top performers in cutting and reining.
Francesca has a point as well. Some horses like to show off. Mocha gets a little more on the muscle when she's being watched. I also had a Shetland as a kid who was a huge showoff in front of a crowd. Conversely, the Sparkle mare hated shows. Hated arena work. Loved the trail. Didn't care about rhythm, balance, or anything other than going.
Also, Mocha's response when I'm working with a novice rider (as assistant to the trainer) from the saddle is very different from when we're schooling solo. She's an excellent instructor mount, rates very easily, goes where she's put and takes that particular job very seriously. But she's a serious girl about under saddle work.
I have a horse who most would have called an old burned out gamer when I started riding her. It wasn't that she was burnt out though. I realized she didn't understand her job and the people who had her prior to my barn were very rough handed. If this mare didn't instantly have everything perfect they beat the ever living f*** out of her. The problem is they never would teach the poor horse either. So when I got her we had a lot of horse trying to guess what I wanted before I could ask. I really think it was to try and avoid the beating she was sure she would get.
So I watched someone else try and run a barrel and poll pattern on her. I realized she was trying to run the pattern on her own and completely ignored the rider.
I also know this mare LOVES to run (full speed not the pretty lopes or hand gallops some do).
We went back to square one in speed event training. Slow and steady, and making sure she was listening. We also varied the speed in every way possible (to keep it something different and interesting).
Once she was listening she figured out that if she kept listening I would let her actually run the home stretch. This is her favorite part.
Now we both seem to love drawing the last card. The whole show she will watch everyone else’s run. She stands up taller and she has the perkiest ears ever. This horse looks like she is grinning from ear to ear sure she will win. We enter our run and I talk to her the whole way (legal in speed events) to keep her understanding, calm and happy. We make our last turn; she flicks her ears back waiting for my queue. I queue and she rounds her back, drops low on her hind legs, pushes off into an equine wheelie, she talks back and away we go. Everyone who watches says that horse is grinning ear to ear on the home stretch (prior to the home stretch I’m told she has her thinking face on). During the awards she struts, she knows she got her blue.
I’ve never lost a race that was because she was too slow; the few times have been due to pilot errors on my part. I tell her she’s still wonderful no matter what and she gets her job and loves it. Another secret we found is once they get it, they get it. Do NOT never endingly drill the pattern, that does very much seem to piss a horse off. We trail ride, do arena work, and do drill team competitions just to keep her mind active and happy. She also lives with 24/7 turned-out weather permitting. Her favorite thing is still to barrel race or poll bend though. It’s really the only time she can run as fast as she can without being told she needs to keep it at a sane speed (her speed scares other horses in the arena at our home barn so we tend to keep a nice moderate lope for there).
Enjay, Joy, joycemocha and Anon--thanks for the really insightful comments. It is fascinating to hear how different horses approach their jobs and how different they are from one another. I'm learning a lot here.
joycemocha--I never ran across horses that actually loved the patterns, but I now understand that the potential is there. The cowhorses I rode seemed to love the cow work and execute the pattern because they knew they were supposed to. They tried hard, but they didn't seem to enjoy the dry work like they did the cow work.
And Joy, thank you for the compliment on my books. I'm glad you enjoyed them.
Laura--I've seen a World Champion Western Riding horse get pissy with a rider because the rider cued her for a flying change at the wrong point in the serpentine. The mare knew the rider was wrong and wasn't about to let the rider get away with it. A good pattern horse tends to be a bit--um--OCD about Doing It Right.
What Anon says about not drilling the pattern is an important point as well. Work the timing, work on perfecting individual movements, but don't work the pattern. Good pattern horses know their patterns, and they can do them in their sleep just about. A lot of work that I do has to do with bending, flexing, or perfecting pieces of a movement. Once it's right in all directions, then do something else, and be generous with the releases.
One reason I school both English and Western is to give Mocha variety and mental engagement. She'll do pattern work much more intensely in the Western tack than the English tack. But that's a topic I want to write a blog post on...
joycemocha--This is fascinating info. I never really knew horses that loved reining patterns, as I said. But it may be because I never cared for the dry work. I loved cow work, whether it was cowhorse, cutting or team roping. Like many horses (or so it appears to me) I found the dry work frustrating and rather pointless. (Yes, intellectually I can grasp the point, but it never appealed to me--I'm not a perfectionist.) So perhaps the horses I rode picked up on my own feelings.
I do agree that too much drilling makes many horses sour on activities they might otherwise tolerate, if not enjoy.
