Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Benefits of Mistakes

I think it's a natural human tendency, when something we're trying to do with a horse isn't working out all that well, to keep trying over and over again to do it the same way with the hope that maybe this time things will go better.  At least I know this a tendency I have, but I've learned that usually that road doesn't lead where I want to go.  To stop and rethink requires the ability to listen to what the horse is saying and acknowledge that perhaps I've made a mistake and need to go about things differently.  And maybe the next thing I try won't work all that well either, but I need to be willing to keep trying.  I think it helps to believe, as I do, that every horse is an individual, and has to be worked with as such.  I never used to "see" or "feel" horses - I just used to ride them.  "Seeing" and "feeling" the horse now, and the horse's reactions, worries, tries and confusions, and then those wonderful moments when the softness comes through, really is the best guide.  Now this doesn't mean that, at least in my opinion, certain techniques and ways of working with horses are better than others, but it does mean that there's no one-size-fits all "program" that will work for all horses.

And having to write this stuff down - the successes and the mistakes - as honestly as I can in this blog has actually helped me work better with my horses, I think.

Sometimes rethinking helps expose gaps in the foundation that it's important to fill before trying to move on.  In Drift's case, the gaps are his attention and his calmness - the two things are connected.  A horse that's inattentive and distracted can't be calm, since he's not "with" me - his mind is elsewhere, and where the mind goes, the body's likely to soon follow (or try to).

It's clear to me that the free lungeing (if you can call it that - it was mostly him running around while I tried to get his attention) was a bad idea for Drift.  It produced the opposite of calm - he got more revved up - and didn't do much for his attention.  It was almost as if I was giving him mixed messages - "I want you to pay attention to me and be calm but just go run around and ignore me and get more worried."  How much sense does that make?  I do think free lungeing, if done properly, can be effective for certain horses, but Drift's not one of them - he's too high energy.  I think lungeing him on the line may or may not be useful - I haven't decided about that yet.

I think for him, building calm and attention required going back to the basics of leading properly, every step, every time - my consistency is the thing that will give him the opportunity to be calm and attentive.  And so far, so good.  We had another leading session in the parking lot late yesterday after feeding time. There were a lot more distractions - people walking dogs and stopping by to talk with us, bicyclists, joggers and people with children and strollers.  But he managed very well since I continued to require that he lead properly every step - it took a bit longer to get to the good place where he began to relax, but we got there.

This morning, very early, about 6 a.m. after I fed the horses and after I turned Pie out, Drift and I had another leading session, starting in the parking lot again.  That time of day is a good time for us - it's very quiet and calm and there are rarely any people or distractions around.  Our starting work focussed on his turns being just right - where he doesn't anticipate but waits for me and then follows directly behind me at an arm's length on a loose lead.  He'd been struggling with the turns to the left, since he kept wanting to swing around me and come up next to me on my right.  I had to say "no, I want you to wait and then come behind me" a few times before he got it.  (This is one reason I lead with the horse behind me - they really do have to wait for your lead to even know what direction you're going and if I build it correctly, turns to the right and left are equally easy.)

Once I had some relaxation there - I do a lot of head down with him each time he's standing still as the head down position releases endorphins that aid in relaxation - we led up and down past the trailer and then to the arena.  His leading continued to be excellent - there wasn't the slightest sign that he expected to get in the arena and then run off, although if that had happened I was prepared to deal with it (I wear a helmet for all of this work).  I had set up a variation of the maze and keyhole that are described and shown in my post on leading exercises, as well as some cones:

My objective was to work with him on his turns, by using the cones, the right-angle turn of the (partial) maze and the turn around required for the keyhole as visual aids to help him understand where he was supposed to be as we turned.  (I used these exercises with Dawn quite a bit a while ago to help her with her attentiveness by asking her to navigate them one step at a time - with Drift I was using them to help him orient his body.)

He couldn't have done better - he was a star.  After our work session - we worked for about 20 minutes total including our starting work in the parking lot - his turns to the left are now very good and it's clear he's got the whole idea of how to lead properly firmly in mind.  Before I turned him out, we did a little more trailer loading work - the first time he pulled back a bit but got on within a minute or two, and the second time I just kept some - not a lot - of pressure on the lead, releasing each time he took a step forwards, and he didn't pull back but walked right in after 15 seconds or so.

