Why Is Knowledge So Specialized?

Most of my clinics are attended by people with a wide range of experience and interests. As well as many amateur and occasional riders I often meet very experienced horse people at my clinics. Many have been riding most of their life. Some have even competed successfully at a high level in various disciplines. I get a smattering of trainers from various horse sports. A few have been judges in various disciplines such as dressage or jumping, reining, halter breed classes etc. These are people will a lot of experience and many skills in their chosen field.

 

When I first started doing clinics, things that the experienced folk needed helping with often surprised me. I remember one dressage rider who was competing at Prix St George level wanting help teaching her horse to politely load into a trailer. Another person who educated reining horses for a living needed tips on catching a horse. Then there was the person that was a top-level dressage judge in Australia whose horses would always nip and then walk away when they mounted. Even with the amateur riders who have regular instruction, I am sometimes dismayed at why their instructor has not been able to help with the most simple issues like ear shyness.

 

These are just a few examples of experiences that mystify me.

 

It seems that in this era, horsemanship has become a specialized discipline in itself. When I was a kid, the basic skills of being good around horses were part of everything we did. If a horse would throw its head during bridling it was fixed before we worried about going out to the jumping paddock. Yet, I see horses at clinics that have been ridden for years and fuss about bridling with no recognition from the rider that this might be a problem. How has this lack of recognition crept into our work with horses?

 

I’ve been reading a book called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (thanks Charity for recommending it). Harari describes that Neanderthal humans had bigger brains than us Sapiens. One theory for this suggests that Neanderthals were poor communicators and did not work well collectively with other Neanderthals. This meant that each Neanderthal needed to know how to track and kill an animal and what plants were edible and how to read the stars and weather and how to cook etc. But Sapiens learned to communicate and share knowledge, so we evolved to use a collective knowledge where each person could specialize and share their expertise with the group. This meant that each individual Sapien needed to know less about the world than an individual Neanderthal.

 

Reading this book began me wondering is this why so many riders understand so little about the basics of horsemanship? Have we become a group of riders where each individual becomes an expert specialist and uses the collective knowledge of other specialists to care for, train and ride horses?

 

I do appreciate the power of collective knowledge, but there is a problem that stems from such a dependency on others. It means that we get lazy and don’t inform ourselves enough to know which specialist to believe.

 

For example, my specialty is training people to train horses to follow a direction with their thought to produce a performance and build a foundational relationship. That’s what I do for a living (or try to do). But at the same time, I have learned a working knowledge of saddle fitting, hoof care and trimming, dental care, gear and gear fitting, basic nutrition, good riding, stable and trailer design, arena and yard design, correct movement and gait analysis, soundness, veterinary care etc.

 

My knowledge in these areas is not specialized, but general and broad. I would not trust myself to diagnose and treat an injured back or to perform a corrective trim on a horse. But I do know enough to know when a horse is sore and when the feet are unbalanced and if a saddle fits well or not and why. I do know enough to assess equipment or why a trailer is unsuitable for a particular horse.

 

I also know enough to know when I don’t know enough and require input from more expert opinions. But in saying that I feel I am informed enough to know which expert opinion to use and which not to use for most things.

 

I often find horse people do not have a broad knowledge of the basic information that most people did going back say 100 years or so ago. In the past, there was not the specialization that we see today. The onus of knowing how to treat a horse’s teeth or train a horse to load into a trailer or know what bit to use was on the owner, not specialist consultants that we have available today.

 

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe it is fantastic that we have such expert knowledge available to us. But what concerns me is that we rely on other people to tell us what we should at least have a working knowledge about. Every time somebody asks me to check the fit of their saddle on their horse, there is always a group of people who gather around to watch and ask questions. Something as important but mundane as knowing if your saddle fits should not be in the realm of a specialist. In my opinion, saddle fitting is basic enough that every horse person should have a working knowledge of it. I include in that category things such as knowing when your horse’s hooves are balanced, teaching to lead, tie up and loading on and off a trailer, catching, body condition, basic medical treatment, assessment of conformation and movement, teaching to be quiet for bridling and saddling – the list could go on.

