Sunday, March 27, 2011

Developing the Virtues: Me

A while ago, I did a series on developing the virtues in my horses, preceded by a post on what I meant by the concept of developing virtues instead of specific actions in the horse.

Here are the posts (they're also in a sidebar):

Virtues Instead of Actions
Developing the Virtues: Dawn
Developing the Virtues: Pie
Developing the Virtues: Drifter

It occurred to me that I needed to do a post on developing the virtues in me - after all, I'm the other half of the horse/human relationship that exists in the work.  So here goes:

Consistency and Fairness.  I have to behave fairly and with consistency - the horse needs to know what to expect of me.  A small example - if I don't want my horse snatching grass when I'm leading, I must be sure to never - not once - let the horse snatch grass - otherwise the horse will be thinking - "maybe today I can graze?"

Patience.  I need to not be in a hurry - either in my movements or attitude or in getting to a goal - small steps often lead to the greatest progress.  Also, when I'm working with a horse on something new, I need to be sure to allow the horse enough time to figure things out and reward small increments of progress.  Breaking things down into small steps is very important - a complete behavior is formed out of many links and every link has to be there.

Reframing.  Some people would likely characterize this as "PC", but I believe the mental attitude I bring to my work with the horse is very powerful.  If I characterize a behavior as "bad" I'm much more likely to let emotion enter into my response or be inclined to punish (or reprimand) the horse.  Almost every "bad" behavior is the result of something the horse has learned to do - been inadvertently trained to do - by humans, or is a result of fear or anxiety.  (Please keep in mind that not using punishment as a training method does not mean that things don't get "big" from time to time - the two things really aren't the same at all although I believe people often confuse them.)  I've consistently found that focussing energy on what I want the horse to do instead of focussing energy on what I don't want the horse to do gets me a lot further.  All punishment does is tell the horse what you don't want - my job is to show the horse what I do want.  When something "bad" happens, the best response is often to just ignore it and keep on working on what you do want - by doing this you've already changed the horse's expectations.

(Another problem I have with the use of punishment/reprimands is that you better be darn good if you use it - it's only effective if it's instantaneous and consistent, every single time, and you know with certainty that the horse really did understand what you wanted - how often is this the case?  I certainly can be pretty forceful with a horse that attempts to bite or kick me or run me over - that's where alpha/dominance based thought does have some application, I think.  And there's a spectrum from abuse to punishment to the use of pressure - it's partly a matter of degree, but I also think there's a big difference between punishing a behavior/failure to perform a behavior after the fact and cuing (without poisoning the cue by using an excessive cue - spurring or jerking a horse in the mouth - as a punishment) with the least pressure possible to get a behavior that you do want and rewarding with a release.)

Don't Leave the Horse Hanging.  If the horse is struggling with something, or is worried or afraid, I need to keep working until the horse can get to a place where he feels better - otherwise, if I stop too soon, the horse will be confused about what I want and possibly associate the work with feeling anxious.  The horse needs to get to an "aha" moment before we stop in order for the work to be effective.  This can take 5 minutes or an hour or more.  But it's important to know when to stop, too, and how to wrap things up on a good note.

Creativity and Flexibility.  This one is also related to Reframing.  I need to start with a plan, but be able to modify it if things aren't working.  If one way of teaching the horse to do something isn't working for that horse - each horse is different - I need to come up with another way of doing things.  To the extent I can find ways to make the right thing easy rather than just make the wrong thing hard, my horses will be more responsive and happier in the work.  I do use pressure/release but I also try to find creative ways of doing things that make use of positive reinforcement, like praise, rubs and clicker using food treats.

