Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How You Made Them Feel

For years my training focus was on how the horse behaves. But slowly it's shifted toward what the horse's behavior tells me about his emotional state. Why? Because it’s very hard for them to do what I want or how I want if their emotional state is not quite right.

What I've learned from my own horses and also watching trainers train & watching videos of many of the commercial Natural Horsemanship trainers is that they tend to ignore signs of stress and just push on past it, opting for a behavior that they want, rather then being overly concerned with how the horse behaves. I think they realize the horse is stressed, but think that they need to push the horse past his threshhold in order to make progress.
I'm convinced that a prey animal really can't relax unless he's confident that he's safe. I mean REALLY safe. And it's really very hard to relax if any fiber of your being anticipates being on the lunch menu. That's why pushing a horse past his threshhold is not a very useful technique.

Etude, my driving pony, has a mysterious past that makes him fairly reliable in harness most of the time, but boy does he have some issues with humans. He's shown me that humans can create a reliable performance animal who is still very afraid, not trusting humans in the least, and one who is constantly on his guard. He's actually much easier to get him to relax in harness with a closed bridle, where his vision is blocked, than it is when he's got full vision and can see humans around him. My conclusion is that humans have become a poison cue for him. Now that's a hard thing to overcome - the source of his fear trying to reason with a scared pony!

So, why does this matter? Mostly because I want him to trust me and most of the time he does, but there are certain things that scare him (water out of a hose, wormer tubes, clippers, and any gesture that looks like a preface to someone grabbing his face (flash backs to a twitch perhaps?). I'm slowly chipping away at these but I'm finding that although he made decide I'm ok, it's hard to generalize confidence in my behavior to include other humans.

This reminds me of is a lovely quote by the poet and wise lady, Maya Angelou:

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Substitute the word "horses" for "people" and I think this quote says it all. Horses have amazing memories, we need to keep in mind how we make them feel when we make training choices.

Monday, April 12, 2010

It Takes The Time That It Takes

I've been thinking about our culture and the trend to want/expect instant gratification. One of my personal struggles is switching gears & slowing down from the pace of the corporate working world to something more "zen". The corporate world wants me to act with decisiveness and calculated precision, meeting aggressive deadlines and getting the job done right the first time.

And it's not just my job, it's everything in our society that is just full of quick fixes, drive through windows, fast food, & high speed Internet connections. Most of us can't even wait until we get home to use a telephone, so we have cells to call our friends & loved ones while driving or shopping or whatever we are doing. Email isn't even fast enough any longer, and instant messaging on a computer is being nudge out quickly by cell phones used for text messaging. I won't even go into the idea of multi tasking, that is so contrary to what we need to effectively interact with our animals.

At the end of my work day, I shift into the gear that interacts with animals and all of that lightning quick drive to complete a task needs to slow... no, I take that back, it needs to STOP.

The reason for the shift in my own mindset is just because training an animal takes the time that it takes. The problem is that sometimes its just so hard to switch off that momentum stop rushing around. The "rush" feels so normal, after all, it's what I do most of the day. If only I had a switch I could flip to turn it all off.

I don't think this is an isolated issue for those of us who have jobs in corporate America. I think it's more universal than that. We are all so scheduled, kids have to get to school, or after school activities, lessons, appointments, practices for various sports. For adults, so many of us also have some lessons or hobbies we are trying to squeeze in between fixing the next meal, or cleaning some part of the house that has been long ignored.

So, enough about how busy we all are and our sometimes frantic feeling rush from one task to the next, and our expectations that everything move at that same pace.

For horses, it takes as long as it takes because they can't really modify their behavior AND keep a relaxed mental state if they are worried. If they feel rushed, they will worry because when a predator attacks, he is literally rushing them. Science has proven that the higher the anxiety level, the less able they are to learn on an intricate level. They can learn gross concepts, like an object is scary (not a lesson most of us want our horses to learn) but they don't grasp the fine tuned concepts, like a nice energetic but relaxed half pass or piaffe.

What matters isn't just the behavior, they have to be relaxed and happy mentally while doing the requested behavior, or the performance will be marred by unhappy expressions, swishing tails and reluctance on some level.

The catch is that relaxation and the "zen" mental state needs to start with the human, not the horse. As an example, about a month ago, I started playing with trailer loading with a few youngsters. Believe me, this was long overdue, but life got in the way of their planned education. I promised my horses I would let them tell me when they were ready to move to the next step, and I would not force the issue... I would not be tempted by the popular NH idea of making it pleasant inside the trailer and unpleasant outside the trailer. I would not make them choose what they prefer, but rather let them choose when they were ready.

My filly was very concerned about this trailer loading idea. She has always been more sensitive than the boys and she was worried enough that for some days she would just put her front feet up on the ramp and stop. She let me know that she wasn't comfortable putting her head too far inside that trailer because of how the trailer blocked her vision. I reminded myself she would walk in when she was ready, and this was her schedule, not mine.

