Monday, January 10, 2011

Virtues Instead of Actions

From time to time, I take the time to think about where I am on my horsemanship journey, and where it looks like the journey is taking me next.  I do posts from time to time to reflect on this - it helps me think things through.  The series of posts on this topic are in a sidebar - Steps on the Journey.

I'm at one of those inflection points in my horsemanship journey.  I was beginning to get a glimpse of this in the summer of 2009, and did two posts describing where I was and where I thought I needed to go next with my horsemanship.  I've recently reread these two posts, which are particularly relevant to what I'm writing about today - you may want to take the time to read them now as they describe my journey and how I got to where I am today:

Beyond Pressure and Release - the Next Step on the Road (from the summer of 2009) and
Beyond Pressure and Release - the First Step: Attention (also from the summer of 2009)

I was beginning to get a glimpse at that time about how to work with the inside of the horse and not just the outside, and I've been continuing down that road since, working on my attention and focus and also how my body mechanics and thoughts influence the horse - there's more in the sidebar about those topics.

But what does it really mean to work with the inside of the horse instead of the outside?  What does it mean to establish a connection with the inside of the horse, and what implications does this have for my work with horses?  I think what this means for me is that I need to be working with my horses to develop virtues as much as, or more than, actions, and that I should work on actions while taking account of the underpinning of the virtues.  But what does that mean?

Working with horses on actions is what most of us, I expect, me included, do most of the time when we're working with horses - we want the horse to behave for the farrier or the vet, lead well, turn here, stop here, back this way, do a proper shoulder-in from point A to point B, do a rollback in the correct way, jump that course of jumps with the correct strides and lead changes, sort those cows, go down that trail and cross that bridge, etc. - the list is endless.  Those are all actions we want the horse to perform, and if we have a clear idea of what we want and communicate that well to the horse and allow the horse to learn to do it, we get the actions we desire.  I think that's what many people mean when they say a horse is trained (in whatever discipline or activity).  It's a chain we build, link by link, with our horses.  If we do this by breaking down the tasks into small steps, and work with our horse in a way that allows the horse to figure out what we want, the chain gradually gets built. When we say a horse has a "hole" in its training, we often mean that he doesn't know how to do some action we'd like the horse to do.

But ultimately, a lot of that is technique and working with the outside of the horse.  There's nothing at all wrong with that if it's done carefully and with respect for the horse and how the horse is feeling about things.  But how do I work with the inside of the horse, and build that connection and relationship?

For me, there's something underneath all that technique and working with the horse on actions - I think of it as developing/teaching what I can virtues.  Virtues aren't actions or activities, they're ways of feeling, thinking and being - an approach to the horse's life with me - that I want the horse to develop.  Each horse comes with its own personality and temperament, inherent strengths and weaknesses, and prior life experiences and training (some of which may have taken virtues away from the horse rather than adding them), and will need more or less work on certain virtues.  Here's a partial list of the virtues I'd like to awaken or develop in my horses:

Curiosity/ability to experiment

If these virtues are strong, developing or adding actions becomes much easier, I think. In this list the order isn't important, although I believe in working with my horses that certain virtues are more fundamental.  If you have other virtues you think are important, please add them in the comments.

I firmly believe that, if I develop these virtues in my horses, that they won't just be mechanical horses, skilled at performing certain actions well, but will have the emotional and mental resources to cope with new situations and to learn new things where previously learned actions may not be applicable.  Mechanical horses do well what we ask them to do - horses with virtues have resources beyond that.  I don't think this is just a matter of a horse's inherent temperament, I think it's something that can be developed in the horse.  And I also think that there is work on actions, and ways of working on actions, that are really about developing these virtues in the horse - a good example would be my "just standing around" work - yes, I end up with a horse that can stand still for as long as I need (action), but the horse is really developing patience (virtue), which has follow-on effects in other work.  I believe that all training in actions must take account of how it relates to the virtues, and how that training might advance or not the development of the virtues.

