Saturday, June 30, 2012

Eyes on the Try

Now that I'm at a big barn - I think there are over 60 horses - I get to observe lots of people riding and working with their horses.  There are a few people of the school that think all horses are stupid and do the wrong things out of cussedness - those are the folks that yell, and smack and kick and jerk.  I'd act out of cussedness too if my people treated me that way, particularly if my rider was also making it really hard for me to do something by the way they were riding.  Sometimes they manage to intimidate the horse into doing what they want, but there's certainly no softness.  Then there's the people who think softness is about head set - they're the ones who saw from side to side on the horse's mouth to get them to drop their head and are then happy despite the fact the horse is braced from nose to tail.  Since none of the stuff at our barn rises to the level of abuse, although some of it's not very pleasant to watch, I don't interfere with these people or offer them advice - in fact I never offer advice unless specifically asked, which almost never happens.  I think people need to find their own way and are only willing to make changes in how they ride and interact with horses if they make up their own minds to do it.

Then there is a large group of folks who do want to do things differently and try to do that.  They would be of various schools of thought, mostly "natural horsemanship" based (whatever that term may mean).  They're well-intentioned, but it's interesting to observe where they struggle with their horses.  There are two things I see - they don't identify and reward the try in its small increments (although they may well reward a good final result), and they take their eyes off the objective - that's what I mean by eyes on the try.  And they tend not to break things down into small increments, but rather think of a task as only one big thing that has to be accomplished.  I think these things often keep them from getting where they want with their horses.

I have a lot of sympathy for all of these people, and certainly for their horses.  I come from a pretty traditional riding background, where it was assumed that horses wouldn't do anything unless you made them do it, and that's how I learned to ride.  I've personally done each and every thing I've seen these people do at some point in my horsemanship journey and I know how hard it is to realize that what you're doing isn't very effective and to make the changes in yourself that are necessary to make changes in your horse.

Take trailer loading, for example.  There are plenty of horses at our barn who don't load well, although they get plenty of practice (at not loading well).  You see the same pattern - handler struggles for half an hour or more to get the horse on the trailer, eventually the horse gets on and off they go.  Sometimes you see the same horses and handlers week after week - but that makes sense since if you do the same thing - if you don't change what you're doing you're going to get the same result.  What I see them doing is taking their eye off the ball by interrupting their trailer loading to "make the horse work" - usually by lungeing in a circle.  This comes from the "make the wrong thing hard" line of thought which is often misinterpreted and misused, in my opinion, by a lot of folks.  What in the world, from the horse's point of view, does lungeing in a circle have to do with getting on a trailer?  I can see the horse thinking "you wanted me to get on the trailer, and now you want me to lunge in a circle?  Fine, I can do that."  Mark Rashid did an excellent post that relates to the subject of taking your eye off the ball - it's called Six Degrees of Separation and I highly recommend that you read it - it talks about stuff we've all done with our horses.  This concept applies to everything - if the horse spooks, focussing your attention and the horse's attention on the object of the spook - but wait - what were you and the horse working on (say trot with good rhythm and forward and softness) when the spook occurred?  That's where your focus should stay - not getting distracted by the spook is the key thing.  Same thing applies to ignoring what the horse is doing that you don't want and keeping your focus on what you do want.  And interrupting the task to "make the horse work" sure falls in the same category of separation from what you do want.

Second, most people seem to have a hard time breaking a task down into small pieces and seeing and rewarding small tries to build a chain that leads to the end result.  I always feel like asking these people (but won't unless asked for advice) - how do you tell your horse that he's made a try in the right direction, and what would that try look like?  I think their answer would likely be something along the lines of "I'll reward the horse when he gets on the trailer" - but they don't even do that, they close him up and head out.  Identifying small tries and giving the horse a reward - I usually give the horse a walk-around break, both to reward the try and also to give the horse mental processing time - breaks in the work are so important for that.

So, trailer loading.  (Side note - if your horse doesn't give to pressure and doesn't lead and handle well on the ground, trailer loading is likely to be a problem.) Say one of the horse's favorite things to do is to pull back when asked to load.  In that case, the first try I might reward would be just standing in the vicinity of the trailer on a loose lead - however close - it might be 5 feet away or it might be 20 feet away, whereever the horse can do it.  Start with where the horse is and build from there. I would verbally praise the horse and take it on a short walk away from the trailer.  Then I might reward a lean in the direction of the trailer without pulling back - it might take a while to get this but I'd just keep on patiently asking.  Then one step in the direction of the trailer, followed by praise and a walk-around.  You get the idea.  (I think it's also important to keep building the chain and not just drill and drill and drill the things the horse already knows - I see a bunch of this at my barn too, particularly when it comes to groundwork - there are lots of people who do the same routine with their horses over and over again - the horses are bored and they and the horses never progress - but that may be where the people are comfortable at this stage in their horsemanship.) If you just keep the pressure on and ask for more and more and more, without rewarding the tries, how's the horse ever going to build a chain of small tries that leads to the end result?

