Monday, April 27, 2015

Insecure Horses and the Power of Praise


My horse has a fundamentally insecure base personality.  He was a very young bottle-fed orphan who loved humans, but isn't human, and never really adapted well in the herd.  No matter which herd you place him in, he'll always be the omega.

And yet, I love him and love working with him. It's always a challenge between discipline and praise, and he's quick to need both.  Because of this, he's sharpened me.  I have to be more aware of when he's challenging me and when he's feeling trapped, and I have to be able to respond immediately with little time to analyze which it is.  

When to wean a horse is always a debatable topic.  The first horse I ever purchased was a weanling, and I bought him before he was weaned.  I was so excited to have him, I'd go visit him with his mama as much as I could without being a pest to the owners.  On the day of weaning (it's been so long I can't remember how old he was, but I think he was about 5 or 6 months) there was a lot of calling back and forth between he and his dam.  I boarded him on the same property and his owner wanted to start using his mom for team penning and trail riding, so she was happy to get them separated, but it was a stressful day on the two of them.  He turned out to be a solid, trusting, brave trail horse, and I think it's in part because he was with his mom for so long.  Cowboy didn't get that option.

Almost 20 years after the weanling, I brought Cowboy to the same barn, same stall, where I'd had my former horse.  In his stall, Cowboy was the bully of bullies.  If a horse was walked down the aisle in front of him, he'd raise his head up as high as it would go and lunge out like he was going to bite them.  He seemed like an alpha.

Then we brought him home and let him go with the herd.  What a difference.  He became the most docile, submissive horse you've ever seen, and soon, the omega, where he's been ever since then.

Cowboy and I have worked together for twelve years now and he still keeps me on my toes.  I have horses in my herd that you can depend on to be brave and unshakable in almost every situation, but Cowboy is not that horse.  He's brave and unshakable in most situations, but will choose the strangest things to be scared of.


Two weeks ago I took him to the despooking clinic and it was once again revealed to me that, at his core, he is insecure.  For him, challenges have to be met one by one, mastering each one.  

Which brings me to the topic of praise.  One of the things they told us to do at the clinic was praise our horses...BIG TIME, as in, make a BIG deal over every success.  "GOOD job, Cowboy.  Good job, boy!!"

That really isn't my way.  I'm more of a quiet praiser.  But to make them happy, I exaggerated the praise--took it up a few notches, and I've continued doing it to see if it helps.  As of now, it's new for him and he's trying to figure it out.  Like, "What's this all about?  Is she faking?"  

I've had a few trail rides since that clinic and in some ways he's doing better, and in some other ways, worse.  The area where he's doing worse is trust.  He seems to anticipate that I'm going to ask him to do something he's afraid of now, like I did at the clinic.  He's a bit more adversarial with me.

Today I went out with him before I had to leave to work.  I wanted to spend some time just being with him and giving him some easy tasks he could accomplish so that I had more opportunity to praise him.  He seems to like it.  The heart of a horse wants to please.  I really think they take pride in doing things right and are even competitive with one another.

Tomorrow I have a long ride planned with him, about five hours, and I'm hoping to work on trust throughout it.  I want to break down the tasks I've come to expect and make a bigger deal over them.  I want him to know how proud of his accomplishments I am.  He's twenty years old and we've been partners for twelve years, but you can never have enough trust.  If anything, my desire to see him confidant and brave has only increased with time.

Please share your own thoughts on praise and how your horses respond to it.  Do you think they need it?  How BIG is your praise?






14 comments:

  1. Interesting post. I've truly never really thought about how big my praises are, just usually offer fairly quiet praise when it's warranted. I always figured the horses knew, and I knew, what the praises were for. However, I'm working with my horse now who has confidence issues. Not in the herd, he's the alpha and quietly confident with the other horses. He was likely abused or mistreated in his past, but since he was a rescue, we don't really know anything for certain. I believe that someone was very rough and likely unfair with him. He's a big supporter of "fair". Hard to explain, but that's how I see him. I give him lots of little praises, a lot more often, for even tiny accomplishments and he seems to love them. Our relationship has grown by leaps and bounds, but he's still very reactive in uncertain situations. He comes back to normal, much sooner than he used to, but the unsettling part for me, is that I wonder if I can "sit" those very quick reactions of his...guess we'll see. Interesting post though, I always enjoy food for thought.

