Saturday, October 11, 2014

Soft Doesn't Mean Ineffective

Many of us, I think, got to where we are in our horsemanship journeys due to finally waking up to the coercive, often punitive, and sometimes even abusive, methods that are used in more "traditional" horse training - methods we ourselves may have been trained to use, and maybe used with some success in riding and competition.  I know in my case, I reached a decision that I wasn't going to work with my horses that way any more, and had to find a better way of working with horses that did not use fear or pain-based methods and treated horses with dignity and respect.  I had become aware of the cost to the horses of many traditional training methods - some horses give up and shut down (these horses are often easy to ride but very dull), some horses become severely stressed and anxious and some sensitive and willing horses fight back (some of these horses may even become dangerously aggressive or just plain lose their minds - Dawn almost went down that road before I woke up and rescued her by stopping her "training").  And please be aware that there are older training methods - you could call them traditional as well - that treat the horse with respect - I'm thinking Podhajsky and the old man who taught Mark Rashid how to work with horses - they aren't what I mean by "traditional" methods in this post.

When I was at this point back in 2003 - pretty clearly knowing what I no longer wanted to do, but not clear on where to go next - that I just happened to meet Mark Rashid and watch him work with people and their horses - it turns out he actually works with people and the horses are the beneficiaries.  It was a clear case of the old saying, "when the student is ready, the teacher appears".  If I'd encountered Mark before that point, I probably would have not understood the importance of what he has to say about horses, their behavior and the most effective ways for horses and people to work together.

By the way, I lump some "new" so-called-natural horsemanship methods in with traditional training methods - including "lungeing for respect" which often essentially is running a horse in a round pen to the point where the horse gives up due to fear or exhaustion - the so-called "join-up" which is just the horse seeking relief - any relief - from the excessive pressure.  Watch the videos of some of those trainers and you'll notice how on edge and worried their horses are. There's effective ground-work and then there's forcing the horse to comply, just as there's a wide spectrum of NH methods and trainers - the NH term is pretty meaningless (Mark Rashid, by the way, refuses to be identified as a NH trainer, since he really isn't one and also believes the "natural" in the term is meaningless).  Any time the horse is effectively forced to comply (with punishment or excessive pressure) by having no options, the training is "traditional" and coercive, whether it's called NH or not.  "Making the horse work" when the horse doesn't comply is an example of a form of coercion that's popular in lot of NH circles (and the thought process behind it doesn't even make sense, but that's for another day).

That realization, that I no longer wanted to be part of a horse world where coercion and punishment were the methods used, was the beginning of my real horsemanship journey, those many years ago.  I would have been described as an experienced, effective amateur rider - I could do a winning hunter round, I could get a horse around a cross-country course, I could gallop down the trail - but I discovered that I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about working with horses in the most effective way.

But you'll often hear, from proponents of traditional, more coercive, training methods, that "new" methods don't work - horses are poorly trained, have poor ground manners and their people often can't ride them effectively or even at all.

From my observations, that criticism is often true . . .  There are reasons for horses turning out that way.

One factor can be the excessive emphasis on groundwork by certain trainers and in certain "programs", leading to endless repetition of things the horse already knows without taking things forward into ridden work - people get stuck in an endless loop of groundwork and more groundwork.  Groundwork, in my opinion, needs to have a purpose that it's trying to achieve, and once that has been achieved, the groundwork doesn't need to be repeated.  Endless, mechanical drilling is numbing to the horse and doesn't allow the work to move forward, and actually has very little to do with the development of softness - things you do to the outside of the horse don't really produce this in the end.  You see a lot of folks that get stuck working with their horses in this repetitive manner.  Groundwork can, however, be very helpful to someone trying to develop feel and attention - it's really more about training the person than the horse.  It can also be very helpful when starting a young horse or checking out a newly acquired horse to make sure the horse is comfortable under saddle and understands how to stop, back and turn.  Ground driving is also a very good way to expose a horse to new situations without the risk of being on board.

