Friday, August 30, 2013

Making the Right Thing Easier

It's been very hot and humid, and we haven't been riding - we don't have to and I don't see any reason why my horses and I should be any hotter and sweatier than we are already - there will be other days to ride.

Now for a bit of a detour - that's really not a detour at all.  I try - and often fail - to make sure what I say to, and about, others is "right speech" - is it true? is it kind? is it necessary?  This isn't easy for me - like all of us I have my opinions of how things should be, particularly with horses.  And there are others at our barn who ride and work their horses using different philosophies than I do, some of which I believe to be pretty ineffective and lacking in respect for the horse.  Sometimes it's hard to keep my mouth shut, especially when I see someone struggling or an unhappy horse.  (I will speak up if a serious, immediate safety issue exists - say, tack not fastened properly, or a serious wreck is brewing - or in the case of obvious abuse.)

The two things I've been working on are: first, to not talk about others behind their backs - it's easy to backbite and criticize and barns can be very cliquish, and second, to not offer advice to others on working with their horses unless I'm asked.  I'm a bit better generally about the second - I'm no expert and it's not the case that what I know or think I know is correct, even if it may be working for me; people are on their own horsemanship journeys and I used to do many of the same things I see these people doing now; and people who aren't asking for advice generally aren't ready to listen to it anyway - even if it would help them or their horses (at least in the opinion of the person offering the advice).  The first - not criticizing or backbiting behind people's backs - is harder for me but I'm working on it and at least I'm a lot more conscious of it now when I do it.  Small steps . . .  There's some stuff in this post that could be characterized as criticism but I don't know how to talk about it here - in this forum - without talking about it.

Anyhow, even though I didn't ride yesterday, I got to help someone out.   Mostly I just ride and handle my horses the way I do and hope some of it will rub off on others through example.  There's a lady - an experienced horsewoman whose approach is generally pretty thoughtful and effective - who rides an Arabian several days a week as a shareboarder - her own horse is laid up at the moment.  This little guy is often a bundle of nerves - particularly with his owner, who's a high-energy and loud person, and with the "trainer" at our barn (she's of the whack-them-until-they-do-it and saw-on-their-mouth school of "training" - oops! there I go with the criticizing thing, but it's hard to describe without describing . . .).

The Arabian is reluctant to go on the trail and often gets to a certain point in crossing the pasture to the trail gate where he starts to get nervous, his head comes up, he balks and then spins.  At the trail clinic a couple of weeks ago the trainer who had come in to do the clinic gave her some advice that I thought was wrong at the time, and in fact advice you commonly hear from many who purport to do "natural horsemanship" - this trainer says that's what she is.  Her advice was to "make the wrong thing hard" - you hear this a lot.  (Aside - I think the term "natural horsemanship" is pretty darn useless as a descriptive, and sometimes results in folks being pretty mindless and rigid about how they approach their horses.)  Her advice was, whenever the horse started to act up on the way to the trail, to bring him back to the arena and work him hard so that he'd think getting out of the arena to the trail was a good idea since it was therefore "easier".  This is the same advice people get when their horses act up - to lunge or round pen them hard, so that is "hard" and the thing you're trying to do is "easier".

To be very blunt, although I like the trainer running the clinic and think her approach to horses is generally pretty good, I think this advice is bogus.  I think it's ineffective for a whole variety of reasons.  First, it interrupts the work you're doing and takes your and the horse's eyes off the ball.  Second, I very much doubt that most horses make any association at all between the hard work/lungeing/round penning and the other thing you were asking them to do and then interrupted to "make things hard" - I myself have a lot of trouble making the logical connection and I've got much bigger frontal lobes than a horse does.  (The only part that's effective perhaps is that at some point the horse just gets so tired that they just give up - is that how you want to train your horse?).  Third, if the horse is already amped and worried, why would you want to add extra energy to the equation - maybe, just maybe, this could work with a laid-back, lazy type of horse who just prefers to stand still, but with a horse that's already somewhat high-energy it just adds fuel to the fire.  Fourth, I think a lot of this "make the wrong thing" hard stuff just turns into a type of punishment for the horse - and why would I want the horse to think of the work we do together as something bad or punitive, particularly since they likely don't understand what it means anyway? - sort of like poisoning the well.

Anyhow, the rider and horse were out in the pasture yesterday, struggling.  The horse's head was high, and he was balking, she was pushing, he was spinning and they were getting nowhere.  She came back in the arena and did the "work him hard" thing, and went back out.  Rinse and repeat.  I was wandering back and forth through the arena doing various chores and bringing my horses in out of the heat while this was going on.  Finally, as I was leading Pie through the arena, she came back in, sat on her horse and said "This isn't working and I don't know what else to do."  There were a couple of other boarders on their horses standing around listening to her.  She was looking for some advice, so I felt that it was OK to say something.

First I asked if she was interested in what I would do - not necessarily the only thing that was right, but just what I would do - I'm not a trainer and don't purport to be one or to be in a position to give others advice. I started by saying that, although I liked and generally respected the trainer who given her the advice she was following - and I do, I thought the approach she recommended isn't a very effective one, for the reasons I listed above.  Then I told her what I do with Red, as an example - who is also a nervous, easily worried horse - in fact it's exactly what I do with him as we work our way out on longer rides in the pasture.  I'd characterize this as making the right thing - the thing you want - easier for the horse. (To paraphrase Mark Rashid - if a horse is struggling with something the wrong thing is already hard enough, and why would you want to make it harder?)

I work him - doing things that engage his mind and feet, that he knows how to do successfully with me and that lead to softness, like circles and serpentines - within his comfort zone in terms of distance from the barn.  Then, while continuing to do the work, ask him to move up to the boundary of comfort.  Keep working, with frequent retreats into the "safe and comfortable" territory.  Work back to the boundary again, rinse and repeat.  Never put yourself into a position where you're pushing - that just creates a brace that will cause the horse to brace against you and balk.  If there's resistance, retreat slightly and just keep working.  Lots of praise and strokes for every tiny bit of progress.  Bring the horse back to the "safe zone" for some relaxation. Keep extending the boundary of comfort while working - you'll find that the boundary will continue to expand as you work without having to do anything else. Don't expect to get there quickly - it sometimes takes a lot of time - but the progress you make tends to stick.

She said that made a lot more sense to her and they went right back out and tried it.  I kept doing chores and kept an eye on them.  Occasionally she'd fall back into the push/balk mode, but she's a good rider with good feel and mostly she kept to the plan.  It worked really, really well - before long they were several hundred yards from the barn, including going through areas where he'd been very balky before. His ears were relaxed and his head and neck were low.  She was praising him a lot and he looked pretty darn pleased with himself.  She came back to the arena and said that the plan was working very well and that she'd keep working on it with him next time she rode.

It felt like a good thing to me - it was a good day with horses even if I didn't ride.

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