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    1. Interesting. I do think horses with "unfair" pasts tend to demand "fair" and make you earn their trust each little step by step. I do know Cowboy's past and it was unfair and, unfortunately, those experiences when they're young are deeply ingrained. Having a horse like that, however, makes you a more sensitive horseperson, and that's a good thing. I took classes in western dressage so that I could sit through the spooks and/or instantaneous bad choices Cowboy made on the trail. I have to be forward with him all the time, any little pull back on the reins to ask for a walk over a creek, for example, may be met with backing up and balking. So, I have to be prepared that he might jump it. He usually doesn't, but you never know. Also, logs. Most the time he steps over them nicely, but every once in a while, he jumps them. Last Sunday he did a jump and spin on a trail we ride all the time. Because of those lessons, I'm like glue in that saddle My teacher always said, sit so that if the horse were to disappear, you'd still be standing. It works.

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  2. I have a Cowboy too. I also bought him as a weanling. Shortly after I brought hi home, a deer poacher shot him in the pasture, though the wound was very scary, it turned out to be superficial. He did hate me because I had to clean it and medicate him twice a day, then he was gelded, and then he needed stitches on his side. Don't ask. He 's a bad patient, and it took such a long time to get him going under saddle. I do think he's very sensitive, and I noticed early on that he can 't handle it if I get upset. He does seem to respond better to praise than any other horse I've owned.

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    1. Wow, that is a horrible beginning. It sounds like he had a lot to overcome. I didn't actually get Cowboy as a weanling, that was another horse. I was the 4th owner of Cowboy by the time he was 8. He had already been "trained", but I had to earn every little thing over--all the way down to bridling. It took me a week to get him bridled, but I've never had an issue since then. It's interesting that he responds so much to praise. It seems to me, insecure horses have more of a need to believe they've done something competently.

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  3. My new horse has had a life of ease, getting her way because nothing was ever asked of her- she was a brood mare and lived in pasture with other horses basically doing nothing until she was nearly 10 years old and then put under saddle so that they could find a buyer for her. I find her easily distracted by the other horses, and getting her to understand that she needs to pay attention to me when I'm on her back is my biggest challenge with her- so whenever she does think about what I am asking her to do, I make sure to praise her, verbally as I am giving her the release after she figures out what I was asking for. I don't go really big, but I'm clear in my praise. Beamer is a different story- he expects praise just for standing around and being handsome! Lol!

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    1. Shirley, I think it's extremely interesting that she was used as a brood mare until 10. I've always wondered what that would do to a horse's confidence. On the one hand, it's always good to get the teaching of a herd, but on the other, it could cause extreme herd boundness. This idea of BIG praise was interesting to me. When you're at someone's clinic, you sort of make an unstated agreement to try what they're telling you, so I did. Has it made any difference? Not yet. But I suppose it has made me think more about praise, in general, and Cowboy's need to be praised for smaller accomplishments. Beamer does deserve praise for being handsome!!

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  4. This post really made me think about whether I give big praise or not. I don't tend to be overly reactive around my herd but try to stay calm and quiet and matter of fact while working around them or with them.

