Thursday, October 1, 2009

Setting the Horse Up For Success

Something I read recently really got me thinking. I think I read it on someone's blog, and I can't remember where I saw it - if you're reading this, identify yourself so I can thank you! Here's what I remember reading - "If you think your horse can do something for 4 seconds, ask for 3 seconds." I clearly had to mull that one over, but this morning, it got me thinking about something that I think is one of the foundations of successfully working with horses - setting the horse up for success.

Now, compare that to: "Ask the horse to stand for 5 seconds and correct him when he doesn't." A lot of people repeat the saying: "Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard." Many people seem to really get the "wrong thing hard" part - in fact sometimes they make the wrong thing so hard that the horse really never has a choice but is effectively forced into the right thing. I think that pretty quickly shades over into coercion, whatever the school of training may call itself. And sometimes they really don't spend a lot of time thinking about and trying to do the "make the right thing easy" part.

If you've been following, you know that I've started working with my younger daughter's horse Dawn while my daughter is away at college. My recent post "The Horse is Thinking About Leaving . . ." gives a good overview of what we're up to - it's hard to get much of an idea from the daily details I'm posting about our work together. I really have had to think about what I'm doing in order to work with Dawn. I think the quote that starts off this post really summarizes in a good way how we're going about things - but for me there's a lot packed into that simple statement.

Back to the horse who got corrected after not being able to stand still for 5 seconds. Do you think the horse learned what he was supposed to do from that? I doubt it - but the person correcting him may not have a clue about what he's supposed to do either. I think we have to be absolutely clear in our own minds about what we want the horse to do and the steps it'll take to get there. With a horse that can't stand still, for example, I'd start by asking the horse to stand for two seconds, and then rewarding them with a rub and a walk-around. After a couple of successes at two seconds, we'd go to three seconds, and so on. If the horse failed to stand for the exact number of seconds I wanted, I would ask the horse to circle me until it offered to stop and then ask again. I want the horse to choose the correct option, but to have the real choice to circle if it chose. After a very short while, the horse learns that if it offers up the behavior I'm asking for, it gets a reward - a release from pressure and a break to relax.

Another example that I think is very common - at least it was for me when I was working with horses before I was challenged to think about things differently. I ask the horse to trot, but don't specify anything particular, so the horse has to make all the decisions. Then when the horse doesn't trot at the speed I want, or cuts into the center, or doesn't stay straight, I correct the horse. Now when I ask for a trot, I try to have in my mind and body the exact point at which I want the trot (3 walk strides from now), the exact speed and type of gait I want, the idea of straightness and exactly where we're going. I find that works much better - if I know exactly what I want before I start, I mostly get what I ask for. If I don't, it's usually because I've been unclear about something in my own mind, or the horse didn't understand what I wanted. To be fair to the horse, we have to know exactly what we want, and ask for it as clearly and consistently as we can.

I think a lot of the time, it's also a matter of letting the horse offer up behaviors in response to your ask, without fear of being corrected or punished for offering up the wrong behavior. This requires patience and attention - just to keep calmly asking and wait as long as it takes for the correct behavior to be offered. There are a lot of horses out there, and I've met many of them, who are either shut down and dull ("it doesn't matter what I do, they won't like it") or anxious ("I don't know what to do! If I do the wrong thing I'll be punished!") as a result of being corrected, or worse punished, for offering up the wrong behavior. It's perfectly fine, in my opinion, to put an appropriate amount of pressure on the horse which stimulates them to offer up behaviors so you can instantly reward the correct behavior, as long as it still offers them a real choice.

I think it's also easy to fall into trying to do too much at once. The more steps you can break things down into, the better. Rewards need to be given at every stage along the path, not just for the completed product. For example, in the standing still example, initially I wouldn't care if the horse stood in the same place, or stood straight. Those are refinements that can be added once the basic behavior is in place. If I'm teaching a horse to put its head down in response to pressure, the first rewards will be for just the tiniest amount of give, and then a little more, and so on. Think of it as building links in a chain - if you try to build them all at once, success is unlikely. And in the trot example, I might initially focus on pace and then worry about other things like straightness and softening to the bit.

One of the hardest things I've had to learn is that every horse is different, has an individual learning style and finds different things easy and hard. And not every horse has the same tolerance for pressure (applied correctly and not as coercion) or the same speed of learning. And I've also learned that, if something I'm trying really isn't working, to try something else - creativity is important. Don't be afraid to try new ways to ask. For example, Maisie and I have struggled for years with speed regulation at the trot. I'd been trying a technique that works for many horses - if the horse goes too fast, do a fairly small circle until the horse adopts the correct speed on its own, and then continue. This really didn't work with Maisie - she just got agitated and would speed up again as soon as we straightened out. Now I'm a slow learner - I just kept trying the thing that wasn't working, over and over, and we weren't getting anywhere. I finally figured out that I should try something new - so I used my seat and energy level to ask her to slow - it works like a charm!

