Thursday, May 21, 2009

Presenting the Question

When I got Maisie, one of her traits was that she hated to cross any sort of water. I'm not talking streams, I'm talking tiny puddles - she would go to almost any lengths to avoid putting a foot in water. We used to accuse her of being so dainty that she didn't want to get her feet wet. And big puddles were out of the question. She would lead through water - although contorting her body to avoid it as much as possible. Interestingly enough, she would back through water - at one horse show there was an enormous puddle across the entrance to the warm-up ring, and the only way we got in there each time was by backing through it. But forwards, no way.

In those days, I didn't really have a solution to a problem like this other than to push, and kick, and use a crop, none of which were particularly effective, and all of which confirmed for Maisie that water was A Big Deal. I've subsequently also learned that these sorts of pushing aids, which often get used while staring down at one's horse's head, just drive the horse's energy downwards rather than forward.

Then I had the good fortune to attend a week-long clinic in Colorado with Mark Rashid. Among other things, one of the things we worked on was crossing water. The property where we were working had an assortment of trail obstacles, including water.

I learned a technique that I call "presenting the question" that I have used since, many times, in a variety of situations. It's no fuss, no muss, and although it took us some time to work through the issue the first time or two I used the technique, after that things came much faster if I was consistent. I think of this as having four parts:

1. Intent
2. Take the time that's needed
3. Present the question . . . and present the question . . . and present the question
4. Reward the try . . . and reward the try . . . and reward the try

Intent - what I mean by this is that I have to be focussed - I have to know what I want the horse to do (exactly), how I'm going to go about presenting the question, and what a try might look like (see below). For example, if I picked the end of a puddle to cross, I would pick the exact point I wanted the horse to enter the water and exactly where I wanted the horse to exit the water (I'd pick a focus point - tree, fence post or whatever - to use as a marker). Every movement I make and every aid I use has to be done with intent and focus. I have to really listen to my horse so that I'm noticing each footfall and each shift of body weight.

Take the time that's needed - sometimes a lot of time - being in a hurry will likely prevent success. Patience, and lack of emotion (not getting mad at the horse or yourself, or frustrated) is necessary. Don't expect to get the job done in one session, or two or even three - it'll take as long as it takes. Impatience, or punishing the horse, is the quickest way to lose whatever progress has been made.

Present the question - For crossing water, I approach the water with my intent in action, keeping my eyes and head up and softly allowing forward motion - no tensing up as we approach the water - that would tell the horse that Something Is Up. We walk forward as if the water isn't there. If the horse spins away, I turn and present the question again. If the horse wants to stop, I try to keep the feet moving by turning the horse first to one side and then to the other, but keep presenting the question to the horse. With a horse that's particularly balky, this may involve the horse just taking a partial step to each side. Keeping the feet moving means forward motion is easier to achieve - getting the horse restarted from the halt is harder. If the horse does halt, I just turn to the side. I don't use driving aids, just keep presenting the question. The first time we do this, it can take a lot of time. Usually each session gets easier, but not always.

Reward the try - As I present the question, if the horse makes the slightest move towards the water - even a shift of body weight, I reward the try by turning the horse away and walking around away from the water for a while on a relaxed rein. This tells the horse that we'll keep presenting the question until the horse tries to comply with the request - however small a try - and that tries will be rewarded. Then we present the question again, as many times as needed. As I reward each try, the goal shifts from shifting body weight to moving one foot towards the water, to moving two feet towards the water, to putting a foot in the water, and so on. Sometimes you'll have a slip backwards and have to work your way back up the chain of tries. Sometimes you'll get stuck for a while at a particular point, and have to keep presenting the question until the horse understands that a bigger try is needed. These breaks rewarding tries also allow the horse to digest what it is going on. Also, at some point I just stop and put the horse away - you don't have to do it all at once - in fact breaking up the exercise can paradoxically make it go faster, and the horse may "hold" the learning better.

That's all it took. By the end of the clinic, Maisie would cross the water at any point, calmly and without hesitation. We've never had a problem with water since. This spring, one of the trails we ride had a giant puddle - at least twenty feet across and up to her knees. I knew the footing underneath was OK, so we just rode through it. She didn't even slightly hesitate.

At the clinic, we used the same technique for a variety of things - crossing a wooden platform, putting front feet up on a stump on request and other trail obstacles. The technique has worked well for me with horses that balk - say they refuse to go forward on the trail, or away from the barn. I've also used it with success with Maisie when having to pass Scary Objects - one time a large plastic child's pool ended up in the middle of the trail and we had to pass quite close to it to get home. I had to keep presenting the question, but finally she ended up edging by it, snorting, with her head bent towards it and one ear on it. It was a big help that we were heading towards home instead of away! I wouldn't have necessarily done that with every horse - you need to know your horse's limits - on some horses I would have turned back and on others I would have dismounted and led by, but I had confidence that Maisie could handle it, and she did.