Ultimately the breakthrough came and she just walked in but she was clearly frightened by being in a box with sides and a roof. She stood in the straight stall, sharing the space with me, breathing hard and looking at the "stuff" in the front compartment. She was so tense she couldn't even take a treat from my hand, but just stood their wide eyed and clearly not at all confident. I let her back out when she choose to and she walked on 2 more times, worried but not enough to stop her from going on.

I got distracted and trailer loading went on the back burner for some weeks. Yesterday, the trailer was hitched anyway and it seemed like a good thing to revisit. I was sure the filly would only walk in about half way and stop and I felt that was OK if that's the best she could offer. Instead, she just walked on, all the way inside with no hesitation, looking curious but not frightened. We repeated this exercise a few more times, and I rubbed her wither, back and haunches and she stood quietly and without fear.

What she needed was time. She reminded me that by letting her take the time she needed, she's happy about getting on and has no fears connected with the idea of very limited vision on the inside of the trailer.

I know if my experiment was evaluated by any of the NH trainers, I would be considered a total failure for taking so long to get her loaded. They tend to take such pride in fixing issues fast. Yes, many trainers could have loaded her more quickly, but my priority is relaxation and calm. I feel it's unacceptable for her to be frightened, high headed, feeling the need to escape. Just the process of introducing something so new was stress enough, I didn't want to add more. So, I'll stick with taking the time that it takes.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Opposites Attract

The other day, a friend was talking to me about relationships and what she looks for in a guy... her criteria was contrary to how I would have described her. We talked about this and clearly we could both see that oddly enough, in many cases, opposites DO attract.

This started me thinking about horses and humans, perhaps the ultimate in "opposites". The obvious is the prey vs predator angle, but it's oh so much more than that.
Or maybe I should have said so much more detailed than that. Here are a few thoughts on this:

Approaching other Creatures:
(as predators) stalk in their body posture, approach tends to be direct, eye's focused on the subject or target, a direct line to the target.

Horses (as prey animals) often don't take the direct approach, they tend to be wanders, following their current whim, and direct eye contact means aggression to them. If they move directly at another horse or creature, it's meant as aggression.
This means: when we look at a horse, in our normal, direct manner, they read that as aggression and potentially triggers the flight tendency. When we walk directly toward a horse with forward vision and body posture, they may this as a predator "attach" posture. Granted, some horses learn to ignore some aspects of this but as a rule, this holds true.

Noticing Details:
(as predators) don't notice the tiny details. We tend to see more gross, larger movement and postures, specifically because as a predator, we don't NEED to see the tiny details.
Horses (as prey animals) very existance in the wild depends upon noticing the tiniest change in the environment.
That means: Horses notice when something changes, there is suddenly a jacket draped over the fence post that wasn't there yesterday or the day before. As humans, we often don't notice or interpret the tiny cues we put out there nor do we always catch the signals that horses give us. Just as they notice tiny changes in posture, expression, position, they also use those tiny changes in their own communcation.

Defense Mechanisms:
(as predators) primary defense is to push back or apply pressure when things are not going our way.
Horses (as prey animals) primary (and only) defense is to flee when something is amiss.
That means: When things begin to go wrong, the natural human behavior is to push, increase pressure or volumn (or both), which causes the horse to want to escape. What we should be doing, counter to human nature, is to back off, and give the horse MORE space so that he never feels the need to escape.

Learning Speed:
(as predators) don't need to be terribly fast learners, because making a mistake for a predator generally doesn't result in death. Moderate learning speed is sufficient. This learning pace evolved because as a predator, hunger is the motivator to suceed, a moderate motivator at best.
Horses (as prey animals) must learn VERY quickly from their own experiences, otherwise their last experience could literally be...well, their very last on this planet. This learning pace evolved because as a prey animal, survival is the motivator to suceed. Facing life or death is the strongest motivator possible in most cases.
That means: Horses need very few repetitions to commit something to memory, including behaviors we might prefer they don't remember. It only takes a few repeititions for a horse to have a new behavior firmly entrenched. This is great IF the trainer is very clear about what they want. Not so good if the horse is busy noticing how to evade something while the human is thinking they are learning somethign else entirely.