The difficult thought that follows from this is that there isn't a "system" or "program" that will effectively train all horses. There is no "one size fits all" when it comes to horses. There are many different ways and techniques to effectively train horses without coercion and with integrity and respect for the horse, in all disciplines, but the best trainers will tell you that they are always learning new things and trying new ways to more effectively work with horses. When I first started riding with Mark Rashid, this was an eye-opener to me and very difficult to deal with, even though I was an experienced rider. I think it requires a realization that working with horses effectively isn't really about technique - although of course it partly is - it's really about the attitude we bring to the process and the horse. If you're trying to help the horse make changes not just on the outside, but on the inside as well, it takes more than technique, or "exercises", "tips" or "tricks". I've really struggled with this - I spent a number of years imitating Mark's techniques, which did get me part of the way to where I wanted to be - but I've only recently been able to begin to move past the mechanics to the fundamentals, and I've still got a long way to go and I expect the journey to take the rest of my life - which to me is actually an encouraging thought!

I've also had to learn that it's OK to ask - appropriate pressure is fine - as long as the horse gets the release for the small increment of progress you're looking for. It's OK for the horse to struggle with a question - which isn't at all the same thing as fighting with the horse or coercing the horse, which can be very damaging to the horse's trust and ability to learn - but knowing how much pressure to use and how to judge when to back off if you're asking for too much is another challenge. How much is enough, and how much is too much, has been a hard one for me to learn and I've made a lot of mistakes and I expect I will continue to make (a lot of) them. I'm still learning to bring forward and deal with the issues and worries the horse has instead of skirting them or avoiding them. I think I'm beginning to learn not to worry so much about the horse having to struggle a bit to find the correct solution together with me.

I expect reversals - it's always going to be two steps forward, one step back. There are plateaus and things your horse will struggle with more than other things. But I firmly believe that if the horse struggles, it's our job to help them find a way to the correct solution - we're in this together and it's as much our job as the horse's to solve the problem. A corollary of this is that I feel it's my responsibility every time I work with the horse to get them to a place where they're less worried and more comfortable by always setting them up to succeed and making sure that we get to a place where the horse knows it has succeeded and is rewarded for success. This sometimes means that I have to "ride the horse I have today" rather than the horse in my mind when I started - I might have a goal for the day, but something else comes up that needs work, or it's clear that I have to back off on the pressure or ask for a smaller step than I intended at the beginning, that's OK - my overriding objective is for the horse to learn by experiencing success.

Underlying all my work with Dawn is the idea that as the horse learns that it can succeed and get to a more comfortable place, and that you will help the horse to deal with its worries and struggles, a real partnership is built that will be a foundation for all sorts of future successes.


  1. Good post. I really like the positive aspect of setting the horse up for success. It's win-win for horse and handler and provides stepping stones for greater things.

  2. Good perspective, as always. I agree about setting the horse up for success, and also with the idea of not letting a horse make a mistake that requres a correction. I've kind of argued this position before, but here we go again.

    If my horse had a tendancy to fall in on the circle at a certain point when I lunge him, then I need to start "fixing" that well before he gets to the fall in spot instead of letting him fall in and then having to make a big correction driving him out. So, well before we get to the "bad" spot, I need to be giving aids to keep him out on the line. That way, I am fixing the little things that lead up to the big mistake and not letting him make the big mistake. Usually, what happens when I do that is that the horse never falls in, and essentially learns to do the circle correctly with only minor adjustments from me.

    Same thing with riding, as you learned with Maise. Before the horse runs off, you make a half halt, essentially averting the run off before it happens and teaching the horse to 'come back' under your seat.

    So much to think about in this horse training journey we are on. And yes, each horse is an individual and need to be treated as such.

  3. Jean - I completely agree with your point about "getting ahead of the problem" before it happens to avoid corrections - it's all about providing direction to the horse, I think, and anticipating what is about to happen but what hasn't happened yet.

  4. Great post! I love that phrase "If you think your horse can do something for 4 seconds, ask for 3 seconds." It didn't originate from me though very good point!

  5. So true about setting up horse for success! In life too, right? :)
    Great phrase of "if your horse can do it for 4 seconds, ask for 3" wish I think like that.
    My trainer always says, "in the horse herd, it's ask, tell..then kick your a**!" It makes sense, give the horse a 2 chance then get it (especially in potentially dangerous situations) however, and it's a huge HOWEVER, we must know how to ask properly. That is where I struggle..I'm a softie! :)

  6. Geeat post, especially the distinction between setting the horse up for success and coercion. I've learned so much from each horse I've had the pleasure of owning or boarding. No two horses are exactly the same, ever.

  7. You have made brilliant points in your post. I have had a full on schooling session today and I did exactly what you refer to on one point success in that then move onto the next thing. I also rode my friends horse. The buttons were all different but it taught me loads about my own position and being paitient.It was a rewarding feeling

  8. sally - it's great to ride different horses - it's a good reminder of how individual they are!

  9. Great post.

    I find trainers often ask for too much and then wait/demand for the horse to become comfortable with the object or procedure. (such as introducing a horse to saddling, approaching a scary jump or teaching a horse to stand for clipping). The horse is having things done to him, rather than learning how to do them or learning how to become comfortable with the process. I find this often creates horses who tolerate things but are never completely comfortable with them.

    Instead, I find it's much easier (and makes for much better trained horses in the long run!) to find where the horse's comfort level is and very gradually increase from there. This way, the horse can always be successful with what I'm asking. I reward for a very low criteria at the beginning and find something I can successfully build upon. One of my favorite DVDs is Alex Kurland's Overcoming Fears and the Power of Cues, which shows how she goes step by step and desensitizes a horse to a saddle, when the horse was previously terrified of the saddle due to an accident. (I wrote a review of the DVD on my blog several months ago.


    Mary H.


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