Phase four

“It’s okay,” they said, “we understand that sometimes you have to go to phase four.”  Prince and I got a workout in last week, and I had some questions.  Namely: “has it got to the point where he’s now taking the mickey out of me?” and “am I reading this correctly?” (the answer to both was yes).

The session led me to notice a few things: Prince has got to the stage where he’s confident enough to push me – he learns quicker than I do, and figured out that if he does a certain thing, I interpret it in a certain way and go easy on him.  So that has to stop, and the new habits start this week – he’s become bolder, so I have to change my behaviour too.  I’m guilty of being told something and holding onto that knowledge, rather than watching things change and coming up with a new strategy.  I also need to try more things: I sort of learned this a few weeks ago when it became apparent that we were both a bit bored, but it’s also the case with developing our language, the way we communicate with each other.  I have my own natural gestures and body language, but sometimes he doesn’t get it.  So it’s time to invent more words.

The good news is that he’s become much more connected to me, and that’s partly down to the fact that he has to be, because I’m mixing it up more.  We most commonly play the circling game, because it’s what he needs to improve his confidence (and, these days, take responsibility for himself), but I’ve recently added a lot more yo-yo… as the send part of circling game is the same as the beginning of a yo-yo game, he has to pay more attention, rather than assuming I’m going to put him on a circle.  Last week, it got to the point where I was using tiny gestures to get what I wanted, and had his ear the entire time.  He looked more genuinely curious and engaged, which was a relief to me – I don’t think he considers me to be a fun partner most of the time, so it’s nice to see those moments.

And all of this got me thinking about what it’s like to work with someone else’s horse.  It’s not the first time I’ve done it, through one scenario or another, but I don’t consider myself qualified to really do so.  I don’t, after all, have any equestrian qualifications to my name, all I have is the fact that I can (mostly) stay on a horse.  That said, there’s a difference between being a paid professional and being a friend who helps out or is offered the gift of free rides.  I’ve always fallen into the latter category – I’ve never undertaken or sought paid roles in terms of exercising or training horses, so does that mean I am entitled to feel less duty-bound?  I don’t think it does.

Any horse person will tell you that horses are precious.  We spend a lot of time and money on them, they are meant to bring us happiness and fulfilment.  Handing over your horse’s lead rope or reins to someone else is like asking someone to help you raise your children – it takes a phenomenal amount of trust and there can be a lot of pressure to do things exactly as the owner would like to do it themselves, and not to outdo the owner.

My first experience with riding someone else’s horse came when I was about 14: the owner had recently had a baby and kept her horse at home.  Her friend, who lived along the same rode had bought a pony for her own daughter, who was only little and so the pony needed more exercise – enter my sister to hack out the pony, and me to ride the horse.  My sister and I hacked out together regularly for a summer, with the two women riding out occasionally on weekdays when both had horses available.  When I arrived to hack out one morning, the mare’s owner commented that she’d hopped on for a toddle out with her friend that week to find her horse really striding out and marching along, when the mare was normally a little lazy and she and her friend usually just ambled around the lanes a bit aimlessly.

“Sorry,” I winced, “force of habit, I like whatever I’m riding to be doing something, and working actively even if we are hacking.”

“Oh no, it’s absolutely fine,” the owner replied.  “I’d like her to be back in proper work, so thank you for getting her going, it was just a shock!”

I hadn’t realised I’d been quite so forceful with the horse, and I’d certainly never asked her to do anything she was incapable of.  But it was a lesson in the fact that I was perhaps more capable than I knew, and that I had to remember I wasn’t riding my own horse…

These days, I definitely worry about getting it wrong with someone else’s horse.  Which is funny, because it’s actually quite hard to do given that I’m mostly supervised and very well-supported.  But I’m acutely aware that it’s not my horse, and how much he means to the people who are responsible for him.  Getting to do the work that I do and aiming for the goal we have in mind is fantastic experience for me, and it all means that I don’t feel the need to be rushing out and buying a horse of my own – I’m in a very fortunate position that I have a horse who I’m not responsible for financially or on a day to day basis, but who I have access to and permission to work with.  And yet something still holds me back.  Would I still have these insecurities with my own horse?  Probably.  But if I got something wrong with my own, I think there’d be less guilt – I’d feel bad for the horse that I messed up, but I’d know that it just meant it were my responsibility to correct whatever I’d done, no matter how big or small.  When someone else is involved, it’s another person to have been let down.  And that’s another lesson to learn.

Riders, owners, trainers: how do you cope with both responsibility and relinquishing it?  Do you prefer to work in collaboration with the owner/rider or work alone in order to get things ready for them?


4 thoughts on “Phase four

  1. I is difficult sometmes riding other peoples horses, since my pony died I am sharing a little cob who is traditionally trained. This horse has a history of biting so the owner doesn’t want me to do anything involving hand feeding. Limits the use of positive reinforcement somewhat – the horse doesn’t seem that motivated just by scratches or praise.
    However I am haivng tradional riding lessons so have to use aversive stimuli to get the behaviours I want – leg and rein aids. So I am a bit conflicted at the moment – I am studying emotions in horses and what triggers the good ones versus the bad ones.
    Play triggers good emotions so it is good to play with them – some seem more playful than others and geldings more than mature mares. A reward may be them doing a behaviour they enjoy – I had one who liked going sidesways – so as soon as I had that on a cue (so he wasn’t offering to willy nillly) I cued sideways as a reward.
    The reason I left natural horsemanship behind was my unwillingness to go to phase 4. I know sometimes we need to use negative reinforcement to stay safe but horses offer so muchg more in ground work sessions when we use reward based training rather than avoidance training. e.g. they perform to avoid phase 2- 4 and phase 1 is a threat that we may escalate.
    Enjoy your horse and continue playing but watch those emotions.

    • Is the horse super-introverted? It might be that this cob gets more from the release of pressure and having the time to lick, chew and exhale than from scratches and praise.

      I realised this a few weeks ago – one of the rewards I’m using more with the horse I work with is that he gets to play his favourite game, one which makes him feel confident and that he just gets pure joy from. It’s a good tactic.

      I don’t know that I consider phase four to be negative reinforcement, I see it more as an escalation of a command – much like with verbal cues we start politely and with a neutral tone with other humans, if they don’t listen or disobey, we tend to build up to shouting. I think it’s important for horses to understand that there’s an easy way and a hard way, and to let them choose the easy way by reminding them that if they don’t listen, there’s a consequence, but that the right thing always always results in a release, a break and praise.

      Thanks for commenting, I hope you get where you want to go with the horse you’re working with 🙂

  2. I can understand the reticence re phase 4. Oscar is ‘introverted’ and is the expert at giving nothing then just enough for me to feel grateful. A few ‘louder’ movements seem to get his focus and allow me to stop nagging him. But I think it’s good to challenge this and interested in positive reinforcement point. I’m really enjoying these blogs. Thank you

    • I find introverts can be really sensitive, and that it really matters to them that you “reward the try”. They also need longer thinking and processing time, so a moment to take a breath and think is huge for them, something which means that you can hopefully move lower down the phases as they fully take in what they’ve learned. I think short and sweet sessions are better for them, so that they can go back to their bed and figure it all out.

      Thanks for commenting, and I’m really glad you’re enjoying the posts 🙂

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