When I took him back to the pasture - the trailer made him a bit nervous - he was calm on the way out, led beautifully and we did a few turns once inside the pasture to make the point that he's still working until the halter comes off - he did great.  I couldn't be more delighted.  We'll see how things go this afternoon when there are more distractions and the other horses are still out . . .

I've also been rethinking my approach to Pie's trot/canter transitions and his leads.  Pie's biggest issue is that he really doesn't much like to move forward - getting forward, every step every time, is our objective.  This shows up in his trot/canter transitions.  When I ask for a canter, it's three or four trot strides before he musters the oomph for the transition upwards.  Of course he can't get the correct lead - what was I thinking?  By the time he starts to canter, my cue is several trot strides back.  Before he can respond to an accurately timed (with the outside hind leg) cue, we've got to get "canter right now" in place.  I want him to immediately canter when I cue.  And I'm not going to care right now what lead he takes - I just want "now".  Today I'm going to carry a dressage whip to be sure I've got an immediate secondary cue for my soft canter cue with my leg.  Once we've reliably got "now" then we can focus on "which lead".

Mistakes are good - they lead to rethinking which leads to progress.


  1. I do the same thing when working with my horses. If something isn't working the way I want, I search for a better alternative to get the job done.

    Good luck with Pie and his canter transitions this afternoon.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. You are so right about rethinking approaches when mistakes continue. Good observation re Pie's canter transitions and leads. Another thing I need to remember is not to over focus on fixing any one thing - I'm bad for that :)
    I bet I'm going to read about Pie's leads improving very soon. Also, I'm going to copy some of your ground work with my horse Rogo. Thanks!

  3. Fantastic work. Incredible where the holes are. I think this is the first time I truly understood what is meant by that phrase.

    How many times do you hear someone say the horse has "holes" in their training. Like teaching someone to read who doesn't ever get instruction on the alphabet. Instead we give them The Great Gatsby and question why they struggle...

  4. My horse is very similar to Drift with regards to free lunging. He can get very amped up, so our free lunging includes lots of stops and standing. A single jump also helps his focus.

    I have just about forsaken the round pen for the same reason, and if we do go in there, my goal is slow and calm. Some of his reactions lead me to believe that he was purposely chased or pressured too strongly in a round pen before we became a pair. I have seen the round pen do wonders for the opposite type of horse.

  5. Those are some great training ideas you have. I like the idea of the "pole" maze.

  6. I'm like you, Kate--if it doesn't work the first time, try again. My desire to "do over" is based on the fact that I'm not a trainer and I "may not have asked correctly the first time." However, after a second attempt which often does not give me the result I want either, I step back and "regroup."

    I've had my horse for nearly 13 years and we "read each other" just fine. He is OTTB and free-lunges very well ... now ;o) ... but I find that, back in the beginning, working him in the round pen with just a halter and lunge line got him "in work mode" and we made progress much quicker.

  7. Excellent post, Kate. Some horses keep us honest in our approach to training; for me it's Chickory. Like Drifter, free longeing doesn't work with her, it just gives her plenty of places to escape to- she has a really strong flight instinct. I have to "see and feel" her every single time I work with her. I also agree that blog writing really helps me to work better, and gives me goals to work toward. Lets just say, it keeps me "with" my horse!

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  9. Hi Kate. I learn so much from reading your blog--I almost feel like I'm visiting your horses myself. Re the free lungeing discussion--I do think it works well for certain horses, particularly if they are independent, strong-willed types. I have a four-yo QH mare who is quite feisty and loves to go fast (she's a lot like Janet's "yellow mare" personality-wise). I don't have a round pen and we work in a fairly large arena, so it's easy to trot off to evade pressure and get "stuck" in corners.

    I used your "let me help you with that" strategy recently when she started running off when I asked for the walk. It took two really sweaty and frustrating (and LONG) sessions before she figured out that it was a lot easier just to walk. I don't believe in standing in the middle and letting the horse do all the work, either, so she wasn't the only one who was getting sweaty.

