A recent study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science caught my eye. Conducted by the University of Guelph in Canada, it reported, among other findings, that although therapy horses are more attentive to handlers who’re experienced around horses, they’re calmer with handlers who aren’t experienced.
Hmmmmm. The more-attentive part makes sense, because with the experienced handlers, the horses are anticipating having to do something, so they’re on the alert. But the other part—the greater calm around inexperienced handlers—got me thinking.
We’ve always known horses are sensitive, but this research (which determined stress levels via heart-rate monitors and cortisol levels in saliva) seems to highlight that sensitivity.
What does it mean for you, as a handler, rider, and trainer of your own horse?
I’ve also shared world champion trainer Sandy Collier’s belief that the difference between training (where the horse stays calm) and intimidating (where the horse becomes anxious) is best expressed by trainer Doug Williamson’s quip:
“When a horse's head is up, his brains dribble out and down his neck.”
To me, this latest finding—that horses may be even more affected by our approach to them than we’ve realized—helps to explain the difference between good trainers and great trainers. Good trainers know they must command a horse’s respect; great trainers know how to do it without setting off the horse’s inner alarms.
A horse can be calm and alert, or anxious and alert. Calm is better. It’s kinder for the horse, plus it actually enables him to learn better.
Toward this end, the best trainers make sure their demeanor avoids any predator-like elements that the horse might interpret as “stalking.” They even go so far as to moderate their body language to match the precise needs of the horse in the moment.
It’s subtle stuff. But then the difference between first place and second in tough competition--or a good mount and a great one on the trail--can also be subtle.
So put the odds in your favor.
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