(as predators) don't have the greatest memory. A keen memory isn't required for survival and often our memory is clouded by our interpretation of what happened or our emotions.
Horses (as prey animals) developed a keen memory of details in order to survive in the wild. They need to remember how things should look when everything is fine so that they can detect changes that should trigger alarm.
That means: If a trainer is clear and communcates well, horses can learn new behaviors with as few as 3 repeititions. If the trainer is not clear, it can take much longer. One of the failings of humans is that we often do the same thign over and over again, and expect a DIFFERENT outcome, regardless of the lack of sucess in prior repetitions. This tendency greatly hampers the horse's ability to connect the dots and get the point. Also, horses remember when they are treated badly or frightened seriously, and those memories can bubble to the surface literally years after the event, perhaps they horse has changed owners several times since the fearful moment happened and it will continue to worry the horse because of his keen memory. When we have a horse with training "issues", it is showing us all of the poor training and unfortunate events in it's past, regardless of the time or number of humans involved. Why something happens isn't as important as changing the outcome for the horse so that he can learn he no longer needs to hold on to this memory.

So, I have to conclude, opposites do attract, at least for some of us, otherwise we would only be interested in sharing our lives with other predators, who speak our language and share so many of our qualities.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Figs & The Flip Side

One of my pet peeves is triggered by the casual use of the buzz word, "Natural Horsemanship". I have to wonder if there haven't been some great masters of horse training that have been grossly misinterpreted and their words bastardized over time. Have these concepts morphed over time like the game of Telephone, where one person whispers a phrase in the ear of the next person and down the line until the phrase is no longer even remotely resembles the original phrase?

It's pretty funny when you're a kid, not so funny if you're a horse and the gentle advice of a training master has become twisted into a directive recommending punishment as the only solution in training horses.

How many times have I heard the phrase, "Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult?". Too many. A continuation of that statement by one of the Natural Horsemanship Gurus (He Who Shall Not Be Named) is the statement: "If you never make your horse feel uncomfortable for wrong behavior, nothing motivates him to stop making a mistake."

Ok...lets think about this logically and attempt to digest these concepts, one piece at a time... Make the right thing easy. I like that idea, if we set our animals up in a win-win situation, they come to understand what we want and we've made it easy for them to give us what we asked for. Everyone is happy. YES!

But then there is the flip side... make the wrong thing difficult. I can interpret that a couple of ways, one with a punishment oriented spin, and the other with a more positive spin. Let's start with the more positive spin, because that makes ME more comfortable.

Ok, the more positive spin would go something like this: I want my horse to pick up the left lead so with an understanding of footfalls and exactly when to cue the canter based on the footfalls of the current gait, the horse will naturally and automatically give me the lead I want – that is making the right thing easy. I’ve created a win-win situation, I ask and he gives me what I want, no fuss, no muss, many carrots, everyone is happy.

The flip side of that might be to cue the horse for the left lead and as soon as he picks up the right lead, pull him down hard, hit him with a whip and ask again. Eventually, perhaps by accident, he picks up the left lead and then the rider can ease up on the pressure as he is now "making the right thing “easy”.

Or, and odds are you’ve heard this one before, let’s say the horse doesn’t want to go as slowly as you want him to. So He Who Shall Not Be Named (of the make the wrong thing difficult camp) says tell him to speed up when he doesn’t slow down when you ask. According to this strategy, if you keep him moving, air becomes a commodity that he values, and therefore you have a bargaining chip of sorts. AND as an added bonus, by causing discomfort, you cause the horse to have respect for you too!

So, while we’re on the flip side, I have to ask, what behavior modification did the horse learn from being run until he can’t breathe? What happened to the Three Second rule that says if you must punish a horse, do it within 3 seconds of the infraction in order to be clear to the horse of WHY you lost your cool.

And why must a horse be uncomfortable in order to respect another being? Does a foal lack respect his dam unless she bites or kicks him on a regular basis?

The “make the wrong thing difficult” of the Punishment Variety has so many reasons why it’s not a good strategy:
1. The punishment often doesn’t fit the crime
2. The punishment is often delayed long enough so the reason isn’t clear to the horse (and therefore isn’t an effective behavior modification strategy).
3. If there is no behavior modification, what is the point of the punishment?
4. Punishment potentially creates fear & confusion in the horse (and sometimes anger)

So, what are the results of punishment?
1. A breakdown in the relationship between horse and human
2. Feeds the predator in us that likes to push around “lesser beings”
3. Perhaps some of us feel more powerful when we can dominate an animal many times our size?

And sometimes it does modify behavior, yes punishment CAN work as a training strategy. However, anyone can whack a horse, and not just anyone can train a horse.

Ok, I hear you, you’re saying “If you think you’re so smart, how in the world would you slow down this horse that is refusing to listening to its rider?

Here are some things to try, depending upon the horse & situation, that will not hurt the horse/human relationship:

1. If the horse is naturally more forward than you would like, circle. If you ask the horse to circle just small enough to slightly challenge his balance, he will regulate his speed without being strong armed by the rider or pushed to a point of oxygen deprivation

2. If the horse is strung out and not very balanced (he may be falling on his forehand or running to keep his balance) lots of transitions will help balance him back on his hind quarters. Also, as he anticipates the cue for a transition in a stride or two, he will, he will begin to prepare for the upcoming transition which over time will create a more balanced horse.

