“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going”
I picked this saying up somewhere along the way and have found it an applicable truth to nearly all things in life, but perhaps particularly so when working with horses. Whatever it is we wish to achieve with our horses, if it is a worthwhile goal, it will take some time, patience and effort. Even the simplest of ambitions – maybe purchasing an older horse just to ride for pleasure – will take time and effort to both achieve and maintain the goals you have set.
In my work starting colts, developing ranch horses, helping horses with people problems and instructing students with their own horses, I am always pleased to find owners who are not looking for shortcuts. With a youngster being started, it is always refreshing for me to learn that the owner values the time it takes to get it right and give the horse the best foundation for success in life. This is where colt starting competitions, as educational as they are, can give some folks the wrong idea – that starting a youngster shouldn’t take more than a few days – regardless of that individual horse’s history or personality and the level of proficiency they need to operate at in order for the owner to take them on.
Equally so, with a horse that has developed undesirable habits and we’re in a problem-solving situation, it makes the process much more beneficial when the owner understands that the horse didn’t become like this in a day and also recognizes how they can change their own habits to better the situation in the future. Without a change in the person’s approach, most horses are going to revert back to familiar, long-term habits.
I remember a kid’s pony brought to me for some training because she was getting to be a little dangerous on the ground. I worked with her for several days to improve her handling and “manners” on the ground and she quickly became more aware of a person and their space and ceased the nipping that she had been displaying previously. Through better understanding and consistency, she behaved far better around my kids and my wife (who was not around horses until after we were married 15 yrs ago) was able to lead her back to the pasture one day with no trouble at all.
Before taking her home, I worked together with the owners, a woman and her son (who did most the riding). I explained how hand feeding the pony treats and being inconsistent with body language had led to the understanding she had – to have been walking over people and so busy with her mouth. Treats, instead of good clear communication, had become the boy’s “shortcut” to try to get the pony to like him – resulting in some bad habits that are never wanted in a kid’s pony. We had a good little groundwork session and she responded well as the boy picked up on better communication. But whenever he stopped and stood near her, she would begin rooting around his hands and pockets, looking for treats and he would begin to step back away from her, both of them reverting back to the old habits. I was able to help him be more aware of what was going on and it seemed both he and his mother understood how they could improve to set things up for success. That was, until after we got all finished and I observed him feeding the pony carrots by hand!
There are many poor substitutes for true horsemanship. Gimmicks and shortcuts may work temporarily and horses are generally so cooperative and forgiving that we tend to take a lot for granted and may often see what we would call “success”. But in the long run and with different individuals, these shortcuts will most often come back to haunt us. Anything that is forced on the horse, without being based in understanding (theirs and ours) and without building confidence and response will never have the best results. I find that many approaches, even within what folks may call “natural horsemanship”, do not really fit a horse and can have limited effectiveness depending on the individual – horse and human.
One of the most common of these shortcuts within the broader equine industry is the “bigger bit” theory – which is when a horse seems to not be responsive to the bit and rein they are currently ridden in and the advice given is to purchase a more severe bit to “get their attention” and “show them who’s boss”. This does nothing to increase the horse’s understanding of the bit – it just increases the pressure (which is actually pain compliance in this case) which will force the horse to do what a person wants or on the other hand may cause a big wreck.
The alternative is not something a lot of people want to take the time for and, indeed, may not have the skills for. In order to really help the horse make a change requires going back to foundational concepts of simple yielding, ideally with a tool that will not operate with pain compliance so easily. A horse that doesn’t understand the bit and is being subjected to increased pressure on the reins will be in pain. This means it is impossible to be working with their mind building trust and understanding. This process will almost always require the person to better their hands and the timing and feel they offer the horse with the direct feel of the rein or lead rope. Improving our basic groundwork with a rope halter may be where we should start to help a horse like this. There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.
As responsible horse owners, it is up to you and I to recognize where we fall into a mentality of “the shortcut” and – instead – to continue developing our feel, timing, balance and understanding to better our communication and journey nearer that “place worth going”.