Horse Training Is Never Done
Horses are life long learners, which means their training never ends. Everything we do with them, to them and for them is teaching them something, whether we mean for it to or not. From the food they eat, to the home they live, to the companions they have, it all impacts their response to life.
As soon as we walk into their space and start to engage with them, they are picking up on what our body language has to say. In their world, with limited verbal communication, energy and movement mean everything. So are we approaching them with confidence and purpose, or are we thinking about other things, causing us to be clumsy and absent minded? Are we calm and collected, or defeated and downtrodden? Perhaps more importantly, how often do we even notice what we’re projecting?
Horses, unlike us, are always aware. Their survival instincts are strong enough to keep them in the present - they scan and observe and feel their surroundings, trusting in their herd mates to do the same. This has allowed their species to survive and thrive, and though domestication has dulled some of their natural instincts, it hasn't removed the most deeply ingrained ones. When they feel that they can trust us because we are also paying attention, not only to them but to our shared environment, the dynamic of the relationships they are willing to have with us changes.
In order for any horse training to be effective long term, we can learn from these natural instincts and work with them rather against them. We can take into account that no matter how hard we may try, we can’t change their physiology and brain function to be more convenient to our purposes. So as we recognize that they do have the ability to desensitize and learn the differences between true threats and minor disturbances, they cannot be made into anything other than a prey animal. And prey animals function best with certain lifestyle practices.
Horses are made to live and move, through nature, with other horses. Distances traveled by wild horses on a daily basis varies depending on where in the world they’re located, as well as with the local food and water situation, but the fact that they move a lot more than the majority of their domesticated counterparts remains consistent.
Wild or feral horses are also exposed a larger range of natural landscapes and ground conditions, which supplies them with greater varieties plant life to graze on, as well as allows them to become more physically and mentally resilient. Between the exercise, grazing, and social interaction, horses in the wild are working in harmony with their basic instincts, and as a result have most or all of their feel good processes happening as they should. This contributes to horses being healthy, happy and secure within themselves.
Can we say the same of our domesticated herds? The answer will vary between horse owners but if we want to the best for our horses, we can ask ourselves if there are places in their lives where we can utilize some changes to make things a little closer to how they would live without our interference. How we can join them in something a bit more tailored to their needs and start getting intentional with it. Does your horse live alone or with herd mates? Do they have the ability to move a lot or are they exercised enough to make up for at least part of that lack? What are they consuming? A well balanced horse is a safer horse, and all of this comes into play when we’re training, which is all day, every day that we own horses.
Every time we work with our horses, we can also choose to be in that present moment, and leave our troubles at the paddock gate, knowing they’ll still be there when we’re done. We can make our training plans based on what we know to be true about the amount of movement their bodies are meant to handle, the way their social structures are set up, and the kind of things we can do to support them. In doing all this, they are more likely to bond with and rely on us, and to actually want to be with us.
Every lifestyle decision and interaction we have with our horses is a choice and a training opportunity. What we do with them is up to us.