Note: If the horse can’t execute a smaller circle or transitions between gaits upon request, then the trainer needs to back up and establish better basics and not expect the horse to perform at a level beyond his training or physical conditioning.

3. If the horse is tense, the secret is going to be working toward greater relaxation. Pushing a tense horse will only feed the tension, and will not solve the problem. On the topic of relaxation, there are lots of ways to approach this, but first there are a few things to consider:

-- If he’s tense at the current level of work, it’s likely that he’s missing some basics and the trainer should back up a few steps or break down the current task into easier to digest chunks.
-- If he’s tense by nature (regardless of the task at hand) he probably needs some confidence building and ground work is a good place to start. One behavior that works very well is teaching the horse to lower his head on cue. The head down position releases endorphins that trigger relaxation. This is a great default behavior for the horse to understand and he can learn to utilize this himself (without a human cue) when he’s stressed
-- If the horse is tense, he may be confused about what is being asked of him, make sure he has solid basics and can perform them in a relaxed manner before increasing the difficulty.

Back to the statement made by "He Who Shall Not Be Named," hand in hand with making the wrong thing difficult... this bears repeating... he said “If you never make your horse feel uncomfortable for wrong behavior, nothing motivates him to stop making the mistake.”

One word pops into my mind when I read that: REDICULOUS!

Why would this be? How could anyone think that makes sense? That statement assumes horses are only really motivated by punishment and that the only way to modify a horse’s behavior is by discomfort. In other words, horses can’t be motivated by “good” things. If he can value avoiding discomfort, doesn’t that also mean that he can value comfort? How can anyone have such a one sided view? Let’s have some balance, please!

Ok, I’m no NH Guru making millions of dollars by selling halters with my name on them or special training sticks, but still, it seems perfectly obvious to me that patterns can be set and behavior can be modified without discomfort. Actually, that is a basic scientific concept. Science has proven that animals repeat most often behavior that is rewarded.

And you don’t have to be a scientist to see this in action. Proof of this concept happens every day with each of us. Horses learn things that we intend them to learn and also things we didn’t intend for them to learn, all based on what is rewarded. Rewards may be intentional or unintentional, but to the horse, a reward is a reward and a motivator to repeat what earned that reward. Horses are constantly learning, they don’t have to be made “uncomfortable” in order to modify their behavior.

For example, I have a fig tree in my back pasture. For years I ignored the fig tree, and the horses did too. I occasionally experimented with making fig bread with some of them, but mostly the tree existed as a fig buffet for the local birds.

This year, I noticed that every time I turned out my new pony, Etude, in the back pasture, regardless of having put out fresh water or hay, he had a single purpose in mind. Ignoring everything, he consistenly marched over to the fig tree and rooted around in the dirt for a while before joining the other horses eating hay.

I noticed the dirt under the tree was quite trampled and bare. I thought maybe he was looking for a low branch to scratch his back. I thought the behavior was curious, but didn’t give it a whole lot of thought until it hit me that little sucker was after the FIGS!

What Etude had discovered is that some percentage of the time he would be rewarded for ignoring what was normally of high value to him (hay) in order to investigate the ground around the fig tree. I’m sure he didn’t always find figs, in fact, he probably rarely found any, but the behavior was rewarded enough times to inspire consistent change in his routine.

Now, fig season is coming to a close, and Etude still checks out the base of the tree. What he learned is that he could bypass the sure thing (hay) for a intermittent reward (figs) because the figs have a higher value to him. Did his behavior change because he was made uncomfortable? NO. Yet, clearly there was behavior modification at work here.

Mother Nature motivated Etude’s behavior modification without discomfort. We could take a lesson from her book and give up the silly notion that the ONLY way to motivate a horse is by making him uncomfortable.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Conflicting Expectations and the Space/Time Contiuum

This is part two of my thoughts on managing expectations. Of course, the only expectations we can control are our own, we can't really control others expectations, but we can work toward modifying them.

Horse expectations are normally those "in the now", meaning they are about where we are going now, and how we are getting there, NOW. Not about what things will be like once we get there. That's why when your horse is tired after a day at a show and doesn't want to get on that trailer - he's not thinking about his nice stall with fresh hay, clean bedding, and dinner at the end of a two hour trailer ride. He's thinking about how he's tired NOW and doesn't feel like getting back into his box on wheels.

Humans think in terms of the future and the space/time continuum, not horses.

