Monday, September 14, 2009

What is Progress? (Updated)

I just updated this post to add some things I thought about while feeding and turning out the horses this morning. Look for the two paragraphs with ADDITION at the front - sorry, but I couldn't help myself - the horses made me do it!

I know a question a lot of us ask ourselves from time to time is: "What is progress with my horse - what does it look and feel like?" Sometimes we get frustrated because we feel that we aren't making progress, whatever we define that to be. Sometimes other people question whether we're making progress, or they seem to have different ideas of what progress should be. Sometimes we feel like we're going backwards, and that we'll never get to our goals.

Over my years of riding and working with my horses, I've really changed in my understanding of what progress is, and my expectations for my work with my horses. Paradoxically, my expectations are both much smaller and much larger that they used to be. My expectations used to center on getting a job done - having the horse do something or other, such as complete a hunter course successfully or do a lead change. I was successful at these things - I could ride the horses and get the job done.

But I've come to understand that a lot, perhaps almost all, of what I was doing was just about technique and what I ended up with was mostly just compliance by the outside of the horse. Now, I was somewhat better than that - I had a special partnership with certain horses and we were able to do some good things, and the inside of the horse must have been there to to some extent, but I wasn't really thinking about that.

Now I'm interested in having the inside of the horse there with me as we work, with the inside being consistent with and expressing itself on the outside. This is a completely different ballgame, both requiring more of me and being more satisfying as it is worked through. I approach the work I do now in a completely different way and with different objectives than I used to.

I no longer show, so I don't have show deadlines or show activities to focus on. This isn't at all to take away anything from people who do - many of them have a good time doing this and achieve excellent results working with their horses, and sometimes outside deadlines - a show coming up - can be useful to motivate us in our work. But I got tired of what were too often mechanical riders on mechanical horses, and too many competitors and trainers were focussed on winning at any cost with the physical and emotional health of the horse being the last thing in their consideration. There are very good people out there showing, in all disciplines, and they provide an important example to others in the show world. Since I don't show, I have no deadlines or requirements, which is both liberating and scary - I have to set my own goals and plan my own steps.

My objectives and focus today are completely different. I had to basically start over. I was good at technique, but I had to learn from scratch how to listen to what the horse was saying to me - the horse expressing its emotions through its body and actions - and how to work with the inside of the horse instead of just the outside to achieve what I wanted.

As a result, I think about progress in my work with my horses in a much different way. The work I do now requires at least as much from me as it does from the horse, perhaps more. It really is an equal partnership - it's about the horse and I accomplishing things together.

ADDITION: I feel that I have to bring honesty, integrity and humility to my work with my horses. Honesty: I have to acknowledge that I am fully responsible for at least half, and sometimes more, of what happens (or doesn't) between the horse and me. If the horse isn't getting what I'm asking, it's more likely than not that I'm the one missing the boat. Integrity: When I come to the horse, I'm bringing my whole life with me - my horse life isn't separate. I also have to behave consistently and fairly when I'm with the horse. Humility: Horses aren't people, and to project human ways of thought and emotion onto them isn't fair - they have their own way of seeing the world and expressing themselves, if we're ready to listen. Also, they have amazing mental and physical capabilities, which sometimes I feel we only scratch the surface of. For example, most horses, unless they have a mental or physical disability, can easily do smooth lead changes in the pasture - many can even do one-tempi changes (every stride). If we're having trouble with lead changes, it's not because the horse can't do them.

For me, it all starts with attention. I think horses are much better at this than we are. If they tune us out, it's either because they're tired out by all our "shouting" at them with our aids, or because they're tired of trying to say something to us - expressing how they feel with their bodies - and having us not listen, or worse having us punish them for trying to communicate with us in the best way they know how. If we start really, really, paying attention - to every breath, footfall, ear flick, posture and shift of weight - it's amazing how much we can learn and how much more the horse will now pay attention to us, since we're listening and the avenue of communication is open.

