If you come to one of my clinics you will learn about CAWA an acronym for characteristic we all desire in our horse (Calmness, Attentiveness, Willingness, and Adaptability). For the next few months I will further expound on each of these characteristics in my newsletter feature article. This month I will tackle; Calmness.
Before we go further we should define calmness as it pertains to our horse.
It is a quiet composure where the horse remains relaxed or unruffled when presented with a request from the rider. The horse is able to completely and unconditionally accept and respect the rider's cues without becoming nervous, troubled or stressed. The horse is able to execute the given task with the appropriate amount of strength and energy while his muscles remain relaxed and supple. Another way to describe calmness is the horse is peacefully obedient; he yields without any brace in his body or mind, and he doesn’t feel constricted.
I seem to hear this statement a lot at my clinics and camps when the person is referring to a negative behavior their horse displays, “My horse has never done that before.” I have discovered that some well meaning riders have developed a horse who may be calm but is NOT obedient to their cues. As soon as they come to a clinic and start to make more particular or new demands upon the horse things fall apart. The horse is calm as long as they don’t ask much of him. But as soon as the rider makes a new or more difficult request the horse throws a fit or balks, because he has never had to put much effort into anything before. A calm horse who does not accept cues from the rider is always more or less stiff and resistant in various areas of his body.
Loving owners with good intentions can un-train a horse in a hurry when they back off as soon as their horse shows any signs of nervousness or discomfort. The horse learns that if he displays displeasure at the rider’s requests he is rewarded with a reduction of demands. When this happens the truth of the matter is that the horse is training the rider to yield to pressure, rather than the other way around. This leads to what I call a spoiled horse whom eventually becomes dangerous because he battles against the rider with inappropriate behaviors such as bucking, rearing, kicking, biting, etc.
A horse that does not whole-heartedly accept or respect the rider’s leg, seat and rein aides is unsafe even if he appears calm because the rider has no true control over his mount. Without obedience to the leg, seat and rein aids the rider has nothing to work with. They are completely helpless. When a rider does not pay attention to this he gives up control over the horse by de facto. Most problem horses have been "trained" to ignore or disrespect the rider and his cues. In most cases, these problems are manmade.
Every professional encounters horses like this on a regular basis. In order to turn this horse around the rider has to quietly and passively persist in the proper position with his requests until the horse begins to co-operate and settle down. He has to “wait it out” for a significant change to occur in the horse before he moves on. The amount of time which needs to be spent depends upon the behavior, how ingrained it is, and the progress of the horse. One should not finish a lesson before achieving true obedience and calmness when the horse has shown suspicion or uneasiness. Otherwise we may teach the horse that he does not need to obey and the next time he will be even more anxious and less willing to comply.
In order to help a horse be both calm and obedient a rider must remain calm with consistent cues and follow through every time with the proper release. With this kind of dependability the horse will respect the rider more and become confident as well as enthusiastically obedient. Once the horse finds the open door of release and understands that the rider's demands are not as bad as he thought they were he will be much calmer, more reliable, obedient and therefore safer.
Through my experience I have seen a few different types of calmness. The first and most desirable one is when the horse accepts and respects the rider’s request with a relaxed attitude of exuberant energetic obedience. This obedience to the rider’s cues cannot be emphasized enough when it comes to developing a horse who is calm and responsive.
The second and most common type of calmness is a sleepy complacency where the horse seems compliant but when you look closer there is a lifeless attitude where the horse shuffles along with short, flat, dinky strides. He is kicking up a cloud of dust, half asleep, without paying much attention to the rider. This horse is relatively harmless because of his tolerant, easy going, good nature.
The third type is the horse with a more irritable disposition. He is short- tempered, grumpy, sullen, and touchy. His attitude is “leave me alone, just let me be in charge, and I won’t buck you off”. This horse is downright lazy. This horse will make the rider work harder and harder at trying to make him go forward as he works less and less. They are calm as long as you don't impose too much on them. However, if you dare to disturb their way by asking for more energy, they stop, kick out, or threaten to buck or rear.