So, getting back to the idea that humans created a horse's expectations… Horses pretty much have a good, bad or indifferent view of things around them. That evaluation is based on experience. They tend to repeat behaviors that nets something they value, they tend to try to avoid things that are unpleasant. Horses are the ultimate non confrontational wimp when it comes to facing what is unpleasant. I'm not saying they give in easily, but they will avoid confrontation if allowed to, by leaving and finding something to occupy their time that is more pleasant. The fight comes into play if they are not allowed to avoid what is unpleasant. If their fear is strong enough, they will behave as if they are fighting for their lives, because in fact, that is probably how it feels to them.

Fighting isn't really natural to horses. In the wild, they fight (other than in play) in few situations, all of them when they are threatened. Stallions fight to protect their herd from a predator, if fleeing isn’t an option. Or he will fight an interloper stallion to keep from losing his mares. Mares will stand up to a predator to save a foal that is to small or weak to flee, but her first choice is always to run first, stand her ground second. It's the exception, not the rule that inspires fight rather than flight.

Then along came humans. Sometimes we have a talent for bringing out the worst in horses. Let’s say I want that horse to load in a trailer and the horse is determined not to. MY expectation is that they horse get in that trailer and does not defy my wishes. The horse's expectations is that getting in a trailer is a bad thing at the moment. And the more I push the horse and make it uncomfortable for the horse around that trailer, the more I confirm his notion, because bad things ARE happening right now!

If the horse had any doubt, I’ve just erased them by upping the pressure. And now I'm scratching my head wondering why the horse is so stubborn? How clever is that? Not very.

We have two expectations at play here, one being the flip side of the other. The human wants one thing and the horse wants something else entirely. Often what the horse wants is nothing specific besides NOT doing what is being asked. He’s not necessarily being stubborn or bull headed, he has his reasons, which us humans may never really understand, but his reality is that he doesn’t want to get in that trailer and his expectation is that it’s not a pleasant place to be at the moment.

Often it seems that the outcome of these conflicts of interest (horse vs human) hinges upon who has the stronger will, who is going to back down first, and who is more determined. If the horse is really frightened, my money is on the horse. If the horse is merely bothered by something but not terrified, he can probably be convinced to do as he’s being told, but did he learn something positive from the experience? Probably not.

We don’t always know what triggers the horse's expectations. But it is probably based on past experience, regardless of if humans are aware of the cause or not. Some horses appears to have a needle phobia or fear of fly spray or paste wormer and they react at the very sight of a shot, spray bottle or worming tube. They have a reason, the needle may feel like the bite of a horse fly and he remembers the pain of that experience. Who knows? It doesn’t matter why, it only matters that he is anticipating something unpleasant.

Dealing with a horse's expectations takes as long as it takes. If the horse and human have conflicting expectations, and the human insists and wins this little battle, was the horse’s expectation changed for the better or merely reinforced or strengthened?

The best, most successful way to modify a horse's expectations is by rewarding behavior we want and ignoring everything else. The reason is that to punish a horse who already has a distasteful or fearful experience only strengthens his resolve that something is bad or should be feared. Now the catch to rewarding what we want is that we have to set the horse up to give us what we want. Humans all too often focus on what we don't want instead.

Ideally we want to manage both our own expectations and that of the horse as well. We don’t want to get stuck thinking about time or being late or any agenda other than giving the horse a chance to modify his expectations. Again, it takes as long as it takes.

The problem with forcing a human view point upon the horse is that we can't always know how that horse will internalize pressure or force, even if we consider it insignificant. After all, who are we to decide what is insignificant to the horse? What we can be sure of is that we have contributed to a memory of something unpleasant. Unpleasant memories cause angst on both the physical and emotional level. So the next time the horse is confronted with the same situation, he may have a physical and/or psychological reaction and the anticipation may feel worse than the actual situation that inspired the memory.

For example, when i was a kid, my family dentist has this idea that children shouldn't need any pain killer to fill cavities. So, he would just drill away and would only numb my tooth if I wiggled too much. Crying didn’t phase him, only wiggling did but I also had a healthy fear of him piercing my cheek or tongue, so I did try to hold still. What did I learn from that (other than Dentists are Barbadians)? I learned to anticipate pain. And the angst that I felt at the mere suggestion of a dental appointment was much greater and lasted much longer than the actual process of filling a cavity. AND at the time of the appointment, I didn't even know there was a cavity to fill. But that didn't stop my heart from racing and the tears from flowing.

As another an example of conflicting expectations, my pony, Etude hates bathes. I have no idea why, but from the day he arrived, I've noticed that the sound of running water made him jump, even simply filling his water bucket will cause him to put some distance between himself and running water.

His angst about hoses was so deeply entrenched that although under normal circumstances he leads well, when I headed toward the water nozzle for his first after workout rinse, he suddenly screeched to a halt and let me know he had no intention of cooperating if I was going toward that faucet. To make it even more surprising, this is summer in the deep south, so for most horses, a cool shower is a good thing, but not to Etude.

