Help! My Horse is WAY Too Smart!
This article was originally published in the October 2006 issue of Savvy Times magazine. Recent back-issues of Savvy Times are available for Parelli members in the Resources section of Parelli Connect.
How to become riveting for your Left Brain Horse
-by Linda Parelli
They’re cool, calm, confident and learn quickly. BUT…they can be ‘stubborn’, easily bored, uncooperative, pushy, mouthy, domineering, aggressive, and way too smart for us until we get more savvy!
There was a time when I thought right brain horses were very challenging. But the more I teach and learn and advance, the more I see that left brain horses can be even more challenging. At least right brain horses want to move!
Right brain horses are fearful, unconfident, spooky and impulsive. They’re quick to blow up and take a long time to calm down. Once you know how to interrupt their explosive patterns and build their confidence, they become willing and curious. Left brain horses on the other hand can be quite testing mainly because they’re not intimidated, are self-confident and constantly working their way up the pecking order ladder.
Pat tells a great story about this…think about your horse being in a herd of 10 and he’s poor number 10. He drinks last, gets pushed away from his food and spends his whole day watching out for number one and dodging numbers two to nine as they constantly move him out of their space. Then on Saturday he hears the gate creak as it opens and you walk in. He rubs his hooves together and thinks “Oh boy…here comes number 11!” And that’s just if he’s number 10; imagine if he was number one!!
Have you ever been flicked right in the face by your horse’s tail and thought “I wonder if that was an accident?” What about when he calmly steps on the hose, or your toe, or head-butts you in the back? When Pat talks about horses playing games with you, THIS is the horse he is talking about! It’s not your average timid little prey animal, this horse is running things his way. He’s highly food motivated, excellently stubborn and sometimes downright aggressive.
Don’t Ask Too Much And It’s All Going To Be Okay
As long as you don’t ask too much, things will probably be just fine because these calm characters are not given to great expenditures of energy and are not very spooky. They usually love trail rides but are bored to death in an arena. They love learning new things but they’re bored by mundane repetitions and especially circles! How can you tell they’re bored? Low energy, crabby expression, resistant, tail swishing, bucking. Yes, bucking! Sure it uses some energy but it only takes one or two before he’s convinced you that cantering is not a good idea. These horses are masters at making you frustrated or intimidated enough to ask very little and quit riding so much.
Here’s the thing, you have to get him interested in what you want to do. If you just tell his body what to do without engaging his mind you’re in for a struggle. Spurs and whips are usually what riders resort to, but if at first they seem to work it’s not long before your horse has thought up more ways to discourage you including charging at you when you arrive to get him. Frustration can grow into fights and the next thing you know, you’re no match for the horse. When these horses get aggressive, you’re in big trouble. They’ve learned that they can dominate you and what seemed like harmless pushiness in the beginning was a series of tests to see how far they could go.
Forcing or punishing these horses is not a good idea because they quickly find out that women are more easily intimidated and while men can get more out of them, some of them actually become horses that people say ‘hate men.’ You need to learn how to earn their respect and win their friendship. It’s all about love, language and leadership in equal doses with a heaping helping of play and fun.
Think Like A Horse… This Horse
By observing herd behavior and the dominance games that go on you’ll probably be shocked at how rough horses can be. They chase after each other, tear off pieces of skin and then they settle down and graze and scratch each other’s backs. The key is that they have a strong relationship to begin with because they are members of the same herd, they play together and they spend a lot of time together — undemanding time.
Now think about how humans usually interact with horses. We decide today is when we’re going to ride, we only have a certain amount of time so things get pretty direct line. Catch the horse, saddle up, head to the arena to practice something… with a pretty unwilling horse. It’s interesting how quickly horses forget who feeds them; they start to feel like we only want one thing. So where you have to start is with the thought process. Think about what might be important to your horse.
If you’ve been studying our program, you would have learned that safety, comfort, play and food are important to horses in general, and in that order. Until they feel safe, they are not concerned with comfort. Until they feel safe and comfortable, they will not be interested in play. And when they feel like playing, food rewards work like a treat! The problem is that most people don’t understand the hierarchy of needs so they use food to bribe skeptical horses to get into trailers and more and more discomfort (spurs, whips, force) to make disinterested, sour horses perform better. The result is the same: it doesn’t work. If you know that your horse is left brain, confident and dominant then safety and comfort are not issues…but play and food are!
