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Horse too intelligent?

From: Kathi

Hello, Boy, I could sure use some advise from you. (This is a very long letter, but I am trying to explain enough for you to give your opinion to a very tough problem) I have a "problem horse". His name is Max, and he is a 3 year old paint gelding. He is out of my quarter horse mare, so I have raised him since he was born. He was my first foal to raise from "start to finish". My horse back riding level is beginner/intermediate. I have contacted several horse trainers from all walks of life and so far 90% of them are writing me back and calling Max "hyper intelligent". Well, this all sounds really great, but it presents a really big problem with his training. He is SO smart that he is resistant in his training. I am trying to contact as many experts as I can hoping to use various different strategies, and to hear the "voice of experience". Now I can really use your knowledge Jessica. You have given me some excellent advice on Max before. I am trying to research hyper intelligence on the internet, and so far am coming up rather empty handed. Do you have any resources about "genius" horses? Here is all the information about Max that I feel is important to know.....(it's quite long) I have never been injured by this horse, he has just been a handful. Hyper intelligent horses are often "misunderstood", and most people will not bother messing with them because they ARE such a handful.

HISTORY: Whew, where do I start? Max is a horse of a different color alright. His dam is the best in my book: calm, easy to ride, trustworthy.....the best to own. I don't know a lot about his sire's temperment, but I do know that 99% of his offspring are very flighty, extremely intelligent, and most are real "boogers" to raise. (I did not choose this sire, someone else did) Almost all of his offspring are bred for the show ring, and he makes beautiful babies......but out of all of the many foals he has sired, only a small handful have actually made it to the show ring. (because they are real boogers, is my guess) Max was a handful from the day he was born. VERY independent. VERY intelligent. Very sweet, but just plain rowdy. Not rowdy like most babies......a real handful kind of rowdy! He hated being stalled by himself, and always threw a fit from hell. He was a little terror while weaning him from his ever so thankful dam. Full of spunk, energy, curious about EVERYTHING down to the smallest little thing; more than the usual young horses. He loves to learn things if he "controls" the learning.....like if it is something HE is interested in.....but his attitude was always: "If I don't want to do this, YOU CAN'T MAKE ME!!!!" And then he would prove that you can't make him do it. Halter training him was hell. At a very young age, he was dragging us all over the paddock, pulling back so bad and running that he has flung us into the fence many a times. Ignored the pressure and got away many times. If he decided that he wanted over the other side of the fence, nothing stopped him. He has even chose to take the zap of the hotwire to get to where he wanted to go. He was and is impatient. He paws and paws while tied to a post. Paws and paws while confined in a stall. Paws and paws while loaded in a trailer; WHICH by the way we FINALLY got him to go in just this past spring when he was just barely 3 years old. Oh yes.....we tried to get him to load when he was younger, but he did nothing but bounce around a lot,and pull back refusingly. What finally worked? Well, he grew up emotionally a little more by the time he was 3, and we ended up "ponying" him in. Loaded fine. Poof....just like that.....because he just up and decided to. Now, he pretty much loads fine.(except he paws, and bounces around a lot, but he LOVES to go) Where was I? Oh, basicly by now you should get the idea of what a "pill" he was to raise. Max has a very high intelligence. This IS a fact. He turns on and off the light switch in the stall next to the door. One time he broke a light bulb in the stall, trying to reach up and pull the chain switch......trying to mimic me.....I climb up on the gate and reach way up and pull the light switch chain..... Another example: I have a little round feed dish in one corner of his large stall.....on the other end of the stall...there is a water container the size of a kitchen trash can. He emptied the water container, moved it clear on the opposite end of his stall and place it EXACTLY where his feed dish goes. Then picked up his feed dish and put it EXACTLY where his water container goes. Both completely upright.....just up and switched them.(hee hee, little booger!)In my book, that shows real intelligence to do that.....it WAS intentional. He is a little escape artist.....able to open almost any gate if he watches you long enough. And, he can mimic you when you are doing fence repair jobs. He will pick up the hammer by the handle and move his head up and down repeatedly. Then he will pick up the fence cutters and walk UP TO THE FENCE and lightly tap a strand of wire.....amazing, huh? (No, I am not kidding you.) Okay, that gives you an idea of what my horse is like. Now for the problem: I knew that Max is not the kind of horse that could go to just any trainer. Ive had a lot of cowboys offer to train him for me. (Some only wanted a case of beer to do it-hee hee) But I have put a lot of time and money into him, giving him what I thought was "best" for him. I wasn't about to