 

If these are things that you struggle with, please don’t think I am pointing the finger at you and saying “bad owner.” That’s not the purpose of this essay. Instead, I want to inspire you to gain as much knowledge as you can about the things you presently rely on other people to tell you. Take an interest in understanding things like proper hoof trim and how to develop a quiet mind in a horse and what makes a good trailer or a bad one. Information is so accessible nowadays that there is no obstacle to obtaining it if you have the will. The more we rely on other people for answers the more we are susceptible to being lead down the wrong path at the expense of our wallets and our horse’s well-being.

 

Photo: Neandethals (left) dominated the earth because of the individual knowledge, until Sapiens (us) came along with our collective knowledge and out-competed them into extinction.

The Difference Between A Hindquarter Yield And A Turn On The Forehand

I was asked recently about the difference between a turn on the forehand and a hindquarter yield (disengagement). They are different, but some people are confused by the difference. I’m going to explain the difference from my perspective, but that doesn’t mean there are not other perspectives. I teach these movements to a horse for very different reasons, but apply them each as stepping-stones towards more difficult and complex maneuvers in building correctness and softness.

 

Firstly, the hindquarter yield is an exercise I use to connect the inside rein to the mind of the horse, whilst the turn on the forehand is intended to connect the rider’s inside leg to the mind of the horse.  Those are the two big reasons for teaching these exercises and if they weren’t such important reasons I would not care so much if people ever worked on hindquarter yields or turns on the forehand. There are other reasons, but none so important that I want to spend time discussing them. So I will focus on these exercises from the viewpoint that I am primarily trying to teach my horse to connect with the inside rein and the inside leg.

 

The next thing to consider is what is a turn on the forehand and a hindquarter yield? On the surface, they can appear similar, because they both require the hindquarters to step around the forehand. In each case, the front feet of the horse are almost pivoting and the hind feet are crossing over. It’s as if the front feet are making tiny steps around the centre of a circle and the hind feet are stepping on the circumference of the same circle. But this is where the similarity ends.

 

Let’s look at each exercise individually.

 

Hindquarter Yield (disengagement):

 

When a hindquarter yield is executed correctly, the horse has an inside flexion in response to the feel of the inside rein and the hindquarters step to the outside.

 

The way I teach this exercise is quite different to the way most people do because I do not allow the rider’s inside leg to drive the hindquarters. When I apply a feel to the inside rein, the horse’s thought is directed to the inside. This alone should be enough reason for the horse’s hip to move to the outside. A horse should try to line up its body with its thought, so when a horse is thinking to the left, the hindquarters should move to the right so that the body is facing in the direction of the horse’s strongest thought – ready to go forward in that direction, if asked. No inside leg should be necessary.

 

If a horse flexes its neck to the inside, but it’s feet remain fixed in place I would apply some feel in my seat and BOTH legs to encourage the horse to move. But where and how the horse should move is determined by the inside rein getting to the horse’s mind to think to the inside. The rider’s seat and legs should just create movement, not influence the direction of that movement.

 

You may ask, “why not use inside leg to direct the hindquarters?”

 

It’s because the purpose of this exercise is to teach a horse that the inside rein can and should be able to influence the action of the hindquarters by directing a horse’s thought. It is one of the most basic functions of the reins to direct a horse’s mind to influence the hind feet and front feet both independently from each other and in unison. Without that ability, a horse can never learn to be accurate and soft in response to the reins.

 

This is perhaps the most important reason why I do not recommend lateral flexion as an exercise for young horses. Lateral flexion is where a horse is taught to flex their neck in response to the inside rein, but not move their feet. For a young horse that is still learning how to follow the feel of the reins, nothing is more important than to ensure the inside rein changes a horse’s thought in a way that goes all the way to the feet. Lateral flexion can be so damaging to building correctness and softness into the meaning of the inside rein. When applying the inside rein to ask a horse to think to the inside, always make sure that the thought is strong enough to go all the way to the feet without requiring the inside leg to drive the hindquarters away.

