Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Repeat Until Done

When I started this blog, I wanted to write about my daily experiences with horses and the natural environment. But as I've been writing, it's also developed into a means for me to articulate to myself what I'm doing with horses and why. I think better when I have to explain myself (to myself or others), particularly in writing. It allows me a way to reflect and consider, and examine what I'm doing. I expect sometimes this is tedious for others who may be reading over my shoulder, and if so I apologize. You may also disagree with some or all of what I have to say - and that's OK too - I certainly have no monopoly on what's right and always have more to learn, and I expect I could also be wrong about some or lots of things. All that said, on to the subject of today's post.

Today is a day for repetition. Both Dawn and Maisie made great progress with me yesterday (see yesterday's post for details) doing our joint tasks - in Maisie's case being willing to stand around at a point on the trail and then go back to the barn in a relaxed manner, and in Dawn's case, standing around and then dealing with the plastic garbage bag. Although we did great together on both tasks, we need to work on both again to solidify our learning and smooth out the rough edges.

Mark Rashid used an interesting analogy about working with horses at the last clinic I attended. It's like taking a block of wood - a cube - and shaping it. The first shaping cuts are big ones - taking the corners off. Then the next cuts are smaller, and every series of cuts is finer and finer until you end up with the finished result. So it's a case of knowing what you're trying to achieve and working with the horse to make the necessary changes along the way - and recognizing both the stages of progress - and rewarding the horse's tries - but also knowing when there is more to do. And as you go, the process is one of refining what you ask for. So, in Maisie's case, I'm looking now for more relaxation more quickly as we stand around and less worry on the way back. So we'll repeat the exercise we did yesterday - she was beginning to get comfortable, and was compliant, but she wasn't all the way there yet. With Dawn, she made amazing progress with both the standing around and the garbage bag, but today we'll see if we can build on our progress and work towards our goal of her being able to spook in place and self-calm.

(A brief digression on patience - when I asked Maisie to stand on the trail, and when I asked Dawn to ground tie, I may have described it as asking for patience. That may have been too limiting a word - patience implies that the horse does it, and complies. What I'm really trying to do is teach the horse emotional self-control and self-calming, which are bigger things and which translate into increased confidence and ability to deal with things that may come up. If you're new to this blog, for a longer description of what I'm up to with Dawn in an overall sense, see my post "The Horse is Thinking About Leaving . . .")

So I don't repeat just to repeat - I repeat an exercise as part of a progression of steps to a particular goal. And then I don't repeat any more. For example, I almost never lunge Maisie or do ground or in-hand work with her - because I don't think she needs it at this stage in her training. If there's something that comes up in her training where ground or in-hand work would help, then I do it. I still do ground driving occasionally, for a particular purpose. Once Dawn is done with the work we're doing involving lunging, in-hand work and ground-driving, we won't do it any more except for particular purposes, if at all. I don't work either horse at liberty - I think round pen work or liberty work does have some uses when starting horses or for some horses for specific purposes in training but I also believe that much round pen work is done for purposes that I don't subscribe to, or even mindlessly. Of course it's important to have the horse pay attention to you and your body language, but I don't believe that just controlling the horse's body results in you having the horse's mind. I think it's perfectly possible for a horse to be doing everything you ask with its body and be completely lacking in any sort of mental connection with you. Controlling the horse's body is important - the horse needs to learn what your cues mean and what the desired response is - but I'm a lot more interested in having the horse be with me mentally. I've seen a lot of very compliant horses doing demos in certain natural horsemanship exhibitions - whatever "natural horsemanship" is supposed to mean - but many of them show signs of not "being there", including dull eyes. Sometimes they look like wind-up toys to me. Natural horsemanship as a term doesn't really mean much to me - it runs the spectrum from pretty good stuff to plain coercion, and I try to take what I can that's positive from every trainer I see - most have something useful to offer. I also don't believe that licking and chewing means submission or, as I used to believe, learning - I believe that it's just a automatic chewing response that results from the release of pressure.

I also believe that being your horse's "alpha", and "moving the body" doesn't mean a lot - alphas in the herd are about dominance, not leadership, and the true leader in a horse herd often isn't the alpha. I think our horses do desperately need us to provide leadership, and I think many difficulties horses and riders have together is due to our failure to provide leadership and direction - after all, they're prey animals whose natural impulse to any uncertainty is flight - but I think the leadership they're looking for isn't for us to be an alpha, but rather is the leadership that comes from earned trust and shared thought.

So what does all that have to do with repetition? When I do something with a horse - any exercise or activity - I have objectives and a plan. I always try to work with the horse until we achieve something together that leaves the horse in a good place - if worries come up we work until they are resolved. Sometimes that means adjusting what I do as we go along, or going either less far or farther than I originally intended. I repeat something only until I think the horse understands what I'm asking and until we achieve whatever our mutual (perhaps modified) goal is. Then maybe I repeat one or two times to confirm that the horse has got it. And then I don't repeat again - I either quit for the day or build on what we've done to go farther. The fact that we stop or move on is a signal to the horse that they've gotten it - I think endlessly repeating things the horse already knows can either cause the horse to mentally check out (boredom) or think that it had the wrong answer (worry), in which case it may start offering all sorts of unwanted behaviors to try and solve the problem. I also think some people repetitively do ground work, not because the horse needs it, but because the human takes comfort in the repetition or feels safe doing the same routine every time, or sometimes worries about moving on to the next step. (I've certainly gotten stuck myself at certain points in my work and had trouble moving on to the next step, so I can sympathize with that!) On subsequent days, I may review things we've done before but usually pretty quickly move on. I think repetition is a useful tool, but ultimately I view working with horses not as a matter of training conditioned responses - you can certainly effectively train the outside of the horse doing this - but I'm looking for something more than that.

