Thresholds in Reverse

Last week, I posted a blog about respecting your horse’s thresholds. Reader Linda Reinhold left a great question and I thought the answer would make for a great follow-up post. Linda asked:

“Last weekend I went cattle sorting, nothing serious, just for fun. It turned out to be anything but fun! My horse is fairly athletic but was his head was totally out of the game because he was more concerned about his “trail buddy” horse outside of the arena. I am thinking maybe instead of trying to work him down and keeping him away, I should have done something different. Was this similar to being “spooky”? Did I cross a “threshold”? Should I have done the approach and retreat letting him know he could always return to the other horse? What I was doing never helped!!!”

My response: Yes, you’re right!  When a horse has safety issues, it’s almost impossible to do anything else because all he can think about is self preservation.  So your horse wanting to be with his buddy was his sign that he didn’t feel safe in that environment.  He wanted to be with his herd and he saw his buddy as that more than he saw you as that.

In everything we do, the ultimate goal is for our horse to value being with us more than another horse because they truly trust and respect us as the leader.  They know they will be safe in our presence.  Of course this is a process and some people will get there sooner than others, say comparing how quickly Pat can get that to happen vs you or me.  So it is a matter of savvy and something you are never not working on.

The situation you describe is a difficult moment because when faced with that, you can only do your best under the circumstances.  What you really need to do is more preparation beforehand.  That in itself is an article, but for now think of it this way – “What are ALL the things that could go wrong, and what do I need to do to prepare myself and my horse so they don’t happen?”  This may be things like extreme Friendly Games, ‘weaning’ games with your horse and another horse, being around cattle or simulators, etc.  But as your horse gets more confidence in you, he will trust your judgement and look to you for guidance and reassurance.  That of course is what the Parelli Program teaches you to achieve, step by step and level by level.

Now, when it comes to dealing with the situation you describe…. you would be playing with thresholds but in “reverse” because your horse’s thresholds are about moving away from the other horse rather than moving towards something.  So when you feel your horse’s threshold, turn away and return to his buddy, then come back again.  Keep doing this until that threshold disappears and then work on the next one, and so on.  The fact that you keep returning to your buddy will finally cause him to stop panicking and then he won’t worry about it anymore – but you have to take the time it takes.  And know this: the more you keep him away, the more his fear will escalate.  That’s exactly what happens when mares and foals are weaned abruptly.  The emotional panic is quite severe and often the cause of sickness and colics associated with weaning.  The grown horse has the same instincts because, being herd animals, bonding is a very important part.

I hope that helps, and it seems that you realized it afterwards!



Filed under Horsemanship, Q & A

4 responses to “Thresholds in Reverse

  1. Holly

    I have been pondering a situation that also has a threshold, but in this case it is when the horse wants to get “to” somewhere. I was thinking of this as a reverse threshold, but maybe it is an inverted threshold.

    A typical example is when a horse is in one paddock and relaxed and happy but he becomes excited and pushy when he knows that a gate will be opened to go out on grass. So he wants to get “to” the grass. It isn’t claustrophobia at the gate, it is about getting that grass fix! Backing through the gate doesn’t work, because he just backs faster, tries to take over, and is still in a hurry to get to the grass.

    Any ideas on dealing with this in a threshold type manner?


    • audrey

      I had exactly this situation this Spring, with taking my mare from the relatively eaten-down pasture out onto the lush lawn to have a friendly ‘mow.’ She wasn’t strongly bargy but certainly eager to get out there.
      I determined that we would not go out to the grass until we could have polite passage through the gate.
      I went about it in stages: We played on line near the closed gate until we had good communication going on. Then we played Yo-yo games with MY back to the gate, closed, then open…
      By the time we were both fully on the lawn side she was so focused on me it was a moment before she took to grazing.

    • Alicia McNeil

      One thing for certain, you probably shouldn’t allow your horse to get to the grass unless he is relaxed and in a polite manner. Allowing him access to the grass when he’s being pushy only reinforces the aggressive behavior. Maybe play games around that area and get him to exhaust some energy at the same time – perhaps getting his mind/body to relax and think about YOU instead of the grass. Then, you use the grass as a reward. Hope that helps…

  2. Kathy

    My Arabian mare has extreme thresholds around leaving the barn and herd. We have played with them – advance and retreat – for 2 yrs off and on without much improvement. There is a small pasture (where the grass is truly greener) a short distance from the main barn gate and I take her there for moseying when she manages to exit the barn’s front gate.

    The other day I suddenly got the idea of taking her back to the front barn gate from that pasture instead of taking her into the pasture from the barn. We went to the pasture using a route that doesn’t take her out of her comfort zone and grazed for a while.

    I then asked her to go out the gate that leads to the barn main gate. She became a little nervous after we went through the gate, but as soon as we went the very short distance to the barn she calmed again. The next day she went through the barn gate TO the pasture with almost no hesitation. Seems I’d been looking at the wrong reward :) I will continue to play with the reverse order of pasture to barn until all of it is NBD.

    Thanks Linda

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