sell him short on the training.....because I intend to keep him for the rest of his life. I want him as well trained as possible, with nice ground manners, nice trail skills.....nothing real fancy, just a great pleasure riding horse. I felt that I needed the best for him, as "just anyone" who didn't know what they were doing could easily ruin him. In the area where I live, there aren't a lot of competent horse trainers. I try to remain open minded, but I judge them by HOW WELL their horses ride, and by the overall conditions of the facility. (The proof IS in the pudding,right?) So I find who I believe is probably the BEST horse trainer, with very good credentials, excellent references, AND an immaculate, well kept facility. I mean this guy is extremely competent. Well. I waited for Max to turn 3 and now he is getting close to 4 this next March. I waited because I wanted to make sure that not only was his back "closed", (because knees close at 2, but backs don't close until 3 years old) Also, his behavior told me that he needed to emotionally grow up and wasn't quite "ready". I am glad that I waited, because he really IS much better now than earlier. So I felt that the 1st part of October, he was officially "deemed" ready to train. Everything went great for the first 3 weeks. The trainer spent a lot of ground work on Max. More time than he spends with most horses, because he also confirmed that, yes, Max IS VERY INTELLIGENT, Max IS very impatient, and needed MORE ground work because of this. Well, the trainer (who is into "resistance free" training) finally felt that Max was ready for mounting. They went 3 or 4 times around the round pen......and suddenly....out of the blue with absolutely no warning or indication what-so-ever....Max starts bucking like a rodeo champion....I mean back legs straight up in the air. The trainer, who says he can ride a buck, goes flying off and gets injured. So he goes back to the ground work for another week......Again, 3 or 4 times around just fine. Same thing happens. Buckin' Bronco. Trainer gets injured. The trainer tells me how impulsive Max is. Not a clue that he is about to Buck. So, now the trainer calls me and tells me that he is unwilling to train Max (and I can't say that I blame him-who wants to get hurt?) He has been there for around 6 weeks now, and has had tons of ground work. Has been worked with almost every evening. His ground manners are a dream....He is leading perfectly. The trainer says that Max "just won't give him his mind". There is a little more to the story that you need to know: (I am trying to give you as much information as I can, forgive me if this is so long.) Max has a half brother who is one of the few horses from this bloodline that made it to the show ring. His name is Zip. A beautiful horse, looks just like Max. IS just like Max-exactly. His owner knows the grief of raising this bloodline. She took Zip to 3 different trainers and each one called her after a couple of days telling her to "come and get your crazy horse out of here before he kills someone....you should sell him to a rodeo company before he kills YOU!" Zip would not even allow them to take off his blanket. The owner was the ONLY one who he allowed to take it off.(She ended up having to train Zip herself) A fellow that she had haul Zip to a show could not get him to back out of the trailer, he refused. He was about to take a whip to him, when Zip's owner showed up and angrily asked him: "Did you ASK him?" and she takes the lead rope and POOF.....Zip quietly backs out of the trailer for her. Zip was recently standing for pictures outdoors, and as the photographer was getting ready to take a picture BOOM, Zip just impulsively pulls back and goes running down a major highway.....(He is 10 years old now) She can only ride him in an arena. Another fellow a few miles away from me has a half sister to Max. WHEW! She is way worse than Max! A real "pistol". She wants to kick your head off when you (and her owner) goes into her paddock. He HATES her! (She will be 3 this next spring) Fence jumper, an all round sour puss. In conclusion (finally, huh?), I WILL NOT give up on Max. No, I do not want to get hurt. No, I will not even consider riding him until he is officially deemed "safe to ride". Yes, I know that he needs an experienced rider for awhile. And finally, NO I will NEVER consider selling him to a rodeo company, which is what my trainer suggested. I want to find the RIGHT solution for a very smart horse who is using his intelligence against him instead of for him. By the way, he IS willing to do many things for me, whereas he is NOT willing for others to do. Remember, I said that Zip was the same way. Am I right when I say that Max is willing to "give" me his mind and not others? I am fairly inexperienced, I can't give him what he needs. But I want to work this through with him and save selling him as my ABSOLUTE last solution. I believe that with careful perseverance Max will eventually become a wonderful mount. He has many good points too, I am just trying to solve this major issue....so don't think that he is ALL rotten, he isn't. He just seems to be a "one person horse". He will allow me to do almost anything that he would never allow others to do.The trainer that is working with Max is as I said earlier very competent. He has had several successful rides also. Sigh.......what is your opinion, and what should I do? Thank you for reading this very long letter, and thank you for your help. Sincerely, Kathi


