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 Post subject: The super-aware horse
PostPosted: Sat Oct 22, 2011 4:29 am 
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Joined: Tue Oct 28, 2008 7:15 pm
Posts: 123
Location: the Minnesota prairie, USA
Great article I read many years ago and can't find on line any more so I hope it's okay to post it entire. It helped me understand Appy ( my super aware horse) -


Many years ago I came across a horse who was afraid of me because of the coat I was wearing. It didn’t matter what I did or how I approached George, he was afraid of me.
The lesson we were working on was an introduction to shoulder in and the rider was not yet quite coordinated. Eventually I needed to ride him myself, but even though I took off the scary jacket and the owner assured me that he would be fine to ride, I was not confident.
When I mounted he stood quite steadily, then I gave a tiny squeeze with my lower leg. The rest of the ride was perfect—George responded instantly to the smallest aid, was totally focused on me and did everything I asked. After a few minutes I applied the aids for shoulder in and he gave it to me without hesitation. I stayed on for a few more minutes just enjoying working with this horse and then gave him back to his owner.
I thought we would be the best of friends after this, but when I was on the ground he still thought I was an alien. His owner remarked that he had always been like this and had learned to work around it. Stuck in my head what a difficult on ground and willing under saddle.
Some time later I was asked to train a warmblood mare who, although not afraid of me, was decidedly reserved in her attitude. She was hard to catch but a dream to ride— extremely focused on my aids and absolutely reliable. Under saddle her behaviour was very similar to George’s—she always tried hard to do what I asked for—and I reflected about these two horses and their apparent inconsistencies.
When I discovered another horse that had the same characteristics as these two I began to think that perhaps these horses weren’t just odd, but might actually represent a particular type of horse. If this were the case, it would be important to be able to identify this type so they could be recognised and not be mistreated as a result of misinterpretation of their behaviour.
Over the years I discussed the possibility of a distinct personality type with many people who dealt with many different kinds of horses. It now appears to me that these horses belong to a distinct personality type which is quite recognizable. They need to be handled and trained differently from other horses in order to ensure that progress occurs.
While these horses could be described as super-sensitive, they are actually more than that, they are super-aware. The characteristics of a super-aware include sensitivity but go beyond that. The sensitivity of a horse is associated with temperament and breed, and this sensitivity associates very much with the environment as well as to the rider. That is, their attention is on everything and their reactions can be volatile.

The super-aware horse is not explosive when ridden, in fact they are very steady. Super- awares have been found across many different breeds. Interestingly, however, there seem to be more super-aware Iberian horses (Lippizaners, Lusitanos, Andalusians) than other breeds.
The training method used is also not a factor as the super-awareness seems to be inherent, not learned. I train my own horses, always using classical principles, but only one of mine is super-aware. If training were the cause, one would expect that all horses that were trained in the same way by the same trainer to be super-aware, but this is not the case. In other words, the training method can impact but doesn’t create a super-
aware horse.
So if I were to describe the super-aware horse I would start by saying the first thing to look for would be their attitude with people. These horses do not indiscriminately like everyone, they prefer to hold back and assess the person for some time before they encourage or show any kind of affection. They do, however, show a strong emotional bond with the person they relate to most who has taken the time effort to understand and help them. The degree of reticence can vary from guarded to entirely withdrawn, depending on the amount and degree of mistreatment they have had previously.

