Awaken the Savvy within…
Awaken the Savvy within…
By: Pat Parelli
One of my favorite questions is “who knows how to read…. a horse?” I think there are lots of people who are good riders, good trainers, and can get horses to perform. But, when it comes to “reading” horses and understanding why horses behave as they do, people are at a loss. Many people are not generally taught much about horse psychology and behavior.
Allow me to explain further. People usually think horses are misbehaving or being “bad” when they spook, shy, jig, grind their teeth, swish their tails, are hard to catch, hard to control, rear, buck or run off. What is really happening is that the horse is just acting like the prey animal that he is. The “misbehaving” horse is dealing with things by doing what Mother Nature has programmed him to do – to find comfort or do whatever it takes to save his life. I don’t see “problem” horses. What I see is a massive communication gap between the horse and human.
What people are looking for is simply to be able to communicate what they want and have their horse willing to do it. The problems come when people don’t know enough horse “language” and have to resort to mechanical equipment and punishment to force the horse to do what they want.
Don’t Blame the Horse for Acting like a Horse
The first thing I try to teach people is; don’t blame the horse for acting like a horse. I was lucky enough to be raised around some very savvy horsemen. They had a gentle way with horses and they understood the horse’s point of view when things went wrong. They never blamed the horse… instead they looked at themselves for what they might have done to cause or contribute to the undesirable reaction in their horse. This is what made them great horsemen .
Force, fear and mechanics are unfortunately alive and well in the horse world today, but I’m not convinced that people really want to use force. Maybe it’s just how they’ve been taught, or it’s always been done that way… and maybe it’s only because they don’t know of an effective alternative. But there is an alternative. It’s called “communication, understanding and psychology”. It’s the best way I know to unlock a horse’s mind when it’s braced against us.
My goal is to share with people all over the world that there is another way to be effective with horses. To overcome the force, frustration, and fight that is so common in the horse-human relationship.
People Are From Mars and Horses Are From Venus!
While physical aids and gadgets have been explored to the max, there is a great gaping hole in the area of equine psychology. We need to understand why there are such big differences between horses and humans. Horses have vastly different values, different motivations and thoughts, and on top of that, they don’t speak the same language!
Horses are prey animals and people are predators. This is a biological fact. Horses have “known” for millions of years that they taste good and thus are genetically programmed to be hard to catch! Understandably it also makes them reluctant to fully trust humans. How much trust would you be inclined to give a cannibal that is taking care of you? The horse’s survival and entire evolution has been based on being able to out-think, out-maneuver and out-run predators. Horses are not stupid or they would never have survived this long. They outsmart people all the time! And they’re not crazy, they’re just trying to survive the best way they know how.
It’s easy to see the “predator” in people when they are cruel and rough with horses, but what most people don’t realize is that a scared person’s reaction is just as frightening to the horse. When the human clamps onto the reins with his hands and grabs on tightly with his legs because he got scared… it feels just like a lion with all his “claws” dug in. At that moment, the horse cannot distinguish between scared or aggressive intent, all it feels is the predator grabbing onto its back and this scares the life out of him. It’s exactly these moments when even the sweetest people get hurt. The horse perceives his life is being threatened and goes automatically into flight or fight mode. He’ll run off, rear up, throw himself over, buck like a maniac and do whatever he thinks it takes to “save his life”.
There are thousands of people who have been hurt or killed by a horse while it’s reacting purely out of instinct. Safety with horses is not as simple as wearing helmets or using more artificial aids. Safety comes from having knowledge, being able to read a situation, anticipate the way a horse may react and then knowing how to deal with it. Safety comes through understanding the prey animal so well that nothing is a surprise. Instead, you know what to do to help the horse through a situation while protecting yourself. I call this horse “Savvy” and having Savvy is what will make horses “safer”. Savvy means knowing “when to be, where to be, why to be and what to do when you get there!”
What Is Important to Us Is Not Important to Horses
Horses like…. 1. Safety 2. Comfort 3. Play
People like…. 1. Praise 2. Recognition 3. Material things
The moment we start applying our human values to horses, we’ve made a monumental mistake. We bestow them with treats, fancy blankets, clean stables and nicely fenced corrals and it makes us feel like we’re looking after our horses really well. Unfortunately, the horse won’t appreciate any of it because none of these things are important to him!
