Have you ever experienced the feeling of your horse shutting down or freezing up on you during a ride? Picture yourself riding along on a nice quiet trail, when, all of a sudden, your horse is completely consumed by the fact that his pasture mate is cantering out ahead, or he becomes distracted by the large rock on the side of the trail that now looks like a grizzly bear. Whatever it may be, you can feel the energy and tension rising all the way up through your horse’s body. The tension in the reins begins to increase as you wonder how the next few moments will turn out. Will you still be on your horse, or on the ground staring up at your mount after he has reared, bolted or bucked you off?
This is an example of ‘trying to quit.’ In other words, your horse is making a decision to use his efforts to get out of something, rather than staying focused on both you and him. On rare occasions, this type of situation can be an out-of-nowhere incident, but, most of the time, it is a learned behaviour that appears when the opportunity arises.
What we would all rather experience is a horse that uses the ‘try to try’ option. Some examples of this would be a horse that stands patiently at the back of a trailer, loading at the slightest signal, or a horse that is scared of a situation, but chooses to stop and wait for the rider’s plan of action, instead of reacting through instinct.
I am a firm believer that if a horse has a chance to make a mistake, he will learn from it. But just how do horses learn? Is it from the mistake, or is it from the release that happened right after the mistake? There are many forms of rewards for horses: treats, petting, kind words, green pasture etc. The reward that arguably creates the most consistent result, however, is that of release. Release can be compared to the act of simply stopping – either stopping your signal, pausing, or just breathing out. With consistency, a horse will learn to look for these releases to know when he is “right.” The hard part is that if the releases are not consistent, the horse will begin operating through instinct, which leads to many common problems, rather than partnership. This is where planning and timing on the part of the handler is crucial.
There is a simple equation you can use to better the timing of your releases: Focus Gives you Feel, Focus and Feel Give you Timing
Think of focus as your ability to keep your mind on the goal, and feel as a measure of the energy and pressure between you and your horse. Timing tells you when to go and when to not go. Time your release well and your horse will learn to ‘try to try.’ Time your release poorly and your horse will learn to ‘try to quit’ since there is no reason to think that he will get relief by trying.
Let me give you an example, which expands on the concepts from our first article (in the March/April 2015 issue of Horse-Canada).
Let’s say your goal is attempting to get your horse into a trailer. You envision stepping up into your trailer with your horse following right behind. The reality is, after you step up into the trailer, you feel tension on the lead rope, as your horse informs you that he has other ideas about this situation.
This is the moment that we can draw the dividing line between ‘try to try’ vs. ‘try to quit.’
‘Try to Quit’
In this example, you weren’t prepared for the horse to resist, because you were focused primarily on the end goal of getting your horse loaded – and you failed to put pressure on the lead when your horse pulled back. This essentially rewarded the horse for pulling away from the trailer by creating a release for his efforts in reverse.
“Not a big deal” you think? Maybe not if it is just once, but how many times does this happen throughout your day? When your horse paws at the stall door and you immediately feed him, he is being rewarded for being impatient or demanding. When you allow him to walk around a puddle, he is being rewarded for not staying straight. When you pet him after he spooks at the same rock he sees every day, he is being rewarded for his reaction. These are examples of not having a plan, but rather waiting for an action from your horse, to cause a reaction from you. In each one, we see an attempt by the horse to quit, avoid, or operate through prey instinct. If this pattern is set in place, it is quite easy to create a ‘try to quit’ relationship.
‘Try to Try’
Using the ‘try to try’ option, as the horse begins to pull back at the trailer, you simply maintain a light amount of pressure on the horse’s lead and wait until your goal is achieved, which is forward motion with his feet. Even if it is just a small amount of forward motion. You would then reward by releasing the tension in the lead rope. This option may leave you and your horse at a stalemate for a few moments while he figures out what to do with the pressure from the lead rope, but if you simply wait, by releasing for the desired motion, he will soon figure out that pulling creates pressure, and ‘giving’ creates release. This is in stark contrast to the example in the ‘try to quit’ scenario, where the horse received a release for pulling away. In order to be successful, the concept and the timing is essential.
If you can learn to grasp some of these concepts and place them into your daily routine, you will be miles ahead in your progress at the end of the year. Let’s look at this a little closer…
If you enter into a situation with your horse with only the end goal in mind, but no plan of how to get there, the horse can often end up in a ‘try to quit’ scenario. Think of it like having several doors on each side of your house – there are many options for coming and going. When presented with a challenge, humans, unlike horses, always want to go directly through the front door. After a while, the horse is easily able to predict our behaviour. Every time we approach the ‘house’ we head to the front door (our goal), whereas the horse will often, instinctually, head to a side door. The horse chooses this option because of the “pressure” he feels from us, pressure we inadvertently create, when we head straight to our goal. Try not coming directly at him with a goal. Instead, give him options. This will give him freedom of choice, freedom of movement and freedom to search and learn. This searching and learning will be very valuable to both you and your horse’s future, and is one of the important keys in developing a ‘try to try’ partnership.
In order to be more effective with your horse, it is crucial to understand his way of thinking, as well as your own. Rather than trying to get him to think like you, try thinking more like him. If you can, watch how horses interact in a herd – it may surprise you.
So, let’s put all this into motion. First of all, I don’t want you to immediately think like a human and say “Well this doesn’t apply to me. My horse loads/ties/rides etc.” I am simply using this as an example to get you thinking “outside the box.” We have all experienced good and bad episodes at a trailer, and most of us know that when a horse chooses not to load – he IS NOT going to load (not willingly anyway). And that is the key word: ‘chooses.’
So, how do you create a ‘try to try’ vs. ‘try to quit’ horse? You give him a choice. That choice is created by giving him options. Think of these options as your ‘plan,’ which leads us back to the first part of the equation: Focus.
We are going to focus on two things in our equation: the wrong thing and the right thing. We are then going to set up an exercise that causes the wrong thing to be difficult (but not impossible or unfair) and allows the right thing to be easy, for which you can provide a release. The key is to put things into motion – before our horse does.
Chances are that when faced with a new challenge your horse may well try to think around the goal, rather than go directly at it. So, we will let him attempt all the side doors first, in order to convince him that none of those doors are a good option – because they are all more difficult than your goal. The horse will then be much more likely to go through the front door, which was your original plan. In having your horse become part of the decision making process, you are going to cause a creative situation, with options, allowing the horse to find the answer and rewarding him through release.
The process of going with your horse, having your horse go with you, then going together, will start to become natural as you figure out various creative situations for each exercise, manoeuvre and goal.
In the next article, I will talk about the mental aspects of developing an all-around horse and rider team.