Sunday, April 26, 2015

Getting to Good: How Much is Enough?

I've been trying to put together a post on how much is enough - when to stop and when to keep going.  I think this is one of the most difficult judgment calls in riding, and getting it right can make a big difference to your horse, and to your relationship with your horse.

That said, I'm always a bit uncomfortable writing about stuff like this - I'm not an expert, just an amateur like you.  But I've had some training, and some coaching, and I have a responsibility to my horses to get it as right as I know how, right now (I'm always learning from my horses), and maybe you'll find some of my thinking helpful - who knows?

I've been riding a lot lately - all four horses - and as usual, they've been teaching me some valuable things.

Missy has been doing very well, but she came out a bit frazzled one day last week - I've got her started back on a morning rotation, and this was a change, and it was cold and windy. She did some calling and fidgeting while I was grooming.  So we started our work session with some leading - leading to me is a big "tell" about the horse's mindset - it took a while to get things right, but we bridled up and went to the mounting block.

She's been standing very nicely on a loose rein for mounting for quite a while.  But not that day - she was rushing past the block, having trouble standing when I was getting on and rushing off.  Not what I wanted.

This is a good case to look at how I think about working with my horses.  Here are some thoughts:

1.  These sorts of set backs are common, particularly in early days with a horse, and nothing to worry about - provided you work through them to a good conclusion.  If you leave them hanging or don't address them when they arise, they create all sorts of follow-on issues.

2.  I ignore the behaviors I don't want and keep patiently asking for what I do want.  Sometimes I take a step back - with mounting, this would involve breaking things down to coming up to the block in the correct position, standing at the block, standing while I put my foot in the stirrup, standing while I put weight in the stirrup, and ultimately standing when I get on until I signal to move off.  Lots of positive reinforcement for each step, no negative reinforcement except if a horse runs into or past me - this is a ground safety issue and I'm really clear about my personal space boundaries.  (A lot of "make the wrong thing hard" stuff people do is just bogus, in my opinion - it takes your and your horse's eye off the ball of what you want to do, and it also turns asking the horse to do something it has learned to do - say lungeing or "moving the feet"  - into a punishment instead of satisfying work - why would you want to do that?)

3.  I'm not in a hurry - this is absolutely critical.  This allows me to stay relaxed and focussed, no matter how long it takes or even if we get only get part of the way done that day.  My advice is that if you're getting frustrated, or angry, or impatient, either let that go and clear it out of your mind, or if you can't, stop.  Stop now.  Those emotions have no place in working with the horse - they will adversely affect everything you do and lead to poor results.  Never start work with a horse when you don't have time to finish whatever needs doing - if you're in a hurry, the horse will know and it will impair your work.

4.  Patiently, and repeatedly, ask for exactly - not vaguely, but exactly - what you want.  Horses don't deal in generalities, they deal in specifics, and if you're vague about what you want, you'll get exactly that - something vague and not quite right.  If you're consistent, and clear, you'll get there.

5.  Remember to reward each small increment of try/offer the horse gives you, and shape what you get to the end you want.  Don't stop until you get to a place that's better than where you started.  If you stop with the horse worried/confused/agitated, that's what you'll find the next time you take up your work.  Work until you're done and the softness comes through.

6.  But don't drill.  The difference between getting to done, and drilling, is a hard one to define.  Drilling is repeating a behavior the horse knows how to do, for no purpose except repetition.  Horses get bored by this, and they may even decide they must be doing things wrong (because you keep asking over and over again), and start offering up unwanted behaviors - that can really mess things up.  I stop when the horse does the behavior correctly once - in Missy's case that day, once I got on and she stood, we went on to our regular under saddle work - and then perhaps ask again once to confirm that the horse gets it - that day, when we were done working, I asked Missy to stand for mounting again and she was perfect.  And she's been perfect from the beginning every day since.  What I ended with was what showed up the next ride, and so on . . .


  1. I couldn't agree more. I used to ride focussed on a pre-determined outcome. That led to some mistakes. Now, while I will have a goal I'm ready to change it depending on the horse.

  2. Some excellent points. As far as "make the wrong thing hard" goes, yes a lot of people do make it an excuse for punishment, but done correctly it fits into what you are saying. An example given to me at a clinic I attended in the late 80's was a horse that was determined to head to the arena gate as if it was a magnet. The clinician asked him to do lateral work, circles, etc. every time the horse headed to the gate, and then walked him away to the other end of the arena. He wasn't punishing, just calmly and quietly making it a place the horse didn't want to be. A couple of times of that and the horse was standing quietly wherever in the arena he was asked to. No different really than keeping on asking Missy to stand correctly at the mounting block. It's just that "make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard" has become such a catch phrase, that sometimes it isn't truly interpreted the way Tom Dorrance (or was it Ray Hunt?) would have intended.

    1. I agree in part - I do believe the work itself should never be something that the horse would find to be something it needs a release from - the work should be a delight and a release in itself. Also, this method doesn't work well with a very high energy horse who's happy to keep working as long as you ask.

      Probably my biggest issue with the concept is not how it was used by Tom and/or Ray, but how it's misused by many trainers and amateurs alike - horse won't do x, run it in circles - it is punitive when done that way and also has nothing to do with teaching the horse how to do x.

  3. Timely post for me. Good advice! Sometimes it's easy to know where to end the ride on a good note, but some days knowing when to leave the next part for another ride and quit while you made some progress is tougher to figure out.

  4. I agree with what Shirley said. Misinterpretation of what the horsemen intended is rampant, it seems. Done correctly, it's gold. Another "catch phrase" that's often misinterpreted, but is essential with horses is, "feel, timing and balance". Important words to keep in your mind when working with our horses. However, I agree when making the wrong thing difficult, if it's done in a punishing frame of mind, it's harmful rather than helpful. I think it's often overdone as well, we'd usually be better off with doing less and less, and giving sufficient time, along with our clear requests, for the horse to figure out what we'd like from them. Good post Kate, and very helpful for what Eagle and I are working on right now. Along those same lines of thought, I've recently read somewhere, that it's more important how we do something, than what we do with our horses. That one resonates deeply with me. All good stuff. So glad Missy was just having an off day - don't we all?

  5. I usually try to keep my riding time short and rewarding for the horses and myself. I don't believe in drilling the same thing over and over and each time I ride I try to incorporate some different situations for the horses so they don't get bored. I will admit though, it's hard to stop when we're both having fun and enjoying our ride sometimes. Then again I don't like to push it before we can't end on a good note.


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