So for me, keeping my eye on the ball - what I want the horse to do and nothing but that - and breaking down the task and rewarding the small tries - even small breaks are so important for this - are the key things.

21 comments:

  1. As to trailer loading...there may be some merit in the lungeing idea. The horse "whisperer" I've worked with teaches that trailer loading problems are really a leading problem and the main key to solving them are groundwork. That does mean making the horse work when it refuses to load, but mostly on developing leading and responding to the ground handler. There might be a bit of circling as well. Once the horse is "soft" and obedient to the handler--there's your soft, obtained by always instantly rewarding correct responses--the horse generally learns to load pretty quickly.

    My guys go in the trailer on their own. I just toss the leadline over their necks, get them to the trailer, and in they go. It's a godsend when I am by myself as I can stay at the tailgate to close them in and I don't run the risk of getting hurt by walking in before them.

    I've taught a number of other horses to load as well. I do need to work on Chance a bit as he's not trailered much, but it wouldn't take me too long to get him loading as well as the other two.

    When I see people having trouble loading, I too cringe. It's usually pretty evident their horses lack proper ground manners in other things too and sometimes the loading just brings it all to an ugly and dangerous head.

    All that being said, I had a friend years ago with a horrible loader. Once they got the horse on and drove off the horse's reluctance made sense. The driver just revved up the engine and took off, tossing the poor horse all about in the trailer. No wonder he didn't want to get in to go for a ride!

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    1. Jean - I believe from what you said that your horse whisperer does groundwork with a horse that won't load as a means of developing responsiveness to the handler, and attention. I think there's a difference between that and people who just "make the horse work", basically as a punishment for not doing what they want - there's a disconnect there I think.

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  2. Breaking tasks down into small steps is the only way to make progress with any horse. Rewarding the slightest try is good reinforcement of a desired behavior too.

    I've seen way too much mishandling of horses over the years and wish there was a way to educate people who ride or handle horses.

    Sometimes I would really want to say something to the mouth back and forth "sawer" to "get him on the bit" but kept my mouth shut. Or the neck slapper or...or..so many others. Nobody wants advice and unless they ask for it (and even when they do) they don't want to hear someone else's opinion of how they aren't doing it right. You're right to stay quiet. I think the best thing we can do is sort of show by example how to treat a horse right and hope they catch on.

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  3. I agree with everything you have written here. I also would add that it is important to be a confident leader. I see people trying to load by pleading and begging in a baby-talk singsong voice. The horse wants a leader, someone to take tle lead rope and go with confidence. I see this a lot.

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  4. Timely post on the trailer loading issue.

    I'm fixing to help my boarder with her horse - they haven't gotten the butt bar up in seven or eight months.

    They think feeding him in the trailer is the answer... sure - he gets in but you can't leave with out the butt bar fastened. He flies out of the trailer backwards (dangerously) when the approach the bar.

    The real problem is that the father who was the driver of the trailer when the horse would load drives terribly. I wouldn't get in there either.

    My plan is to get him in my trailer, and take him on a few very short, very safe rides, along with much praise and rewards. Wish us luck!

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    1. Calm, Forward - Consider luck wished!

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  5. we have a new rider at our barn that treats her horse miserably when it comes to riding and it is out of sheer ignorance. The bo agrees that her training is atrocious but unless she asks, we need to keep our mouths shut.

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  6. Anonymous - that is very sad, but I don't know what else you can do unless it rises to the level of abuse - then the barn owner would be justified in saying something. It's very hard to watch that sort of thing.

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  7. Excel;lent post and so true , I have often wondered about the "take the horse off and longe" nothing at all to to with the trailer. For years at an annual trail ride I would help folks load their horses , till one day I notice I was helping the same folk over and over. If after 5 yrs of me loading the horse no problem ,and them struggling , I kinda thought they would see where it was going wrong.

