Maturity as it Relates to Life Experience
Some might think that a 13 year old horse is a mature horse. Some may even go as far as to say that 13 is approaching seniority. I guess in some situations that could be true, depending on what the life experience has been for that horse over the past 13 years, but in other situations, 13 years old may just be the beginning of a horse coming into their emotional maturity.
Aside from the physical developmental progression that a horse goes through, (such as the closing of growth plates and the eruption of teeth finishing as late as 6-8 years of age) they also have natural mental stages of development that relate to their ability to focus and their attention span. These are dictated by their brain’s development, their age and their life experience.
In the herd, it’s obvious when a colt has reached an age at which the other horses expect more mature behavior. As a baby and all the way up until they’re close to a year old, the other horses in the herd will tolerate a young horse’s antics, standing firm with little more than pinned ears or a tight nose as the leggy colt runs full tilt into an older mare or playfully bucks, kicking out at another herd-mate.
These silly behaviors are permitted because they’re a necessary and important part of a young horse’s development: of brain, balance, body and social skills, but when that same horse reaches a year old, the herd’s tolerance level will shift. Where once, those erratic, silly behaviors were allowed, now they’ll be met with a short chase, a bite or even a firmly placed kick.
The young horse has reached a level of physical and emotional development from which higher expectations can be, well… expected. The older the horse gets, the more they’ll be expected to contribute as a positive member of the herd: keeping the peace, alerting the other to danger and playing their part in swatting flies or standing guard.
In our domestic, stabled horses, sometimes this shift in expectations (as outlined from the herd) is missed and as a result a young horse can find themselves emotionally “stunted”, being allowed to continue to bump into their handlers, kicking out or striking at inappropriate times and ultimately (because physically they continue to grow) becoming dangerous.
If we are able to deliver that message, however, we can help our young horses to realize that their silly, playful antics that were tolerable and “cute” as a weanling, aren’t appropriate for the yearling or the two year old, and they certainly aren’t cute anymore… We can teach them about space and boundaries, about patience and accepting standing still (even when they don’t want to) and about following simple directions like lifting their feet for their farrier or allowing a veterinarian to touch them in places they may prefer not to be touched.
All of these things are a necessary, valuable part of a young horse’s education/development and as they age, the expectation level we place on them can be raised. They can learn more and more things and be asked to focus and pay attention for longer and longer until one day, hopefully, they can become a functional, reliable partner.
By the time a horse is 10 – 15 years old, they’ve often developed enough emotional maturity to be well practiced at following directions, learning new tasks and have a fairly healthy self-esteem. What I mean by that is that they’ll have enough self-confidence to maintain their composure, even when faced with learning something new or being asked to try something different. However, in some situations, if they haven’t been supported thoroughly, a horse’s emotional maturity can be stunted and in those cases we often find ourselves dealing with a physically mature horse with the mind of a 2 year old.
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Macy was a 13 year old Appendix QH mare. She’d been purchased by her owner, Candice, when she was 7. She was young but she had a solid foundation of training in place. She didn’t have a lot of practice yet but she had received some very good schooling that, in time, if it was maintained and built upon, would become experience; experience that would help to provide Macy with confidence and security. Unfortunately, not long after she and Candice began their journey together, Macy sustained an injury that put a halt to their progress.
Macy spent the next year in a stall, being cared for well and loved on, but without any real handling or practice at the foundation training that she’d received prior to the injury. After the year of rest, she was slowly given more space in order to allow her to strengthen her tendons again, without overdoing things and re-injuring herself.
After a couple years of rehab, she was finally able to be put out to pasture, where she could begin to stretch out and put more effort into re-building her strength, flexibility and balance herself. Macy lived this way for another couple of years. When it became apparent that Macy was maintaining her soundness and might be ready to get back to work, Candice began thinking about riding her again! Now, at 12 years old and physically fully developed (but with the training and emotional maturity of a 7 year old) Macy was going to go back to work.
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It can be easy to allow yourself to become wrapped up in what you should be able to expect out of a 12 year old horse and to forget how much or how little has actually been done. Although an older horse can physically handle a lot more than a younger horse, emotionally, they might still need to go through the process of maturing, which is a process that will require supported exposure and experience and that requires competent, confident guidance, repetition, consistency and supportive, progressive expectations. That is how I came to meet Macy
Candice recognized her mare’s emotional immaturity, and luckily, she also recognized her own lack of experience in dealing with these things. She had felt confident about bringing her mare along when she was younger and inexperienced but she was less confident about her abilities to review, refresh and progress her mare after so much time off. She made a wise choice and asked for support in dealing with these things. I was happy to help this pair out.