 

Turn On The Forehand

 

Once a horse understands to yield its hindquarters in response to the inside rein, there comes a time when we want to teach it to yield to the inside leg. This is why I teach turn on the forehand to a young horse.

 

When executing a turn of the forehand, there should be no inside flexion. Instead, the alignment of the spine should be straight and the hindquarters step around a pivoting forehand. The object of the reins is simply to block what we don’t want (movement of the forehand) and allow the inside leg to direct the mind to move hindquarters.

 

I recommend that people sit neutral in the saddle and gently apply inside leg against the horse (often just behind the girth, but it will depend on the horse) with enough feel to motivate the horse to want to move. When it goes to move, the reins block the forehand from moving. Initially, the horse will fidget and maybe even dance a little as it tries to go forward or move the forehand to the side, but eventually, the hind feet will take a small step to the side – which the rider will release for. In time, the horse associates the feel of the inside leg with an idea to yield its hindquarters away from the feel. Soon this turns into the hind end stepping around the forehand in response to the inside leg (with no flexion).

 

I meet a lot of people at clinics who apply inside leg to influence a horse’s hindquarters in everything they do. It’s an epidemic in the horse world that inside leg is applied whenever a horse is asked to do a turn or circle. Yet the vast majority of horses I see don’t know how to yield to a rider’s inside leg. When a rider lays their inside leg against their horse it only means, “go forward” – not yield the hindquarters. This is because no time has been devoted to teaching this to a horse. Most riders seem to think a horse just knows this information from birth or has absorbed it through reading a rider’s mind. This is just plain wrong. If you believe your horse yields to the inside leg, ask your horse to standstill then drop the reins on the neck and apply ONLY your inside leg and see what happens.

 

Using these two exercises (hindquarter yields and turn on the forehand), we can teach a horse to yield just to the inside rein or just to the inside leg or to yield when both are used simultaneously. The power of these two skills opens up a world of correctness in both straight and lateral movement that otherwise can require years of struggle.

 

I have not talked about forehand yields and turn on the haunches, which are intended to give meaning to the inside rein and inside leg but via directing the mind of the horse to yield the forehand. However, with a little thought and experimentation, I believe most people can figure out how to take the information I just gave and apply it to the forehand exercises.

 

Photo: a diagram of a turn on the forehand.

Mentoring

I friend wrote to me a few weeks ago and expressed her feelings of being alone and isolated in a world where she feels surrounded and pressured by horse people who approach their training very differently. She is trying to get her head around the concept of directing a horse’s thoughts and grappling with how to make that work for her. And even though she has a growing client base and her clients are loyal and impressed with her work, she feels the disapproval of other people in her area.

 

I know this feeling well. For a lot of years, I was training horses for people and would regularly hear on the grapevine that my approach was considered eccentric or even bizarre. Every other trainer in the district was working at making a horse do something and not worry too much about a horse’s mind. They figured if it was a good horse, the mind would step into line and if it wasn’t a good horse, well who cared if it’s mind was fried because it wasn’t worth spending time on it anyway.

 

I was struggling to cover my rent and pay bills, yet all these other trainers had thriving businesses. They were in high demand with a 6month waiting list while I prayed each night for the phone to ring. I was constantly hearing how this trainer and that trainer was brilliant and had saved their horse from a trip to the fertilizer farm. Or how Mr. Amazing Trainer had fixed a dozen horses that everyone else had given up on.

 

But I saw the results from some of these other trainers. I saw the troubled animals that were only a shadow of the horse they could be. I knew in my heart that I was on the right track, but I still felt terribly alone.

 

I am forever grateful to the clients I had. They stuck by me month after month and year after year (many are still sticking by me through my clinics). I was a struggling ex-academic and medical researcher who was trying something different to all the other trainers they could have chosen. I love them for that. You guys know who you are.

 

But what my clients didn’t know (well, I hope they didn’t know) was how much I doubted myself. When everyone around you is having to turn away business and the rumour mill has tales of their amazing skills, and you hear that you are looked down upon by those same people, it is easy to question if you are on the right track. Was I the crazy one?