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  8. Kate--I'm going to add in the mild dissenting opinion here. Reprimanding a horse (Including smacking and yelling) DOES work and is effective--when the horse is resisting out of an attempt to dominate the handler. This does happen--quite often. I'll give an example that relates to the loading. I pretty much never have trouble teaching horses to load. As an earlier comment said, it is a lot about confidence and being a good leader. We have a slant load trailer and I have had few problems with loading horses--including green horses and horses that were said to be hard to load. However, one day, a very confident horse (Lester) who liked to test, decided he did not want to get on the trailer. He had always loaded easily and knew how to do it. He just preferred to stay home today, rather than go somewhere to work. He refused to get on the trailer. I was alone and I simply got after Lester, making it quite uncomfortable for him in his non-loading state. After about five minutes Lester decided getting on the trailer was the better option and hopped in. When I stepped up to tie him, he put his head under my arm--volunteering the gesture. I rubbed on him awhile (he showed NO fear of me despite our recent set to) and then off we went. Lester never gave anyone any trouble about loading after that.

    Now if I had misread that situation and dinked around coaxing Lester to load and rewarding small tries, that horse (and he was/is very smart) would probably have given grief about loading for the rest of his life (in my opinion).

    This isn't meant as a criticism of what you do and I can see that your methods are working well for you. But I have to point out that sometimes a little more firmness is called for (with horses that need this--not all of them do).

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    1. Laura - Dinking around certainly isn't going to get the horse loaded, and I'm not a fan of dinking around. Sometimes dominant horses - like our Lily - will decide to "lock up" and not move and the solution for me has always been to get the feet moving again, no smacking required. You need to get as big as is necessary, but no bigger - I think a lot of people just don't have the ability to know how much pressure is really needed in a particular situation (I'm not including you in that group - I expect you've got a good grasp of it all). A lot of people undershoot - dinking around or letting their horse walk all over them (literally) and a lot go overboard with no need - lots of yelling and smacking and sometimes real abuse. I'm a believer that almost all horses - there are exceptions - are happy to cooperate if they can just figure out what we want, which isn't always easy from the horse's point of view. Red is a horse who a lot of people might classify with Lester and smack around, but he's a horse where upping the ante would be exactly the wrong thing to do - using finesse with him, while still being direct and no nonsense, works much better.

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    2. Well, I have to disagree with the statement that almost all horses are happy to cooperate if they can figure out what we want them to do. That has not been my experience, and I've been working with horses my entire life and have broken and trained many, many horses. Some horses are pleasers, yes. Some want to test to see who is boss (there are plenty of this sort) and if they can dominate, they mostly will NOT choose to do what the handler wants, even though they know perfectly well what it is that is wanted. These are the horses that need firmness and reprimands, including the occasional harsh verbal bark and smack with the rope. My horse Sunny is in this category. He dominated his former owners and came to me balky and resistant, hard to catch, and willing to kick at you. After four years with me, he meets me at the gate to be caught, does not display any willingness to kick, and is cooperative ride--never balky. I accomplished this change of behavior through firmness and appropriate reprimands--yes, including a harsh verbal tone (not exactly yelling, but close enough) and smacking with the leadrope. And Sunny seems quite fond of me--he is one of those horses who feels much happier when his human will demonstrate dominance. The other four horses in my barn do not need any smacks or harsh words in general, and three of them are so sensitive that such reprimands would send them backwards. And, of course, I don't reprimand them in this way.

      I can't say if more firmness would have helped Red, cause I don't know him. You did go through a period where he was pretty difficult, but the methods you've used (with Heather) seem to have worked, and I have only applause for your approach. But it does raise my hackles a bit to hear anyone proclaim that those who smack a horse with a leadrope or yell at him are always in the wrong. It depends on the individual horse and the circumstance. It CAN be the absolute best thing to do. One needs to know how to read the horse first. I certainly don't beat them indiscriminately--and people who do are abusive, as you say.

      OK--will get off my soapbox.

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    3. Laura - always glad to have your contribution. I think a lot of our purported disagreement is a matter of symantics. I've seen Mark get pretty darn big with some horses who had ground manners issues, and I've done it myself - it's important to get as big as you need to get the job done, and some of the training moments with Red were (briefly) a bit ugly. But . . . there's always a but, isn't there? . . . I think it's a question of whether, when you get big, it's needed, and two, can you do it while still offering softness - a better deal than the horse getting all upset and worried? I'll bet that's a lot of what you do (I'm presuming here). Also, I think horses respond a lot better to consistency and predictability - even it it's a bit on the tough side - than they do to wishy-washiness and tentativeness - they need leaders who are confident and in charge. But I'll beg to differ on the basic character of horses - I think a lot of horses who appear to be challengers who are doing so because they've never had a leader they can trust and are absolutely convinced they have to be in charge to be safe - you can dominate a horse like that but the horse will never trust you and will be an accident waiting to happen - that would be Red. That's why it took so long to work through his issues with Heather - every time we presented a new challenge to him, he had to first revert to his old testing/challenging/dominant behavior - to feel safe - before he could make the change. Each layer we got through, that testing behavior got shorter and it's now pretty much gone totally away. And although we had to be firm and consistent and directive with him, any rough stuff would have been totally not productive - there's a line there that I find hard to describe but I'll bet you've got an idea what I'm talking about.

