With horses, you’re creating either good habits or bad, both in the way they think and in the way they act. Promoting good habits should lead to the point where you are able to catch the horse, saddle up, and go right to work in total suppleness, balance, and connection no matter the weather or surroundings. Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t even aware of the habits they are creating in their horses, both physically and mentally.
I see a lot of folks unknowingly teaching bad habits by giving the horse the freedom to do as it pleases at inappropriate moments in the presence of a human. One that drives me completely bonkers is when someone lunges a horse for the purpose of “airing them out”. The horse’s first response is to go completely crazy bucking, kicking, and screaming. From the horse’s perspective, the daily routine is: human catches me, then I go completely crazy on the lunge, and then we get to work. Talk about creating a terrible habit that can get both the horse and human hurt!
This “airing out” may be harmless at first, but it can lead to a horse’s bad behavior snowballing. The horse may grow to exploit that moment of complete craziness on the lunge that has been sanctioned by the human and extend their bad behavior into other moments leading directly up to the lunge or directly after the lunge. Little by little, the horse becomes a pig in the halter, possibly running people over, bullying other horses and people, and perhaps even becoming an aggressive monster that people become scared of.
You may have heard people say that particular horses are bad, but that’s not fair because their bad behavior is most likely the result of bad habits that their humans have allowed them to develop over time, although admittedly sometimes one extreme negative event might be responsible for a horse’s poor behavior. These bad habits were created by a human either being forceful or disinterested in the horse’s development, and the horse has learned to be resistant to the training.
In order to create a good habit, all you need to do is know what it is you’re looking to create and then make the horse’s progress toward that goal as easy and rewarding as possible. One must simultaneously discourage the horse’s incorrect actions by making steps in the wrong direction more difficult. Thus, good habits will mean less work for the horse, while bad habits will lead to more work. No matter what takes place, the horse will always find the route of least resistance given the circumstances presented to them.
Use every opportunity to encourage your horse’s development towards being responsive, calm, and respectful from the very beginning of your interaction with them. Keep thinking of the whole horse, becoming more aware of the habits being created along the way, and build a companionship in which is enjoyable for both parties. The most important thing to preserve and reinforce in a horse is their ability to discover and embrace good habits on their own initiative.