I can't say it better than to quote from my earlier post "The Horse is Thinking About Leaving . . .":

For me, the building blocks are:

  • attention
  • softness
  • self-calming
  • building trust between horse and rider through the rider providing direction and helping the horse work through worries
Although these aspects of what we're doing sometimes involve separate exercises, ultimately they all will work together in everything we do. The objective is this - to have the horse and rider pair able to do work together as one - where you are able to direct the horse's thought, the horse responds to your thoughts willingly and with softness, and the horse's body becomes your body and the horse's feet become your feet - this is true unity.

Have a wonderful day, and may it include horses!


  1. EXCELLENT!!! Kate- I always always enjoy your thoughts and to me expert knowledge base.
    I very much enjoyed reading this today. I love the progresses made with your two.

    After an exciting ride yesterday, full of all the attenion getters and scarey terrains, Wa hates..I think I made some progress too.
    Stopping and standing for calm is always what we do, if she gets frenzied...she does the "self calminmg" -she turns away from the direction we are heading and puts her nose on the ground. Sometimes, I do not wish to turn around..and that is frustrating when she does and I do not want to...but, that fight I have to be careful of.

    Sometimes...she simply has to pee...sounds weird but, she refuses to pee under you have tips for this? I ususally get off myself to do so..and sometimes she does, as well...funny video that would make.

  2. I had a teacher who said, "How can we know what we think until we see what we say?" I didn't understand him when he first said it, but it really makes sense. Writing out what we think forces us to actually think something and then ask why we hold to that. As such, I really find that writing about my progress with Izzy has helped me shape my ideas as well as connect me to a larger community of horse people and provide valuable feedback.


  3. Well said. I couldn't agree more. Might I include consistency as a way to achieve those things?

  4. C-ingspots - You're right - consistency, and integrity in our interactions with the horse, is the key to everything - that's where the trust comes from, I believe - the horse learns it can rely on you.

  5. Kate -- I don't always agree with you, but you have a wonderful way of explaining and describing things that makes me actually think about why I don't agree.

    Regarding the lick and chew -- I think the horse's expression tells you what it means, not the lick and chew itself. I can tell when Panama is doing it because he's thinking or learning (head up, ears alert and focused on me) or when he's being submissive (often head down a little bit, and usually toward another horse). I've also seen him do it when he is really relaxed.

    Anyway, I feel the same way as you do about blogging -- sometimes it might come across as tedious (which is why I try to break it up with pictures from time to time), but it helps me to sort through my own thoughts!

  6. Good, thoughtful stuff here, thanks! I hadn't considered that the licking/chewing might be a learned response (the horse has learned that the human will LEAVE HIM ALONE if he does it), but it totally makes sense. Thank you again.

  7. I always enjoy your posts, and your way of 'working out' what it is you are doing/learning with your horses. I enjoyed your comments about alpha not always being the leader and the importance of trust. Now I'm going out to be with my horsies!

  8. No alpha, licking and chewing is just licking and chewing and round pens are for babies.

    Will you CUT IT OUT?


    Part of the challenge for those of us will less experience is that we look for more coarse, or loud signals of things working. I think that's what some of these other tools are about.

    Then, when you get out of that level, there's very little instruction that helps you get to the next level. I think a real novice would have a heck of a time with the subtleties of Rashid, and I only feel like I'm capable of "getting" it now.

    And even then, I'm struggling. But I'm starting to recognize progress, which is a big shift. So much is instinctive, something we don't listen to for so many years, we don't recognize it half the time..

  9. Breathe - Sorry! ;) I know exactly what you mean - I completely felt at sea when I first started working with Mark - I spent a lot of time duplicating techniques, because that was all I was ready for at that point. I think your observations about thinking about alphas, and looking for signals from the horse and using round pens are all correct - there are valid things in there for sure and I think there are valuable things in there for people working with horses - and I think a lot of what we need to do with horses at certain points is build our own confidence and a lot of that can help us - and if we can develop our own confidence, then we can help the horse! So you're on the right track! It is hard to move beyond the "systems" - which can be very valuable - my thoughts are from my own perspective - but I think eventually your confidence and experience may accumulate to a point where you'll want to, and be able to. It took me a long time to get to where I am today - but then I'm a slow learner! :)

  10. I always want the horse to focus on me with an alert, interested, and "thinking" expression when I am trying to train something. Then again, I often get that mischievous gleam in the eye that says..."I know what you want, but right now I'm going to do something silly instead." That's OK too, as long as the horse's mind is attempting to communicate with me.

  11. Kate, as always such an insightful post. I have to agree that a lot of Natural Horsemanship trainers (like you I often wonder exactly what does NH mean anyway??) seem to live and die by the round pen. I think in certain scenarios a round pen is a very useful tool but some of these folks seem to freaking LIVE in their round pens. Sometimes I want to say you know, there is a whole wide world you can go out and enjoy with your horse! Sorry to get off on a tangent about the round pen when you made so many more important points in your post, but some people seem to think a round pen is the answer to everything.

  12. Kate, as always some good thoughts. I can't even bring myself to type the 'n' word as I don't see what it has to do with horsemanship.

    I do find that ground work (liberty included) has a special place in our work, it's not about mindless 'games' that turn the horse into a zombie but about having a chance to observe and react to situations. More than anything I think it shows up my inadequacies!

  13. This is the first time I have read your blog. I so identify with what you wrote! Except in my case, it is my dogs I am working with - all spirited in a different way, all needing 'repeat' sessions until they get it. And writing about it makes me see it better in my mind. Thank you for sharing your words and ideas!


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