This technique won't work in every case or with every horse - if a horse is having, or about to have, a meltdown, until they can calm down enough to work and think (safely), nothing will work well. The goal is to have sessions so slow and calm that someone watching would be bored out of their minds. My usual rule is that if there's fireworks, there's rarely any real training going on.


  1. Good post. Everything you're saying could have come straight from Ray Hunt's mouth. I've heard of Mark Rashid, but that's it. He sounds like a common sense kind of guy.
    Ray has sayings for every lesson that helps us remember.
    Ray sayings:
    Recognize the slightest change and reward the smallest try.
    Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.
    You have to go through it to get past it.
    You have to have confidence in your horse so he can have confidence in himself.
    You get the picture...there are so many, many more. Ray was an amazing horseman. Truly phenomenol what he could do with a horse. I was fortunate and got to ride with him on several occasions and I will be forever thankful.
    Your training methods are right in line with my approach. I'm very thankful that so many people are catching on to this style of teaching and understand just how a horse learns and why they react like they do. It makes everything so much easier and removes the pressure. Ride on my friend.

  2. C-ingspots - Mark Rashid is very much in the Ray Hunt school - in fact Ray was one of the few horsemen whose methods he would recommend. I never had the chance to ride with Ray, but have read and heard a lot about him. There is a link to Mark's website on my sidebar - he has a number of very good books and videos that are available for those who are interested.

  3. Good post. Well explained. If Moby Chair raises its evil head again, I will apply some of these tactics as well. Always remember TTT.

  4. All good points. I like Mark Rashid, he's one of the only clinicians these days that i think has a handle on things. You're lucky to have done a clinic with him, I would love to participate in one. I like the way he thinks, I'm sort of in the same patience and repetition and reward school of thought. I like to use common sense and slow training methods with my horses.

  5. Great post, well stated and well written!

  6. TTT.....Things take time. OK, so maybe I am showing my age. *G*

  7. Sounds like a good clinic. I'm thinking that there needs to be a clinic specifically focused on training the rider or handler to control her instincts. It's natural for a person so tense up and get nervous when they know they are presenting their horse with something that normally draws a dangerous reaction from the horse. If my horse spooks, I'm going to draw in a breath and recoil. That's what people do when a monster jumps out at them on Halloween or they cross the street and a truck bears down on them. I don't know how people can train themselves to tune it all out and pretend like everything is wonderful while their horse is having a meltdown. I suppose if someone has broken a lot of horses, these flight behaviors become boring after a while and they can just ignore them.

  8. NuzzMuzz - you're right - that's one of the biggest issues we all face. One of my favorite Mark Rashid quotes is "Your horse spooked, you spooked and you ran off together!". In order not to get caught up in the horse's drama, I need to not feel it as a personal challenge - that is, I can't think of it as "the horse is out to get me", I have to have enough confidence to know what to do (or sometimes to do nothing and just keep riding) in response to something the horse does, and the physical ability to do it. Two things that help me are to work (all the time, not just when my horse is acting up) on keeping my whole body relaxed (if you're tense, you're more likely to come off) and keeping my breathing even and regular - which also helps to reduce tension. I had some episodes with Maisie earlier this spring when she was spinning and trying to bolt (nervous and herd bound), and this helped a lot. To me, practicing these techniques when everything is calm helps when everything isn't.

  9. Kate - Excellent post! I am forwarding this to my mother and keeping it on hand to forward to other horse people in the future. This entire approach is my philosophy and exactly how we get our TBs to be the wonderful boys that they are. Thanks for putting this subtle technique into words. Some things are very hard to describe, but you did it!

  10. Kate - Thanks for the response. I knew it had to do something with replacing instincts with habits, especially since that's what we spend so much time trying to do with our horses. It makes sense that if you practice relaxation techniques when the horses isn't spooking, you'll have better luck remaining relaxed when the horse is spooking. I tend to be more relaxed in the saddle than working with a horse from the ground. Also, when a horse does spook when I'm in the saddle, I always stay well balanced, so I'm not afraid that I'll fall off. It's more just reacting to the fact that I was taken by surprise.

  11. NuzzMuzz - I agree that working with a troubled or out-of-control horse on the ground can be extremely scary. My first objective is to always stay safe - this is something we try to emphasize to the boarders as well - the safety of the person always comes first.


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