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.