Leadership and Confidence.  I need to be sure to stay ahead of things and get in there and provide the horse with calm, clear, consistent direction.  (In my opinion, this has almost nothing to do with being "dominant" or being your horse's "alpha" - it can be a lot quieter and less fear-based than that if done effectively.  Alpha/dominance based methods do have some application when handling horses on the ground to define your personal space, but last time I noticed horses don't ride other horses so I find it pretty hard to see how alpha methods have any relationship to work under saddle - that's an experience horses only have with humans and it's got nothing to do with herd dynamics.)  For me, this needs to be based on: "lead the horse with your thought".  I need to be mentally and physically there with the horse so I'm directing the horse before the horse starts making its own decisions - my focus and attention are preconditions to the horse's focus and attention.  And I need to show the horse confidence - and if I don't feel it sometimes I need to fake it as best I can.

Attention and Timing.  When asking for something, I have to be alert to the slightest changes in the horse's demeanor and behavior so I can reward the smallest tries in the right direction.  Releases have to be immediate - and I have to be careful not to give inadvertent releases at the wrong time which will train the horse to do unintended things.

Calmness.  My demeanor needs to be quiet but also confident.  Emotions, particularly frustration or anger, have no place in my work with the horse.  A fearful or anxious horse is not in a good mental or emotional place to learn.  If I need to get big - and there are occasions when this is necessary - I need to do this without emotion and in a matter-of-fact way.

Persistance.  This relates to Don't Leave the Horse Hanging.  If the horse is distracted, or uncertain, or resistant, I just need to keep right on asking, as many times as necessary, until I get the first try in the right direction that I can shape into the behavior I want.  This isn't about coercing the horse into doing what I want, it's about the horse offering the behavior and being rewarded for it.

Respect the Horse.  I need to need to find a way to get the work done in a way that leaves both me and the horse satisfied with the outcome.  I need to find ways to be as soft as possible - sometimes it is necessary to get big to get the horse's attention, but this should be very brief.  I think we humans are by and large far less sensitive than horses, and we tend to bring that "clunkiness" to our work with horses - most people, myself included, do way too much and use cues that are way too big - learning to dial things down is an important part of this.  Learning to work with my breathing is an important part of this.

Learning.  Since I don't work with horses using a "system" or "program" which is fixed, I want to always be open to learning new ways of doing things that may be more effective than what I am doing now, or that can add to my skill set.  This involves reading and watching videos, auditing clinics and getting good advice and assistance by riding in clinics with good horsemen and women.  This also means being willing to try doing different and new things with my horses - for example, this year I'd like to find a way to do some cattle work and also some trail obstacle work.

Now, for me these virtues are very much aspirational - this is where I want to get to in my work with horses, not necessarily where I am now.  I struggle more with some than others - Leadership and Confidence, Persistence and Don't Leave the Horse Hanging (particularly the balance between getting far enough without pushing things too far) are ones I often find particularly troubling and I've got plenty of work to do on the others.

What virtues do you think are important in working with horses?


  1. I totally agree with you on the reprimand, your timing has to be impeccable or it's pointless. I prefer to think of it as correction, but sometimes it's difficult to give the correction quickly enough without using too much pressure. My gelding, Cowboy, will very quickly over-react if I'm not careful. He seems to understand the concept of "ask first." It's as if he's saying, "hey, you didn't ask first, it's not fair." Even if he does something that seems really bad, I've found that if I just repeat the ask, quietly, I get the right response quicker.

    I also agree about not leaving them hanging. I think it's very easy to teach a horse to be anxious. That's why I'm very careful to go slowly when introducing something new. If you cause your horse to have a big problem, you have to stay and deal with it, or you continue to have the problem.

  2. Excellent post. Lots to think about. I know I find it particularly challenging to be confident for my horse all the time. It doesn't take much to send me scurrying! I also find it difficult sometimes to break things down and reward her early efforts. It's so easy sometimes when they give you one awesome step to ask for another right away instead of stopping to tell them how good they just did.

    I love learning. I try to read and watch and listen to everything I can...trainers I've never heard of, trainers I don't agree doesn't matter...there always seems to be some sort of lesson to be learned. With horses the learning never stops. I can always do better for my horse.

