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How do you deal with biting horses…?

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As any of you who joined me on the ‘Meeting of Minds’ program will know, I have a huge passion for learning and sharing knowledge, and last weekend was my kind of perfect as I had the huge privilege and pleasure of spending a day with another liberty trainer. We spent the day with her beautiful horses, sitting with them, chatting and sharing our journey’s and experiences, and experimenting with our slightly different approaches to building liberty connections…

During a quick break for some lunch she asked me a question that I have heard so many times before in my previous experience as a horse trainer and behaviour specialist, “how do you deal with biting horses?”. Strangely though I was thrown by the question and I found myself going into my old default mode of “Well it depends on the reason why the horse is biting…” We talked about this for a bit and both agreed that there was always a reason. These can range from their natural curiosity and need to explore and understand the world and build strong bonds through mutual grooming. To early weaning practices and coping mechanisms to handle pain or stress, training and handling practices that trigger fear and the ‘fight’ response, causing horses to feel the need to defend themselves. All the way through to the sad situation of horses that have learnt the benefit of being aggressive towards people.

I then heard myself going back even further to say, ‘well in my days as a Monty Robert’s Instructor, we would teach the 5 different approaches to dealing with biting…” and our discussions continued as we talked about a variety of ways to reduce the behaviour depending on the underlying cause. However, it wasn’t until I was driving home that this question popped back in my mind, and again I felt strangely unsettled – How do I deal with biting horses? I suddenly realised I hadn’t actually answered her question. I had talked about things that I have done in the past and different approaches used by different trainers but I hadn’t told her what I do now. So, what was the answer to this question?

I let it quietly filter through my mind and I realised I genuinely wasn’t sure… Why? Then the realisation dawned on me that I no longer come across this issue anymore. That’s not to say that I won’t again in the future but it now seems so rare. Again, why? I thought back to my work with the lovely ‘Boot’s a few years ago who was certainly practiced at showing aggressive behaviours and threatening to bite, what did I do then?

Then boom, it came to me: ‘Extinction’! In psychology, extinction refers to the gradual weakening of a conditioned response that results in the behavior decreasing or disappearing. In other words, the conditioned behavior eventually stops. Only, I realised there was more to it than that, and perhaps through the use of extinction I had in fact largely eliminated it from even my own psyche, hence the difficulty in answering the question!

As I pondered the question further I began to realise that I no longer seem to even come across this problem, and again, I wondered why? Perhaps it is about the law of attraction – “what you resist, persists”, and instead of focusing on fixing a problem, I now always focus on developing a strong foundational relationship first. A relationship where touch is explored and consent is not taken for granted. Perhaps it is because touch is now a two-way process, where I allow horses to touch and explore me with gentle but clear boundaries in mind? Perhaps it is because I spend the time to just ‘be’ with the horses, developing a trusting bond before I ask for more? Perhaps it is because I have changed my approach and I am no longer overstretching horses and asking them to do things that they feel unable to cope with?

Perhaps it is because I now understand that all behaviour is communication, and emotions drive behaviour, therefore I am always working with the emotional horse and modelling what I would like to see in them? Perhaps it is because I am now reading and listening to the horses better, noticing the subtle signs and adjusting my approach accordingly. Or perhaps it is because I no longer see biting as a behaviour to be fixed or changed but in fact as a simple form of communication? The questions remain and the answer is allusive but you know what, it really doesn’t matter because clearly, things have changed and I am happy to celebrate that fact!!

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”

If you’d like to find out more about my new ‘Mindful Partners’ coaching programme, empowering horse owners to become the person their horse(s) chooses to connect with and follow, then please contact me, Debbie at: info@understandingequus.co.uk

©Understanding Equus 2019

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