I also believe that in order to develop these virtues in the horse, that I must model them to my horse.  If I want my horse to be responsive and move forward with impulsion, I must bring that energy to the equation and allow rather than restricting forward motion.  If I want my horse to be patient, I must be patient myself.  If I want my horse to be kind, I must be kind (this, by the way, has nothing to do with letting a horse intrude into your personal space).  If I want a self-confident horse, I must be self-confident myself.  If I want calmness and relaxation, I must offer that to the horse.  If I want a horse that is soft and willing from the inside, I must offer softness and must be willing to listen to what the horse has to say.  If I want trust, I must be trustworthy. This requires me to develop my own virtues in order to be able to model them to the horse - and that's a life-long task for me - horsemanship, and life, are never done.  Effectively what I want is for the virtues to flow back and forth between the horse and me in a conversation where we share values and can work on actions together out of that shared "philosophy".

That's enough for today - I expect I'll have more to say in future posts on how I define the virtues, how I am trying to work on virtues with my horses, and how that relates to where each horse is with their work at this point in time.  I'm extremely excited about where my horsemanship journey is taking me next!

Addition - see the following posts for more specifics on each horse:

Developing the Virtues - Dawn
Developing the Virtues - Pie
Developing the Virtues - Drifter


  1. You always bring up the best points :)

  2. Love this post. Gonna be reading it more than once to remind myself not to get lost in the outside trappings while neglecting the inside. I am amazed by how much my relationship with my animals has brought to the fore my best qualities. They have made me a better person and I am happy to continue down this road. Now I am reminded to give some thought to using those qualities to help them too.

  3. I think it's all 100 percent correct--horses are very sensitive to the leadership qualities you mentioned. When they act up and invade our space, they expect a quick reprisal and then to move on--being animals that are totally in the moment. The more we develop the personal list you wrote about, the less "work" we'll have to do. That's my feeling anyway. I've come to think that that list you made is the MOST important part of working with horses.

  4. I agree but tend to think of this in different language. I'm not sure I would use the word virtues, and I definitely don't think of it as me 'developing' something in the horse.

    My view, based on being with my own horses, is that what happens with us is an allowing for their natural tendencies to bloom.

    The allowing begins with giving them lots of choice wrt where they are in the larger area of our farm. They are separated from me by fences or stalls and they function as a small herd.

    This morning they 'helped' me get troughs set up for a cold day/night/day tomorrow, and they did the same as I covered the water pumps in both fields - right there they exhibited attention, patience, curiosity, calmness, self-confidence, and trust. (some of the materials were crackly and a little scary, but they were able to come and go at their own comfort level and they know that, so it's no big deal)

    When I allow them the freedom to move close and further away as I work both with them and around the farm, and then listen/observe what they say and do, it's pretty clear to me they both have in them and use all the things you've listed as virtues.

    We're on the same page, really, but I think sometimes we humans take on too much ownership of "creating" something in the animals we live with when really it's there all along if we just reorient the way we keep them, allow them to be part of daily life, and then pay attention to what they tell and show us.

    Hope this makes sense - I'm typing a mile a minute b/c I'm just in for a short break! :)

  5. I just have to add playfulness to your list, even though it's hard to define it as a separate virtue. It's made of some of the things on your list - curiosity, willingness, trust - but also includes an ineffable lightness of spirit, I think. If my horse is willing to play with me, than I am her equal in those moments and much is possible, if that makes any sense.

  6. billie - I think my choice of the word "develop" may have been a poor one - I think what I meant is really what you said - I think of "development" in the context of developing those aspects of the horse/human interaction, where the "virtues" need to be present in both participants. Hope that makes some sense.

    I also really dislike it when people say "I taught my horse to do a lead change" like the horse didn't know how to do one already! All they did was finally communicate clearly to the horse what they wanted, and then stay out of the horse's way so the horse could actually do it with a rider.

  7. Definitely in agreement about having to model behaviors that we would like to encourage, or foster in our horses.

    I imagine conversations around the water trough discussing what behaviors our horses are modeling for us :)

  8. How wonderful to be excited about your horsemanship journey. Its great reading about your experiences and sharing the journey with you

  9. Muddy K - I thought about putting playfulness in with curiosity - you're right, they're closely related, although I think some horses have a curiosity that is more analytical and some that is more a physical playfulness, although there's probably a mix of both in most horses. I think this curiosity/playfulness is related to a horse's feeling able to try different solutions to questions rather than always having to be "right" - some of the hardest horses to work with are those who fear not being "right" or not being "right" quickly enough, or who have always been drilled with the "right" answer and never had the freedom to try different answers or think for themselves.