 

When you are the only one around you that is trying to do what you are trying to do, you need support. Without support, it is too easy to doubt yourself. By support I mean somebody you respect whom you can bounce ideas off, somebody who can watch you work and throw ideas your way, somebody whom you can learn from, somebody who thinks the same way about training but understands more than you.

 

In Australia, I had no such support for a very long time. But I got lucky. I met Harry Whitney (thanks to Gail Ivey) and he became my de facto support team through those early years of starting my own training business. It was initially problematic because we lived on different continents, but Harry was so generous and supportive that he invited me each year to spend several weeks with him in Arizona. I did this for about 10 years or more and it was my salvation whenever I doubted myself. If I was the crazy one, then Harry was the craziest of us all. Since then, Harry has offered the same support for a number of people who have gone on to become good horse people in their own right.

 

My friend needs support too. I hope to give what support I can because I don’t want her to start thinking she is the crazy one.

 

The point of this post is to express the idea that we all need support. It’s very difficult to become the best horse person you can be without help. By help, I don’t just mean instruction. Instruction is useful and can be important. We all need to learn the skills that go into being a better rider and handler. But to be a better horse person requires the kind of support that forces us to question, analyze and experiment. Being a mimic of our teacher will only make us a poor copy. But having somebody to guide and challenge us gives us the chance to find how to be the better us. I wouldn’t be the horse person I am today without Harry and half a handful of others guiding and challenge me along the way.

 

I hope I can do likewise for others who need support and are at risk of drowning in an ocean of self-doubt. I think mentoring should be an important part of the job of the older and experienced trainers. We owe to the next generation of trainers and horses.

 

In my book, Old Men and Horses, I tell the tale of Walt and Amos as young men watching an experienced horse-breaker at work in the outback and pestering with him questions. Walt suddenly realizes how annoying it must be for the breaker to have to answer all his questions and apologizes for bothering the man. The breaker tells Walt that it is never a bother because someday a couple of young blokes will be leaning over the fence of Walt’s round yard asking him a lot of questions and Walt will patiently answer them. He tells Walt that can only be a good thing for the horses.

 

Photo: Harry: “Ross do you see what I see?”

           Ross: “Naw Harry. I can’t see a bloody thing through these glasses.”

I Want First Prize

Many people place a lot of emphasis on getting horses use to scary things. A lot of time is devoted to exposing horses to a tarpaulin or umbrella or plastic bags or water or a bicycle etc. I think people who do this feel it is an important technique on the road to making a horse spook-proof.

 

The one big flaw in that plan is that there isn’t enough time in a horse’s life to make them spook-proof to everything that might spook them. I’m reminded of the adage “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” But in this case, “teach a horse not to spook at an object and he won’t spook at that object on that day in that place, but develop a good relationship with a horse and he will always try not to spook.”

 

Getting a horse use to a challenge is never the better option because there are always limits to its effectiveness. Most desensitization involves using flooding pressure to shut down a horse by teaching the futility of resistance. It’s not a reliable or desirable pathway to having a good relationship with a horse. It’s often just another obedience trick that costs the horse something of themselves.

 

I am telling you these thoughts because they are an example of something more important I want to touch on.

 

In the preface of my book, The Essence of Good Horsemanship, I relate an event that happened while I was driving through Melbourne on my way to a clinic. On the radio, a fellow known as Father Bob was being interviewed about a charity fundraising competition he was organizing. Most of you won’t know who Father Bob is, but he is a legend in Australia as a most decent and caring man who has devoted his life to working for the homeless and troubled youth. Although he is a Catholic priest, he is constantly in trouble with the church for his irreverent attitude to the hierarchy.

 

In any case, in the radio interview, Father Bob was describing the prizes to be won in the competition. Third prize was a large flat screen television, second prize was a weekend for two at a luxury hotel and first prize was serving for 2 days in a soup kitchen at a homeless shelter. When the interviewer expressed their dismay at first prize, Father Bob set him straight. He said second and third prizes were just stuff, but first prize was happiness.