Hi Kathi! Yes indeed, you're right, you have a very intelligent and observant horse that sounds like a lot of fun. What I want you to keep in mind - and I'll repeat this later - is that even the most intelligent horse is still a HORSE, and needs to be trained accordingly. The message I'm getting from your letter, loud and clear, is that Max is being pushed too fast and is not ready for what is being done with him right now.

I've seen this before, quite often. An intelligent, active young horse goes to a trainer who puts him in the round pen and teaches him basic round-pen work, and the horse picks up everything very quickly. It takes a truly excellent, exceptional trainer to be able to look at a horse that responds to every movement made by the handler, and say "He's not quite with us yet, he's not really ready yet, he's responding fast but he's not relaxed and he's not really acting out of UNDERSTANDING." And yet this is exactly what a horse like yours needs, because his actions show that he is not ready to move out of kindergarten into first grade.

It's very easy to push an intelligent and active young horse too far, and at that point, the horse's reaction will SEEM sudden and out of proportion, but it won't be. It will be perfectly appropriate for that horse and its level of understanding - and for the amount of pressure the horse can take. In horses, intelligence and the ability to learn quickly do NOT necessarily indicate an exceptional ability to handle pressure - and, by the way, this is equally true of humans.

Accepting what happens is one thing - skills acquisition and mastery are another thing entirely. When a young horse learns to go and turn and stop in the round pen, that's one thing - when that horse learns to UNDERSTAND what it is doing, and feel relaxed about it, that's another thing. The horse that is tense and not entirely sure of itself will typically accept what is done to it until it simply can't handle the input and pressure any more, at which point it will demonstrate a behaviour that is likely to be explosive - and unwanted. Bucking, kicking, running away - all of these are reactions that say "I'm not comfortable, I don't like this, I don't want to be here, this is too much for me."

One of the characteristics of a truly exceptional trainer - a characteristic that is impossible to "fake" - is the ability to pay very close attention to the horse, to notice when the horse is feeling too much pressure, and to back off just BEFORE (not AFTER) the horse becomes upset. Less sophisticated, less "aware" trainers don't pay as close attention, don't notice as much, don't "read" the horse as accurately, and/or don't react as quickly or as appropriately when they need to back off and let the horse settle down. As you go down the scale of trainers, you'll find that they become more and more impatient, more and more concerned with their "schedule" or with "making a point" or "proving something to the horse."

The scenario you described was that of a horse that had been pushed too far, too fast, by a trainer who had succumbed to the temptation to do too much at once. When a horse is comfortable with its ground work, and the trainer decides that it is time to get on the horse, there should be no fireworks - but the trainer should get on, praise the horse, and get off again. Tomorrow is soon enough to get on again. The trainer who gets on and off fifty times that first day may THINK that he's teaching the horse "this is what you have to get used to", but the horse may well be hearing "I want something from you and you're not giving it to me, which is why I keep asking the question over and over". It's also important to remember that a trainer getting on a green horse from the ground is not a particularly comfortable action for the horse - it puts a good deal of torque on the horse's spine, and a horse unfamiliar with the sensation of being mounted from the ground will not know how to position and brace its legs to cope with the pulling, twisting sensation. This is frightening for a horse!

