Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"Stuck" Behaviors

Story's comment about my post on wash stall training got me thinking.  Red's prior problems with the wash stall are an example of what I can a "stuck" behavior.  Red's bracing up and to the right on the first walk/trot transition is another example of a stuck behavior.  I think these sorts of things can be incredibly frustrating - certainly for us and also very likely for the horse.  No matter what we do, the behavior just keeps coming back - it's stuck.

Oddly enough, with Red, both of these behaviors were resolved in the same week.  I think that's because I changed some things I was doing.  (Note: if you and your partner - here the horse - are stuck, trying to change your partner's behavior can be far less effective, in my experience, than changing your own behavior first.)  And in substance, I changed the same thing in both cases.

What I changed was to be sure there was softness before the ask was made, and softness through the ask itself.  And this softness had to come from me first - if I did this I could get softness back.  Part of this was turning what I was doing into a "whisper", and without any negative emotional content at all.  I think many people's first inclination when something isn't working well is to get bigger and more forceful, or to aggressively "make the horse work" - I increasingly think this is exactly the wrong way to go, and I part company with a lot of trainers (including some big name NH trainers) on this issue.  I feel the softness is lost by doing that, and it can also result in taking your eye off the thing you're trying to do. This doesn't mean I don't act with intention and focus, patience and persistence, and give the horse active direction - it just means I do it as softly and quietly and in as matter of fact a way as I can.

And I think the reason the learning stuck so well in both cases - really no issues in either case since - is because Red was able to learn and respond because he was soft in the first place and I helped him find a way to carry that softness through the work.  A physically braced horse (whether the brace is coming from the horse, human, or both as is often the case) is an anxious, unhappy horse, and horses (and people) who are anxious or worried can't learn well.  Since Red wasn't braced - he was soft - he could learn.  And once he found he could do these things with softness, he was a lot happier being that way than being braced.

These are really good examples of what my horses and I are working on to do less and get more, but it's the precondition of softness that made the learning possible.


  1. Makes me think of the often used definition of insanity: "doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results". ;)

    So the way I read this, if I go for an ear and she braces right away, I've already started on the wrong foot. Even though we achieve something resembling softness after, it's perhaps already too late and the behavior will remain stuck. We need to find a way to start soft if we want it to get unstuck.

    Thank you for going into this further. Training is so much mental, not physical.

  2. Idea: think about how you are breathing and your body language - can you "creep up" on the ear (or in that direction) while keeping your posture relaxed and nonchalant? It might help to not look at the ear while you're doing it to reduce the energy. Also, I've found clicker training extremely helpful as well in situations like that.

  3. I agree that softness in ourselves helps the horses soften and accept more desirable behaviors. In my book less is more when interacting with my horses.

  4. Nice explanation! One of the things that Mark Rashid mentioned in his latest book/dvd and at a presentation he did at the Horse Expo in Denver: the quality of the first touch may color the entire interaction and set you up for success or failure in what you're trying to do. I've been trying to be cognizant ot this when working with my mustang, and have found it to be quite true. If I am mindful each time of touching with a gentle clarity - his neck, his leg, his lead rope - he is much calmer and more softly compliant with whatever we do next. I was a little dubious, but it seems to be true.

    1. Chris - I think that, with a horse that may be inclined to be defensive or throw up a brace at the first opportunity, the softness of the first contact can make a really big difference since it sets the tone for the whole interaction.

  5. great post and I couldn't agree more. I once had a clinician say to me 'ride like it's perfect and it will all be fine'. What she meant (I think) is that I needed to stop 'trying to fix and just assume that if I ride correctly Irish will fix himself. I'm totally mangling this analogy but it's essentially what you said. :)


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