Laura--I think you're absolutely right about the horses picking up on the rider's attitude. I have usually had a lot of luck getting horses to appreciate arena work and pattern work, in part because what I want to do with each ride is end it with a lighter cue than I had in the beginning. I constantly work toward more and more subtle cueing as best as I can, and I think that attitude draws in the horse's interest, for the most part (except for certain horses who really don't care about that).
I've even been known to have such discussions with a rental trail horse (grin). It's always fun to feel those horses become more sensitive throughout the ride, although I had one old Appy mare let me know (in the middle of a rock scramble) that if I was bloody well going to ask her to think, then I could bloody well do my part and use my seat and legs to help her out as well. Which I was more than happy to do! I think it's only reasonable that if you're asking a horse to listen to subtle cues and rate themselves on a trail ride, then you also need to place yourself so that you're not interfering over difficult obstacles.
jocemocha--That remnds me of the first pack trip in the mountains I did with our personal horses. I rode my friend Wally's horse, Pistol, who had lots of experience on rock. Unfortunately Pistol was offended by directions. When he chose what looked like the trickiest possible way down a steep spot and I tried to redirect him, Pistol showed his displeasure by slithering and scrambling. Left alone, on a loose rein, he was quite sure-footed. It drove me nuts. Halfway through the ride I switched horses with Wally, who was riding Flanigan, a horse who was making his first trip on rock. Flanigan let me direct his every footfall--we got along great and grew in confidence togther. Wally rode Pistol on a completely loose rein, never worried when the horse elected the trickier routes. We were all happy. Sometimes its just a matter of getting a good match between the personalities.
I dunno that it's always so much about teaching a horse their job, as it is about teaching the horse period. Most of the time where I've worked with a horse whose rider has said, 'Oh, my horse hates dressage/schooling/area work,' it's generally because they might think they're 'schooling' but they're really going pointlessly around in circles. Combination of boredom/frustration/confusion/stress/lack of rewards, and whoops, suddenly you have a horse who hates the very sight of a letter. That can be hard, even impossible to train back out.
I suspect dressage and some of the other more artform disciplines require a higher level of horsemanship to 'sell' the horse on them. The rider needs to be more precise about requests / rewards, because they're coming solely from the riding, rather than the built in adrenalin reward of novelty/going fast/jumping things. (That's not to say that dressage riders are better riders - the number of arena sour horses argues fairly definitively against that!)
It's anthropomorphic, but I think that horses are like people; some motivate from praise, some from release, some like puzzles, some like adrenaline, some want to see what's over the next hill, some just take joy in movement, some just do what's required and nothing seems to motivate them other than food. Those motivations would make certain disciplines an easier 'sell' for them. Obviously, whether the horse has a bond/trust with the rider affects the motivations too - some horses will do anything for one person, but will only do preferred activities for someone else.
With the horses that fixate on a particular job, I think it's partly that they are strongly habitual horses anyway and have an affinity for the 'reward' that that discipline gives them.
I'd further speculate that maybe for those who've had frequent changes of riders, they've learned to disconnect the rider from the reward and seek the activity itself as the reward.
All that said, I remember an old schoolie who was very particular about only teaching beginners. This was whether or not you tried to 'ride' him or not - not a question of pissing him off with niggling. If you didn't sit like an unbalanced sack of spuds, you were off basically. I could never think of a reason for that other than him thinking experienced riders weren't his 'job,' because he was fantastic for teaching kids and adult beginners to ride. Never, ever unshipped a beginner in four years of teaching with him. Although he gave adults a much shorter learning curve than kids - we used to tell people that they'd 'Graduated from the School of Rocky' when they fell off him.
FD--Fun to hear from you. As always, I enjoyed your comment very much. Lots of good points there. It makes sense to me that one would need to be a better rider to teach a horse to enjoy dressage than say, team roping. As you point out, the adrenaline rush in a sport like team roping (or jumping or horse racing...etc) is smewhat of a reward in itself for many horses. And I agree that different horses are motivated by different things. I don't think that's an anthropomorphic statement at all. Merely accurate. My Sunny horse is quite lazy, but really likes seeing what's over the next hill. Henry is willing to do what you ask but doesn't seem to really care about much but dinner. And Plumber is an anxious horse, wants to please, but is really only comfortable doing something he is sure he knows how to do. Learning new things is (and always was) very hard for him.
I loved your story about the old school horse. I never knew one quite like that, but have known a few who were much more cooperative with beginners/children than they were with competent riders. And a few, who though well broke, became very anxious and jittery when a beginner was on their back. I've even known a few otherwise well behaved horses that actively hated children, would bite and or strike at them (though they never did this otherwise). Did they think the kids were dogs? Just didn't like the kid energy? I never did figure it out--but I knew to keep kids away from those horses.
Good to hear from you--hope all is well. Did you get back into horses? I know you were thinking about it.
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