Safety first: for you AND your horse
I have had a few questions where it is obvious that some people do not feel SAFE around their horses – and some horses do not feel SAFE around their humans. This has HUGE implications for the capacity of both horse AND human to feel confident – and learn.
It is impossible to feel confident unless you feel safe. And it is the same for our horses – in horse psychology the horse’s needs are “safety, comfort – and then food or play depending on their character.
I can already hear some of you saying “but my horse plunges his head down for grass even when I KNOW he is not feeling safe – you are right – the one exception to the rule is that horses will often eat grass or go for food as a DISPLACEMENT activity and use it to hide away from their fear or discomfort.
Humans have a whole series of similar mechanisms – if we don’t feel safe we can get defensive, aggressive – start being louder, jokier – using laughter and aggression to hide our own fears and insecurities.
I often see people who tell me “well my horse MUST be ok, look, he is grazing” The key is of course in HOW he is grazing: if he is taking slow long leisurely mouthfuls of grass after sniffing and selecting the tastiest bits – then yes, he is probably relaxed.
But if he had his head down and is stuffing himself as fast as fast can be and seems to be snatching at the grass – then it is more likely this is displacement grazing and he is using it to stave off fear.
So how can we get ourselves to feel safe?
Recently I have been to work with two horse-human combinations where the humans did not feel safe around their horses – and neither did I!
In fact with both these clients, I made sure our first conversations happened with the horse on one side of a fence and us on the other.
I can imagine some of you may be a bit surprised to hear this – after all, shouldn’t a confidence coach feel confident at all times? Nope – that’s not what being a confidence coach is about. Being a confidence coach is about being AWARE of confidence and taking care of it in a sensible and safe way. And the thing is, neither of these horses was SAFE to be around.
In one case, the horse was SO worried himself about what was happening that he was confused – and was unpredictable in his behaviour and choices. And to me, an unpredictable horse is an unsafe horse. What had happened here was that his human had lost confidence too – and so they sent each other on a spiral of uncertainty – when she touched him he felt her worry and anxiety and that made HIM worried and anxious – and you can see this was not good for either of them.
In fact his worry was showing up in defensive behaviour – he was rearing, striking out and biting – although I noticed that as yet, none of this had actually made contact. However it was clear he was NOT feeling safe at all.
As a first step – -we did everything with him LOOSE. We wanted him to feel able to walk away at any time, and ensure he felt he was able to make choices.
I started by showing HIM that he didn’t need to defend himself. I walked from one place to another in the paddock, sometimes choosing to walk “through” where he was, so he had to move himself to allow me through, and sometimes choosing to go elsewhere. When asking him to move I used as little pressure as possible, and focused on going TO the place I wanted, not focusing on him. Doing this I was able to communicate absolute confidence, with absolutely NO aggression or confrontation. I used the “Bubble mindset” to make sure that I was crystal clear and consistent in my body language.
After a few minutes of doing this, he was relaxing in his body language. His previously high head carriage, tense muscles and tight lips had changed to a horizontal neck, relaxed stance (cocked leg) and a loose lower lip. He was also watching me with a mild interest.
At this point I felt he was relaxed enough to approach him and rub him. As I got nearer, he tensed, but as I used approach and retreat by stepping forwards and back in response to his concerns, I was soon rubbing a relaxed horse.
How owner had watched this and was reassured that her horse WAS more predictable and safe to be around, so she then learned the same way to first, build her confidence by proving she could move him around easily and gently, and then that she could approach him and rub him without having to worry about him being defensive.
We extended this to then asking him to move around us, guiding his shoulder away and around cones, to encourage him to give us space – and, if he got worried or confused, we allowed him to walk away from us and take a break. If he walked away a little distance, I would move to walk parallel to him, about twelve feet away from him – so he had space but I was still there, communicating. Most of the time when I did this he chose to return to me and offer his head for a stroke.
