June 14, 2012

Equine Psychology And The Meaning Of It All

This will be a long one.  Hopefully it will not fall into the TL;DR category, but my brain has been busy in last 48 hours and we've made some exciting progress.

So now, I'm going to tell you what the meaning of it all is.  The meaning of life?  Ha, no, I am sorry, as a biologist, I must inform you that life itself has no meaning other than a fervent race of genes to survive amidst a sea of incomprehensibly random events.  I know, the truth hurts.

Rather, consider, what the meaning is behind all these tricks we do, all these little steps and coercions and coaxings that we present to our horses in the name of "training."

A friend of mine, a horse trainer for decades, encapsulated it in two words:  horse training is directing choices.  You have to think, to plan, to set a horse up to succeed and to find the right answer to your question.

Every step is a fork in the road.  If you choose the wrong fork, I will pelt you mercilessly with water balloons.  It won't hurt you, but it will sure as heck be annoying and soon you will miserably concede that you went the wrong way.

If you chose the right fork, I will instead walk quietly with you hand in hand, the sun warming our backs in a companionable silence.

When presented with these options, unless you are heinously stubborn and just want to prove a point (i.e. if you are pony, a mare, or simply a pain in the ass.  Or me.), you will quickly (or if you are Solo, eventually) choose the quiet sunshine over endless irritation.

Equine psychology itself fascinates me -- what on the surface seems to be a basic herd animal is actually, upon further exploration, a personality with complex, unique behavioural patterns with whom, if you take the time and effort, you can build an amazing relationship that will change your life forever.

What brings me to all this esoteric pondering today is a 15-20 minute session I spent in the round pen last night with Encore.  Like Solo, I have no idea how he was started or how many owners he has had.  Because he was a racehorse, I can make some educated guesses and based on what I have been told by CANTER and what Encore himself tells me, his trainer was a good egg and he has not been beaten or mistreated at any point during his life.

Not my round pen.  I wish.
This was only his second visit to the round pen.  Let me tell you how much I love round pens:  perhaps my favourite training tool, I haven't had access to one for three years.  But it was invaluable during my early years with Solo and building our relationship.

With Solo, though, in the pen I was dealing with fears and anxiety.  A three-year stint of "I promise I will not beat you with a whip EVER."  Defeating blue tarp terror.  Showing him a leader could be a benevolent friend and partner.  As a result, he gave me his whole heart and trust and we have never looked back.

Encore is different.  In our first session, it was clear that he had no concept of round pen work, it was just a small circular paddock to him, around which he trotted randomly while watching the other horses over the fence.  I felt him out, introduced him to the very basics of changing direction and stopping at liberty, noted his marked resentment toward the longe whip, and left it at that.

Last night, I focused on one goal:  you will not move into the pressure of my aids and you will stay out on the rail ALL THE WAY AROUND the pen.  He likes to trot the rail on one half, then cut across the other half on a dividing line between me and the rail.  If I push him out with my body, he just gets mad, pushes back and rushes by.

Now, I know how to round pen a horse.  I know how to train a horse to give to pressure (about which Encore is excellent in hand) and I know how to read a horse's body language.  I know how to wait the horse out and achieve the important "join up" moment in which the horse has recognized and accepted that you are, in fact, in charge and he is willing to concede the point and trust your leadership.

Yeah, pretty much like that.
But his belligerence about staying out of the center had me a bit puzzled.  He clearly did NOT respect the pressure of my aids and pushed right back.  And when I say pushed back, I mean he pinned his ears, wrinkled his nose, dropped his head and let fly with bolting bucks of rage like a rank two-year-old, both back feet pointedly flying in my direction at about my head height.  This is the equine equivalent of saying, "Lady, go f*ck yourself."  Not exactly what I expected from the doe-eyed pleaser and an obvious red flag that our partnership was not quite there yet.

One of the ladies riding in the ring next to us commented, "Oh my, doesn't he feel good tonight!"  I laughed quietly and said, "Well, he is certainly throwing an impressive temper tantrum!"  I am quite sure that to everyone in the arena, it looked like I was simply standing there while my horse frolicked around the pen, instead of the complex psychological dance that was actually occurring.

