Guess what? There have been thousands of times our horses have tried to answer our requests, maybe in several “not-quite-right” ways, but then because of the way we reacted to those small mistakes, they “got spooked”…and then suddenly “not-quite-right” became “oh-so-wrong.”
In his bestselling book THE MODERN HORSEMAN’S COUNTDOWN TO BROKE, Florida-based trainer Sean Patrick explains that Avoidance Behavior is the defense mechanism your horse uses when a situation occurs that is unpleasant (such as water spraying in his ears) or scary (such as being approached with a noisy garbage bag).
“The horse looks for a way to avoid the stimulus or get rid of it,” says Sean.
This can mean he tries to run away, shy, buck, back, or rear. The goal for all of us is to learn the difference between the horse seeking a release point (the moment of “success” when the horse “gets” what you are asking and when the removal of any stimulus should instantly occur), and the horse that is overreacting and trying to avoid the situation altogether.
To begin to learn to recognize Avoidance Behavior and how to deal with it, let’s look at a few common examples and possible causes provided by Sean in his book:
Avoidance Behavior: The horse bolts away from you as you lift your dressage whip.
Possible Causes: 1) Previous application of the whip has been unfair—for example, the release has not been given at the right moment, or the whip has been used too firmly; 2) The horse does not understand that the whip is not something to fear but to calmly respond to.
Avoidance Behavior: The horse moves his head away from your moving hand, anticipating contact.
Possible Causes: 1) The horse is justified in believing that he may be struck by that moving hand and is preparing to get out of the way; 2) The horse has not had enough physical contact to know that he can trust your moving hands.
Avoidance Behavior: The horse takes off running with you on his back, becoming inattentive to your cues.
Possible Causes: 1) The horse is growing frustrated with your leg pressure, as a release does not seem to come, no matter how he responds; 2) The horse is being ridden in a place where his fear level has been raised until it is too much for him to handle, such as in an indoor arena on a windy day.
Avoidance Behavior: The horse begins to buck violently while you are riding and is not responding to any form of cue.
Possible Causes: 1) The horse is not used to having a rider on his back and bucks out of discomfort or fear; 2) The horse is startled by or unhappy with your use of leg pressure.
Sean says that of course not all Avoidance Behavior is caused by improper handling. We should also note that a horse that has not had time to build trust in his human handlers and gain experience in that partnership will be more inclined to show it. We can all help our horses develop in ways that ensure Avoidance Behavior appears less and less often through conscious attention to our own use of techniques and our position around the horse and in the saddle; through thoughtful teaching; and by always being aware that scenarios such as these may not help our horses learn. It is our goal to help our horses learn in ways that make their lives safe, purposeful, and happy. And Rule #1 should be to give them a chance to get it right.
Discover more training insight, as well as Sean Patrick’s 33 steps to horse training, in THE MODERN HORSEMAN’S COUNTDOWN TO BROKE, available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
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