Friday, February 5, 2010


Energy is an interesting concept to think about when working with horses. Many riders and trainers talk about "building energy", "creating energy", "bringing up the energy", etc. While some people like a nice quiet horse, others like to see "expression" of gaits, impulsion, etc which all imply a degree of energy expended more than the quiet trail horse.

Like everything else with horses, there are as many ways to create energy as there are horsepeople. I have a vivid recollection of riding in an indoor at a barn which trained saddle seat horses while I was in college. They used all kinds of noisy, banging, rattly, eye-popping paraphernalia to get the horses energized.
Most people would agree that this method inspires some fear in the horse in order to get that expressive response. Personally, I think the rest of us need to examine whether we are also inspiring a fear response in order to build energy in our horses.

I have heard the recommendation that handlers bring their own energy up in order to encourage the same in our horses. But how do we do that? Many times I see people being very expressive themselves but that tends to inspire a response in the horse which then gets a little too expressive when the horse bolts off or spooks left and right.

Considering that horses are prey animals, it makes sense that energy is associated with fear. When things are safe, horses graze quietly or rest. When startled, they raise their heads with eyes wide and then move quickly, covering lots of ground with each step in any gait. When we watch horses play in the pasture, frequently they will stop, heads lifted high, give one of those snorting noises and then tear off again. This is contagious as other horses in the pasture or neighboring pastures (or unfortunately under saddle in a nearby arena) also pick up on the energy and begin acting the same way. So we can certainly incite this in our horses...but is that what we really want considering all the other "baggage" that comes along with a fear response?

When I taught Percy to trot in hand (which I wrote about in this post), I used my own energy to entice him to trot. Simply by jogging next to him, I was able to transfer that extra energy into him. I could have made a noise, waved something at him or tapped him with a whip, but those would all have been negative reinforcement which would have meant introducing something that he wanted me to stop doing. Instead, my jogging steps were more of an invitation to him to join me.

I guess one way to look at it is the difference between dogs and horses. Dogs, as predators, love to see us act loony so they can join in. But horses, I think, are more apt to worry when we get wound up- and their energy is in trying to get away from us, not join us. I'd be interested to hear how others create energy without creating fear- and encourage you to really observe your horses to be sure you aren't scaring them into behaviors.


Emma said...

Controlling my energy is something I have really stuggled with, having been used to dogs, which as you say are very much more high energy than horses. The thing I've found really interesting, is that horses are so much more acute and sensitive at picking up our energy and intent through body language, than any other animal I have encountered. I've had to become much more body aware and really concious of what I'm doing all the time. My horse is quite tuned into me, and she is ultra sensitive so I've had to alter my awareness to compensate for this, as the last thing I want during training is to elicit any type of fear response, as she will effectively shut off for the rest of the session. Really I think she has had to train me rather than the other way around!

Bookends Farm said...

What you say is very true Emma. Each horse is different in how much they can take and we want to be communicating without threatening. Sometimes I need to take a break between horses so I can re-calibrate to the next one!

Golden the Pony Girl said...

New to your blog and really looking forward to reading back log and following new topics. I am just now getting into to positive reinforcement training and I have a lot to learn.
As far as energy, you have given me a lot to think about.

Bookends Farm said...

Welcome to you! So glad there is another person getting into positive reinforcement.

I read something recently on a list about using music to bring up energy without being threatening. You can do this with an ipod so the horse doesn't hear the music (depending on the volume) and just have it inspire the rider. That said, I tend to drive a little more aggressively when I have a good rock station on so I'd need to be careful! :)