You have an amazing horse who consistently gives you a nice ride. You enjoy working with this horse, and he consistency excels at what you ask of him. Then, rather suddenly, things go bad. Your high performing horse begins to struggle. His great attitude begins to turn sour. You no longer enjoy working with him – or, worse, you get hurt. What caused this change? How do you react?
If you are like many people, your first reaction is likely to be that you have a naughty horse who needs an attitude adjustment. Perhaps, you will decide it is time to get another horse. Or maybe you have the less common reaction that perhaps something has gone wrong for your horse. Maybe the dramatic change of behavior is a result of some mental or physical stress.
So, quick confession, this post has a very personal genesis. I have been employed at my university for more than two decades. In that time I have led many groundbreaking initiatives, and have frequently been recognized for my efforts and for my customer service attitude. However, after all of that service, I am being investigated as “disruptive”, “explosive”, and “blocking progress” of my boss’ agenda. Even the investigator characterized my achievements as “far more than noteworthy”. I am at least the third person reporting to this boss who was investigated as a bad actor, yet it doesn’t occur to anyone that there might be a root cause for the issues that are coming up in our department.
It has been a standard in nearly every leadership training I have ever attended that you have to look at any performance issue as being potentially tied to the person’s emotional state. It is important to recognize that we all carry baggage from home into our work, and vice versa. We have one staffer who lost her husband and both parents within her first eighteen months on the job – yet she is seen as “imbalanced”. I would dare anyone to perform at their peak under those conditions! I carried what all but my boss saw as an unreasonable workload for the past year, all while being increasingly bullied. But, my lack of cheery attitude, and rare snap of frustration, apparently make me “disruptive” (in spite of the fact that all projects are proceeding successfully).
Now, extending that to the horses …
When Java erupted five years ago, and trampled my mother, her first reaction was to be angry and to attribute some intent to his behavior. An understandable reaction, and certainly a very common one. However, the behavior being completely out of character for a horse we raised, it seems far more likely that something occurred to cause the explosion. Perhaps it was my very early experience with Delight, but I am generally inclined to attribute out of character horse behavior to fear, pain, or stress.
It is in the moments when our more primitive brain structures take over that uncharacteristic behavior occurs. Those moments are made up of pure reaction, and no thought. More chronic situations, such as stress or chronic pain, can also cloud the functions of the cerebrum frontal cortex where higher cognition occurs. If you have ever dealt with depression, or had certain bad reactions to drugs, you may be familiar with the feeling of having a cloud over your thoughts. Whether a reaction to a discreet or chronic situation, the resulting actions are generally not within the horse’s control.
If you are faced with an unexpected event, or a sudden change in your horse’s behavior, what are you to do? Hopefully you anticipated my answer – first take a step back and review the situation. The first question we should always ask ourselves is whether we have done something to cause the problem. This is never an easy question to confront, and our brains are pretty well wired to mask evidence that goes against our beliefs. So, it can be useful to ask someone else to help you take a look and confirm whether there is anything you need to change.
If you eliminate yourself as the cause, and that will happen quite often, then it’s time to evaluate what could be going wrong with your horse. Has there been a recent change? New barn? New neighbor or pasture mate? New tack? Rearrangement of the facility? Horses being highly reactive prey animals are sensitive to any change in the environment, and may feel unsettled as a result. I once rode in a clinic with a trusted individual who had me ride in a way my horses were not accustomed to. The next day, the two horses I had at the time, were quarrelsome and uncooperative from the moment we started. I had not liked the style of riding, so was not trying to repeat it – but just one session had been enough to lose trust. It took me five to six days to regain it and have my partners back.
If you’ve eliminated change, then look to possible pain events. This can be something sudden, or a chronic situation. A veterinary exam might not be a bad choice, at that point. A less expensive and often helpful option is to just give your horse some time off. I have seen even a few days off make a significant difference for a horse. On occasion, I have not been sure if the problem was mental or physical – but a short break erased all issues, so I was satisfied not knowing.
If you take the approach that there is something behind the sudden change in your horse, that is not simply a choice to behave badly, it is usually a reversible situation. It is also an opportunity to learn more about each other, and further cement the partnership through understanding. Unfortunately, too often I see the horse being blamed, with little understanding, and the situation devolves until the horse is replaced.
In the case of Java, we concluded that the most likely cause was a sudden pain event. The ride leading up to it had been relaxed and calm. Nothing in the environment had changed, nor was there a sudden noise or movement in the vicinity. Had he been a younger horse, perhaps a full exam might have found a cause. But, since he was over 20, and odds of reliably tracing the cause were low, we made the choice to retire him. In less than a year he became Noble’s “uncle” and he had a total of five years retirement before he passed.
As for my situation, unlike horses I have the ability to walk away when things are unbearable or I am not being understood. Truth be told, I probably should have walked away a year ago – but, better late than never! So, I am now someplace where my better angels can once again shine, and I can send the others packing!
So, the next time you see a sudden change in your horse (or any human you may have a leadership role with), give them the benefit of the doubt. Try to consider the root causes, and what you can do to mitigate them. It will most likely benefit both of you, and strengthen whatever bond may already exist.
Be good to your horses!