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:
- building trust between horse and rider through the rider providing direction and helping the horse work through worriesAlthough 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!