Martin Contreras – Back to the basics

Photos © Liliana Sanchez

Have you ever seen a veteran trail horse whose pasture few people dare enter? Or a great pony for young riders who will lunge at passers-by from his box? Or a seasoned athlete who performs wonderfully in the arena, yet pulls on his handler and sidesteps all the way when being led from an everyday place to another? This sort of phenomenon intrigues me, because I see it happening quite often around equestrian centres. Humans –and horses—can easily adapt to uncomfortable circumstances after a certain amount of exposition. It aids the survival of the species. But when we play with horses today, we’re not at all about mere survival. So we need not settle for uncomfortable. I have witnessed dedicated riders and even professional trainers, accept their horses’ misbehaviours as inevitable “quirks”. Most often, it’s the type of behaviours which doesn’t seem to hinder training routine. “Seem” being the operant word here. When I see such things happen over and over again (especially when they happen to me!), I am reminded of the constant need to go back to basic communication with horses, lest we settle for a merely well-trained horse, rather than one who is also well-behaved—many seem to think one goes without the other.
My experience so far has taught me three basic, practical notions about horses. Notions, not “principles”. Words limit reality as they convey it. Also, I am not the first one to have these notions. They have often been pointed out; but not often enough, I feel.


Martin sharing a moment with four-month-old Kim.

I often tell my students that, whether we want to or not, whenever we are interacting with a horse, we are training them. We may not be deliberately teaching, but they’re always taking notes. Furthermore, when we are merely in their vicinity, they are picking up on things. We still have no way of knowing how much they pick up on. Despite what some people say, I am no animal communicator, so long ago I decided to assume that horses pick up on everything. That encompasses everything I do, a lot of what I think, and certainly everything I feel when I am with them. This rather simplistic approach has helped me greatly, with foals and veterans alike. You may ask: where to start?
I find the best way to get closer to a horses’ perception of what is, and so better understand them, is to basically let your thoughts slip in and out of your mind and allow the moment to take up your mind. If this sounds a bit esoteric, basically I turn my attention to my surroundings through all my senses. Like this: the temperature of the air; the light; the feel of the wind; the sounds around us and in the distance; the speed and depth of my breathing; the smells; and finally, the different presences around us—sometimes I even look for little bugs on the ground, as a way to clear my mind. Breathing techniques, meditation, all such tools may help us clear our mind so it can receive the main information: who is my horse right now? (Yes, that is no typo. I mean “who”).
And this takes us to a second important reality about horses.


Walking Manners: Olivia walks next to martin on a loose lead rope.
Martin looks forward, but remains always aware of the mare.


This I share from my own experience, and several behaviourists and horse trainers back this point up. Let’s illustrate it with an example. Please bear with this purely speculative translation of a colt’s stream of thought, when first shown to the new shower rack you just built:

“I’m not sure I like it here. I want to leave [now]. I don’t know what that [‘thirty more seconds’] means. I know my friends are right over there in the pasture. I’m not with them [now]. I want to be with them [right now]!—Oh, carrots! Yum… I like it here!”
A few minutes later: “Yum, yum—Hey, wait, there’s still some more carrots left! I want to go back and finish them [now]! Oh, look, my friends! I’m glad I’m here with them.”

The words in brackets are my addition for better human understanding. From what I have gathered, horses have no concept of time, so the “now” is always implied, and they don’t even process a human construct like “thirty seconds”. But I would like you to picture for a moment how that mental monologue would translate in the colt’s attitude and actions. Think of how each moment comes with an emotion, a tendency towards an action, and how these may change instantaneously, depending on the circumstances. Always here and now. Thus, I always pay attention to who my horse is right now. Is he the reliable old timer who’s seen it all? Or is he the feisty young colt who may spook at any moment? This keeps our relationship real, in the only place and time that we can experience directly: the here and now. So, by being present in the present (no pun intended) we are in a much better position to communicate with a horse. Communication, of course, includes training, but as I mentioned at the beginning, we’re not merely concerned with training. We’re concerned with behaviour, basic manners. And this requires a particular kind of communication.


Leading Chiara from the pasture to the arena: she is calm and focused. Not distracted by the green grass, she gives Martin enough space so that both may walk safely.
Martin lets the rope loose in order to give Chiara more responsibility for her movements

When thinking of our relationships with horses, we are used to thinking in terms of training. This may entail a chain of associations we are not necessarily aware of. We equate the arena to a classroom, the horse to a student, the trainer to a teacher, and the training program to a syllabus. Training is often organized in a sequential manner, where the more basic behaviours are taught first, and then they are built on into increasingly sophisticated ones, expecting the horse to consistently perform the ones “already trained”. One always trains the stop from the walk before one does from the trot, and so on, right? Or not? Such an overly logical approach may inadvertently limit us.
When we come to a horse with too rigid a program of what we want to do with them, we lose valuable communication opportunities. When we fail to acknowledge a horse’s state of mind when training, and just push on, they might not understand what we are asking of them. In certain cases, they may shut down and lose motivation to learn, and just submit into dull obedience; in the worst cases, they may get tense, meet our requests with resistance, and we end up in a conflict. Even if we “win” these battles, the relationship will probably not benefit from this. Of course, we all want to get to that point where our horse understands when it is expected to learn and will focus and relax on command. Well, that doesn’t happen on its own. These expectations make for many a frustrated rider and, even worse, a resigned rider who uses increasingly strong aids, resulting in either a conflictive relationship, or a dull horse who “needs” bigger spurs or bits to “behave”.
Horses’ brains are pretty small, while their hearts are huge. Taking this as a metaphor for their thinking and feeling capacities will greatly help us in all our interactions with horses. In order to get a horse to learn a behaviour, I focus firstly on their state of mind, their pervading emotions. This enables us to anticipate their tendencies, and adapt our training to them. When we do pay attention to our horse’s emotional state, we can foster our bond just as we are training them, ultimately improving their performance and, more importantly, both our quality of life.
Remember the cases I described at the beginning? Well, I believe they may be prevented. How? By keeping in mind a reality which stems from the first notion about horses I mentioned above, and it is this: everything is a learning opportunity. A new bin someone left by the path, the hay truck backing up to the barn, a playful dog, a spooky drain we pass by on our way to the arena. Everything is a learning opportunity for the horse. Everything is a learning opportunity for us. It is our responsibility to determine which type of behaviours we want to foster, both in horses and in ourselves.

*Kim, Olivia and Chiara live in Haras Sotavento, in Cota, Colombia.

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