Once the trainer has gotten on and off for several days in a row, IF the horse is relaxed and confident and balanced, it will be time to move to the next step, which is sitting very quietly in the saddle, and asking the horse (with the same sound cue used for groundwork) to move off - then simply going with the horse, wherever it chooses to walk, jog, or stop. This is NOT the time to try to make the horse go at a certain speed or in specific directions, and it is NOT the time to make the horse go around and around the pen or the arena. This is the time to let the horse teach itself that it can move and balance in spite of the weight on its back, and it's the time to talk to and praise the horse so that it can be reassured that it is doing well, and that what is going on won't hurt it.

If a trainer gets on for the first time and the horse stands quietly AS IT SHOULD if training has gone well up to that point, a good trainer will praise the horse and then get off.

If a trainer who has gotten on and off the horse a dozen times over the course of a few days then asks the horse to move, a good trainer will then just let the horse go wherever he wants, allowing the horse to figure out how to move and balance. The good trainer won't use reins or legs - he'll just sit quietly and make occasional reassuring sounds while the horse explores its options.

When it's done this way, bucking is not one of the options the horse will typically explore, because when everything is done pleasantly, quietly, and GRADUALLY, the horse can learn to make its own adjustments and feel physically and mentally comfortable at each stage. But if the trainer decides that everything is going so well that it must be time to push the horse a little, THAT's when the horse is pushed far beyond its comfort level, and THAT's when a horse, unable to answer or even understand the trainer's questions, will typically begin to buck.

The ability to ride a bucking horse is not actually a very useful attribute in a trainer. What we want when we are training a horse to be a pleasant companion and useful mount is a trainer who has the ability to avoid provoking extreme reactions of confusion and fear in the horse. This is much less glamourous and exciting than riding out a series of bucks, but it's infinitely more useful if the aim is to MAKE, rather than BREAK, the horse.

There are too many so-called "trainers" on the road today, doing demonstrations in which a confused young horse is put through far too much in half an hour or less. There is NO advantage to pushing and rushing a youngster. There are an infinite number of disadvantages to the horse itself, to its comfort and understanding and soundness, to the horse's owner, and to all the people who will ever ride that horse, throughout its life.

My advice to you would be that you go back several steps with Max. He needs to be confirmed in his groundwork - not just in the DOING of it, but in the UNDERSTANDING of it, so that he will have confidence in you. Then, he needs to be introduced to under-saddle work in a way that will connect to and build on that groundwork. Verbal cues are excellent, because they can carry over in a seamless way from groundwork to mounted work.

The one thing that you will need to do is to keep your intelligent horse from being bored. A horse like Max, standing around in a stall with nothing to do, will come up with all sorts of ideas, and they may not be ideas you'll like (that lightbulb, for instance...). If you can put him out in a field ALL of the time instead of some of the time, that would help quite a lot. A horse that has put in its fifteen or twenty miles of daily walking in pasture is much less likely to "blow up" during training. Even permament turnout in a large paddock will make an enormous difference to a horse's attitude. Put Max in a situation where he can interact with his environment and with other horses - he needs that. He's intelligent and sensitive and quick on the uptake, but he's no more mature than any other horse of his age. He needs stimulation, and since he's not in a position to spend his free time surfing the 'Net, he may as well get his stimulation in the good old-fashioned way - from turnout, interactions with peers, and well-spent time with you.

If you want to keep Max happy and entertained while he learns, I think that you and he would both enjoy and benefit from clicker training. Get a copy of Alexandra Kurland's book, "Clicker Training for Your Horse", and a clicker, and start having fun. Clicker training is really just a matter of operant conditioning, but it will help you with your timing, and it will carry over to your under-saddle work very nicely. You can easily shift the "click" from an actual clicker sound to a verbal equivalent of a "click" - and that can be any word or phrase you choose. I recommend "Thank you" - it's is a useful phrase with horses, just as it is with humans. ;-)

I'd say that Max has been pushed completely out of his comfort zone, and you'll want to be sure that this doesn't happen again. Think of a horse's comfort zone as a big soap-bubble around the horse. You've blown soap-bubbles at some point in your life, haven't you? You know that by careful, gentle "blowing" into the bubble, you can make it larger and larger - and you also know that blowing too hard or too suddenly will break the bubble and then it will be GONE. If you think of your horse's comfort zone as that sort of bubble, it may help you learn to push very, very gently so that you are always expanding the zone a little - without breaking that bubble of security and trust.