So, my options were to reinforce his expectations that this was NOT going to be a good time had by all, OR I could manage his expectations by working toward changing his view of showers from something bad to something not so bad, and over time, hopefully, to neutral or that it's something good.

When there is a built in emotional response to an event (real or imagined) rational thinking isn't going to help. It didn't matter to me one iota that my mom told me I needed to go to the dentist and that without dental care, I might lose all of my teeth. Seriously, to a 6 year old with a vivid memory of a dental drill, being toothless sounded like a great alternative! If I had no teeth then I would have no reason to suffer trips to the dentist, AND as an added benefit, I would rake in the bucks from the tooth fairy. (-; Nor can I expect Etude to see how a nice shower on a hot day would be a nice thing.

No amount of force, even the tiniest bit, was going to change Etude's mind. He had no interest in getting wet, regardless of the heat. Even the tiniest suggestion of force would reinforce his notion that water is a bad thing. My goal is to manage his expectations, not support his idea that bad things happen near running water.

Instead of force, I simply went back to the basic principle of rewarding what I want and ignore what I don't want. There is no payoff in focusing on what we don't want. I didn't belabor the idea of bath time because there was no profit in that either. I discovered Etude's thresh hold of tolerance, meaning how close could I get the hose to him before he moved away, and used that as the starting point. With his favorite goody in my treat bag, I bridged the act of standing still in the presence of running water near his thresh hold until his focus moved to anticipating the next treat instead of anticipating the horrors of a bath.

This is important - in effect, I've switched his focus from bad things to good things. I NEED that change in mind set in order for him to come around to my way of thinking (that baths are good!). It's all about where the horse's mind is, not where he is physically. If his mind isn't willing to get on that horse trailer or cross that culvert, his body won't be willing to take that next step either.

This is just the starting point and it's not just a matter of changing the focus, I'm after an attitude shift. If the expectation is deep rooted or strongly fear based, it can take some time to get to a permanent attitude shift, BUT it can be done.

With Etude, it was a relatively quick fix, gradually, he became willing to let me wet down his chest, neck and shoulders, with a bridge signal telling him exactly what I wanted, while I ignored any fuss. Since I'm after a long term attitude adjustment on this topic, I didn’t need to give him a full blown bath, I only needed to make a positive change that day. Since, I've made it a habit to give him a quick rinse after every training session, regardless of if he broke a sweat or not. After 2 short bath sessions he would let me hose down his quarters. After the third, he was willing to escort me to the water faucet to turn it on. After the forth, he decided that I could hose down the inside of his back legs, which didn't thrill him (based on is posture and lifting his back feet) but he did not leave. The shift to my way of thinking isn't complete, but it's well on it's way.

I could have accomplished the same thing with a bit of pressure, after all, I have a long hose and a spray nozzle adds some distance as well. How far can a pony back up? How many times can he turn in a circle before he decided it's easier to submit? Won't he eventually grow tired of the dance and just hold still?

Yes, probably so. But again, I'm after acceptance, trust, and building a partnership, not just submission. I want him to trust in me and our relationship, not just tolerate my behavior.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Managing Expectations or The Pollyanna Approach to Horse Training

The topic of managing expectations is a special request topic... And since I can muster up an opinion on just about anything, why not this one? Here you go, Kim...

I'm not sure who's expectations (horse or human) are supposed to be my inspiration for waxing poetic... so I'll touch on both. But this particular Blog will be on managing human expectations.

I think many people could benefit from tweaking their perspective about training horses. At least I have evolved my own attitude about it over the years and I'm happier now than I've ever been with my horses and amazed at how fast they learn, how smart they are and how willing they generally are to do what I ask. Yes, I must sound a bit barn blind, but it's true.

The common goal of any interaction with our horses seems to be that we want our horse (or pony) on his best behavior. Do what we want, when we want it, how we want it. And ultimately, I want the same thing. BUT I've found that this isn't a realistic expectation most of the time, not with young horses, and not with horses that have expectations of their own that need to be managed... that's part two of this blog, so more on that later...

I have managed my own expectations of my horse by welcoming mistakes. As long as I keep that mind set, I'm happy with every interaction with my horse and never disappointed, regardless of the outcome. That said, I have not totally eradicated the demon that inspired me to be disappointed in myself, but that's another topic all together. I try my best to look forward to the issues, the flaws, the snafus, the wobbles, the balance checks, the fussy moments, and the hesitations.

You're probably thinking that it would be so much easier if the horse just did what I asked, so that I didn't have to "work" on these issues. I mean, work is WORK, right?

Yes, but an opportunity is more than "work". It's a chance to further develop my relationship with that horse. It's a chance to build his confidence in me as a fair person who will listen to his concerns and help him manage his own expectations as we work through this problem together.

