I saw an article on Facebook that was titled something like “Why Performance Riders Hate Natural Horsemanship.” It went on to talk about this person’s thoughts that performance people consider NH people wimpy and NH people consider performance people too firm, plus some adverts for their program that wants to merge the two worlds. I’m one of those people that geeked out on natural horsemanship as a teenager, mostly because I bought horses I could afford – hard ones. Buck Brannaman, John Lyons, they all inspired me and helped me make it to adulthood in one piece. The grey in the photo is me, almost 15 years ago, on my first Fell Pony that I bought cheap because it took two hours to catch and halter him even in an enclosed space. I broke him to ride without owning a saddle because I was too broke to buy one. It made sense at the time.
So it’s late at night and I’m avoiding sleep and watching Warwick Schiller’s video library for inspiration, and I get to one video where he talks about horses not being able to handle pressure. The examples he gave kind of took me back a little, because I didn’t normally consider that not being able to handle pressure, but it made sense. I also realized that I had a new sales project that had that issue almost to a tee. I really adore this mare, and I think she had a huge amount of potential, and I didn’t want anxiety to get in the way of that. So we started back up round penning using Warwick Schiller’s video library to improve my dusty knowledge and hopefully fill in some holes.
I want to make a note right off the bat that there are some excellent natural horsemanship people that blend with performance extremely well. John Lyons falls into that category, and I believe Warwick Schiller does also. I won’t go into that more, though, because that’s a post in and of itself. Expectations, what you address, and what you allow or correct are everything, and it’s the timing and release that trains, just like any other discipline. Exhausted, tired horses don’t do anything consistently.
So back to pressure. I’m thinking in my head that I like the way he’s wording this. I want my ponies, especially sales ones, to not crack under pressure. Hard to catch horses? Horses that lift their heads up when you go to halter/bridle them like you haven’t done it a million times before? Overreacting when you reinforce your leg or say go on the lunge line? Can’t be corrected under saddle without resistance or tension? That’s not being able to handle pressure, but I had never put those words to it. Their emotional cup, so to speak, cannot always be overflowing to where little things set them off. It’s not enjoyable to work a Jekyll and Hyde horse that reaches its boiling point over normal, everyday things.
This mare, she’s a super sweet, smart mare, but she can’t relax. However, her inability to handle pressure is masked by her awesome personality *most of the time.* Walk past a riding mower? No problem. Approached by a plastic bag? I’m just happy it wasn’t my knee that was was applying that lightning-fast mare ninja kick. Apply leg under saddle, and she always gives more than you asked for. No buck, rear, you can ride her anywhere…she’s just a sensitive ride that needs more experience. Right? What if I can get that consistent pony without riding through years of overreactions and anxiety? Yes, please. Good training takes years. The more I focus on the performance and not fight the mental, the happier I am.
What I really took away from watching this video, and I put this out here because someone else may be in my position, is that I need to approach my horse’s weak areas with a very systematic, organized “just buck up and deal with it” program, to keep the pressure applied in that exact moment until she responds more appropriately and that appropriate response becomes consistent…which is also kind of cathartic emotionally. Seriously. To make them squirm and flinch (or kick/spin/leap) and then taking the squirm out just leaves you feeling gushy inside. And also to approach the correct issue!
I have round penned this filly maybe five times, three with scary stuff, and have seen a huge difference in the outcome just by really having the attitude of approaching her with an unyielding, George Morris style pressure, and not backing off until she quiets down, even if that sends her running in terror at first (like with a plastic bag). I’m not going to go into the exact methodology here, but chew on a smaller example. How about a horse that leans or moves away/lifts their head from being touched/bridled? Don’t coo and soothe them into accepting your hand or push on their poll until they drop it. Then they learn to drop their head and for some horses that’s enough, but I’ve had others that just bounce that head back up and still resist bridling. They learned to lower their head, but not to be bridled. It’s different, and I see clearly now that even though I eventually got what I wanted after much bobble-heading, I would have gotten it faster had I addressed the actual issue, which was the pressure of the bridle by their head. Lift the bridle, they lift their head, hold bridle in place, they eventually drop head, rinse and repeat until they can’t fail at being bridled. Then you’ve taught a horse to bridle, not just drop its head.
