Recently, I’ve started writing monthly reports for my full training clients. Many of them don’t get to see their horses work much, so to keep in touch with their training, they’d text me for updates and I found myself texting back only short and incomplete answers. Hence, I set aside some time in the beginning of each month to write a comprehensive summary of what their horse was learning. Texts are still welcome, but generally people now have a much better idea of what’s going on.
Writing the reports have proven just as useful to me, as they force me to evaluate and re-evaluate each horse’s personal journey and give reasons for what I’m doing. Not only does it keep me on my toes, it makes me think about what I’m doing instead of running on intuition. Intuition isn’t a bad thing, but it sure makes it difficult to hand the knowledge over to others when all you can really say is “do what feels right” to a person who hasn’t developed the feel just yet.
One interesting thing I found was that most horses have a default. I guess that should be obvious, but it wasn’t, to me. They all have a certain way that they tend to respond to stimuli, and that “default” in large part determines the horse’s trainability.
In general, I’ve found that most horses respond in one of four different ways.
Reactive: When a horse reacts, he flinches away from a stimulus with a swift, jerky movement. For example, on the lunge, he will scoot forward when you pick up the whip. A reactive horse is usually motivated by fear. The horse whose default is to be reactive, is generally a flinchy, hot and spooky sort.
Resistant: When a horse resists, he fights against a stimulus. For example, on the lunge, he will kick out when you pick up the whip. A resistant horse is often motivated by pain or desire to be dominant. The horse whose default is to be resistant is sulky, grumpy, and habitually has his ears pinned back.
Responsive: When a horse responds, he moves away smoothly from a stimulus. For example, on the lunge, he will move calmly forward when you pick up the whip. A responsive horse is generally motivated by willingness to please. The horse whose default is to be responsive is generally pleasant and comes across quite sensitive.
Unresponsive: When a horse fails to respond, he ignores a stimulus. For example, on the lunge, he will stand there when you pick up the whip. An unresponsive horse is generally motivated by laziness or boredom. The horse whose default is to be unresponsive will be dead quiet, patient, and stoic, and can sometimes give the impression of not being “all there”.
Horses also have a sort of “volume”. Not all reactive horses will necessary scoot forward when you pick up the whip. Some will merely step out more briskly than anticipated; others will panic and plunge through the fence. The vast majority of resistant horses never kick out or buck; they just pin their ears. This is why so many back pain and saddle fit issues go unnoticed. Just because a horse is easy to handle doesn’t mean its default is good, it just means its volume’s been turned down, and that can be a good thing – or a bad thing.
One would also think, looking at the list, that all horses should be responsive by default. That’s not true. Remember that horses tend to react to all outside stimuli according to their default – not just aids. Sure you want a horse to respond to your aids, but you don’t want him to respond to a dressage letter, not even if that just means quietly moving away from it. The best horses are a trained balance between responsive and unresponsive, leaning one way or another according to their job. Arwen is more towards the responsive because she’s an adult’s dressage horse who needs to deal with complicated sets of aids in rapid succession. Bruno was far more towards the unresponsive side, because he had to ignore all spooky objects in favour of keeping a kid safe.
Reactive and resistant horses, however, are almost always unhappy; it’s easy to see why – one is motivated by fear or pain, and the other is motivated by pain or by being in the wrong place in their hierarchy. We all know how gross it feels to be in a place where you don’t belong, even if you put yourself there.
All these types of horses (although many horses don’t fit in any of the boxes) need to be approached differently. That’s the most important part of listening, after all: actually acting on what you’ve been told.
Here’s a few little case studies.
Magic‘s default used to be reactive. He feels things deeply, and he expresses them dramatically. Pushing his limits never, ever works – it just makes him go up like a mushroom cloud. Patience and understanding are absolutely key to keeping him happy. The upside of being reactive is that it’s a small – difficult and key, but small – change to becoming responsive, which he has become by a massive effort.