    Donnie would be our most sensitive horse who needs calm confidence when working with him. He's very reactive to anything being done around his head. Some days he needs his halter unbuckled to be put on sometimes not. Surprisingly,he doesn't spook hardly at all. We know he had a bad start but not quite sure how. he will lunge beautifully but he has an issue with girths. He's only been ridden (very gently) a few times and again sometimes he was ok and others he went into ballistic bucking etc. There's a mystery to his past that we can't figure out and he really is too unpredictable to ride. So we just work with him on the ground and he's happy with that. He gets lots of praise verbally and lots of neck and mane rubs. As do all the horses. So I guess I would say I give lots of praise but not over the top big praise. I used to cringe at horse shows when the riders would get done with a good round of jumping and smack the crap out of their horses necks. It seemed a little over the top to me and I always wondered if the horses thought they were being punished by being smacked like that.

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    1. I agree about smacking. Horses must find that obnoxious. I rub his neck and withers. They seemed to be encouraging verbal enthusiasm, like "Wow, you did great" kind of stuff. I agree with you, too, about keeping down the energy and being calm/quiet. It seems that too much enthusiasm might amp them up. But I'm still going to try it out this week and see where it gets me. I'm for my ride right now...more later.

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  5. When I'm especially pleased I like to reach down & scratch withers for a bit; I too think that big pats seem more irritating than rewarding. I talk a lot to my horses as we're going along, probably because it's usually just the 2 of us, so if they do anything wrong they hear the difference in my voice from just chatting, giving direction, or general 'love-talk'.
    A retired race horse taught me more (in my 30's) about actively bonding than I ever knew as a brave kid - she also taught me the value of good riding over bravery, the value of wisdom over bravery, & sticking like a burr to my saddle. Still love that mare.

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    1. Yeah, we definitely learn more from our more difficult horses. I'm a cautious rider because of Cowboy. The group I ride with all have good manners on the trail and we never do anything that will scare the other horses. We were talking today about "talking" to our horses and if they need that to comfort them. I definitely talk to mine, too. He'd probably find it strange if I was too quiet. Today I did do the frequent praise thing and I tried to keep him from getting agitated. He seemed to be more at ease and pleased that he was pleasing me.

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  6. I have always been a quiet person, and have tended to skip over the praise in the past, letting a quiet pause be the reward. But I have changed that. I think that praise really is important. I'm sure it depends on the individual horse, but I think they really appreciate it. I didn't think it was important until I watched someone else riding one of my horses and saw how they reacted to praise. It was a real eye-opener. I think it was Scout, and he was positively PROUD of himself for figuring it out and doing the right thing. Tonka responded very well to praise as well. Bella is more reserved, and would probably prefer quiet praise, but she does definitely need the positive reinforcement, she's such a perfectionist.

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    1. Very interesting perspective, Andrea. It's great that you could see the difference when someone else praised him. I've seen the same PRIDE in my horses, coupled with relief that what they did pleased me. They do want to please and be in harmony. Hey, I want to please them, too. It works out great!

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  7. I love all these different perspectives you've gotten here...all good stuff. Sure sounds like horses in general, enjoy praise - whether small or bigger - and respond with pride or just pleasure at having done well. I love to see that "pleased with themselves" look of contentment they get when they KNOW they've done a good job. Kinda like us.

    Also, smacks are not praise. We all respond the same way. At Ray Hunt clinics, he would actually bark out at someone he caught "praising" or petting their horses in such a way! And that man could BARK!! :)

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    1. Ha! I bet he could!! There was another trainer who brought up smacking, but I can't remember who now. Maybe Tellington Jones? It'll come to me. Whoever it was spoke against patting in general, preferring the controlled withers petting or any kind of petting over the up and down pat/smack.

      It is great to see the "pleased with themselves" look. Cowboy will also get that look when he does something better than another horse which has led me to believe they do have an innate competitiveness with one another.

      My friends and I were on a ride last year and we had about four or five geldings and one mare--Penny. One of my friends was riding Penny that day, in fact. We got to a creek and none of the geldings would cross. They each approached, each balked. So, we said, "Bring up the mare!" And,lo and behold, she walked across without even looking down. The geldings looked so embarassed and each crossed quite quickly directly after. Everyone renamed her "MoneyPenny" after that.

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Please feel welcome to join our discussion--tell us about your own thoughts and experiences.