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  • Laura

The problem versus the symptom

Recently, I was watching a young child attempt to open a gate. She was struggling with the latch, which was a simple chain that wraps around the gate post and then feeds back into a little metal slot on the gate (as in the picture above). She was 100% focused on where the chain entered the little metal slot, twisting it this way and that way trying unsuccessfully to free it from the latch. After watching her struggle for a few more seconds, I walked up to offer assistance.

"Look," I showed her as I signaled the middle part of the chain that was wrapped around the gate post, "you can't get it out of the latch because the chain has slipped too far down the post. It's making the chain too tight to lift it out of the slot!"

After identifying the actual source of her difficulties, the child was able to lift the middle of the chain from its slumped position on the gate post and instantly and effortlessly free the end of it from the slot. Her previous failed attempts to open the gate were the result of a common pitfall: mistaking the symptom (the chain being stuck in the metal slot) for the problem (that gravity had pulled the middle of the chain too low to allow enough length for the end of it to be lifted out of the slot).

Unfortunately, many of us fall into this same trap when attempting to solve what we think is a problem in our horse's training, and instead of addressing the root of the actual issue we just fiddle around with the one symptom that has caught our attention. Just like the child who was unsuccessful at opening the gate when she was ignorant of the origin of her difficulty, we will never solve our horses' issues by focusing all of our attention on the symptom of the problem. We will continue to be ignorant of the source of the problem if we don't take the time (and get the help) to pull back for a bigger, more complete view of what's going on.


Let me present a couple of examples to illustrate more clearly what I mean. Let's call our first horse "Patrick". Patrick will not load onto a trailer to save his life. Patrick's owner, "Jim," has to lunge Patrick for hours to exhaust him before the horse will even approach the trailer's open door. Until he's been worked to the point of exhaustion and he decides to be compliant, Patrick makes a game out of evading all of his owner's attempts to get him to load into the trailer. Unfortunately, this has made it all but impossible to go anywhere or do anything fun with Patrick, and is becoming a safety concern for Jim, who lives in a wildfire-prone wooded area. Jim is always fearful of the day that he must evacuate his home with all his critters to avoid becoming fodder for a forest fire, because he knows that this means he will have to leave Patrick behind.

Jim's main focus is of course Patrick's inability to load easily into the horse trailer, but a more expanded, aerial view of the situation tells us that Patrick refusing to load is merely a symptom of a different problem--his general lack of respect for and trust in Jim's authority. When Patrick says "no," Jim has no recourse because he has not made his leadership the final word in their relationship in general.

Sure enough, upon further investigation, it came to light that Patrick displayed other symptoms of his main problem--lack of respect--each of which Jim had thought of as unrelated issues or had simply not noticed at all. These symptoms included crowding his handler's space, stepping on toes, resistance to being bathed and clipped and refusal to stand quietly at the tie rail while being saddled and groomed. He would also walk off while being mounted and call to his buddies the whole time he was out for a ride. Once Jim had been made aware of the actual problem, he was able to better address it and then the trailer-loading issue was much more likely to resolve itself, as well.


Our second example is a horse we'll call "Patches". Patches' owner was desperately seeking help to teach her mare to pick up the right lead at the canter. As an ex-barrel horse, Patches was hopelessly left-sided and she could not consistently be coerced into picking up the right lead, especially not without a struggle.

Patches' owner was so focused on the mare's inability to pick up the right lead that she wasn't aware that this inability was a symptom of the mare's real problem, which was a generalized stiffness and weakness, especially on her right side, that made it impossible for her to use her body ambidextrously. Also, she had never been taught effectively to move off of the rider's leg (or if she had been taught her physical limitations made it uncomfortable for her to comply). When asked to do so, Patches would get frustrated and become dangerous, trying to rear, whirl, buck and bolt.

After we stopped focusing on Patches' refusal to pick up the right lead and instead focused on strengthening and suppling her right side at slower speeds and teaching her to move and bend off of leg pressure, first from the ground without the added weight of the rider and later from the saddle, Patches' overall demeanor improved and she started resenting our lessons less and less. We also focused on making Patches' response to cues become lighter and quicker, further adding to our ability to more effectively get her to pick up the right lead when we were to start asking for it again.

When we did start cantering her again several months later, the right lead was still a bit uncoordinated and unbalanced and difficult to elicit, but with a little persistence we were able to get it out of her consistently every day until it started to become easy for her. Even better than the newfound ease with which Patches learned to pick up the right lead, however, was that the mare in general became a far better, safer, and more pleasant animal to ride and handle than before we started to address the real problem. A horse who before could not accurately interpret a lateral leg cue can now perform side-passes, leg yields, shoulder-ins and is learning haunches in, and she continues to learn how to use her body effectively still today.


The last example is a little mare who was running away like a freight-train in the canter, when all her owner wanted was a nice, slow, easy western lope. Even though her rider became aware that there was a problem when she was trying to lope, the problem wasn't with the horse's canter, per se, but rather it was a symptom of the problem. In this instance, the mare--who was quite young and green--had yet to learn how to balance her weight more effectively over her haunches and was running away as a matter of balance. The rider went away from our session with some exercises to get her mare on the right track to better balance, none of which involved any actual canter work. However, just like in the previous examples, once the problem is solved, the symptom should disappear as well.


If you're having a struggle with your horse and haven't been able to resolve it, chances are you're dealing with a symptom rather than a problem. If you need help to identify the root cause of your horse's issue, don't hesitate to contact a trainer you trust to help give you the bigger picture. The sooner you start to address the actual problem, the sooner you can move past the symptom that is causing you grief.

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