When it comes to behavior modification, what works for people does not work for horses. We can verbally threaten a horse, growl at him or smack him, but that won’t change his behavior permanently. Often, he’ll get worse and years later we’ll still be trying to punish that horse for the same things. In fact, horses are punished every day for “disobedience” but what if it was really fear and confusion, not misbehavior? Would we still punish him for being afraid? I doubt it.
Almost all the horses that have been brought to me to be “fixed” have not been bad horses. They’ve been scared out of their wits and have become dangerous or aggressive out of sheer self defense.
To encourage desirable behaviors, horses respond much better to an approach called “comfort and discomfort”. If we can cause a horse to be uncomfortable at exactly the time he’s doing something we don’t want… and to be comfortable the moment he does what we do want, a horse will make willing and lasting changes in his behavior. Please note that by “uncomfortable” I don’t mean pain or violence. A fly can make a horse uncomfortable! Discomfort is nothing more than creating a stimulus that is undesirable to the horse when he is doing something you don’t want. It could be as small as pressing your finger into his hair without even touching his skin. Comfort is the immediate cessation of that ‘discomfort’ when he does what you want and not before. Again, it could be as small as removing your finger from touching his hair.
Gaining the Trust and Respect of a Horse
Horses are born cowards, claustrophobic and panic-aholics. This deep fear of people and confinement is important to resolve because horses are not afraid that we’re going to hurt them, they’re afraid that we’re going to kill them. Until we convince them otherwise, that underlying mistrust is what will hinder your performance or create “unsolvable” behavior problems. We have to convince them that even though we look and smell like predators, we would never hurt them. Gaining their complete trust is the very essence of what my system is about.
I have identified a series of maneuvers that horses use when playing with or dominating each other. Mares also use these maneuvers to teach their foals the language of the herd. I call them “The Seven Games” to make it easier for people to understand. We need to learn how to play these games like horses do and earn the position of “alpha” in our horse’s herd. Alpha is the number one spot. This horse drinks first, eats first and tells all the other horses what to do. From there down, the pecking order is very specific in terms of who is boss over who. It also changes frequently because horses contend for leadership every day.
Once you have gained your horse’s trust and he sees you as part of the herd, he will test you to see who is going to be dominant, you or him. My favorite example is with the horse that is “poor number 10” amongst his nine other pasture mates. All day he’s getting out of the way of numbers 1 through 9, but on Saturday when his human walks through the gate, he rubs his hooves together and says, “Oh boy, here comes number 11!”
The Seven Games are a very effective teaching tool for people. They help people relate to horses, to understand how horses interact and become able to communicate with them. Anything we would ever want a horse to do has its origins in one or more of these Seven Games. They enable us to help the scared horse learn to trust, the aggressive horse learn to be calm, the problem horse learn not to fear and the resistant horse learn to relax. Having played these Games for almost 20 years, with thousands of different horses all around the world, I can confidently say I have never met a horse that didn’t respond well to them.
By expanding the Seven Games and learning to “play” with horses instead of “working” them, we can satisfy their mental, emotional and physical needs. It’s a way giving them the kind of satisfaction usually gained through herd interaction, even if you are the only member of their herd.
When in Horse-ville, Do as Horses Do
When we take our human ways and expectations into the horse corral, that’s when we’re most likely to have trouble. We need to let go of the things that are important to us predators and forget about “winning” over the horse. The secret to success with horses is… to cause our ideas to become the horse’s ideas but to understand the horse’s ideas first.
It’s amazing to me that some humans think horses are stupid and yet will try to teach the horse our words, our language. Even though the horse is capable of understanding a number of words, I have to ask is this really what we want? Why would we ask an animal to learn our complicated language? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the human to learn a simpler form of communication to better understand the horse, to communicate and to develop rapport?
Parelli Natural HorseoManoShip I use the word “natural” in the name of my organization as a reminder of the nature and natural needs of the horse and to illustrate how people can become “naturals” with horses by building their Savvy. I split up the word horse-man-ship because to me it illustrates a horse and a human engaging willingly in a mutually enjoyable relationship. With a philosophy of communication, understanding and psychology (rather than mechanics, force and intimidation) you can achieve the kind of results and have the kind of relationship most people only dream about. It’s all about love, language and leadership.
Think about it… if we could approach horses just right, in a way they understand, horses would never feel the need to oppose humans.
Want to know more? Call 1-800-642-3335 or visit www.parelli.com.