That probably sounds twisted, why would I welcome things going wrong? Because they aren't really "wrong", they are an opportunity to open up a dialog with my horse about what I really want. Every less than perfect moment is a chance for my horse and I to come to a point of understanding. If the horse didn't show me the holes in his training bucket, I wouldn't have a chance to patch them. And more importantly, he's giving me a chance to take our relationship to the next level.

I'm not saying I always take the opportunity to work on a problem, sometimes, at that particular moment, it's not practical, I may be on the way to work or have a prior commitment or just don't feel like it. But if I'm on top of my game, I make a note in my head that an opportunity as presented itself and I make time later to work with that opportunity.

Assuming I'm fair and communicate what I want using positive reinforcement, good things will come out of our interaction. This is a chance to be clear about what I want and for me to ensure that the horse isn't worried about the outcome. With postive reinforcement, when we come out the other side of this challenge, our relationship will be a bit stronger, his trust in me is a bit more solid, and we're just that much better at communicating clearly with each other.

And why is that important? Because essentially, if I'm riding or driving, I'm trusting my horse to take care of me to some extent. The more he trusts me, the less chance he has of over reacting to something new, knowing I wouldn't put him in danger. The better we work together as partners, as a team, the less risk that we will part company on a ride or drive. And the more clearly we are able to communicate, the more sure I am that he'll understand, and be willing to give me what I want, the next time I ask for something.

It's a matter of building a foundation, flipping the horse's internal switch from "I'm scared" or "I'm not sure I want to... " to "Sure, lets do it!".

If I do my part right, I get what I want, AND we are better off for the experience that evolved from that little (or not so little) mistake.

There was a time in my career with horses when I would have read this and said "Fine for you to say, but this is BUNK!" I would have put it up on that shelf right next to my step Mom's lecture on how we create our own reality and to change things we don't like is simply a matter of changing our attitude. Now that I'm in my 50s, I guess it's safe to admit that she was right all along? (-;

I'm sure that sounds quite Pollyanna to some of you, and honestly, I would have thought that too, once, before I proved to myself that it's true. If our reality is one that says force and pressure is appropriate (as much force and pressure necessary until we get what we want) then that is what we will tend to get back from the horse. It's Newton's Third Law of Motion (for those who might recall your high school physics (this, by the way, is about all I DO recall from physics class!) that says:

"... in every interaction, there is a pair of forces acting on the two interacting objects. The size of the force on the first object equals the size of the force on the second object. The direction of the force on the first object is opposite to the direction of the force on the second object. Forces always come in pairs - equal and opposite action-reaction force pairs."

This typically holds true for horses as well, apply force and they will react in kind, responding to the degree of force they felt applied. It's important to note that I said "felt applied" because the human may not feel there was much force applied and the horse may react 10 fold... based on his assessment of the force applied, not based on the human "view" of it.

So, having tried my best to give up force and work with a more positive and communcative approach, I can say that it works. I have few disappointments in training now, because every flaw in our interaction or performance is a chance to make things better. In order for this to work, I had to come to accept and believe in the principles of positive reinforcement. Without that, then these "opportunities" are potentially points of conflict and exercises in frustration. And the more I lean toward exclusive positive reinforcement and lean away from punishment, pressure and force, the more effectively this approach proves to be.

Why? Because there is nothing in force and pressure that builds a horse's confidence in his human. Horses lean into pressure naturally, we have to teach them to move away from pressure, but even if they know to move way from the squeeze of a leg or the tap of a whip, their most base reaction is to lean INTO pressure. We can't totally eradicate that concept, they are hard wired for that, just like we are hard wired to breathe. Anyone that has spent any time with new foals will tell you that they lean. Try to push them toward the milk bar and they push back. It's natural, it's what they do. We can teach them to respond differently to specific situations, but in fact, horses are hard wired to lean into pressure and to flee when they are scared.

Apply pressure, the horse pushes back, apply enough force and the horse will flee. Neither of those scenarios are confidence builders and in many cases, they are confidence destroyers.

The other "thing" I had to give up was my own fear. Fear of looking like a fool in public, fear that the horse would not behave the way I wanted or needed him to. These fears are in fact, pretty irrational. IF the horse's training is based on clear communication and a strong partnership, why wouldn't he comply? Fear comes from insecurity and doubt in what the future will bring. That applies to both horses and humans.

Confidence comes from knowing that my horse will give the best he is capable of at that moment. If a porta potty blows over in gusty wind at a show and he bolts, so be it, he wasn't able to control his concern for that moment. But it was the best he could do and how many chances do we have to train for flying porta potties?

Confidence comes from believing in my partner and knowing he believes in me. And so what if something goes wrong? It's not the end of the world, it's just an opportunity. (-:

Friday, August 7, 2009

Who's Leading Whom?