  10. Good post Kate, there's a lot of good points in there that I agree with. You're right about links in the chain. For us it's small steps adding a new link in the chain when we're ready to move on to another challenge.

  11. I hope I can say this the right way, because I sure can't claim to have all the answers, but I find that if I'm in a "meditative" mode when I'm with my horses, I can see what they are doing and respond better. I try to keep the language and thinking side of my brain quiet, and do most of my thinking before or after I'm with them. I've just found that the most revealing and connected moments I've had with a horse have been when I stop trying to think like a human.

    Even the thought "wow, this is awesome" has been known to destroy the moment.

  12. redhorse - I would agree - for me the plan of work, and the conceptual approach, are there, but it's that connection and feeling between me and the horse that really makes a difference. It becomes a non-verbal conversation if all is going well.

  13. Not much I can add to what's been said - good post.


  14. Great post and great thoughts. I love how your posts get me thinking and analyzing things myself for me and Laz, our team of two.

  15. Ahhhhh your post is so timely and appreciated. I am currently reading Mark Rashid's, "Whole Heart, Whole Horse," and just soaking it all in. I think my virtue, that I am currently hoping for/working towards is "supportiveness."(Is that even a real word?) I want a horse that can support the rider's needs and I want my horse to feel I am there to support her. Thanks again for the post.

  16. Kate - I like this post because I think, unless I am misunderstanding you, that your list gets to the heart of what the horse is offering us. You are so right in your comments to say that they already know how to do specific actions, like lead changes, and we figure out how to ask them correctly for it. But, your lists talks about accenting or bringing out the other things inside a horse - the full character. Often when we own a horse for many years we see all the spectacular shades and nuisances of their insides and see traits like patience develop. I like the idea of exercises, like standing around, to work on patience and see that more. Way more valuable in my book then some of the other things that we ask our horses to do!

  17. Kate, Very good post! I like very much how you explore the inner side of the horse. Of the virtues listed, I think I like "trust" the best. I want my horse to trust me, and I want to trust him. Both aspects are challenging for me to work on. Your post is very inspiring. Thanks for sharing these thoughts!

  18. I look forward to reading more about how to develop these virtues.

  19. Once again, a good post. I like the concept of developing virtues in our horses...and that we need to demonstrate them in ourselves as well. Nice perspective on training the "whole" horse.

  20. I love what you wrote and the comments too. I particularly liked Redhorse's comments -- hit home for me, I guess. I think you are speaking to the journey part of the partnership we have with our horses - and that is the best part. It's good to think about how to cultivate the journey. Thanks for a good, thought provoking post.

  21. What an interesting post! Definitely looking forward to hearing how you help model patience and self-confidence, especially. I got nothing on patience, but for self-confidence I try to look at what worries Dixie, acknowledge it, and then let her know with my body language that it's not worth worrying about. I don't know if this is not working or if it's just a very very slow process :)

  22. I'm looking forward to seeing where your horse journey is carrying you :)


  23. Great post and you talk about something I've been thinking more and more of. Due to nature of some of my work plenty of what I do with the horses are actions. Often, they are tools at riding centres and it bothers me more and more.
    I am in dilemma with myself as I love equestrian sports. I love the adrenaline, the connection, the training. On the other hand, deep down I don't think the horse loves it as much as I do...

    I disagree slightly with the statement that we don't teach things to the horses, that they can do it already. They can do the movements but we teach them all over again with us on board. I think that yes, we learn to communicate to be understood but equally we teach something new as far as biomechanics of movement goes.

    Looking forward to reading more of your observations.

  24. These virtues are perfect! In my journey with Shyloh, I know what I want and expect from her, but sometimes I have a hard time finding the words for it. This post clarified and encompassed everything I am striving for in Shy!


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