There are also folks who confuse themselves and their horses by doing what I call "trainer-of-the-month" - watching lots of videos, following one trainer and then the next and the next.  Experimentation is important - you have to be willing to try and fail - but if you're going to present consistency to your horse you need to find someone good, whose methods and instruction you respect and find helpful, and stick with it.  There are a lot of bad and mediocre trainers out there - including some of the so-called "gurus" - but there are also some really great ones - you just need to find them.  I was lucky enough to encounter Mark at exactly the right point and I couldn't have found anyone better for me and my horses.  But that said, if you and your horses are in the hands of an unsatisfactory, or even worse, bad, trainer, jump ship - don't wait around even if you're not sure where to go next.

"Traditional", punishment-based training often results in compliant horses - they're compliant because of the fear of getting whacked, or spurred or jerked on.  They may also be worried, and stiff and braced, but a lot of riders are used to that and expect their horses to feel like that (if the riders even feel their horses at all).  As noted above, these horses can be easier for people to ride in the specific environment they were trained for - show ring, trail, etc. - since they're often pretty mechanical in their feel and responses.  (Side note: mechanical horses typically don't have a wide repertoire of skills and are often not really very well-trained - take them outside their comfort zone of familiar situations or behaviors and the wheels tend to fall off, partly because the fear of getting whacked/spurred/jerked comes to the top since they're unsure of what to do and are worried that if they guess wrong they'll be punished.)

Working with a horse through feel and the development of softness - in yourself and the horse - produces a much better result in terms of the responsiveness and cooperation of the horse, but, to be frank, it's a lot more work than traditional methods.  It takes longer - it takes as long as it takes - and requires a lot more of the human.

In traditional fear/punishment based training, almost everything that goes wrong is considered to be the horse's fault - in our arrogance, we assume that of course the horse understood what we wanted, and of course the horse can physically comply, so of course the horse is just being stubborn, or defiant, if the horse fails to do what we want.  The problem is that, in almost all cases where the horse  fails to do what we want, either or both of those conditions aren't met.  Coming to this recognition, and figuring out what you have to do as a result, is the road of the horsemanship journey I've been on.

In developing feel (in ourselves - horses have feel already, we humans just need to find it), groundwork - in the form of leading work - can be very useful.  I can't tell you the number of Mark Rashid clinics I've attended either as a rider or auditor where one or more participants (and Mark, unlike a lot of other clinicians, takes a maximum of 7 or 8 participants for the entire clinic) worked a lot on their leading skills to help the horse, and them, define their space.  I've done some of that myself, most recently at the last clinic with Rosie.  There are a lot of people out there, well-intentioned people, whose horses walk all over them - run into them, step on them, bump them, etc. - because the horse has never been give a clear definition of what the human's "bubble" is - it's not that the horse is disrespectful (that awful, useless word), but rather that the human has been inconsistent or absent in terms of defining the relative spaces to be occupied by the horse and human.  And, sure, if you don't set boundaries, the horse will push on you - that's what horses do to define their space and it has almost nothing to do with dominance or "moving the feet" - that other NH mantra.

A lot of folks - I've been there myself at times - who want to find a better way to work with horses - one that doesn't involve fear and coercion - struggle with trying to be so soft that they are ineffective - their horses don't understand what they want because they don't make it clear.  Being soft isn't about being ineffective - it's the most effective way, in my opinion, to work with horses, but it doesn't mean that you're tentative, or wishy-washy, or vague, or afraid to give the horse direction.  But it's easy to fall into that trap - I've done it myself on occasion.

Soft is about attitude and attention, and offering connection to the horse for the horse to take up.  It's about being a leader - not a coercive or punitive leader, but one the horse can trust to give them direction and keep them safe.  It requires that you do something - direct the horse - but without being abrupt or coercive.  It takes time, close attention, and dedication and patience with yourself and the horse, and especially humility - beginner's mind - to develop this mutual softness and connection.  You can't get it without work, primarily on yourself - it's a lot more about what you offer your horse than about anything else - if you offer softness and connection, consistently, the horse will take it up.  And it takes years - at least it has for me - and I feel I'm only just beginning to scratch the surface of what's possible.

No, it's not easy, but darn it, all that work is worth it when you get that feeling of a live, honest connection and communication between you and the horse - there's nothing better - it's just pure wonderful, all wrapped up in a package with horses.


  1. So well thought out and written. Your last few posts have been great ... keep 'em coming! Thanks!

  2. well said, I talk often about energy and resistance , similar I think to what you call "brace" it doesn't need to be force or aggression, just simple use of the real tools at hand (our minds and body mechanics


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