Horses & Fear: Teaching Carl

This past week, I did something I’m not sure I would have ever thought I would do.

I ran up to a horse, stomping and waving my hands, for the purpose of scaring the shit out of him.

On Tuesday this week, I was finally able to go out to Falcon Creek Farm and take a lesson from the owner, Leslie Laing.  I’m currently working there Monday mornings, mucking stalls and prepping the evening feed.  The weather hasn’t been very nice to me since I started and finally, there was a break in the cold.

Leslie brought two of her horses down to the barn. One was Leroy — and I’ve been told that he’s her “superhorse.”  He’s the calm one who will do practically anything she asks of him.

The other was Carl.  Carl’s a sorrel quarter horse (at least, I’m guessing QH) trained as a reining horse. She showed him in the arena as a team penner before she purchased him.

We talked about “Horsenalities,” Pat Parelli’s term for horse personalities.  Leroy, she said, is a Left-Brain Introvert.  Carl is a Right-Brain Extrovert.  And, honestly, those terms mean exactly what you think they would.

Horses have two different sides of their brain.  The left-side of a horse’s brain is where the thinking actually takes place.  The right-side is more emotional, nervous, fearful.  Because horses are prey animals, they’re designed so that they use that right-side of their brain a lot more than the left.  Nature and evolution have taught them that the more they take the time to stop and think, the more chance they will get eaten.  If that shape over there looks scary, they have to react immediately because it could be a horse-eating monster.

Run first, stop and ask questions later.

After grooming Leroy, I moved to Carl and started brushing him.  When I would raise my hand to Carl’s head, he would turn away and zone out. He didn’t have any interest in what was going on, wasn’t curious about what I was doing.  His body was stiff and he stared off to whichever side I wasn’t on, the whites of his eyes showing.  He may have been tolerating my brushing and what not, but he was zoning out on us, retreating into his own head, waiting for it to be over.

This was one of my first real lessons about energy and what exactly it means.

Leslie told me to raise my hand, but instead of moving towards him, to let him come to me. To let Carl move to sniff my hand and to realize that I wasn’t a danger to him.  She had brought an empty grain bag over, and while he relaxed a little, he would sniff at the bag, trying to figure out what it was.

Then she moved her hands.  That movement frightened him and he jumped, all four legs stiff and straight, splayed out kinda awkwardly.

Horses learn by the release of pressure.  We put pressure on them by tugging their lead rope or even pushing the air around them.  When you pull down on their lead rope to get a horse to lower his head, that puts pressure on that horse.  And when we release that pressure — or when we stop doing whatever it is that we were doing — the horse is thinking, “Oh, so I can get that pressure to go away by doing that,” where that is whatever the horse was doing right before we let go.

That’s how horses learn.

So, if you’re trying to teach a horse to NOT raise his head when you pull on the lead rope, you have to let go when that horse does the “right” thing — when his head starts to lower.  And that, right there, is a very tiny time frame that only practice can teach you.

When Carl jumped, Leslie continued what she was doing.  She waved both arms back and forth in front of him, not wanting to scare him enough that he tried to bolt and take the side of the barn with him, but keeping up that movement and rhythm.  She even jumped up and down a few times.

Even though she tried not to scare him too much, he pulled back on the lead rope, trying to get loose, a couple of times.  And I jumped when he did that.  And I probably would have slowed down my waving or jumped back or even stopped for a minute to make sure he was okay.  Leslie continued waving and doing what she was doing.

That whole release of pressure thing?  Had she stopped, let him calm down on his own, and coddled him, it would have only made the situation worse. Instead of learning that the waving wasn’t going to hurt him, Carl would have learned that pulling back on his lead rope and getting all worried was the correct answer to get Leslie to stop what she was doing.  And, in the future, he would try the exact same thing to make the pressure stop.  This could lead to very dangerous situations, much more so than the current situation already was.

Leslie continued until she saw Carl visibly relax.  There are five or so ways to tell whether a horse is relaxed or not.

