Feedback is a really important part of training horses…any animal for that matter. Being non-verbal for the most part, horses use body language to communicate their mental and emotional state, as well as their physical well being. Its important as a trainer and as a caretaker to observe this feedback and make adjustments in our agenda to address feedback, when necessary. Some feedback requires nothing more than acknowledgement, such as a horse wrinkling his lip with pleasure during a good grooming session. Some feedback requires action, such as a pony pinning its ears during feeding. In such a case, I might simply insist he share his food with me or request he back away from his supper for a moment for an attitude adjustment. Feedback can be quite complex and the body language difficult to interpret….is it fear, is it dominance, is it confusion? Using punishment or dominance with a horse that is scared or confused will produce unsatisfactory, sometimes disasterous results. Such is the art of living and working with an animal. To complicate matters more, there are horses that use body language very efficiently and energetically and others who are more stoic, showing little in the way of opinion. I find the later more challenging, but most horses are somewhere in between.
The most obvious of body language can be sorted out by watching horses ‘talk’ to each other. We all know what a swishing tail or pinned ears mean, and generally what follows if that feedback is ignored. Horses often use movement and energy to alert their herd members to percieved danger or to engage in play. We see these behaviors during training as well and need to interpret their meaning correctly to maintain rapport as well as progress in the training process.
But the type of feedback that I have been thinking about recently relates to physical limitations and rehabilitation. For instance, Reno, while he has pretty typical body language in regard to manuveuring the herd, showing pleasure and confidence as well as lack of confidence, he is quite stoic in regard to his physical condition. Recovering from 2 very serious injuries in the left hind, he really rarely showed evidence of pain or discomfort. Now that he moves relatively normally, its even harder to percieve what his true limitations are. One of the reasons I decided to start riding him in stead of driving him during his rehabilitation is that I wanted a different way to access feedback about his physical status. Sitting on his back I get a better sense of where he is stuck or stiff. I can sense when one stride is shorter than another and when he braces in the neck or becomes disconnected behind. Recently I have become aware of a new form of feedback that astonished me. For months, I’ve concentrated on the injured left hind nearly entirely. As in any instance when I focus too narrowly, I risk missing the larger picture.
I had ridden Reno 3 days that week and he was coming along nicely. My first bit of feedback was that he preferred to canter on the right lead…..odd, I thought, that lead should be the harder for him, given his injury. The next bit of feedback went right over my head until this morning. I noticed last week that my right hip and back were killing me. In fact, I woke up one morning wondering if I had a kidney infection…it was intense. Try as I might, I could not think of anything I had done to injure myself. My back is not perfect, and so I blew it off and took some ibuprofen. It did indeed improve over several days.
Yesterday, I put a saddle on Reno for a ride after a week off. My sis-in-law wanted to sit on him in the worst way. I rode for 10 minutes to get him settled for her and after her brief ride, I did some light work with him before heading back to the barn. Well, several hours later, the right hip pain was back, along with a stabbing pain in the upper back….just like last week. HELLO, a lightbulb went on, when I realized I was mirroring Reno’s pain. Fascinating! How could I have missed something so obvious…something that makes so much sense. Reno spent months with his left hind leg off the ground, leaning on his right. Of course his right hip is stuck and sore. I knew that intellectually, but had no idea how severe it was. Bingo! Feedback!
I have read about this type of mirrored pain…generally in the reverse form. In those cases a horse picks up the pain syndrome of the rider like a mirror and can become lame. Truly fascinating! The phenomenom, in a positive way, explains the ‘oneness’ good riders feel on their mounts and how some rides just seem to flow from within….with barely a cue from the rider. In the past, I have actually felt relief of back pain from a good balanced ride on a sound and willing mount. But I digress…back to feedback.
So being the scientist you all know me to be, I will have to ride every horse on the farm this week to be sure its not just me and my bad back. I will do it, but I suspect I will be fine. That’s the other piece…intuition. Anyone successful around horses developes this sixth sense. You just ‘know’ when you are right.
So now that I have identified this source of feedback, I now need to process how to deal with it and obviously, make it better. This will likely be the topic for another post. For now, I have to simply accept these facts as feedback.