Sometimes when we teach our horses something, it’s something that we wanted them to learn and on purpose. That usually happens when we’re being mindful and have carefully chosen a task we’d like them to learn, paying close attention to our own actions as well as to theirs. Other times, when our horses learn something, it’s completely by accident and often, when that’s the case, it was as a result of a lack of mindfulness. We failed to notice the predictable patterns we were presenting to our horse or the patterns they were presenting to us, missing our opportunity to “weigh in” and inadvertently allowing our horses to learn something we may not have intended to teach them.
Predictable patterns can provide our horses with comfort and security. They can help them to learn about expectations and give them a sense of control. The conditions in which our horses live in will influence them emotionally, either providing them with this comfort and emotional balance or becoming a souse of stress, augmenting and nurturing imbalance, depending on how we’ve handled things.
For example, how and when they’re fed, turned in or out and what kind of routines they’re exposed to will all have an impact on their experience as well as their behavior. When we use this understanding and knowledge to our advantage, we can actually make teaching them and communicating with them far easier and considerably more enjoyable for everyone involved. When we don’t, it can have the opposite effect.
Many disciplines are already making great use of our horse’s predisposition to learning patterns and consequence, such as Reining, Dressage, Barrel Racing and pole bending. These events rely on teaching a horse a pattern and allowing that pattern to become a habit, providing the horse with a sense of control and security as well as making our task of riding them through these patterns much easier. Often, this sense of security that patterns can provide however, can allow us to “get away” with an incredibly stressful and sometimes damaging lifestyles for our horses.
I don’t believe people do this intentionally but rather that they’re unaware of the damages that these lifestyles can create for the more sensitive horses: constantly traveling, spending long hours in strange places, the stress that the energy of a competitive lifestyle can induce, the resulting ulcers, tension, arthritis and emotional trauma that many of these horses live with… I’ll admit, it can be hard to recognize when your horse is continuing to perform well, doing their job seemingly better than ever and is showing the results that so many of them do (despite the effects that these lifestyles can have on them). There are also even some horses who seem to thrive in these conditions, but not many.
The symptoms can creep up slowly, making it hard to connect the dots at times but eventually these horses begin
displaying similar behaviors: Pinning their ears, wrinkling their nose, appearing to be despondent or unwilling to connect like they once were. Tight and tense in their responses, their bodies begin to display discomfort and they can become “grumpy” or mildly (or even seriously) dangerous, offering to bite, kick, buck, and push-through or worse... Alternately, they might become shut down, dissociative or begin internalizing their experience.
The good news is, once these things are noticed (depending on the level of damage of course) they can be reversed. We’ve witnessed many horses who arrived as grouchy, uncomfortable, irritable horses who’d developed ulcers or behavioral issues, make complete turn around. Once they are listened to, given the freedom of movement, the freedom to express themselves, friends, choices and a more natural digestive experience and of course, the necessary medical treatment for the damage they’re suffering, many of these horses displayed noticeable, profound changes, both physically and behaviorally. Sometimes they seemed like totally different horses, the old friend and partner coming back to the surface and becoming much more willing to connect, as they once had been.
When a horse is cooperating and offering the performance that so many of them do, despite the damage they’re experiencing, it can be hard to accept that they could be suffering, but when you understand the power of repetition and patterns and the effect that they can have on a horse, it’s easy to see how a horse could become a victim of the pattern. In a sense, they become like a child with a severe case of OCD, not at all in control of their actions but rather, a passenger inside the body of someone who’s been “programed” to repeat a behavior. Finding comfort and security in the repetition of a known action while everything else becomes more and more uncomfortable, more unpredictable and more overwhelming; that predictable, reliable pattern can become their refuge and provide them with something to hold onto, giving us the illusion that they’re ok.
The knowledge and understanding of the power of patterns should not be taken advantage of in a way that would use the horse but rather, it should be used in a way as to provide an advantage to developing our relationships with our horses. We can use patterns to teach our horses about our expectations and to keep our horses and ourselves safe. We can use our understanding to help teach desirable behaviors and develop our horse’s partnership and confidence and we can communicate more effectively when we understand how a horse learns, through consistent, repeated, well timed responses. We must be careful not to use this phenomenon to “program” our horses to a point where they’re no longer a participant or to where we could miss the subtleties in their feedback due to them repeating behaviors mindlessly, simply because the habit or pattern has been set.
In the collaborative book written by Dr. Stephen Peters and well known and well respected horseman, Martin Black, Evidence Based Horsemanship, the two discuss the cerebellum and how it’s responsible for the learning and storage of physical movements. They say, “The horses brain is wired for movement routines” and go on to present that “Learned motor skills and perceptual motor skills are embedded in procedures and can be expressed through performance. We can learn a motor skill without having any awareness at all of what is being learned.” What this means is that through the electrochemical neurotransmitter processes, a horse learns a behavior that will then become an unconscious competence, meaning, they don’t even know that they know it. It’s not a thought driven behavior but rather a programed response.
When you combine these facts with what we know about “learned helplessness”: a phenomenon in which a horse (or any other animal, including humans) finds that no matter how they respond they can’t escape from pain or adverse stimuli, eventually the horse will develop a passive response to a chronically stressful situation. In other words, through the use of predictable patterns we can program our horses to perform without thought and then create a situation in which they become passive about what’s going on, even if the situation is one in which they may otherwise be experiencing a great deal of chronic stress. Dr Stephen says “Horses may respond by initially doing what was asked of them in the past and resorting to previously learned patterns of stimulus and response. But under chronic stress that they cannot relieve by any predictable action, they withdraw, disengage, show little reaction and appear quiet.”
With a great deal of science to back me up, I feel quite confident in my warning to become more aware of “patterning” your horse. It can be far too easy to program responses into a horse that cannot be trusted as honest reflections of your horse’s emotional state. Although in some cases, predictable patterns and programmed responses can be helpful and even necessary (such as getting into a trailer when asked or picking up their feet for their hoof care), it’s also necessary that we acknowledge and understand when we are triggering a programmed response and when our horses actions are true reflections of their emotional or mental state of mind. To be unaware of this phenomenon can easily get a person into trouble and can put a horse and rider into a situation in which neither one of them is prepared to deal with.
I will go deeper into this idea next month!