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The Problem With Problem Solving

18 August 2011 No Comment

The Problem With Problem Solving
By: Mark Rashid

The young woman approached me after one of my clinics and asked my advice on how to fix her horse’s problems. She explained she had bought the horse, a six-year-old Arab/Quarter Horse mare, two years earlier, and that the horse had been fine then.

Now, however, the horse had developed the habit of rearing as soon as she was in the saddle. The mare also was beginning to try to run off with her when she got her going any faster than a walk.

She said she had spoken with a trainer who gave her his techniques for stopping the rearing, but so far, they had not worked. As for the horse running off, she figured a bigger bit was the answer. But that made things worse. She was now so frustrated that she was considering selling the horse.

This was a familiar conversation – one I’ve had before with other people. Each time I have given the same response: “It’s probably something you’re doing that’s causing the problem.”

Generally speaking, that response does not go over well. Nobody wants to hear that they are the cause of their horse’s problem. They would rather hear that there is some kind of defect in the horse’s learning ability, not that there is a defect in the person’ training ability.

But saying that the person doesn’t train well isn’t accurate either. It’s more of a communication problem between the person and his horse. The person usually has a clear idea of what he wants the horse to do, and what it takes to get the horse to respond.

For instance, let’s say the horse is walking. That’s a simple task in the human’s eyes. But for the horse, especially a young or green horse, or a horse with a light mouth, it could mean something different. To the horse that may not understand what the person is asking, this could be interpreted as the person trying to confine him. He begins to get nervous and leans into the pressure, or he starts throwing his head, or maybe rears or bolts.

Soon, the person puts him in a more severe bit to stop him from leaning on the bit or bolting. To stop him from throwing his head or rearing, the person puts him in a tie-down. The horse responds by becoming more unmanageable. The person becomes frustrated and eventually sells the horse. The horse, from then on, will probably be considered a problem horse and will be treated as such.

Most people treat problem horses with heavy hands, sometimes to the point of physically abusing them. And that only serves to compound the problem. The horse then thinks he needs to constantly defend himself. So you end up with a horse that not only doesn’t stop, but now kicks, bites, strikes, and bucks. The horse is then considered rank and ends up at the killers.

This scenario may sound far-fetched, but this situation occurs every day. Stock trucks are full of problem horses on their way to packing plants.

It is a tragedy, in my opinion, that this snowball effect has to happen, when with a little patience and understanding, the whole thing can be avoided in the first place.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, horses do not act mean or ignorant just to get the person’s goat. Horses don’t think that way. They simply don’t understand what you are asking and respond the only way they know how. After all, they are horses and need to be worked with as such. If your horse is not doing what you want him to, it’s probably because he doesn’t understand what you are asking.

Stop. Take your time. Think about what you are doing. Think about what your horse is trying to tell you. Back up and try again. Take a different approach. Do anything except lose your temper. Be patient. You can find a way to accomplish your goal if you present the task in a different manner. After all, preventing problems is much easier than fixing them.

Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of problem horses and have never been able to fix any of their problems. I have, however, been able to change the horses’ attitudes, which fixes the problems.

This can be a difficult concept to understand for some people, so let me explain what I mean.

We recently took in a 5 year-old stallion that had been running free all of his life. After being gelded, he was turned into an 80-acre pasture until we could get time to work with him. A few weeks later, we began his training. We put him in a 40-foot round pen and could tell just by looking at him that he was terrified, not only of us, but also of being in the enclosure. His response to the situation was fear.

We left him alone in the round pen for about 40 minutes. It wasn’t until then that he began to feel comfortable with his surroundings.

Once he was comfortable, I entered the enclosure. He ran around frantically in the pen. In his eyes, I was probably a predator and meant harm. Obviously, there was no way at that point that I could get close to him. I had to communicate with him to let him know that I wasn’t going to hurt him.

By taking on a non-aggressive posture and responding to his body language in a manner that he could understand, he soon began to settle down. Within about 35 minutes, he let me approach and touch him. All I had done to warrant this response was change his attitude toward me. I had gone from being a predator to someone he could trust.

Obviously, not all horses respond that quickly. Some horses take weeks or even months to respond. It all depends on the length and severity of the negative reinforcement they’ve been subjected to. Even then, with the wrong type of handling, the problem could resurface at any time.

I was once asked what the hardest thing about working with problem horses is. I replied: “It isn’t the horses or their problems; it is people”. We have found that the horse is a forgiving, intelligent, and wonderfully inquisitive animal. By communicating with him on his level, we’ve been able to achieve the desired response nearly 100 percent of the time.

Working with the horse’s owner can sometimes be much more frustrating.

It’s difficult for some people to overcome their inherent need to blame the horse for not doing something correctly. A good example is a young woman who recently asked for help. Her horse, she said, would not pick up his leads. She added that she knew how to ride, and knew that she was giving him clear cues.

I asked her to ride him and perhaps we could see what the problem was. She cues the horse to pick up his lead by kicking him a total of seven times. Between the second and third kicks, he began to pick up the lead. The woman, feeling the increase in speed, tensed up slightly and unconsciously pulled back on the reins. Between the fifth and sixth kicks, the horse, feeling pressure on his mouth, slowed back to the trot. The seventh kick was noticeable harder and seemed to be out of frustration. The horse responded by shaking his head. The woman looked at me in disgust, and said “See!”

In her eyes, she had done nothing wrong. But the horse, receiving conflicting signals, simply didn’t understand what she wanted. He got confused and reacted the only way he knew how. And then to let her know that he didn’t understand, he shook his head in frustration. But all she saw was a horse who wasn’t being cooperative.

Changing the attitude of a problem horse can sometimes be easy, compared to trying to change the attitudes of some people. The thing that horses have going for them is that, unlike some people, they don’t have big egos. They usually want to do the right thing for us. Sometimes, we just don’t give them the guidance to do so.

If you have a problem horse and need to change his attitude, you may want to approach the situation not by saying, “My horse has a problem”, but by asking yourself, “How can I relate what I want in a way he can understand?”

Once you put yourself in that frame of mind, and work at it daily, you’ll help solve your horse’s problem, and might also gain a new understanding and respect for him. You might even notice your horse becoming more responsive, willing, and cooperative in everything that you ask of him. You thereby will have opened the doors of communication and will begin to eliminate the problem with problem solving.

Reprinted by permission. For further information on Mark Rashid – visit the www.TodaysHorse.com ‘Partner Links” page.

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