  1. They’ll lower their head.  It’s hard to be all jacked up when your head is down.
  2. They will soften their eye.  Instead of having that wide-eyed worried look, whites of their eyes showing, the horse will blink or its eye will be more relaxed.
  3. They will cock their hind leg and drop their hip.  It’s hard to bolt away when they do this.
  4. They will let out a big sigh.  Some horses hold their breath when worried or frightened.  When they let go of all that adrenaline, they sigh and relax.
  5. They will “lick and chew.”  Seems to me that horses tight every muscle in their body when frightened — licking and chewing is a sign that they’re okay with what’s happening and that they’re thinking things through.  I’ve also heard it called a sign that they’re “learning.”

And when Carl relaxed, she moved to the other side and did the same thing.

It’s a common saying that if you buy one horse, you’re actually buying two. You’re buying Horse Left and Horse Right.  The connection between the two sides of a horse’s brain doesn’t work as well as ours does and if you do something on one side of the horse, you have to do the exact same thing on the other side because the information doesn’t transfer over to the other side immediately.

This is why you’ll ride your horse past something like a plastic bag on the left and then when you turn around and ride past it on the right, your horse will think that the plastic bag is a great big mean horse-eating monster!  The left side of the horse’s brain understood what it was, but the right side didn’t.

As Carl relaxed, he became more alert, less zonked out.  He became very, very interested in Leslie’s hands and gloves and stood there, sniffing and licking, drawing comfort from being close to her and her hands.

You could tell – any bystander would have been able to tell – that before Leslie started working with him, he wasn’t with us in the moment.  As he licked at her hands, I scratched his neck and crest.  He even stretched his nose out for me to be able to get under his throat.

And for him, right then, we were trying to keep him in that calm, relaxed, attentive mood.

This is the mood that we want in our horses before we start trying to teach them something.  We need them to be calm and willing to think as we work with them; otherwise, it’s just a very dangerous situation.  And therefore, when I walk out to the barn to get a horse, I need to not only have an idea of what I would like to accomplish that day, but I also need to figure out where my horse is mentally that day.   And what I do will depend on what my horse needs me to do, not what my own personal goal is.

A few minutes later, Leslie and I talked more about energy.  When we get angry or upset, our energy  increases naturally. We’re stiffer, we move differently, we hold ourselves in different ways.  As horsepeople, we need to learn to control that energy.  We can raise our energy without being angry or upset or irritated. And we need to learn to drop that energy – to relax it – just as quickly.

She pulled on his lead rope and he would toss his head into the air so she spent some time working on that, pulling the lead and releasing it as his head started to come down.  She had me walk around with him doing that as well.  And that was all about FEEL and TIMING.

I’ve asked a couple horse trainers what the most important pieces of knowledge about training is. Unanimously they have said FEEL and TIMING.

FEEL is knowing how much pressure you need to put on your horse.

TIMING is knowing when to release that pressure.

And that’s where the experience part of it comes into play.  You have to work with horses – lots of them – to understand feel and timing.

Then as I held his lead, she came running up and stomping at him. When she got to his side, she “knocked” on his rib cage to get him to swing his head around and smell her hands to know that it was okay.  She and I both did either side and, every time, we knocked on his side and he turned to smell our hands.

Then something interesting happened.

As I stood ten feet away waiting for him to turn his head to not look, he turned and looked AT me.  Leslie said to walk towards him and let him sniff my hands.

The next time I walked back, he turned and looked again.  So I did the same thing.  We changed sides to see what he would do.  When he turned to look at me, I again walked towards him and patted him.

Soon, when I backed up, he would turn and look at me, then walk towards me.  Even when I was backing up!

We had taught him that if he would look at me, I wouldn’t run up to him.  The connection was made when we knocked and allowed him to sniff our hands.  By his own actions earlier, he showed us that our hands were a safe spot for him, his licking and exploring them.  And we used that knowledge to show him that we were safe.

I am absolutely positive that there is so much that I missed while watching this and participating in this.  To have watched Carl go from scared and fearful to calm and thoughtful to realizing that we were safe and he was okay… that was fascinating.

And as much as I want to ride, I want to know all of this as well.

I really can’t wait for my next lesson.

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  1. […] have a friend named Leslie Laing who I’ve mentioned before. She owns Falcon Creek Farms in Falcon, CO, and, not only is she a wonderful person, but […]

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