by Ron Meredith
The Most Important Routine
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
Some time ago I was in a grocery store during a big thunderstorm. The lady in front of me at the cash register line was nervously patting her toddler while saying “don’t be afraid” over and over. I’m sure her intention was to reassure the child (or maybe herself). I’m also sure that the youngster got the message loud and clear that thunderstorms were something scary because they made mom really jumpy and anxious.
We had a similar training experience here at Meredith Manor. For years we’d put up with the antics and mess of the birds in the indoor arena. They just flew around and swooped and chirped and dropped insulation and other stuff on the horses and riders who just went about their business and didn’t especially notice it all. Somebody sold me on the idea that if we played this recording of birds in distress, the resident birds would decide the arena wasn’t a friendly place and they would leave. So we tried it.
The first day we played the recording, we had horses all over the place. The new sound of birds in distress startled the horses. When the horses startled, the riders got rattled. When the riders got rattled, the horses got the feeling that the birds in distress really WERE something scary to be startled about. So the mayhem just escalated and you get the picture. And we stopped playing the recording so I still don’t know if it would have worked or not.
My point is that whenever there’s a change, especially a change that might give off some sort of “danger” vibes, horses start looking to someone they trust to help them figure out how to react. That someone could be the herd’s lead mare or their good horse buddy or their rider. If that someone’s reactions communicate a scary or dangerous feeling to the horse, then that’s the feeling the horse will react to now and associate with that situation in the future.
Because it appears that some sort of change upsets horses, a lot of people think the way to make a horse feel safe is to keep changes to a minimum, to keep to the same routine as much as possible. Or they try to bombproof him by exposing him gradually to a whole bunch of stuff until he accepts each of the situations. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that but the problem is you can never anticipate all the possible changes that might occur in the horse’s routine or environment and desensitize him to all of them. One good result of all this bombproofing could be that the horse’s handler gets desensitized and starts to get confident about showing new stuff to the horse. Then next time something different happens, they’re more likely to telegraph that feeling of confidence to the horse instead of getting startled themselves if something startles the horse.
The only “routine” that is consistently meaningful to the horse is that you are always the same person every time you are around the horse, that you are always predictable in your mood and actions. You should not be male or female around the horse. You should not bring any thoughts or emotions from other parts of your life into the time right “now” when you are with your horse. Your attitude is always the same; your actions always create a sense of rhythm and relaxation in the horse. It’s that calm, predictable sameness that makes the horse feel comfortable and safe around you, no matter what else may be happening.
That’s a really hard thing for most people to do. They’re more likely to react to a change like that mother in the grocery store and the students whose horses startled when they first heard the bird distress calls. For example, let’s say it’s a really cold morning and the rider goes to the barn anticipating that the horse is going to come out of his stall fresh and frisky and ready to buck. You can bet that the horse will live up to the rider’s expectations. If the rider went into the horse’s stall acting like it was just an ordinary morning no different from any other morning in the spring or summer or fall or winter, then the horse would act like it was just another morning, too.
A lot of time the interactions between what a person does and a horse does has to do with making sure the person doesn’t anticipate what might happen and, in that anticipating, make it happen. You need to teach yourself not to interact with the changes in any situation so that your horse won’t interact with them. You need to learn to be the same, the same, the same, and the same from moment to moment. As soon as a rider gets excited or afraid, they communicate that to the horse through some slight change in their body or their breathing which breaks up the feeling of rhythm and relaxation we want to convey to the horse.
That feeling of relaxation and rhythm is basic to everything else we want to do with him. The horse is going to relate his feelings about everything that happens to him to your feelings and attitudes about them. So you need to pay attention to your attitude all the time. You need to keep your attitudes and your body language relative to the feelings you want to communicate to the horse. No matter what changes out there in the environment or the usual “routine”, you want to stay exactly the same.
Years ago when I was just starting out, reining trainer Dale Wilkinson demonstrated to me the importance of staying the same for your horse no matter what’s going on around you. We were working some cattle in his arena, when his wife came running down the driveway yelling, “Fire! Fire!” Dale didn’t want to interrupt the feeling he had going with the young horse he was working at the time so he just kept at what he was doing and calmly said to me, “You reckon you’ve got time to check that out?”
So I scrambled off my horse, tied him up, ran to the house, and found a fire behind the dryer. I threw the circuit breakers, put out the fire, turned the circuits that didn’t have anything to do with the dryer back on, and headed back to the arena still all pumped full of adrenaline. When I got there, Dale was working a cow and he finished with it before he stopped momentarily to ask me if everything was OK. I said yes. And so he just went right on calmly working.
So the next time you’re trying to figure out how to keep your horse’s adrenaline from surging when something startling happens, figure out what you need to do to keep your own adrenaline level down. In order to be in control of your horse’s feelings and the reactions that result from those feelings, you first have to be in control of your own feelings and reactions. You want to convey that feeling of “everything is routine and predictable” to the horse no matter what else is going on.