Today’s post is an apology. I feel the need to apologize to the tons of people who I have confused with my ideas on what it is when a horse tries. Lately, the subject of a horse’s smallest try has been the subject of discussion with a regular reader and from the way they have been talking I have obviously been as clear as a person trying to talk underwater. So I begin with an “I’m sorry” to that person and to everyone else I have confused.
But with the words “no valour, no gain” echoing in my head, I’ll attempt to explain what is the smallest try in a horse from a slightly different perspective.
A few days ago I watched a video of a trainer demonstrating how he rewards a horse for the slightest try. He began the video by asking his horse to flex its neck laterally. When the horse began to bend around with almost no pressure on the lead rope, the fellow released the feel on the rope and told the camera that he released the rope for the slightest try try. I know very many people would agree with this. However, what the fellow missed is that his horse was staring at something in the distance off camera with great intensity even while flexing its neck in response to the trainer’s request.
More times than I can possibly recall I have spewed the Ross-ism:
“The only change worth having is a change of thought. Without a change of thought, there is nothing for a horse to learn.”
I’ll say it again. Without a change of thought, there is nothing for a horse to learn. In other words, without the mind of the horse being involved in a training episode, a horse can’t learn from it. Learning only occurs when the mind takes in a new idea. Mental absorption of an idea is the key element to learning, not physical movement.
Therefore, when we ask a horse to try something, we are really asking a horse to consider an idea. Before a horse can act, it must first think. The only exception to this rule is a spinal reflex, but they are so rare that I don’t think we need to consider them when talking about a horse’s try.
When we think of what is a try in a horse, it’s impossible to think it is just one thing. There are various degrees of a try. Some horses try harder than others because some are more desperate to avoid pressure. These horses tend to have a lot of try. Other horses are less bothered by pressure and have learned that not trying very hard is a better alternative for them. But the one thing they all have in common is what constitutes the smallest try.
I’m sure most of you have heard the mantra that we should reward a horse for the smallest try. Very many trainers talk about it and several even demonstrate it, but almost all the ones I have witnessed seem to have a different view of what is the smallest try. Most trainers appear to believe it is when a horse yields its feet or body in some way to the pressure the human applies. I understand why this is. It’s because when a horse moves it is easy to spot and most people are aware of it. But in my opinion, the try began long before the movement.
As I have said, the only change worth having is a change in a horse’s thought. But for a horse to change its thought when we ask it to do something it must first give up the thought that already occupies its mind. While it is holding onto a thought, it doesn’t have room in its mind to consider an alternative idea. The idea we are trying to present to our horse will always be competing against the idea the horse is already trying to make happen. It is not until the horse says, “okay that idea is not working out too well for me, what else can I try?” that it is ready to try something else.
That moment when the horse gives up its idea is the smallest try in my opinion. That’s the moment we should be rewarding in the initial training of a horse because that’s the moment when the argument between what the horse wants and what we want is over.
In the scenario I described of the trainer demonstrating rewarding the slightest try, there was almost no try from the horse. The horse was focused elsewhere and did not change its focus even when flexing its neck in response to the feel on the lead rope. Yet the trainer released the pressure anyway and told his audience he was releasing for the slightest try. He did not recognize that his horse had not let go of his thought and was just mindlessly going through the motions it had not doubt done a thousand times before. There was nothing for the horse to learn from that event, which made the whole exercise pointless.
Of course, the perfect moment to reward the smallest try is also probably the hardest to detect for most people. Nevertheless, that’s what we should be talking about when we describe the smallest try. By the time the horse has got around to yielding with movement (as the trainer did in the video), releasing for the smallest try has long past. If we don’t talk about when a horse lets go of a thought people won’t learn to look for that moment and they will be stuck with being late every time. We may be only milliseconds late, but we are still late.
Trainers are always placing side-by-side the concept of rewarding the slightest try with the idea that good timing of a release is vitally important. If we are late with our release, our timing is poor and we lack clarity in the things we are trying to teach. So thinking about what constitutes the smallest try is not just an academic exercise. It has significant consequences with regard to our effectiveness as trainers and our relationship with our horses. I suppose it is a good thing that through being consistently late the horse can still learn the lesson.
There is much more to a try and in my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship, I describe how a try is never the same for long. What might be a good try today cannot be considered a good try in a week or month or year. A try should always be moving forward. From the first small try of an initial interruption of a thought can grow even bigger tries and eventually into movement as complex as a sliding stop or a canter to the rear – just like 2 cells can evolve into an entire human. You can get a much more detailed explanation of a try from my book.
I made a quick (and amateurish) flow chart to illustrate what I believe is the cascade of major events that lead to a try and softness. It is very basic and falls far short of a thorough explanation. However, I think it’s worth more than a glance because if you study the chart closely and think about what it says, you’ll realize there is a lot more to these interactions than you might imagine.