My response was to do nothing.  I simply stood still and maintained my body language of "I don't care how you do it, just keep moving forward in the direction I tell you."  I didn't have the longe whip this time; after a conversation with lifeshighway about a stallion she used to own and a lot of thinking, I decided to just use my longe line as a throw rope.

Horse is not thrilled with request.
After each bucking fit, he would return to the rail and trot quickly, head pointedly turned to the outside in case I didn't catch the fact that he was giving me the finger before.  Then, halfway around, he would swerve and cut off the end again.  I would take one quiet step towards his ribcage and swing the end of the line towards him about a foot; even these small aids were very clear to him.  This would set off another fit of bucking fury back to the rail -- he quite pointedly resented my assertion that I wanted to be the clear leader of the partnership; I wanted more than just him mostly going along with me simply because he is a kind, workmanlike type of horse.

This continued for about five minutes.  I admired his cat-like athleticism, but stayed completely nonreactive to his antics and just kept him moving in either direction I wanted with a simple step or a tiny swing of the rope.  Sometimes he would try to change direction on his own, another attempt to push back at me, which requires a quick response of cutting him off and keeping him traveling the way I chose.

Then, somewhere in his clever little brain, the switch flipped.  In the course of four strides, he sighed, his trot slowed and relaxed, his nose dropped and he conceded the point by continuing quietly on the rail all the way around the pen.  I quickly praised him profusely while keeping him trotting.  He dropped to a walk, chewing and flicking an ear towards me and I let him, accepting his relaxation by releasing a little bit of pressure, showing him that yes, he made the correct decision.

Photo by horsecentric.  I hope she doesn't mind me using it, it's an excellent example of submission from her great work with her horse.  I will remove it if requested.
I changed his direction and lifted him back to trot.  He pinned his ears for the first few steps, then his eye softened, his head dropped again and he agreed to trot quietly around the rail, even splashing through a puddle.

I waited; I wanted three things:  I wanted chewing, I wanted the inside ear locked on me, and I wanted his nose on the ground.  I wanted him begging to be allowed back in my herd.

Always a smart one, it didn't take more than a few minutes before I had them all and I quietly said whoa and removed all pressure by turning my back to him and staring at the ground.  He turned, walked up, then stood beside me with pricked ears, expectant, but unsure what would happen next.  I walked around his body, running hands and line over him.  Then I asked him to follow me at liberty in a few small circles, which he readily did.  But when we stopped, he dropped his head to snatch some clover, breaking his attention and showing me he wasn't quite done.

Not me.  White clothes around horses is crazy.
I drove him softly away again, getting another ear pinning and a wrinkled nose, but they were half-hearted now and his trot remained slow.  It didn't take more than a few laps before he showed me he was ready and I let him come back in.  This time, I could walk around him and control not only his head, but his hips and his feet with my eyes and body without touching him.  I could pivot him on the forehand or back him up or lead him forward in a circle and he stayed focused on me without my touching him or using a rope.

This was mission accomplished and it both thrilled and fascinated me.  While my sessions with Solo had been about luring an anxious horse into trust, this had been convincing a confident, sassy horse to accept and give over his body control to me.  Two different horses, two different personalities, and two different dances, but both partnership negotiations successful thanks to one small pen.

This won't be Encore's last session.  We will repeat it a few more times and each one should get shorter.  You may ask, why bother?  Just ride and train him.  To me, the psychology IS part of the training.  The partnership I want with my event horse includes his mind, his heart, and his trust.  This is the best way I know to acheive that, so I consider it an indispensible step in what I hope will be a long and fruitful journey with this continually surprising, ever-intelligent, unfailingly curious, and always wonderful horse.


  1. I've heard multiple times of the benefits of round penning, of the connection that can be enforced by use of it. I think your experience means a little more because, as a reader, I've grown to know your kids. I like that your OTTB has spunk; there have been times that Archie's hooves have flown at my head and his free-thinking just endears him to me (and then I push back). :)

  2. I LOVE AND SWEAR BY ROUND PEN WORK! This was such a good post. I never have the patience to try to explain how I do my thing in the pen because it's so non-verbal and hard to describe. It's literally a second to second dance between my horse and I as we re-arrange the hierarchy in our relationship with me on top. Pong LOVES the pen work and I try to always go back to it when I start to sense a bit of disconnection undersaddle.