Here's a broken-bubble scenario: A horse seems to be doing very well in the round pen, moving his feet when he's told (which, by the way, is NOT the point of round-pen work - but many trainers think that it is!). The trainer mounts the horse before the horse is really relaxed and confident, before the horse is really "there". This stretches the bubble quite a lot, but it can still work out if the trainer pats and praises the horse, then gets off again, ends the lesson and puts the horse away. But the trainer who gets on, says "So far, so good" and then stays on the horse, pushing it to move, and goes around and around the pen is a trainer who is looking for trouble. After a moment or two of this, the horse's comfort "bubble" is stretched too thin, and then it pops - and the horse bucks.

A good trainer will always progress by systematic "advance and retreat" - always pushing a little bit, so that the horse makes progress, but never pushing so much or so constantly that the horse becomes uncomfortable or fearful. It's advance AND RETREAT - not just "advance and then advance some more, and then advance some more". Training is not a strictly linear progression - it's a dance.

There are some top trainers who could explain this all to you and demonstrate it with Max - and if you get a chance to work with them, please take it! Harry Whitney and Mark Rashid would be ideal clinicians for you and Max. Both of them are very tuned in to horses, and both are genuine experts at knowing when to back off and let the horse react to a situation by using its mind instead of its adrenaline. And, by the way, you cannot MAKE a horse "give you his mind". You can teach the horse to trust you and believe you, and you can work with the horse's nature and his way of thinking, and then it will learn the pleasure of focusing on you and dancing with you. But you cannot go into the ring and say "Okay horse, today I want your mind" - and you cannot get the horse's mind just by making it move its feet. There's much more to good round-pen work than that. Horses do think better if they're allowed to move, but keeping them on the move constantly doesn't help them think better, it just makes them shut down. A horse that shuts down may allow you to saddle, bridle, and mount it, and even let you ride it around the ring a few times, but at some point during that ride or the next or the next, it will explode, because when its brain reconnects to its body, it will realize that it's wearing tack and carrying a rider, and all of that will come as a complete and very unpleasant surprise. A horse that is shut down, or that gives up, is not learning anything, and it's not really "there" in any sense that would help it learn anything.

I don't see any reason for you to give up on Max, but I do think that you may need to take a different approach. Yes, he's intelligent and needs to be kept interested - but that's true of any horse in training. Don't be so busy thinking about how intelligent he is that you forget he's still a horse, with horse needs and horse motivations and horse thought processes and horse reactions. When you work with him, don't skip any steps, and please be careful, just as you should be with any horse. Whenever we work with horses, we need to keep in mind that they are large, strong, nervous animals with instincts that will always dictate their behaviour if we push them to the point at which they become tense and afraid. Take your time and let Max dictate the rate of progress. As long as there IS progress and both of you are comfortable with what you are doing, don't try to follow anyone else's timetable. But - I'm going to say this again, because it is really, really important - don't skip any steps, whatever you do. A very intelligent horse, like a very intelligent child, may be able to master each step quickly and easily, but you'll need to be sure that each step is actually mastered and not just skipped. The skipped ones invariably come back to haunt you later, usually at the most inconvenient moment possible. Remember, Max is a baby - he's just three, and his body is changing, he's teething, and he's likely to be a different horse, physically, from week to week, just in terms of his development and balance. Don't be afraid to take the time he needs. Even the most intelligent horse in the world won't be fully developed until it's at least six years old (and in the case of slow-developing breeds, nine is often more realistic). Intelligence doesn't dictate maturity or development - think of it this way, even if a woman were the most brilliant genius the world had ever seen, it would STILL take her nine months to make a full-term baby. Some things just can't be rushed.

Good luck, and keep me posted on your progress!

Jessica

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