Then it requires a plan, but one that involves patience and an ability to take one step at a time while seeing something through. I think one of the hardest things for people to overcome is impatience. We always want results Now - even if we have only the foggiest idea of what the result should look like. That's where the plan comes in - I have to have an exact idea of what I'm asking the horse to do, down to the details - otherwise how can I expect the horse to know what I want, and the result will be that the horse is left to fill in the details on its own. You want me to go faster? Where? How fast? What gait? What's our destination? You get the idea - most of the time we don't give the horse enough guidance and then are surprised when we don't get what we want. Our horses really need us to provide guidance and leadership - but this has nothing to do with dominance, being the "alpha horse" (a theory I don't buy), or "making" the horse do anything.

But the plan has to flexible and adjustable. If we just focus on the ultimate end result, we may end up skipping steps and not building the foundation we need for success. I try to know where I'm going, but focus on each day. I have a plan - we're going to do x - and work towards that - but if it it turns out that x is too far/too hard, then I do x-1 or x-2 or whatever it takes to make the tiniest amount of progress. If I can get a couple of repetitions of x-2, then I try x-1 (sorry for the algebra!). I try to always stop when I'm ahead. Every tiny success we have will build the relationship with the horse and allow for better success down the road. To me, there's a real thrill here - I'm delighted - even super delighted - with each small bit of progress. It's important to ride the horse as if he is the horse I want him to be - I need to assume he'll be able to do it - but I also have to be flexible and adjust things so I'm riding the horse I have today, not the horse in my mind or the one I had yesterday. This sounds a bit contradictory, but it really isn't - I want to expect the best of the horse while being matter-of-fact about what comes up. If it's two steps forward, one step back, that's OK. Keeping emotion completely out of the picture - except for the pride and delight in my horse's accomplishments - and ending on a good note both allow the connection to be reinforced.

Making things as easy as possible for the horse to learn is good, but it's important to not avoid things that are worries for the horse. There's a fine line here - overfacing the horse will lead to meltdowns and are destructive of trust and progress, but small setbacks and having the horse struggle a bit with something can be very positive, so long as I don't leave the horse in a state of worry and help the horse achieve a positive outcome before I stop. If I have set-backs or the horse has small upsets or worries, this is an opportunity for us to learn together and build trust.

I think it's really important to question my assumptions, and if something doesn't work try something else - be creative and ask the horse questions they can answer to break the logjam. I test our progress and the horse's learning but don't drill - a bored horse is a checked-out horse. I watch carefully for holes in the horse's training to show up, and try to make sure that those are addressed - almost any horse will have these holes, and some of them can be big ones. This is where being really attentive comes in - I find blowing by a hole just to get to a pre-determined result can build in problems for the future. We're building a set of links together, with each skill and bit of understanding leading to the next - the foundation has to be secure.

Being creative is part of the game - I try to think of fun and interesting things for the horse and I to do together. I've talked before about my "15-minute rule" where I try to do something - anything - for 15 minutes with my horse to build our relationship. I can't do it every day, but I try to do it most days. If the horse is recovering from an injury, think of things to do in the stall. If the horse can only walk, think of things you can do while walking. If you can't ride, groom or hang out with your horse. There are all sorts of things to do that can be fun and provide training opportunities - but then every interaction with the horse is training, whether intentional or not. Just hanging out is really good. And for me, there's no such thing as "just riding" - every interaction with the horse is training the horse, and I have to be "there" and not off somewhere else mentally.

ADDITION: Progress isn't just about getting a task accomplished with the outside of the horse - "whew, the horse is on the trailer." It's about how the horse feels inside about what we're doing - is the horse worried or shut down, and just complying, or is the horse willingly compliant and entering fully into the task? Is the task performed with lightness on the outside, or with softness, from the inside out?

Fundamentally, making progress with the horse should be fun. It should be sufficiently challenging for both of us that it engages our attention, but not so difficult that it isn't achievable - breaking things down into small steps is very important. The horse should be happy in the work, and so should we - the goal in everything I do with the horse - and this applies to daily activities like feeding, grooming, leading or anything - is to build a relationship of mutual trust with the horse. I have found that it is truly amazing what our horses can do together with us if we just pay attention and are engaged with them in the learning. And sometimes the smallest steps can be the most exciting and productive for the future.


