Sunday, January 16, 2011

Developing the Virtues - Dawn

In the comments to my post on developing my horses' virtues, billie make the point that these virtues are inherent in the horse and it's not as if we, the people, bestow them on the horse.  I think my choice of the word "develop" may have been a bit off - it's a bit like people saying "I taught my horse to do a lead change".  No, you didn't, the horse knew how to do one already and you just had to communicate clearly what you wanted and then make sure you weren't getting in the way by "helping" with your body and position but were in balance and allowing the horse's movement.  But a movement (lead change) isn't quite like a virtue (say, patience) either - I do think each horse, due to its innate temperament and personality, has a stronger or weaker component of a virtue to begin with.  Also, virtues in horses may have been repressed or stunted by prior "training", and the virtues I want are also about how the horse feels and acts in connection with a human rider or handler.  So in that sense, the word "develop" is appropriate, and I'll continue to use it but in the sense I've been discussing.

I also believe that my horses can help me develop my own virtues by helping me to develop my weaker ones, and by requiring me to model the virtues to them, to the extent that I can.

As a reminder, here is the list of virtues I put together, with some good additions/modifications some of you suggested in the comments (thanks!):

Curiosity/ability to experiment/playfulness

None of these virtues are really separate, but relate to and interact with the others.  I'm going to do a post on each horse evaluating where we are with the virtues, and where I'm seeing us going next.  We'll start with Dawn.

Attention.  Dawn's come a long way on this one already - when I started working with her she could be amazingly inattentive - even when leading, she would get distracted by something, turn her head and run right into me.  While she can still be distracted, she's much better about returning her attention to the task at hand.  She is capable of intense focus and concentration, which is a real asset.  On this one, we just need to be matter-of-fact about keeping our mutual attention on the work, and returning our attention immediately, without fuss, to the work when our attention strays.  She and I will work on this virtue for both of us.  I think we need to build this virtue before we'll be ready to tackle more challenging situations where she might be inclined to "go away" from our conversation and endanger herself or me.

Patience.  Dawn's patience - being willing to stand around under saddle, and to stand still for mounting, and to work through things she's uncertain of while staying calm and not getting frustrated, has improved enormously.  She can work for extended periods of time now - she's much more mature and less of a "young horse" in her mental attitude.  We need to reinforce her ground tying as we haven't done much of that lately.

Curiosity/ability to experiment/playfulness.  Curiosity is a very strong trait in Dawn.  It's allowed us to make good progress in our scary object work.  She can be overly rigid/perfectionist in her responses to asks - she sometimes worries that she has to be "right" and will anticipate or rush in her hurry to give the right response.  I'd like her to slow down and think more and be less reactive, and to be more willing to try out possible responses without worrying.  With her, I need to be careful to ask very softly (she's my zero pressure horse) and allow her an opportunity to respond and try - I need to be slower myself to allow her not to feel pressured.  I might try some trick training with her to encourage her playful side.

Forward/impulsion/responsiveness.  One way to think about where Dawn stands on this one is to say that she has too much of this virtue - which means that she really doesn't fully have it.  She's all go all the time - but often it's rushed and without the relaxation/calmness that needs to be paired with it.  But she's certainly a horse that moves off the aids - in fact one of her challenges is accepting even the softest aid without becoming fussed.  I want to work with her towards my aids being as soft as possible, her accepting them and maintaining her relaxation and calmness into her forwardness.  There can't be true impulsion - the horse in self-carriage with an engaged core - without both forward/responsiveness and calmness - getting both at the same time is the trick.  But we've make some good progress on this one already and have already had some really nice moments, particularly at the trot.  We need to work on her walk, and also start work on her canter - this is more of a challenge for her since it's a faster gait - I need to help her focus on the rhythm, and not the pace, of the gait.  Rhythm and straightness both require this virtue and relaxation/calmness to really come through.

Willingness/softness.  Dawn is an alpha, used to directing and controlling her mare herd, and accepting human leadership and direction aren't always easy for her, particularly when coupled with her perfectionism/tendency to worry.  For her this one is all about relaxation, and learning that she will have time to try and will not be punished if she doesn't offer the correct response.  That mental softness, together with our softening work, together will take us a long way.  She's a bit of a show-off, too, which makes her willing to try hard and perform - she's competitive in her own way.  We need to work as well on presenting her with new situations and encouraging her to be willing to accept my leadership as we work through them.

Kindness.  Dawn is demonstrative, including demonstrating frustration, irritation and impatience from time to time.  She is also extremely sweet - she wears her heart on her sleeve and bonds very tightly with people she likes.  She can be very aggressive towards other horses.  I always require good behavior from her - no ear pinning or nipping and no aggression towards other horses while I am interacting with her or in her vicinity.  She needs to always remember that I am there and take responsibility for my safety and know that I will take care of hers.  I'll continue to encourage her mental and emotional softness, which has grown with the work we've done together.

Calmness/relaxation.  This is Dawn's biggest challenge.  She's wired to be very hot and hyper-alert and reactive, so I keep developing this virtue at top of mind in everything I do with her.  If I model calmness and relaxation to her, she does pick it up, although weather (cold or wind) or exciting things going on make it very hard for her.  All our softening work will continue to help with this, since the relaxation of the top line and engagement of the core will help her achieve mental and emotional softness.  We'll continue some of our self-calming work, including standing around work and continued work with scary objects and further developing our spook-in-place.  I must always work with her without any rushing or hurry.