Jamaica used to be excessively unresponsive – to the point where it became complete disobedience and quite dangerous. His automatic reaction was just to hang on your hands till Kingdom come no matter what you did to him. You could flap, you could kick, you could do whatever you pleased – he’d just plough onwards. Unresponsive horses can be very rewarding because they’re fairly easy and safe to train out of it, and then you can really fine-tune the level of responsive you want. Jamaica proved to be one of those. He still has unresponsive moments, but he’s starting to decide that moving away from pressure is generally a good idea. On the plus side, he’s by default not spooky, and because I never trained him to respond to anything except my aids, he remains non-spooky.
Unresponsive horses can be really, really hard to get a read on. Some unresponsive horses have shut down, like a dog that just takes the kick because he knows it’s coming anyway. They bear pain and ill-treatment because it’s the only way they know how to cope. They can hide a tremendous amount of pain. Mercifully, most unresponsive horses are just really chill dudes at heart, who like to roll with it because that’s the way they are. Bruno comes to mind.
Destiny is the most resistant horse I’ve ever met, and his volume was turned all the way up to the top. He wouldn’t just kick out at the lunging whip, he’d spin around and fly backwards, double-barreling at head height all the way and bringing to mind the legend that the Lipizzaners’ capriole was developed to decapitate footsoldiers. I sure thought he was going to decapitate me. Resistant horses, although a battle, are still an easier fix than reactive horses. Even though this chap’s problem wasn’t pain (which resistant horses almost always are in), he was more easily fixable than you would believe if you’d seen him at the height of his issues. Unfortunately, they’re not a pleasant fix in any way. There’s really two main ways to respond to resistance; to remove the stimulus so that they have nothing left to resist against, thus taking them by surprise and often removing the bitterness from the situation, or to resist their resistance more strenuously than they can resist you. When it comes to head-height double-barreling, option (b) is the only option that will leave you with your head still on. Removing the stimulus and rewarding aggression is a recipe from disaster. Hence, Destiny got a hiding. A big hiding. Now, his default is still to be resistant, but in the matter of a month we’ve got the volume turned down from enormous violence to merely pinning the ears. It’s not as good as resetting the default, but it’s a big step in the right direction.
As for responsive, there’s not a lot of horses that are this way after people are done with them. A surprising number of horses are naturally responsive – they just get made either reactive or resistant, because the best horses are always the easiest to ruin. I love me a responsive horse. Nell was one of them, and we all know that she was just epic. The most responsive horse I have right now is undoubtedly Faith. I never had to teach her to move away from pressure because she had it programmed into her DNA. Once she knows how to move away from the pressure, she just does it without any fuss. She can come across spooky because she’ll move away (not leap away) from a scary thing, but personally, I don’t mind those. Nell was the same and as soon as you’ve got the whole moving-away-from-the-leg thing programmed they respond to your leg instead of the scary thing and do what you wanted. (Assuming you made yourself more important and valuable in their lives than scary things). Responsive + willing + gentle + intelligent = most trainable thing you’ll ever clap eyes on.
Now for the million-dollar question, of course. What was the natural default of the majestic, legendary dragonbeast herself? I bet you’ll all be shocked to discover that Arwen was naturally unresponsive. Yep, you read that right. The dragon was the most unresponsive horse you’ve ever seen, and she still has that tendency lurking inside her. I like it because it makes her a lot more robust to my mistakes and whoopsies. It takes a while to train an aid on her, so while she learns good things a little slowly, she also learns bad things a little slowly, which is quite important when you’re doing dressage by trial and error like I am.
The vast majority of horses are complicated tangles of all four defaults, as well as having splashes of random other stuff thrown in. Many are born with one default and go on to be trained to have several different ones. All of them have reacted in all four different ways at some stage in their lives, for multitudes of different reasons. As an example, Nugget is a naturally unresponsive horse who became extremely reactive (with flashes of violently resistant) and is now gradually being trained to be unresponsive again, but with bits of responsive when I ask for them. And she’s only ever had two different handlers, really.
And to turn everything on its head a little, let me remind us all that people and horses are deeply similar, right at the bottom of things. We also react to the greatest Stimulus of all in different ways. Some of us fight Him. Some of us run from Him. Some of us ignore Him.
And some of us hear His voice, and move forward with confidence to do as He asked.
Glory to the King.