After two sessions of this work, we saw a huge change in the horse – he relaxed when he saw us coming to the paddock and dropped almost all his defensive behaviours: he felt safe enough to not need to use them anymore.
As his behaviour changed, so did his owners. Her belief that she COULD stay safe, allowed her confidence from other areas of her life to spill over into her horsemanship. She started standing to her full height, and appeared much more solid and substantial than she had before. Her Bubble became believable to both herself AND her horse. WE also did a couple of “horseless” sessions together to work on her own confidence and belief systems – and that made a huge difference. There will be more on the importance of Belief – and how to get it – in a later blog article, as that has also been the subject of many questions sent to me.
The second horse I am working with WAS a “safe” horse – and his owner felt VERY safe with him – until recently. She had bought him as a very newly backed horse and ridden him out on hacks – and they got on well. Whenever he was unsure or unconfident she was able to reassure him and they would work through things together. However, she then became pregnant and, like many people, decided to loan her horse out. That is when things started to go wrong. He started bucking, rearing and generally became an unsafe horse to ride – and be around on the ground. Even his owner started feeling unsafe with him.
When I went to visit him he was not happy. And we worked out a few things. We worked out that up to now he had been taking most of his confidence from his OWNER and had not actually developed his OWN confidence in himself. This meant when other people worked with him, he did not feel safe OR confident and so his behaviour changed. What’s more, because his owner was now concerned about her pregnancy, she was not able to give him the unconditional confidence she had previously offered and so now he didn’t feel safe even with her.
In this case, the plan is that for her last three months of pregnancy and the first three months after the baby is born, this horse will come and stay with me in my small herd, and I will work with him with the intention of helping him build his OWN confidence. If he can develop confidence in HIMSELF and learn to look to the human when he runs out of ideas, then he will be a great horse to be around. How will we do this? Well to start with I will play with him in the paddock around the other horses – I may even have him watch me play with the others first. Only when he is confident doing that will I start asking him to work just with me, away from the others – and we will use approach and retreat to make sure he never has to go over any of his confidence thresholds.
A horse can’t learn unless he feels safe enough to listen.
Both these cases are examples of where horses and humans did not feel SAFE. Unless you feel safe you can’t feel confident – in fact, feeling unsafe means your brain goes on holiday and can’t even HEAR anyone who is talking to you – you’re too busy trying to stay safe!
When these horses feel safe and can confidently yield their shoulders, yield their hindquarters, back up softly and come to me softly – when they can walk with me next to my shoulder, move into my offered hand – or walk parallel twelve feet away but still be connected – and be relaxed, confident in themselves AND their humans – that is when we are ready to start learning.
One thing you may notice from both these examples: the focus is on enabling the horse to RELAX. Calmness, relaxation – a state of “melting” vs “armouring” is what we are looking for. Once we have this as a baseline, to which we can return whenever we want, THEN we can start adding stimulation, excitement, enthusiasm – and start PLAYING with our horses.
Just as in classical it is CALM, then forward – in basic horse psychology it is safety, then comfort – then play.
To have a baseline or relaxation and calm to which we can return at any moment, at any time – gives SUCH a feeling of safety and confidence for both the horse AND the human that it radically changes the relationship between them.
For a horse, calmness comes when they feel safe, when they have trust in the human holding the lead rope. Recently it has become very amusing to my clients that almost as soon as I walk into the field or arena, their horses start yawning and stand with heads low, relaxed and happy to share rubs and scratches.
So a question for you all this week: How safe does YOUR horse feel? How safe do YOU feel?
And what do YOU do to put SAFETY FIRST for yourself – and your horse?
One last thing: you may notice that many of my blogs start with a comment about questions I have received: most of the writing on this blog is in response to questions sent to me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or sent in personal messages to me on my facebook pages: my business one is http://www.facebook.com/Effective.Horsemanship
my personal one is http://www.facebook.com/cathy.sirett
If you have a confidence question or concern please send it to me – you might be the inspiration for the next blog article!
Yours, in confidence