The fourth category of calmness I will label as the "calm before the storm". If you study the Parelli horsenalities they describe this horse as a right-brained introvert who is unpredictable. These horses withhold themselves going into their little happy place. They "store" their energies, while appearing outwardly calm, which could be described as a catatonic state. Some of them appear quite unresponsive, but just when the unsuspecting rider least expects it, they can explode into a bucking fit, for no reason at all, other than that they cannot contain their slowly but surely mounting energy any more. New horse owners are often in for a rude awakening if they end up with a horse like this, because they don’t understand this horse’s psychology.
As important as the right kind of calmness is, it is equally if not more important that the rider NOT accept the wrong kind of calmness. The appropriate kind of calmness is the one that comes from trusting obedience, and the inappropriate kind of calmness is a conditional calmness that gives way to opposition reflex as soon as the rider asks the horse to make an honest effort in his work. This type of calmness must be overcome before the correct kind of calmness can be cultivated.
Forward motion is the most basic pre-requisite for developing responsiveness which will lead to control and control will lead to a true calmness not a superficial one which I described in the above paragraphs. Many riders prevent their horses from going forward, because they are either afraid of the energy, or they are unable to sit a speedier gait because they lack an independent seat. So they do their best to stifle their horse's movement in order to create the sensation of control. Other riders are not experienced enough to know whether the energy level that their horse volunteers is sufficient or not for the task they are asking the horse to do. The rider needs to learn to be able to read whether the horse is holding himself back or not in order to realize who is in the driver’s seat.
How do we know if the horse is completely accepting the leg, seat and rein aides or not? Here is a test which will help you determine whether a horse is holding himself back or not, whether he is thinking forward or backward. Apply a forward cue with your seat and leg, then support with a crop, stick, or rope to the rump if necessary. If the horse reacts to this with a more forward-upward movement of his hind leg, he is thinking forward, and is respectful of the cue. On the other hand, if the horse is thinking backward he may slow down, switch his tail, lay his ears back, and kick out, crow hop or buck. If he goes against the leg he is being rude and disrespectful of the rider’s cue and is clearly holding back.
Even when the horse is respectful of the leg, seat and rein aides they can occasionally lose their calmness for a variety of reasons. Introduction of a new exercise can lead to some nervousness, which will go away with time, clear communication, and patient practice. Some of the other things which can compromise the horse's concentration and calmness are: outward distractions, fear, boredom, fatigue, pain or lameness issues, ill-fitting tack, a poor rider who is stiff and unbalanced, unclear communication, excessive and unfair demands. Any of these things can cause a horse to become agitated, defensive, intimidated or antagonized.
When the horse’s calmness is compromised the rider must first stay calm himself, then decide where the disturbance came from. Next the rider should check the correctness of his seat as well as the timing, coordination, feel, and intensity of the cue. Then lastly it is important to re-evaluate the level of the demands being placed on the horse according to his stage of training and degree of physical fitness. Making these decisions in a split second and applying them correctly takes quite a bit of practical training experience. It doesn’t happen over night, so be patient with yourself too.
A certain loss of calmness is sometimes difficult to avoid when the rider addresses shortcomings in the horse’s foundational training. So it is important for the rider to calm the horse down so that he doesn’t get nervous every time we ask something new or more demanding from him. It is not critical that the horse gives you a perfect performance every time, especially since nobody is perfect. However, we can expect the horse to try whole-heartedly to comply with the rider’s request even if it is a new or difficult one. If the demands are fair, the rider presents cues with clarity and is willing to wait patiently for the horse to understand and calmly yield to the request then there is no reason why we can’t be particular without being too critical. The stamp of a well-trained horse is one who will give you an honest effort to understand and obey the rider's cues calmly without argument. When you have this you have the makings of a true partner that will bring you not only safety but joy for many years to come. So remember just because your horse is calm, without obedience it can lead to trouble on down the road.