  3. Gotta love the round pen work. Even when the horse at the other end is throwing a temper tantrum to match a 3-year old kid. Or when the horse is 20-years old, trying to act like he's 5.

    At least Encore has now realized that you control the universe....I mean, he concedes defeat.

  4. I ADORE roundpenning! I probably did 6 months of it with my OTTB and it did us wonders! Without it, I'm sure he wouldv'e killed me in the saddle.

    I'm glad I'm no the only eventer that uses roundpenning, since its usually seen as a western training tool.

  5. Beka, I certainly love and cherish his personality and I confess it was even a little fun to see him confident enough to be a bit naughty. But ground rules are ground rules!

    Nicku, that's exactly right. It is a second to second adjustment of body language and energy. But once you learn the language, it is fascinating every time you see or practice it.

    Jen, ROFL. At least his universe! I think our next session will be with him undersaddle and if he is quick about it, I will get on him and see what happens.

    Check, you are definitely not the only one!

  6. What a fantastic post! I was with you step-by-step and could absolutely see Encore moving from naughty pony to respectful gentleman. Thank you for articulating this beautiful dance so well.

  7. Not to long at all! Classic Joinup! Great Job!

  8. I am all about round pens and really really wish I had access to one. I totally love the fork in the road analogy as well.

  9. THIS is the kind of thing that people who think certain Famous NH Practitioners Are God should read: the practical, thoughtful use of the round pen. Terrific piece and a treat for us readers! I am all for applying the useful parts of NH, while eschewing the "pay a zillion dollars for a bunch of CDs and gotta-have tools and never ride the horse" b.s. parts. Round pens absolutely have their place in the world, and I would love to work with my own horse in this exact manner some day. Bet the existence of that pen was a factor in your deciding to move barns! :-)

  10. Thank you all, I am glad it can be helpful! I was very sad without a round pen to work with for so long!

    RW, I am definitely not a DVD-buyer or follower, but the principles at the core have been true as long as people have been partnering with horses. It was true I could hardly contain my excitement when I saw that new farm had not one but TWO round pens (one stock panels, one solid) which were both LIGHTED. I may have drooled a little.

  11. Loved this post! I don't have time to read them all, but jogged over to catch up on my fave redhead gelding. We (CANTER) just bought a round pen. We'd sold a bunch of our quiet, sweet, easy horses and were left with....misfits--the tough guys who we weren't quite sure what to do with. 700$ is a lot of money to spend on something like a round pen for a group like ours, but I took the plunge. In two weeks that we have had it set up, it's paid for itself ten times over. I haven't done a ton of work in the round pen, but have done some, and know the concepts. I'd love to learn some more advanced techniques. What I saw today (and posted a picture of the horse on FB) has made me a huge believer. Add in a rope halter and we've got ourselves a misfit-fixer-upper assembly line :)

  12. I miss having a round pen. :( I had the best relationship with my old horse and we use to do a lot of this kind of work. I'm starting a new horse now and while I've done as much of it as I can on the lunge, its just not quite the same. good luck!

  13. Allie, thanks, they are so great! Absolutely worth the cost and it can take a horse from a rebel or a wuss to a quiet, focused pupil. I hadn't realized how much I missed it till I had it back!!! PS, if you want a GREAT rope halter, go talk to my buddy Karen at www.sunsethalters.com. You'll never buy another halter again. Solo is even on the webpage. :D

    Lyndz, you are right, the longe is not even close. A small paddock will do though, it doesn't have to be round if you are quick on your feet.

  14. Well done for sticking with him and working through it. As you know it will help with your riding as well. Yep love the round pen work!!!!!

  15. Thanks, Nina -- it's probably psychosomatic, but I feel that I have noticed a slight change in him in ground handling already -- just a bit more focused on me and more attentive.

  16. Great post. I meant to read it sooner, but school was ending and there was too much on my plate.

    I did not learn how to round pen until I was out of college, but once I learned, I realized that I used to "herd" lesson horses in the paddock in much the same way when I was a kid. I was so determined to get the horse for my lesson that I learned how to coax them into staying still so that I could halter them. The magical "drive-line" which allows you to stop and turn your horse is definitely a wonder to beyond and yield. I prefer to work Harley in a small rectangular pen. He will stop all the way across the ring if I just step across his shoulder line. It is really neat.