A few years ago, in the course of trying to retrain Tally after the “trainer” who started her had botched it so badly, I was making one last walk circle before getting off. But my dismount did not happen as I’d planned. We’d just turned across the arena when a slight rustle was heard from the ground behind us. Tally dropped her haunches and launched forward, followed by three of the biggest bucks I’ve ever experienced! The saddle slipped, I went sailing, and the day ended with me finding out I’d fractured a vertebrae. Such can be the result when dealing with an equine with explosive tendencies.
Tally has always had a tendency to overreact to noises, movement, or anything novel. Not only are her reactions more violent and dramatic than other horses I’ve known – they can also catch you quite off guard. She has a rather quiet demeanor, overall, so you can be leading a placid pony that suddenly becomes a wild mustang fleeing a wolf pack, with no warning.
“The more the flight response is practiced, the more established the neural pathway governing its expression becomes in relation to the stimulus that caused it. The flight response has a high coefficient of reinforcement or “reward”; it takes very few repetitions to consolidate it into a habit.”
The Truth About Horses, Andrew McLean
Training had largely tempered this tendency, when I sent Tally out to be started under saddle. When she returned the tendency had become a common state – and even more dangerous to us both. I thought that I’d made progress by the time of the accident – but that incident proved there was still much work to do. The challenge was how to address it, especially when I didn’t want to actually trigger such reactions. Most methods I have seen entail moving the horse until it wants to stop – but moving a fearful horse just generates more fear. Eventually, through flooding, you might shut the horse down – but odds are the next time something does cause the reaction, you will lose all control.
“In contemporary training systems, the tendency is usually to ‘push him through it,’ in other words, to allow the expression of the flight response in the hope that the horse might ‘get over it’ and ‘see that there’s no need for it.’ The outcome, however, tends to the be the opposite: The flight response becomes a regular feature of the horse’s behavior because of the practice it has had at expressing it.”
The Truth About Horses, Andrew McLean
I began to think back to the first dog trainer I’d worked with. On the first day of her beginning training classes, she would always start with the concept of impulse-control. She talked about typical dog behaviors – dashing out doors, diving for the food bowl – and how the most important thing we could teach them was impulse-control. It is not a concept I’ve seen discussed with regard to horses, let alone any training that focuses on it. Yet, for a flight animal it is a far more important skill than obedience. A horse who can control their own impulses is a safer horse to be around – and all of the best horses have learned it as a side effect of the training they’ve received. But why not focus on that as a specific skill, rather than just a side effect?
For a dog, the starting place for impulse control is “Wait!” For a horse, “Whoa!” seemed the best place to begin. When we started, I was still laid up, so my mom did some in-hand work to strengthen Tally’s response to the word “Whoa!” Early in my riding career, my mentor gave me a key tip – teach your horses to respond to a shouted “Whoa!” Use all tones in your training of it. Why? He had seen, and even trained, many a horse who stopped well to a nice, soft, polite “Who-oa” – but, when something extraordinary happened (a buck, or a bolt), the rider/handler begins shouting “Whoa!” in the heat of the moment. This is not the same command to the horse and, hearing something in an excited tone, he is now convinced that there is reason to be scared, and the situation escalates.
So, my mom would alternate nice and harsh tones in her “Whoa!” commands to Tally. By the time I was fit enough to start lunging Tally again, she had a very solid, reliable stop in-hand. It was time to apply it in attempting to teach her some impulse control. My approach was simple – any time that she acted up on the lunge, I would tell her “Whoa!” Then, she would have to stand still until I saw some sign of relaxation, before we went on.
“But because the flight response is expressed by the running of the horse’s feet, simply immobilizing or slowing the feet through thorough training of the ‘stop’ (and slowing) responses in hand and under saddle will disengage the association.”
The Truth About Horses, Andrew McLean
From an obedience standpoint, this approach worked very well. I slowly began to see fewer and less volatile incidents. However, as hopeful as I’d been, I was not prepared for what was to come. Some months in, Tally started to bolt and buck (from a sound, as I recall), and immediately stopped herself! I never had a chance to even form the word “Whoa!” before she was immobile in front of me. Initially on high alert, as she would typically be, in a moment she took a deep breath, lowered her head, and looked at me as if to say, “Okay, mom, I’m ready.” I was ecstatic! I gave her carrots, told her she was wonderful, and sent her on her way.
I gradually abandoned having to say anything, as Tally began to develop her impulse-control. She started applying it not only when spooked, but also when she was feeling playful. (Because of her history, play is not allowed on the lunge.) Every once in a while, when she couldn’t hold it in, she’d let out one “whoop-de-do!” moment – then stop, collect herself, and signal when she was ready to get back to work.
This work has gradually resulted in far less dramatic spooks. Even when the neighbor suddenly and loudly bangs metal on metal, there is rarely more than a momentary shudder, or a small jump of surprise, then right back to the job at hand.
I’ve applied the same approach to Roxie, with equally amazing results. When Roxie first came here, lunging meant “get out on the circle, bolt, buck, and wear yourself out.” It was used only as a way to tire her so she was “safer” to ride. But something else in her background made her ready to fight. When I first began trying to stop her mad bolting, she would whirl and come at me. Her expression was far more challenging than frightened – but the behavior had to be human derived, since she is otherwise very personable and even cuddly. The “Tally plan” seemed appropriate for both of the main issues.
Just today, after nearly two months of not being able to work with her, I was lunging Roxie. It was cold, the wind was up, and she was clearly fresh. When the energy built to where she couldn’t contain it, she threw in one big buck, immediately stopped, stood for a moment in high alert, then lowered her head and looked at me to signal she was ready to move on. That scenario repeated once in the other direction, but we had an otherwise pleasant and productive session. As a reward, when we finished, I turned her loose. She took off bucking and galloping around the ring! She had not only contained all of that energy, she’d done it without tension, save for the two brief incidents. That is what I call impulse control!
Horses with explosive tendencies generally have a reason for it. It might be pain or discomfort. It might be innate to their temperament, as with Tally. It could man made, as with Roxie. We should always strive to find the cause, and relieve it whenever that is possible. Never assume that it is just an attempt at dominance, or an avoidance of what you are asking. Explosive behavior is dangerous, to both of you, and deserves to be treated with concern and respect. But understanding the nature of the flight response is critical; and cultivating more desirable alternative actions is always the best way to handle any problematic behavior. Teaching impulse control to horses is not only possible – it will provide you with a partner who is engaged in the training process, and who is thinking rather than just reacting.
Be good to your horses!