“It is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.” — Benjamin Franklin
Bad habits. We all have them, and for many of us it is a lifelong goal to maintain the discipline to manage or redirect them. But we humans are complicated and have so many influences that lead us towards bad habits, so that makes sense, right? Then why do horses have bad habits? Well, instincts play a huge factor, but they are also complicated beings and highly influenced by our responses to their behavior!
First off, what are some bad habits that we see often in horses?
- Eating on the trail, or when they should be working.
- Spooking from both real and imagined threats.
- Disrespecting your space bubble.
Instinct drives many of the bad habits that drive us crazy as we work with horses. But when horses act on those instincts and we don’t correct them, these behaviors become habit.
The Grass Buffet: Horses instinctively know to eat when food is present. Deep inside their core is a fear that they never know when they might get their next meal. So, despite the abundant green grass they have access to 14 hours a day at the ranch, our horses are going to try to grab a bite whenever possible. And, when you are out on a trail, riding through knee-deep grass, it is clear to them that this is a good time to grab a few extra precious calories. Except we want them to be focused on work at that time, and it is up to us to show them that this is work time, not eating time. Ideally, anticipating the horse eyeing the grass and giving them a little reminder on the reins to pay attention to you will keep them from taking the dive down to the grass. But, if you miss that timing, then catching them with one rein as they dive down is the next best. Last option if you were enjoying the view and suddenly realize your horse has stopped at the grass buffet, is to grab those reins, give them a kick, take charge, and let them know this is work time! The more consistent you are with this correction, the more successfully you will break this habit.
It’s a Spooky World Out There: Horses are prey animals, and thus flight animals. So, when confronted with a threat, their instincts is to flee the scene. But this can make for dangerous moments with you are on their back or standing on the ground next to them. Some horses are more investigative, some non-reactive, and some more reactive than others–thus more prone to what we call “spooking” or “shying.” With training, we desensitize them to the things we do not want them to react to—a bag flying across the arena, a tree falling nearby, a deer hopping out of the woods, or a hat flying off behind the line of sight. At the same time, when training we are also trying to sensitize them to the things we do want them to react to—a shift in our seat position, a light cue on the reins, leg pressure for movement. So it’s a lot to ask an animal to be sensitive to some cues, but not others. Part of the reason we like using the “old guys” for little kids is that, as horses get into their geriatric years, they tend to become less reactive. Kind of like that old man on the porch in his rocking chair. Nothing can faze him; nothing is a surprise anymore. And that makes for a safe, although not always incredibly exciting, riding experience for the little tykes. But we would rather have those kids stay on top of their horse than have a wild ride! As riders and handlers, it is our job to help reinforce to our horses that spooking is not a good option. The more we encourage our horses to be brave, and the more we correct them when they spook, the less spooking becomes a habit.
Social Distance Like It Is 2020: We are all so tired of the 6-foot space bubble, but when it comes to horses, that is something we should cling onto like a fly on horse poop. People often make the mistake of thinking it is cute when your horse gets cuddly with you and loves all over you. It really is cute. But when that 1,000-pound animal is all up in your space and focusing on what feels good to them, it isn’t as cute anymore. Where is the best place for your horse to place himself next to you? A few feet away and aware of where you are. How do you keep them from acquiring the bad habit of getting too cozy? Make that cozy time on your terms, not theirs. And be consistent and firm about where you always want them in relation to you. Horses do not get shades of gray and exceptions. They understand black and white.
The point is that many of the bad habits our horses acquire are due to how we allow them to act, and what level of leadership we show them. Goodness, that is enough pressure to lead you to drinking and binge eating…..oh wait, now we’re forming bad habits for you! Nah, take it easy, be consistent and clear, learn to understand your horse’s behavior, and start breaking your own bad habits while you establish good habits for your horse! We will give you the starter kit of all this during our horsemanship clinics at the ranch, and you have all week to practice these skills when you come to VVR for a dude ranch vacation!