Breaking Bad

As much fun as it would be to talk about Walter White and his adventures – wrong blog. Instead it’s time to talk about the adventures of bad behaviors in our horses. Many will immediately think about the horse that bucks, rears, kicks or bites. But there are many more subtle behaviors that are just as unwanted and usually easily fixed.

Unwanted behaviors typically get a foothold in horses for the same reason they do in people – they’ve been rewarded. The child who throws a temper tantrum in public knowing full well the parent will eventually give in and give them what they want. The horse that paws in the ties until the owner walks over to give them the attention they desire, maybe even a cookie, a pat, or a ‘good boy/girl’.

Once a behavior is established it becomes harder to break. The longer a behavior exists the harder it becomes to break. The easiest, least time consuming method of training is to not let a behavior start in the first place, followed by nipping it in the bud the moment there’s a hint. This means we have to be attentive AND prepared to counter at a moment’s notice. Those who have limited experience are more likely to miss the first opportunity or make the wrong decision in the moment. Don’t be disheartened. Horses are very forgiving, generous and teachable, more so than most people.

If you’ve missed a chance to correct and can’t think fast enough on your feet, stop. Evaluate what just happened. Come up with a Plan A (and a Plan B). Sometimes the best approach will be to ignore the behavior, sometimes it’ll be to repeat the set of circumstances right away to get an opportunity to make a correction, occasionally avoidance can be an excellent tactic (for a period of time until other prerequisite training can be executed), and sometimes it will be to go on your merry way but armed with a readied plan should the behavior repeat. Again, experience teaches us which is the best approach for the issue. Draw from life experience, not just horse experience. And feel free to employ a good amount of common sense.

Making a break for it: I’ve heard seasoned competitors turned TV commentators and analysts mention during Grand Prix events the difficulty of a jump because of its placement facing the outgate. I sigh and roll my eyes every time. How can one have gotten a horse to that level of performance and not know how to train it so that it doesn’t try to leave (or think about leaving) the arena simply because of the placement of a jump? And yet, it’s a constant worry for many such that course designers do it on purpose.

I’ll concede that some horses have every right to attempt to leave, and I won’t blame them for that. Let’s assume that we aren’t dealing with that kind of a case. So, when and where does this behavior start? It starts the very first time you take your horse through a gate/door and away from ‘home’ (their stall/the barn/the paddock). Very quickly a pattern is established for the horse. Therefore the first step is to make leaving and arriving pleasant experiences for the horse. If every time the horse is pulled from its stall it’s a bad experience, or every time the horse enters a ring it’s a bad experience, it won’t take long for the horse to associate each side of the gate/door as good or bad.

Early on (with horses that don’t have an established bad behavior) I like to ‘tempt’ the horse by leaving the gate wide open. I go about my business as though it doesn’t exist and is a solid wall. While I won’t specifically work at the gate, I won’t avoid it either. At the first sign of the horse thinking about ‘leaving’ (ear flick toward the gate, drifting, dropping onto the gate side shoulder, getting sticky off the leg on the gate side, sucking back and getting behind the aids), I’ll make a correction that involves more work for the horse; a transition, a change of direction, a circle, a loop. Then I’ll be on my merry way. On the next lap by, I’ll pretend nothing unusual happened last time, but I’ll be prepared to up the ante if the horse’s attention wanders again toward the gate. Most times it doesn’t, but for those who are extremely determined it can be beneficial to make the request BEFORE the horse thinks about making an attempt.

Over the course of the horse’s training I’ll make the gate more tempting. I’ll change direction and trot right at it, later cantering at it, always checking in with the horse to see what he/she is thinking. Sometimes I’ll change direction again, or do a circle long before getting to the gate. Sometimes I’ll ride very forward toward the gate only to transition and change direction, or halt, or, or, or. Mixing it up keeps the horse’s attention on the rider, rather than on the gate. Soon the gate ceases to exist.

If you’re planning on jumping, don’t start by jumping at the gate. Start by doing groundpole and cavelletti work towards it on the line and then under saddle, particularly if you’re having to retrain the horse.

It’s nice if an arena/ring/field has more than one gate by which to enter and leave. Don’t always ride out, sometimes dismount and handwalk the horse out. I’ve even backed a horse out of a ring mounted and on the ground. And lots of times I’ve continued to work the horse outside of the ring, so that there’s not a specific association like: I leave the ring and I’m done. It can even be helpful to leave the ring and then turn right around, reenter, and work a bit longer.

That was just one example. Take a moment to think about what unwanted behavior you’d like to change in your horse, and then honestly evaluate how much of a role you’ve played in creating or encouraging it. It’s common for people to make excuses for behaviors in their horses: ‘My horse doesn’t like to do this or that because…’, ‘My horse won’t do this or that because…’. Once you’ve accepted your responsibility, make a plan of sequential baby steps to fix it.

Breaking bad behaviors starts with you.