    I also wanted to make it clear that I expected HER to maintain contact (attention), even if I was driving her in a relaxed manner from some distance away.

    I'm not sure what I did was the best way to solve the problem (it sure wasn't an EASY way) but in this mare's case it was clear the running off was not out of nervousness. She just really would prefer to be the one setting the pace!

    I have a TW mare the same age who would likely turn into a nervous wreck if I tried this same exercise--just like Drift. But the Walker mare is much more eager-to-please and generally needs a lot of support and reassurance from me.

    Anyway, whatever I did seemed to work. After those two "sessions," the next time we had a go she started out completely relaxed--I asked for a couple of laps at the walk and then stopped there for the day. Sometimes you gotta love the expression on their faces when you stop work early: "You mean that's ALL...?" I'm figuring out with the independent mare that changing things up and making unexpected requests(so she really has to think) is a great strategy with her. She tends to get bored and resistant otherwise.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write such detailed notes on your horses. I'm looking forward to your reports from the clinic!


  10. Good post. For my sake, I don't think of them as mistakes, but tries on my part that don't work. Helps my emotional well being ;)

    I've found with my horse Sugar that when she doesn't respond the way I want the best thing I can do is stop and first relax. I have to keep an emotional balance. Right or wrong I always give her the benefit of the doubt - that she was trying to do the right thing but didn't know what to do. I'm sure when she's confused because I'm not clear that can be frustrating for her. It helps us both to settle down, take a deep blow and think. I usually go back to something I know she can do softly and correctly to get her mind back with me.

    Keep up the good work.


  11. They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results...

  12. I can't help but see a bit of my mare, Scout, in Drift. She has a tendency to "forget" the presence of the human interface (me) between her and the world, both on the ground and during riding. That's what's made it so dicey for us as partners, because nothing taps my fear like being in the presence of a horse who has completely forgotten me. I think you will win Drift's attention to you in the end, especially with such constant work. No one's ever asked him to be fully present before, I think, but you are now, and so he will get there.

    That being said, the new barn I've moved Scout to has a round pen, something which I'm very grateful to have. Why? Because without either a round pen or an indoor arena at the previous barn, I had no confined space in which to "play" with Scout. We have a silly little game we play in a free-lungeing setting, but it really is only playing. She gets to blow off some steam and I get to relax before beginning work. Our "playing" has never been identified as anything but that in her mind (I'm pretty sure), so I don't end up sending her mixed signals. I wanted to mention this because it's the only extent to which I've seen "free lunging" have a beneficial impact on her.

  13. I completely agree! It's SO important to work the horse you have that day and not try to work the horse you had a few days ago. Each day is different and it can be quite counter productive to think otherwise.

    The free longing is working super well for Lilly, which doesn't really make sense in my head, especially since Lilly and Drift seem to have a lot in common, but I'm really happy about it.

    Great post as always, Kate!

  14. That is why I get so frustrated with the concept, "There is only one way to ride." I have been blessed with dozens of good trainers along the way all with many different approaches to training issues. Now, I have a big "bag of tricks" to try.

    However, like you, I sometimes forget to try the alternatives. Your post reminded me how many roads to Rome there are....*G*

  15. Great post! I wanted to comment on what you've decided about free lunging revving Drift up -- I decided the same thing about turning Panama out some time ago. It's not really free lunging -- I stand in the middle and encourage him to run, but it's more like playing in the backyard with your dog than lunging. On the rare occasion that he has a ton of energy that needs to go somewhere, getting him to run a little before I ride is a good plan, as it allows him to get rid of the wiggles. But normally when I turn him out I have to expend a lot of energy to get him to run, and those times all it does is get him amped up. Now I only turn him out before tacking up if he's behaving like a basket case -- I know that means he needs a good run on his own terms before he can settle down.

    Anyway, I thought it was interesting that someone else has found this kind of thing actually makes some horses more hyper -- I've found that especially before a trail ride, where I want Panama to be relaxed and calm, the last thing I want to do is make him run a lot beforehand.


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