"Leadership" is one of those horse training words that is tossed around all too casually, in my opinion, without really thinking about that that means. It has become a buzz word used commonly in context of how we (humans) need to be good leaders in order to train a horse. This idea of successful training depends upon building the horse's trust and confidence in our leadership abilities. And most problems are attributed to a horse's lack of "respect" or our inability to be a strong "leader" that can inspire the horse's "respect". These two concepts are intricately tied in most conversations about training.

Millions of dollars have been spent on clinics, lessons, DVDs & books which claim they can open the secret door to this idea of creating "respect". One of the most common example of how to get respect is by moving the horse around a round pen. The idea being that who moves whom indicates to the horse which creature is the leader and which is the follower. Ultimately, the "mover" is "The Leader", the being moved, by default, makes one "The Follower".

Pondering this idea of respect and leadership, I've decided this concept (that humans need to be strong leaders in order for the horse to respect us) is pretty much backassward.

In order to build the horse's trust and confidence, AND in order for them to learn to respect us, horses need humans to be good followers and keen observers. The horse needs someone who makes requests, but doesn't insist, and allows the horse to lead, by indicating if he is comfortable and confident enough to do as asked. That partnership, built on a conversation that respects & honors the horse's opinion, is one that will evolve into "respect".

Respect doesn't develop out of fear, respect develops from trust and admiration. Fear simply produces more of the same: fear. And generally, when there is fear, there is also tension & anxiety. After all, who wants to be partners with the local bully?

When we insist, (decreeing ourselves to be the leader rather than earning that position), we assume the horse is ready physically and/or emotionally for . A true partner will follow the horse's lead, letting the horse dictate when he's ready for the next step in the training progression. After all, it's his body, his mind, and who would know better than him if he's ready to carry a human on his back, jump that 3-foot fence or spin on a dime?

In my world, that makes me the follower, not the leader. I can request, but the horse must decide how he answers that request. I can't make that decision for him. If I do, I'm just asking for tension and angst. And even if it's not obvious to the casual observer, the tension and angst will bubble to the surface, it's just a matter of time.

How many times have I heard some say "he did it just fine last week, he just doesn't WANT to ".

Some days I get up in the morning with a sore back or an aching joint and doing certain tasks could cause physical damange if I did them anyway. Nothing in life is static, neither our physical or emotional states, nor those of our horses. Some days I don't want to either. But it's normally not without a reason. Can't the horse have one of those days too?

Ah, I can hear you thinking "but if I wake up in the morning and don't feel like going to work, school... (again, fill in the blank), I DO IT ANYWAY". That idea implies if humans push themselves to do things they are not physically or mentally comfortable doing, the horse should live by the same rules. Only horses aren't humans, and human rules don't apply. Force a horse to live by human rules and the human is asking for a wreck, because at some point, the horse will feel over faced, and try to avoid his discomfort and the task. According to Horse Rules, when your uncomfortable, FLEE! And generally fleeing doesn't include behaving in a way humans typically covet.

It also implies that the human is the authority on the physical, mental, and emotional boundaries & limitations of the horse. Tell that to the race horses that break down on the track each year, they don't run for their own health, but at the direction & discretion of a human.

Another common opinion is that if a person "lets a horse get away with " then the horse will always try to "get away with" not doing that task when asked in the future.

OK... being a realist here, that's dipping one's toe in the paranoid pond, isn't it? Horses just aren't really that conniving. Humans are conniving, horses are much more black and white in their thought process, they do what they are comfortable doing, they do what they enjoy, they do what comes naturally to them, they generally try to do as they are asked, IF they understand what that is, but they often don't understand. And lack of understanding isn't due to their poor communication skills, but rather the humans lack of skill conveying what they want. Horses speak "horse" just fine. If we want them to understand us, we have to present our concepts in a way that is clear to them.

So, back to the idea of leader vs follower: If I am a good follower, I suggest "can we try this?" He answers yes or no, if he answers no, he's telling me I need to back up a step or three to something less demanding. If he answers yes, he's leading me forward to the next step. If in the "next step", he tells me he's not ready after all, he's leading me to either break things down into more fundamental steps or he's telling me that he was mistaken and wasn't ready to move on after all and we need to go back to a prior step. Again, he's leading me, I'm not leading him.

In my world, this is a dance, based on communication. The bottom line is: How can we demand respect from our horse when we don't respect his opinions and concerns? A good leader needs to be able to listen, swap roles and become the follower when needed. Life is about balance. Training animals is about balance as well. Pushing an animal too far out of it's comfort zone is an accident waiting to happen. AND it's never really necessary, after all, if a whale can be taught to jump into the air and perform flips for an audience without being forced, why can't we apply the same training concepts to our horses? Of course we can...

If we face resistance in our horses, we need to look at the root cause. Where did we fail to communicate clearly? Where in our partnership together did we stop listening effectively or responding appropriately to the horse's hesitation?