So off I go with this mare in the round pen with my scary bag and stick o’ death. I don’t approach slowly, carefully watching for her tipping point and then backing off. A bag blowing in the wind doesn’t politely stop fluttering when your horse starts losing its marbles. No. It wraps around their face at the most inopportune time while your best friend laughs and takes photos. I want to very systematically teach her to do nothing at all, like the bag was normal, despite her little Thoroughbred-cross brain screaming “abort, abort!” until she sees not fleeing in terror as a viable option.
It has been a lot of fun to watch her, over the period of three days, go from deadly ninja kicks to me having to search for the squirm. I’ve noticed she stands around more watching me like a creeper in the barn aisle, which I think is pretty nifty. I want her to learn to handle her emotions so she doesn’t stress out mine, and then we can learn together in bliss while she looks at me with those soft, sleepy, doe-like mare eyes. Why does this matter so much to me? Because I’m working my horses after also working another job, and I want them to be my happy place. I don’t like being stressed. It does weird things to my body.
We suffer through the symptoms of distracted, resistant horses willingly. That one’s just green or that one’s just high strung or that one’s just a hard ride. It’s normal. “They’re just a hard ride,” because they fall apart/resist every time pressure is applied, often corrections in the course of normal training. Round penning may not be necessary (I just think it’s easy and efficient), but addressing the correct issue is. We all know and love horses out there that can handle whatever life throws at them, because they’ve mastered handling pressure (a-ha!). We’ve all used the terms unflappable, steady eddy, bombproof, schoolmaster…you know, the horses that give us that fuzzy, loving, safe feeling. Some are like this from the get-go and some get there after years of competition and consistent riding. I’m cheap and lazy and impatient. Showing is expensive. I also do think some horses specifically need this addressed in a confined area or maybe round penning is the easiest way for some people to process it. I’ve done this natural horsemanship deal for years, so I use it.
A couple other points on why it might be worthwhile to spend some time addressing how your horse handles something new:
- I ride my horses alone, so safety is first! Shying doesn’t cut it for me, because shying is a compromise, and that “listen to my leg, damnit” battle puts me at risk, even if just a little bit. They’ve become the ones making the decision as to how they’re going to proceed, not my seat or inside leg. That’s not good enough for me.
- We expect young greenies like her to spook some, and we just try to do the best we can to get them and us through the moment, but never address it systematically like we do the rest of our training. Maybe that’s just walking by an arena bleacher or a jump just a little sideways. They’ll get used to it in time. Right? I’d rather just not have that issue. I’m over riding the hard ones. I want to teach them to be easy before I even get on.
- What’s the purpose in spending the first ten minutes trying to get the attention of a horse that would rather watch what’s happening outside the arena? Or only working in part of the arena because they’re scared of that one corner or fall apart in a new place? “Well, they’re just young and that will go away in time.” I want better than that for my sales horses if the tools to teach them are available. It just drags out the training and limits what you can work on every time you ride in a place that they’re not 100% comfortable with.
- And it’s SAFER to do it on the ground. If my mare moves away from a plastic bag while I’m teaching this and trots around the outside, I’m not in danger. But I am in danger when we’re trying to walk by that flapping flag at a show ground in hand or under saddle, and she’s scooting sideways, and I’m just hoping we make it to the other side with toes intact or not bolting, and that this experience doesn’t ruin our ride that I paid too much money for so I can post my scores on Facebook. There’s no point in addressing this only when we’re out and about. Give them the right idea at home, and reap the rewards with a relaxing (if that’s possible) competition weekend or Saturday trail ride in a new place.
- I’ve seen horses spook literally on top of people, and then ambulances get called, and that’s expensive. Medical bills are expensive. Enough said.
The point of this is not to convince everyone to go be a natural horsemanship pro. I do a lot of groundwork because I have five horses to try to work each day. It’s hotter than Haiti outside now, and who wants to wash five sweaty saddle pads at the end of the day? I work my horses after my full-time job, so I have to get efficient and effective and stay safe, because often I’m alone. Just three days of this has started making a difference in her anxiety, and hopefully I can post more on how this progresses over into our riding.