Self-confidence.  This goes very strongly with patience, calmness/relaxation and softness.  As her repertoire of skills and experiences grows, her confidence in herself and her abilities will grow, as well as her confidence in me as a leader - they go hand in hand, I think.

Trust/trustworthiness.  She needs to learn to trust me as her leader, and to know that I will provide trustworthy and consistent leadership.  I need to trust her to try and work hard.  Eventually, we will work to safely expand her experiences into situations where she needs to trust me - such as the trail.  This will take time, but on warmer days when she's very relaxed, we can begin our work on this together.  We've got a long way to go on this one, but as long as we're headed in the right direction I'm satisfied.

I'm really enjoying the challenge Dawn presents to me - I need to step up and model the virtues for her to help her develop her own.  As soon as the weather permits, we'll be back in the arena starting our work again.


  1. I loved your word choice of develop!!

    Although there are differences between breeds and individuals, it is entirely possible to train (or untrain) the virtues that you've listed.

    Attention, patience, curiosity, willingness, calmness...
    These are all things that we can purposefully train for if the horse lacks them.

    Or purposefully destroy with the wrong training methods!

    Especially with some of the rescue horses I've clicker trained, I've seen huge increases in the amount of curiosity and self-confidence they show. Some training methods, however, can really squash a horse's sense of curiosity and self confidence.

    I think it can be helpful to think about virtues and then to think about exactly what physical behaviors we mean by each one.

    For instance, for curiosity, one behavior I want is for our young colts to willingly approach and interact with strange objects, instead of spooking or shying away. Now that I've named a specific task, I can start training it. I'd starting by rewarding the horse for approaching and interacting with known, harmless objects and gradually work up to scary and strange things.

    Mary Hunter

  2. Dawn sounds a lot like my Rocky Mountain mare Sugar. Sugar may not be quite as hot as Dawn, but most of the other descriptions fit Sugar quite well.


  3. I thought develop was the perfect word choice. I have to disagree that virtues are inherent. Ozzy was a nasty bastard when I met him. He did not have patience, did not know kindness, and was certainly not willing or honest. His entire personality has changed over the years.

  4. Hmmm. I'm not sure about virtues being inherent -- that implies that you can't change a horse's, say, willingness (whether from unwilling to willing -- or from willing to unwilling). I think, just like people, horses all have certain things they are naturally better at -- and the rest has to be developed, also just like with people. For instance, some kids don't naturally have the patience to sit and read, but they can *learn* to do so. I think horses are no different than we are, in this respect -- they can learn, or develop, what they don't have naturally.

    Reading your analysis of Dawn gives me a lot to think of. Panama is very much like her, but for a few crucial differences. He has all the go and requires soft aids (for the most part -- leg yields are different, partly because he is likely to interpret them as a request for more go), is also impatient and easily distracted, and has a lot of curiosity combined with a strong initial flight response. With him, though, I think much of our self-confidence issues stem from MY lack of confidence -- my trainer commented on Friday when we were jumping that when I seem confident, he does, too. I think that's the major way he differs from Dawn. Another difference is that he is not aggressive towards other horses (or people) at all -- in fact, he is so social that he is clearly surprised and confused when another horse expresses dislike or aggressiveness toward HIM.

    You've inspired me. I might just have to do a similar analysis on my own blog!

  5. Okay, Kate, so I have a quick question... Which virtue do you think Panama's extreme socialness would fall under? He is friendly and open with pretty much everyone, especially in the arena or on the trail, and I'm not sure if that would fall under kindness or curiosity and playfulness or both! Or maybe even a bit of self-confidence -- I think it shows a lot of that if he can walk right up to a new horse to greet them, without fear of their response. What do you think?

  6. Katharine - Part of what you describe with Panama may be just "young horse" stuff - they're often distractible and impatient. I think it sounds like he's kind - it should really be kindness/sociability, which also probably means that he's going to be more inclined to trust you as you work together. I've found that aggressive/dominant horses are sometimes less willing to allow you to lead and to give their trust to you - that would be Dawn - because they're used to having to make decisions about what to do.

  7. Modeling the virtues you want in your horse by using them as your training method is a good basic to remember. It's often hard to keep calm when your horse is excited, but getting excited yourself doesn't usually accomplish much.

    Interesting analysis of Dawn. You've already made tremendous progress with her. It will be interesting to see how things go once you are able to get some quality work in with her again.

  8. Kate, thanks! I think you are dead on with your assessment. The only thing I suspect is more than young horse stuff is all the go he has -- I don't think that's going to go away as he gets older, even if it does become easier to control it. His buddy Spaghetti, who is the same age as him, is the exact opposite -- he'd rather NOT run, thank you very much! LOL

  9. I like the way by looking at your horses virtues allows you to look at your own virtues. I think alot of what we like in our horses mirrors what we like in ourselves and those around us. Sometimes it may be opposites to help balance our own personal way of being. All very interesting and thought provoking

  10. I think you and Dawn have accomplished much in your work together. Your list of virtues is a good start to getting the most we can from our horses and ourselves.

    Dusty and I need to work on patience and willingness/softness. Dawn sounds as if she and Dusty have a lot of the same characteristics in their personalities. They are both a challenge to work with too.

  11. Whichever words we use, I absolutely respect the time, energy, thought, and sheer persistence in the face of very cold weather that you put into working with your horses!

    Just wanted to be clear on that. :)

  12. Sounds like you and Dawn are going to be working on the same things as Gwen and me. I'm looking forward to reading about how your work with her will go.


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