If there's one equine behavior I see more horsepeople get upset about than any other, it's balking. A weekend studded with balky behavior from both Consolation and Acey reminded me why: It's frustrating. A horse is a big animal. When you can't move it's feet, you have a big problem.
You also tend to look like an idiot to passers-by, a fact which I suspect is responsible for much of the spurring, lashing, and equine-intelligence-insulting that tends to occur in balking episodes. I'll tell you this: Whips and spurs may make you look tough -- but power without heart is a wrecking ball on any relationship.
It seems to me that horses generally balk for one of two reasons: 1) fear, or 2) disrespect. With some horses, it can be difficult to know which cause you're dealing with. Maybe it's a combination of the two. Fortunately, fear and disrespect are more closely related than they appear, and the same principles apply in training through any balk.
If my horse balks out of fear, she's telling me she isn't confident in my leadership. My job, then, is to build her confidence through consistency and reliability (that is, not allowing her to be hurt. So much for whips and spurs).
If my horse balks out of disrespect, she's telling me I haven't fully established leadership. My job is to earn her respect through consistency and reliability. (How much do you respect someone who beats on you? So much for whips and spurs.)
See the connection? Regardless of the cause, balking behavior -- frustrating though it may be -- isn't the horses fault. Nothing ever is.
So, what's involved in working through a balk? Like every other training issue, it's not a matter of forcing the horse to do anything. Rather, it's as simple as setting up a choice and sticking with it, no matter what, as long as it takes for the horse to make the right decision.
Take Consolation, for example. Yesterday afternoon, I wanted to ride her across a wide, paved bridge over an irrigation canal. She objected to the idea. So, I gave her two options: move forward across the bridge, or we'll stand here and practice lateral flexion (in the form of bending her nose to my knee). Although Consolation already has a clear understanding of lateral flexion, it's not her favorite lesson. On the other hand, she really didn't want to cross that bridge.
Here's how it looked: We approached the bridge. She balked. I asked her to go forward. She refused. I bent her once in each direction, waiting for the "give" as usual, then asked her to go forward. She refused. I bent her twice in each direction, then asked her to go forward. She took a few steps and was rewarded with a slack rein and quiet seat. Then, she balked again...
Lather, rinse, repeat. Calm. Consistent. Clear. Eventually, we made it over the bridge and went merrily on our way.
There's an important point: I believe that, in the case of balking, it's generally best not to press the issue. Get past the obstacle and move on. If you keep hammering away at it, making the horse cross that bridge again and again, what motivation has she to "unstick" next time? That's no way to earn trust or respect.
On the other hand, you can't leave the game at halftime. Earlier today, Acey and I headed out for a handwalk in a blustery wind, giving her the opportunity to deal with stressful weather while keeping her mind on me. We weren't a quarter mile from the herd when she decided she'd rather be with her buddies.
She balked. I asked her to walk on. She backed up. "Okay," I told her. "If that's your choice..." I asked her to back several more strides up the hill (a conveniently difficult thing for a horse to do), then requested forward motion again. She refused. I backed her about twice as far, asked her to come forward...
You get the point. It took a good 20 uphill-backs, with several stretches of tentative forward motion in between, but finally Acey sighed, licked her lips, and walked freely on down the road.
We weren't done yet. As we hiked along, the wind blew in an steely mass of clouds. Naturally, Acey wanted to be back in her paddock. A mile or so out, as the scent of rain grew strong upon the wind, she began balking again. I'd have liked to head for home, too -- but not at the price of leaving my horse unsure of who was directing this show and whether I could guide her safely through the storm.
We went immediately back to the same choice as before: Come forward (easy) or go backward (hard). Both of us were soaked through before she decided that continuing our walk didn't sound so bad, after all -- but it was worth every chilly raindrop. By the time we turned around and headed home, Acey was walking quietly and respectfully at my side.
I can't help feeling that both mares and I have added a few bricks to the fortress of our partnership. Whips and spurs might have gotten us along the road, you see, but they'd have knocked the castle down.
Will my mares balk again? Of course they will. In fact, Consolation provided an encore in the same location today. I gave her the same choice, and she made the right decision in less than a quarter the time.
I'd bet my favorite boots that by the end of the week, she'll be crossing that bridge with no hesitation at all.
Let the passers-by laugh, then.
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