Saturday, June 30, 2012

Eyes on the Try

Now that I'm at a big barn - I think there are over 60 horses - I get to observe lots of people riding and working with their horses.  There are a few people of the school that think all horses are stupid and do the wrong things out of cussedness - those are the folks that yell, and smack and kick and jerk.  I'd act out of cussedness too if my people treated me that way, particularly if my rider was also making it really hard for me to do something by the way they were riding.  Sometimes they manage to intimidate the horse into doing what they want, but there's certainly no softness.  Then there's the people who think softness is about head set - they're the ones who saw from side to side on the horse's mouth to get them to drop their head and are then happy despite the fact the horse is braced from nose to tail.  Since none of the stuff at our barn rises to the level of abuse, although some of it's not very pleasant to watch, I don't interfere with these people or offer them advice - in fact I never offer advice unless specifically asked, which almost never happens.  I think people need to find their own way and are only willing to make changes in how they ride and interact with horses if they make up their own minds to do it.

Then there is a large group of folks who do want to do things differently and try to do that.  They would be of various schools of thought, mostly "natural horsemanship" based (whatever that term may mean).  They're well-intentioned, but it's interesting to observe where they struggle with their horses.  There are two things I see - they don't identify and reward the try in its small increments (although they may well reward a good final result), and they take their eyes off the objective - that's what I mean by eyes on the try.  And they tend not to break things down into small increments, but rather think of a task as only one big thing that has to be accomplished.  I think these things often keep them from getting where they want with their horses.

I have a lot of sympathy for all of these people, and certainly for their horses.  I come from a pretty traditional riding background, where it was assumed that horses wouldn't do anything unless you made them do it, and that's how I learned to ride.  I've personally done each and every thing I've seen these people do at some point in my horsemanship journey and I know how hard it is to realize that what you're doing isn't very effective and to make the changes in yourself that are necessary to make changes in your horse.

Take trailer loading, for example.  There are plenty of horses at our barn who don't load well, although they get plenty of practice (at not loading well).  You see the same pattern - handler struggles for half an hour or more to get the horse on the trailer, eventually the horse gets on and off they go.  Sometimes you see the same horses and handlers week after week - but that makes sense since if you do the same thing - if you don't change what you're doing you're going to get the same result.  What I see them doing is taking their eye off the ball by interrupting their trailer loading to "make the horse work" - usually by lungeing in a circle.  This comes from the "make the wrong thing hard" line of thought which is often misinterpreted and misused, in my opinion, by a lot of folks.  What in the world, from the horse's point of view, does lungeing in a circle have to do with getting on a trailer?  I can see the horse thinking "you wanted me to get on the trailer, and now you want me to lunge in a circle?  Fine, I can do that."  Mark Rashid did an excellent post that relates to the subject of taking your eye off the ball - it's called Six Degrees of Separation and I highly recommend that you read it - it talks about stuff we've all done with our horses.  This concept applies to everything - if the horse spooks, focussing your attention and the horse's attention on the object of the spook - but wait - what were you and the horse working on (say trot with good rhythm and forward and softness) when the spook occurred?  That's where your focus should stay - not getting distracted by the spook is the key thing.  Same thing applies to ignoring what the horse is doing that you don't want and keeping your focus on what you do want.  And interrupting the task to "make the horse work" sure falls in the same category of separation from what you do want.

Second, most people seem to have a hard time breaking a task down into small pieces and seeing and rewarding small tries to build a chain that leads to the end result.  I always feel like asking these people (but won't unless asked for advice) - how do you tell your horse that he's made a try in the right direction, and what would that try look like?  I think their answer would likely be something along the lines of "I'll reward the horse when he gets on the trailer" - but they don't even do that, they close him up and head out.  Identifying small tries and giving the horse a reward - I usually give the horse a walk-around break, both to reward the try and also to give the horse mental processing time - breaks in the work are so important for that.

So, trailer loading.  (Side note - if your horse doesn't give to pressure and doesn't lead and handle well on the ground, trailer loading is likely to be a problem.) Say one of the horse's favorite things to do is to pull back when asked to load.  In that case, the first try I might reward would be just standing in the vicinity of the trailer on a loose lead - however close - it might be 5 feet away or it might be 20 feet away, whereever the horse can do it.  Start with where the horse is and build from there. I would verbally praise the horse and take it on a short walk away from the trailer.  Then I might reward a lean in the direction of the trailer without pulling back - it might take a while to get this but I'd just keep on patiently asking.  Then one step in the direction of the trailer, followed by praise and a walk-around.  You get the idea.  (I think it's also important to keep building the chain and not just drill and drill and drill the things the horse already knows - I see a bunch of this at my barn too, particularly when it comes to groundwork - there are lots of people who do the same routine with their horses over and over again - the horses are bored and they and the horses never progress - but that may be where the people are comfortable at this stage in their horsemanship.) If you just keep the pressure on and ask for more and more and more, without rewarding the tries, how's the horse ever going to build a chain of small tries that leads to the end result?

So for me, keeping my eye on the ball - what I want the horse to do and nothing but that - and breaking down the task and rewarding the small tries - even small breaks are so important for this - are the key things.

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