      Keep the conversation going if you've got more to say . . .

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  9. Well.. yes I loved your post and there is a lot of wisdom. BUT, you explanation of NH ... I just don't see it, except for perhaps moving the feet at certain times... but that all depends upon the situation. Small increments, rewards, definitely keeping the eye on the goal working towards is what Cooler Horsemanship advocates and teaches. I, at times, probably do regress to bad habits, but that doesn't make it NH. (It just means I am an individual who made a bad choice :)

    There are many different ways to train a horse as there are ways to raise children. And most people like "their way" best. Ha. But with that said, I LOVE reading and keeping open minded about what everyone does - and store it away and actually do use it.

    Thanks for this post and I will have to get my hands on the book by Rashid.

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    1. Margaret - NH is a big tent with lots of different styles and practioners. Some of it's good, some of it's bad. And as Mark Rashid says, the term NH is pretty well meaningless. The thing I see with a lot of amateurs who practice (what they call) NH is that they just don't have a very good grasp of feel and timing, even if they know some of the techniques. There's a lot of mechanical practice and a lot of the time they're just not paying enough attention to notice when the horse makes a try - that's got to be pretty frustrating for the horse.

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  10. I loved this post. All three of my horses were considered problem horses. One was given to me, because they'd given up on her, one was at a trail resort and was going to auction because he misbehaved so badly, and the other was left tied up in a field... emaciated.

    The mare would flinch when I'd go to pet her, you could just see her bracing herself for the impact of being hit. I couldn't even approach the fence without her taking off, scared.

    I've worked SO hard with all three of these horses, and have never had to hit or raise my voice to two of them. I think the last time I actually did something back was when (Skip- my main man) threw a kick at me when I went to lift up a back foot. I gave him an elbow in the butt, and then promptly picked his foot up again- no problems.

    I've always found that working with them through the problems was way more effective than trying to force them. I've gained they're trust, and these three horses will do what I ask of them because they trust me now... everything from being caught to trailer loading, to scary stuff on the trails. I really don't feel like we could have accomplished this had I chosen a different approach.

    (Also it kills me to see people yank on there mouths! I even flinch when I see people bit there horse by just shoving the bit in and not asking for them to open up... it's surprising how many people do this once you start looking.)

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    1. Thanks, Carly - I agree with what you're saying - you've had good results working with your horses, and it's hard to watch others do things in a way that's counterproductive.

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  11. i recently saw a pat parelli video of his method of trailer loading. he basically trotted the horse in circles, squeezing it closer and closer to the trailer until it was trotting over the ramp every time around, and until the horse was completely covered in sweat. then he just stepped in closer to block the horse and the horse had nowhere to go but into the trailer, where he let the horse rest for a few minutes, then out again and more work, and then in, nice long rest. it seemed to work, but the horse was quite frazzled. i think this is where the lunging next to the trailer thing comes from. here is the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytgR3aUtJPY -- if you watch this please note how long it takes. also i sure hope newbies don't let the line wrap around their bodies like he does.

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    1. lytha - that's a good example of a method that emphasizes making the wrong thing hard, rather than the right thing easy, and basically gives the horse no choice - that horse isn't choosing to get on the trailer, he's got no other option. If a horse looks frazzled during training work, unless the upset is short and quickly resolved, that usually means there's something not quite right - it may be effective but there's no softness there, and horses, like people, don't really learn well if they're emotionally stressed. But it's about more than just getting the horse on the trailer, it's about how the horse feels about the whole thing. A horse that's happy to get on the trailer and does so willingly is a lot different from a horse that's forced into it - and the trailer will have different associations for the horse.

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  12. Kate, Great post! Lots of thoughtful ideas explained very well. Reading it reminds me to keep my eye on the topic when working with my horse. I, too, see people at my barn who work and treat their horses differently than I do. I agree with you about the free advice; most people think they're doing fine and don't want any. But sometimes it saddens me to see horses not being appreciated more. Thanks for the post and many good reminders of how to work effectively with our horses.

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