The first spring that I worked with Macy, we were focused mainly on rehabbing her physical stamina and her condition so that riding her, without causing new injuries, would be possible. I gave her a month of strategic exercise and foundation review. Candice then took her mare home and continued on the path that I had set them down. Over the next 10 months or so, she did a fabulous job of maintaining and even progressing Macy’s responsiveness, fitness and overall physical condition and then, after another winter off, Macy came back to me for another 30 days. This time we would be focusing on emotional maturity.
You see, over the past year, a few things had become apparent:
1. Macy had a time limit. She was very happy to learn new things, review old things and practice her skills for about 30 – 40 minutes and then she would throw a hissy fit.
2. Macy was happy to do all of the things she had learned in a familiar setting but was not confident in trying any of her skills out in strange places, especially outside the arena!
3. Macy was unsure how to take directions when she was feeling emotionally stimulated; as in when she was taken down the road, out on the trail or when faced with something overly exciting, like the introduction to working with cattle.
During our second set of 30 days together, Macy and I reviewed all of our foundation skills as well as discussing some changes in my expectations. For a “young” horse, (and when I say that I mean an emotionally young, a horse who has not yet learned to be confident in the skills they know) maintaining a “job” for an extended period of time would be unfair. A “young” horse being asked to repeat a task over and over again or for an extended period of time will begin to question if they understand the task at all and will begin to become confused, frustrated and insecure, however, an older horse (or one who is more experienced anyway) can and should be expected to maintain or repeat a task for a longer period of time. This can be a tricky road block to overcome.
Many horses who have yet to pass this road block, like Macy, will do a task without complaint and even do it very willingly, softly and with enthusiasm for an allotted period of time and then, when they feel they have been doing it for long enough, they’ll simply refuse to do it again. This could be, for example, maintaining a lope/canter, it could be moving the cows or it could be heading down the trail, away from home. When their time limit is reached or their comfort zone is passed, these horses will show any number of behaviors, from balking to bucking, from head tossing to kicking out or from spooking to spinning around... None of these behaviors are a lot of fun, especially when you were, only moments ago, riding your dream horse!
This can be an extremely frustrating and disheartening experience for everyone, the horse included! But have no fear. This is a normal, natural part of emotionally maturing for any horse. Think of it like the “teenage phase”. Your horse was a beautiful, quiet, well mannered, helpful little friend one moment and all of a sudden they are a rebellious, moody punk who talks back and refuses to clean up after themselves, demanding their independence.
To me, at this stage, it is so important not to “break their spirit” or to crush that personality that makes them the individual with their own likes, dislikes and a natural aptitude for whatever it is that they find most enjoyable, however, it’s also necessary that they learn to understand that they aren’t just done when they feel like it. That they learn that they have a job to do and that they will need to keep doing that job until they’re finished.
Macy, as I said, had a time limit. She would work for 30 – 40 minutes well and then she would begin tossing her head repeatedly, she’d lose track of where she was placing her feet and she’d seemingly forget how to move her hips and shoulders the way we had been practicing perfectly only moments ago. Although many horses display this type of protest in a far more dangerous manner, Macy’s expression wasn’t entirely safe.
When she began head tossing and moving around, she didn’t always thing about where she was placing her feet and she could be a little bit clumsy. It became important to ride her somewhere that thinking about her feet would be important, not only to me but to her as well. This meant that it was time to take our conversation outside the arena!
Riding outside the arena was another area in which Macy needed to mature. She seemed to think that the request to move her hips over or yield her shoulder was only necessary to follow when you were riding INSIDE an arena when in fact, those foundation requests become all the more important once you are riding away from home.
It didn’t take too long before Macy learned the value of following directions in new places or the importance of paying
attention to where her feet were and learning to tolerate being expected to follow directions for a little longer than she had before was a natural progression with the addition of distance from home. In order to get home, she would have to work through her “sticky spot” and learn to follow directions for just a little longer than she had before.
It did, however, take a fair amount of confidence, patience and faith on my part, to repeatedly place ourselves in situations in which I knew I would need to call on Macy to step up, exercise her maturity and try for me. Luckily Macy began to recognize the value of waiting for me, the value of following my suggestions around where the best place to place her feet might me and the stability that NOT tossing her head provided.
Stretching Macy’s comfort zone and her time limit took an awareness and a sensitivity for what she could handle and it took backing off at times in which giving me just a little bit more was not available. It also took an understanding of when to push ahead and ask her to try just a little bit harder at times. This is where the true progress is made and where, if it’s done wrong, the backsliding can happen so for this reason, getting the help of a professional who has had experience with this sort of thing is essential!
Developing a physically mature horse’s emotional maturity can be a new kind of challenge but it is absolutely doable and is often the root cause of many behavioral issues that can appear to be unrelated. Often times, working on developing a horses emotional maturity through expanded expectations can help to alleviate a horses’ insecurity and the behavioral challenges that can come along with inexperience.