When horses play dominance games with each other, they are playing games. When they pick on you or outsmart you, they are playing a game and they’re winning big time if they can push your emotional buttons. Making predators impatient, tired, scared and frustrated enough to give up is how prey animals have survived for millions of years. When they feel emotions rise in you, they know success is close so you have to learn to not get emotional and you can’t fake it because they can tell. The answer lies therefore in more savvy and in doing the unexpected.
Surprise Your Horse
What would surprise your horse? One of the first things is doing the opposite of what he expects. Remember that the left brain horse can read people like a book and they are acutely aware of our patterns and habits. People tend to be creatures of habit, especially around horses. In fact many people are told that they need to do A, B, C…catch the horse, groom him, saddle him, bridle him, take him to the mounting block, get on, ride around the arena, etc. Horses are experts at what happens before what happens happens. Pretty soon they’re avoiding things well ahead of time, they put themselves in positions that make it hard or impossible for you to do things, move when you want to saddle them, nip at you when you’re cinching up, turn away or put their head up when you want to bridle them, step on your foot before you mount, shift and move as you put your foot in the stirrup, won’t leave the barn…uh, oh. Could this all be part of a big plan to make the predator give up?!
You need his mind set to change. By becoming more interesting, less predictable, less bossy or obsessed with perfection you’ll suddenly find your horse liking you more, tuning in, putting in more effort and developing a more positive attitude. He’ll actually become eager to see you and go play. For some people imagination comes easily while others, like me, have had an imagination bypass! I had to learn how to become more imaginative and thankfully Pat’s Program had that all built in to the Seven Games—the Seven Games with an Obstacle! By thinking in categories like Sideways or Squeeze or Yo-Yo or Driving… pretty soon you’re posing interesting puzzles* for your horse when you get to an obstacle. Instead of your horse assuming he’s going to jump the log or step on the stump, you’ll have him put one foot on it, side pass him over it or around it, back him to it, drive him around from Zone 3, 4 or 5. Get the picture. The main thing is to play, play, play. As soon as it feels like work, this horse will quit on you, but if you can keep the spirit of play going and lots of praise and moments to rest, you’ll find you can even make things like flying changes and half passes, jumps or spins and stops become fun instead of pressure.
Don’t Treats Encourage Bad Behavior in Horses?
…Only when you use them as bribes or when you don’t know how to play the Seven Games. The Friendly Game is the most important of the Seven Games and the other six are about moving your horse around. When we get things out of balance then the relationship deteriorates either because all we do is love on our horse and don’t get them to do things that are interesting, or all we do is make our horse do things and don’t give him enough love. It’s a fine balance and as I’m fond of saying, it’s only the secret of horsemanship! In becoming more savvy we learn how to balance things out for the kind of horsenality we’re dealing with…how much love, how much variety, how much consistency. Horses do not understand punishment and they don’t deal well with pressure. You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, so if you find yourself getting frustrated all the time or smacking your horse for trying to nip you, you’d better start with the honey! Respect is earned by being the kind of person your horse would like to interact with, not by smacking him a lot. You’ve got to get this left brain horse to like you and by understanding his hierarchy of needs you will know that play and food are high priorities. Play is how you create respect, food treats is how you develop incentive. Aggressive horses don’t need more smacking, they need more loving. I’ve watched Pat play with these horses in hundreds of demonstrations all over the world. The last thing he does is start bossing the horse around, it almost looks like he’s doing nothing and yet the horse changes dramatically fast. He’s doing the opposite of what the horse expects and the horse becomes intrigued…“Hey, this human is different! He’s interesting! He’s provocative and fun!”
Sometimes when students have problems with horses biting at them when they tighten the cinch, I tell them to give their horse a carrot when he puts his ears back and starts to swing his head around. Of course this usually produces comments of shock and disbelief. “Won’t that encourage him to bite, isn’t that a reward?” Nope, you’re surprising him by doing the opposite of what he’d expect, so his attitude changes toward you. It’s not about the cinch, it’s all about how he feels about you. If someone you didn’t like brought you chocolates all the time and sincerely complimented you a lot, for how long could you continue to think bad thoughts about them? Horses are quick to change and to forgive, they just need us to change first. Unlike dogs who love us no matter what we do, horses are very conditional.
Probably the biggest problem for you is going to be dealing with the so-called experts around you. They’ll tell you that this is wrong, that you’re spoiling your horse and it’s not serious horsemanship to be playing all the time. One word of advice… don’t listen to them! Watch the change in your horse. He’s the one you need to impress!