  1. I love the slant of this email. So many people ask me why I do not show my horse and I am never sure what they mean by this question. At least I know how to answer it: Although she would look GRRRREAT in a show ring, I am more interested in having a deep relationship with her doing the things I like to do and that she will enjoy rather than try to get kudos for something I may or may not truly value. I also love the 15 minute rule. I call it the 15 minute lesson. A little lesson after work is a great relationship-builder. Every ride does not have to be a long and huge production!

  2. This is so beautifully expressed that I'm going to print it out and read it often to remind myself of the direction I want to head. I am building a new kind of relationship with my horse and it's wonderful...but every once in awhile I forget and fall back into a more goal-driven mindset and end up riding just the outside of the horse. I often get pressure from friends to do more ("that's nice, when are you going to show him?"), but my horse is telling me to go slowly. He's willing to try when I take it step by step, and give him time to rest and think in between each step. When I forget and string too many steps together he reverts to shutting down.

    Thanks for the wonderful reminder that my goal is bigger than riding the movements. It's worth taking however much time it takes.

  3. Lovely post! This sums up my training philosophy as well. Slow and steady and having fun while we're at it. Gabe is retired from the track because (according to his owner) he HATED racing. She said to me when I came out to look at him "I won't keep racing him. I can't imagine what it would be like to get up every morning to go to a job you hate. It would make me miserable and he deserves to be happy."

    I believe that our jobs as riders, trainers, owners and partners to our horses is to keep them happy in their jobs and finding a job they are happy with. The minute that job becomes overly stressful, boring or too difficult for them, then we have done them a serious disservice.

    I am enjoying this journey and the exciting part about having an ultimate goal is the journey you take to get there. I don't care how long that journey takes, as long as we have a good time getting there!

  4. Great insight into training as it should be. I am just enjoying the journey myself now, with no real show goals anymore either.

    Chance did not have a good day today, but we ended with one nice canter depart on the left, so that's when I stopped, got off, cooled him down and gave him his carrot. We ended on a good note that should make all the difference.

  5. I go through periods where I want to show and periods where I don't, but I always enjoy the journey and the experience of learning and training along with my horse(s). Sometimes I want to show off the results to the outside world at shows but sometimes not.

  6. i also go through times (especially since my qhorse alle has won state champs).. yes yes i really want to show and other times.. i know i dont have that competitive fire in my belly like i do for endurance riding...

    Gotta whoa and go the journey as it were :) Great food for thought you bring here .. thanx

  7. I just try to leave the barn with a better horse than I had the last time. I usually introduce something new or ask for a bit more. For me, it is all about the partnership. She comes first, the blue ribbons may come at some point, but they will never come before the relationship.

  8. It's interesting, I read your post once as you wrote it, and it was good. Then I read it again and subsituted the word 'life' for the word 'horse' and it was good.
    Interesting. :-)

  9. Lisa - no surprise to me - the things that apply in life apply to horses, and vice versa - there is no separation - life is life!

  10. "Progress isn't just about getting a task accomplished with the outside of the the horse willingly compliant and entering fully into the task? Is the task performed with lightness on the outside, or with softness, from the inside out?"

    Perfectly said. Those are words to live by, as is having a consistent and seamless integrity throughout one's life. Beautiful. I laughed at the one-tempi's in pasture: I have to work very hard at all of the above when riding one of my guys: draft horse X. "Go" is a 4 letter word for him, let alone a nice flying change. How to get "go" with joy, willingness, or a sense of fun, instead of resistance?

    I turned him out one rainy day in the covered arena, and this big heavy horse floated by doing perfect one tempis down. For FUN. Rider = Resistance to him. Owner has done a marvelous job (rescued from overused school horse hell: SIX beginners a day), building trust with him, but such a long way to go.

    So much trust lost, so much of him shut down. Wonderful to see him open up, lovely to be part of that, and challenging to stay soft and on top of myself on his not-so-good days. My job to lead and model the reaction I want. As you said!

  11. I know exactly how you feel. I think we all get tired of the same old thing. Then we stop for awhile. I'm ready to go back, but with a slower approach!

  12. Another wonderful post that really hits home with me!


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