The most distinctive identifier, however, is their focus on, and interaction with, their rider. Super-awares will totally concentrate on the rider (whether she is the bonded one or not), and are extremely responsive to the slightest aid (possibly giving the appearance that they are overreactive). This is not saying they over-react or are jumpy to outside situations, they are not. For example, if the rider has slightly more weight on one side, the super-aware will interpret that as an aid and respond to it, whether the rider intended it or not. Regular horses will usually ignore slight differences in the rider’s balance or symmetry.
An interesting aspect of super-awares is their mild reactivity to things that would spook regular horses. It is as if the super-aware concentrates so much on the rider that all other external influences are diminished and their reactions are generally quite moderate.
On the other hand, extremely sensitive horses will react to everything—they are very responsive to what is happening in their environment, as well as what the rider is doing. Their reactions to new or unusual things is usually adrenaline-based and will be immediate and dynamic.
Even though they are extremely responsive to any change, they need leadership and direction from the rider. They will often choose to take up a firm contact and will feel lost if the contact offered by the rider is too light. Super-aware horses will try very hard to do what they think is wanted. They will often anticipate in their quest to please the rider. If a particular action was performed at a particular place, it will be done again at the same place next time. This often leads to confusion if the first action was an error caused (often unknowingly) by the rider. The normal rider reaction is usually to try and fix the problem by being more definite and stronger with their aids—this is the worst possible thing to do with a super-aware and is the beginning of a vicious circle that is rarely resolved.
Super-aware horses are the easiest type of horse to misunderstand because the apparent contradictions in their personalities causes riders and trainers to apply the wrong techniques. It then becomes very difficult to achieve significant progress and this type of horse often becomes a rehabilitation project.

When riding and training a super-aware , the most important thing to remember is never to use force, fear or gadgets. While regular horses can tolerate a certain amount of mis- treatment, the super-aware takes it all very personally.
The use of force or continued strength will always cause them to stop thinking (and therefore stop learning). It’s as if their brain becomes paralyzed or frozen, and nothing can get in or out. Whether the force comes from the rider’s hands or legs, the result will be the same. This is not to say that you should always be totally soft, no matter what— sometimes you will need to insist, but not in an overbearing manner.
Reward them when they do something good, especially if its something they have offered you. Do nothing if they do something you didn’t require. Never punish them as this will always be counter-productive.
The rider must always check that her balance is precise, she must know where her legs are at all times, and she needs to be aware of what each hand is doing at every stride.
If the aids are too strong the super-aware will not understand what you are saying. It’s as if you are shouting and they have to cover their ears. Have a conversation with them— speak quietly with your aid, and then listen for their response. If their response is not the one you wanted, don’t yell, but say it in a different way.
Of course, these points are important when riding any horse, but when riding the super- aware any error will be noticed and acted upon, whereas other horses are able to overlook our imperfections.
If you have acquired a super-aware horse that needs rehabilitation first you should find out as much as you can about the history of the horse, his physical condition, if there have been any illnesses or injuries, how/if he was mistreated (is he headshy? Cold backed? Afraid of the whip?), what kind of gear has been used (e.g., poorly-fitting saddle, severe bit, draw reins).
Check his previous diet (if you can), and have his teeth and feet expertly assessed.
When you have checked as much as possible about his history and management your next step is to get his trust. Super-aware horses lose trust in people very easily, and for many different reasons. It’s not always possible to figure out what the cause has been (and it was probably more than one thing) so the handler needs to be extremely observant of every nuance of behavior.
Giving food is often the best way to open negotiations. Try and find a special something they just love (maybe apple, bread, carrot, sugar or pellets) and offer them a little at a time.

Once they know that they can get these treats from you, then you have leverage. You can then insist on a certain behavior from them—such as lowering the head or turning towards you—and give them the treat when they do that. Even if the horse is dangerous this can be done successfully over a stable door. The aim at this point in time is merely to be able to get their attention. Once you can do that, you should leave them alone for a while—don’t overload them.
When the horse allows you to touch him, a gentle grooming can often be very beneficial in furthering the relationship. If you are going to do this yourself, start by just resting your hand on a place where the horse doesn’t feel threatened, perhaps the neck or shoulder. Eventually you should be able to stroke the horse all over his body. When this happens it is a big indication that you are trusted and you can then move on to a more familiar relationship.
Whenever possible, try not to put him in a situation where he has no choice. Physical pressure with no outlet (tied up). He should feel that he has a choice, its our job to make sure he makes the right one. Endeavor to help him to be able to make the right choice, but don’t force him to. For example, you may be working in a stable or a small yard— don’t tie him up (no choice), but let him be free (choice—walk away or stay).
When he chooses to be with you (even if it’s only because you give him treats) he trusts you and sees you as his leader. When trust exists or has been restored, the super-aware horse bonds very strongly with that person.
The super-aware horse is a challenge in many ways, but the rewards that emerge are immense.

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