  3. I would say that everything you listed here are good virtues to work towards.

    Personally, my biggest thing working with horses is to never leave them hanging or confused. To work in small steps building the chain of links to success and understanding for them. Showing them respect and flexibility in their training is also very important. I could go on but I think you've covered just about everything here that we use with our horses. Great list.

  4. Kate, you are such a prolific blogger, I cannot keep up with you!!! But I so love reading all the excellent things you have to say. I wish I read your blog before I even bought a horse because you are so much a better teacher than the people where I learned to ride. Sure they taught me how to walk, trot and canter, but riding is so much more that that. Yes, I agree that patience is certainly a virtue wen working with all animals, not just horses. And I do believe in reprimands, but only TIMELY reprimands. A person better know what they are doing. It is so easy to reward the wrong behavior, or correct the right one! Sometimes without even knowing it. I remember the first time my horse did a flying lead change, it felt so strange and so much like a little buck that I circled her. My screw up. So many of them are. Finally, I love the idea of leaving on a good note. I don't ever want to leave the ring with a sour taste in my horse's mouth, or leave after she has called all the shots, or leave after I couldn't get something right. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it must be somewhere on the positive end of things. Thanks for such a great post.

  5. Excellent aspirations, and very well worded and explained. This is the stuff of good horsemanship.

    I get very frustrated when people do not understand the difference between punishment and negative reinforcement. I don't think punishment serves any purpose, other than to stroke the moral ego of the punisher. Negative reinforcement is a powerful training tool, but it does require finesse on the part of the trainer. The release of the reinforcement must be immediate and complete.

    I think the most important virtue of a horseman (or any person) is to always be learning. Horses have a way of "re-educating" the people who think they've learned it all!

  6. I also agree on the reprimand. It's hard, though.

    Being calm and fair are important. For me, it's also trusting Jaz ad respecting him, because he is my teacher. It's important for me to know when to trust him and when to tell him, no, I know what's best in this situation. We're getting there.

  7. I need to work on the confidence thing with my big boy, who can give scary responses sometimes.

    But I would add "adaptabilty" to the entire equation. You need to be able to adapt training techniques, exercises, methods to the horse you are riding that day. And the more methods in your bag, the better. We must always remember--there is more than one way to ride.

  8. Good post Kate. I can't think of anything to add that wouldn't be just a rewording of something you have already stated better than I could. While we were riding in the mountains of the Canadian Rockies we would occasionally see a band of wild horses. Over the years, I have learned there are two leaders in each band. The stallion is the dominant pusher type leader. An older mare is usually the respected, quiet pull type leader. All the horses wanted to be around the mare, but not the stallion. Our choice is do we want to be a pushy type leader or a puller type leader. If we follow your counsel we will develop into a puller type leader - someone whose character, calmness, consistency draw our horses to us and create a desire within them to want to please us.

    I'm trying to work on being like that old mare.

    I got the old part down, but I'm still working on the rest.


  9. I love how well you can describe and organize all of these things. This is why I'm never a very good teacher--I can't put these elements into words like you can. I agree with all--great job listing them all out. They are all key items that we all need to keep in mind.

  10. I'm with Leah. As I'm working through this steering issue (we almost crashed into my daughter because I couldn't get Smokey to turn), I have to watch the reprimand. Partly because I have seen my trainer turn him in a circle when he does that, and I can't quite find the line that works.

    I think I'm in a confident place now, at least more than ever. I ride with such a different spirit and an understanding that we WILL get there, I can ride it out, we can figure it out.

  11. Glad to know I'm not the only work in progress :)

    Personally I need to focus on patience, flexibility, attention, and consistency.

  12. I love this. . .and I may have to borrow it! It really makes one take a critical look at themselves, because owning a horse isn't just all about the horse!


Thank you for commenting - we appreciate it. No spam or marketing comments will be published.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.