Is your horse an obedient and devoted pony at home but a total space cadet at shows or on the trail? Does your confident game-playing round pen partner morph into a strange monster when you saddle up to ride? Does your horse show up every day exactly the same as you left him the day before?
Lots of horse owners wonder if horses can suffer from multiple personality disorder. The simple answer is, no.
Inconsistent horses have inconsistent humans. Uncertainty isn’t necessarily the result of too little love, low intelligence, or a lack of concern, but a normal human condition. You are inconsistent for one of two reasons, (1) you don’t realize it, or (2) you aren’t committed enough to do the work required to create stability.
Either you don’t know or you don’t care.
Cause of Unpredictable Behavior in Horses
Two frequent causes of erratic behavior are distractions and emotional volatility. Any distraction big enough to draw your horse’s focus away from you affects his performance. Emotional volatility doesn’t mean that you or your horse is prone to melt downs or attacks of manic euphoria, it means that conflicting or variable emotions create inconsistent and unpredictable behavior.
Too many horse folks accept erratic behavior from their horses as long as they feel comfortable blaming the horse, or admit they don’t want to make the effort to offer their horse a better deal. If that’s the case, then just accept it for what it is and quit dithering about it. Sometimes perfection isn’t worth the effort when it takes away the joy of doing.
Accepting less-than-perfect performance still produces some positive results by reducing stress, leveling out emotional volatility (frustration, anxiety, embarrassment) and creating more predictable outcomes.
Everyone has a happy place somewhere between a total control and take-your-chances horse experience. The more self-control and consistency you show your horse, the more you’ll get in return.
Witnessing Grace on the Hoof
Were you ever punished for trying your best? Remember that time back in school when you didn’t understand what the teacher asked you to do? Would you learn faster if the teacher wore out your knuckles with a thick wooden ruler?
You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss. – James 4:3
I have a ridiculously even, almost boring temper; few highs or lows. It takes a LOT to get me to chew my tongue. One thing that nearly blasted me out of my chair when judging horse shows was kids, non-pros, or trainers who spurred, jammed, or jerked on their horse for failing to do what the exhibitor wanted even though the horse did EXACTLY what it was ASKED to do.
Failing to understand your horse isn’t much different than failing to be in control of your horse.
Youth horses have a special place in my heart for the kind and gentle patience they offer undeserving kids. Youth horses are the epitome of grace on the hoof with oodles more patience than I have. I’d have reached around, pulled the kid off my back and stomped ’em on my way out for beating on me for what she did wrong. Youth horses submit to undeserved punishment far too frequently.
Dominance is Bad. Correction is Good.
Inconsistent or improper use of correction causes erratic behavior. One thing horses and computers have in common is how inconsistent data produces inconsistent results. If your horse doesn’t give you consistent responses, maybe your requests aren’t as uniform as you believe.
Do you teach your horse, lead your horse, nag your horse, or punish your horse? You can’t punish a horse into learning and you can’t educate a horse into willingness. Do you ask or tell? Is your goal creating greater communication and partnership or being the boss?
Correction is not for the detection of faults, but in order to make perfect. – Oswald Chambers
Don’t Offer Your Horse a Crutch
There’s a big difference between properly applied correction and a crutch. Building confidence in a horse or human depends on how well the principles and application of correction are understood and applied. Whether human, equine, or canine, too much input, support, or correction eventually cease to be tools for ‘making perfect’ and devolve into crutches of dependency.
- Do you hold your horse on the rail instead of teach him to stay there by himself?
- Will your horse hold a direction of travel without being trapped between your legs or reins?
- Can your horse balance himself or does she need your help?
The only way to ride with loose reins is to ride with loose reins. The only way to teach a horse to go straight without holding him there is to let him go without being fixed every two seconds, making a series of specific incremental changes. Pick one thing that’s not correct and fix it. If your horse has issues with steering and speed, decide which bugs you the most. You can’t address more than one issue at a time, though I admit, most of us try. And fail.
[Find a step-by-step method to teach your horse to work straight on a loose rein in the chapter, Constructive Criticism, in Discipleship with Horses.]
Teaching Process – Basics to Refinement
Constant supervision may be appropriate when introducing new concepts, staying with a cue until the horse gives a response. The process of deliberate and predictable learning moves from the macro to the micro. Early lessons teach broad concepts. Over time, lessons focus less on understanding and more on refinement and self-correction.
First teach a maneuver, then work to refine it. You can’t make something prettier or smoother if is doesn’t already exist.
Consistent behavior is a function of a strong consistent foundation. Most horses act differently at home than they do at the show – the first time. Even at home some horses behave one way in the indoor arena and quite differently in the big pasture or riding through the woods. They are different because their riders are different or there is a distraction that wasn’t properly addressed.
- If you have butterflies before a show your horse will behave differently.
- If you’re not confident in the class routine or properly prepared, your horse will probably do something unexpected.
- If you respond to minor mistakes at a show differently than at home, you’ll soon be riding a different horse than the one you hauled in.
Confidence Produces Consistency
Horses who appear to have multiple personality disorders are simply more confident in some places or situations than in others. That tells you that the horse’s confidence in the leader is not as great as it might be, that faith and relationship isn’t as powerful as new circumstances and conditions.
Does your horse respond to the surroundings more than to you? If so, as circumstances change, so will his behavior, not who he is.
There’s work to be done, but not by changing the horse. Relationships improve with worthy leadership, consistent responses, asking only what you know the horse can do, and knowing precisely what it is you’re asking. Your horse will change once you change.
Teach your horse a cue to return his focus to you when tempted by distractions. Same cue regardless of what it is, bicycle, siren, dog, galloping horse, or llama.
Erratic Christian Behavior
New Creations in Christ don’t bounce from the “old man” to the new and back again as a reaction to the circumstances of the moment. With few (or no) exceptions, there are no separations within a person. The person you are at home is the same person you are in public. The face you present to your spouse should be the same one you wear to church on Sunday. Even if your behavior appears different (ask yourself why), you are the same.
No mature child of the King of Kings is an emotional chameleon. Changeable behavior proves that you need to spend a little more time with your own Master strengthening relationship foundations. Every victory there improve your horse’s consistency.
Related post – Rethinking the Use of Pressure in Horse Training