 

This was a light bulb moment for me. Father Bob’s succinctly expressed in one sentence my ambition for my horsemanship. Having a horse do stuff is just having a horse do stuff, but having a horse want to try to do stuff is happiness.

 

Desensitizing a horse to not spook is just stuff. Winning a blue ribbon is just stuff. Loading onto a trailer is just stuff. Being able to train a horse at liberty is just stuff. All these things can be achieved without caring a damn about our horse’s opinion of us or the things we ask it to do. I don’t see the satisfaction or thrill in that.

 

The reason why my relationship with my wife, Michele is the best and happiest relationship I have in my life is because we both care about how the other feels as much as we care about ourselves. I want that with my horses too.

 

I care about all our animals, including our horses. Their emotional and physical well-being is top of the list of things that are important to me in our relationship. That’s easy. I care about them and that’s not hard to do.

 

But it’s not enough that I just care about my horses. For my happiness to be complete I want them to care about me. I don’t believe horses can care about people in the way that people care about horses, but they can care in the way horses can care.

 

By that I mean a horse can be comfortable in my company. It can feel okay when I present a task to it. It can look to me for help when it feels troubled or confused. It can gain confidence by my presence. It can feel free to express its opinion (good or bad) and say ‘no’. It can offer the best try it has to give. I want all that. That would be happiness to me. The rest of the stuff like snappy flying changes or coming when called is nice, but it’s just stuff and not enough for me. I’m greedier than that. I want a good mutual relationship. I want first prize. I want happiness.

Photo: Hanging out with our 11 hand Welsh pony, May.


A Conversation With Greg Glendell - Part 3

This is the final installment of the latest correspondence between Greg and myself. I hope it won’t be the last.

 

I want to thank Greg for his very generous and thoughtful input and for allowing me to share this exchange with you. I hope Greg will continue to contribute his views and challenge me in the future. It is much appreciated. I further hope it will inspire some of you to participate in discussion and debate. It is important to me that you guys challenge me so I can avoid becoming complacent in my thinking about horses and horsemanship.

 

Thanks Greg.

_____________________________

 

Hi Ross,

 

You clearly have a deep empathy for horses; I wish there were more folks like you over here. 

 

Ok, re ‘giving interpretation’ as you mention below.  The thing I value about the use of LT is that you don’t have to guess, re the results of a stimulus and the response from the horse; yes, we might ponder what the horse is thinking, but if, say, we ask a horse to ‘walk on’ and it does so, then no interpretation is needed.  And if we can teach this with little or no stress to the animal, then so much the better.  We do know that the use of positive punishment (the BHS again!) and escalating –R induces stress (even distress to the point of flooding in round-pen and lunging work). 

 

Since, at this stage we cannot know (but only surmise) what a horse is thinking as a result of its interactions with us, an interpretation from that assessment could be misleading.  I’ve worked with birds for years, and although like horses they clearly lead highly emotional lives, I have to admit I don’t *know* what they think; I can only guess.  But again, we can now interpret the horse’s body language and facial expressions reasonably accurately, so we can tell if the animal is happy to continue with something, or prefers it to cease.  If the latter, then we stop for a while. 

 

And LT has been around for a very long time, growing out of Skinner’s (not always pleasant) methods! in the 1940s.   So I view LT as a progression from guessing to knowledge, in the same way that science replaced alchemy in the 17th C.   If science had not replaced alchemy, there would be no computers, and not much effective veterinary medicine!  I guess there are still aspects of alchemy which are of value, but a scientific approach makes predictions, including predictions of an animal’s behaviour, much easier.  It allows us to assess the pace at which we go with any training (of bird or horse).   And this is determined mainly be the animal itself, not by any fixed deadline.  I am  sure you do much the same thing; some horses will do things in a few days; while others take weeks to get to the same point. 

 

My own horse, Harry, was trained using mainly +r for groundwork and backing, and a mix of +R and –R for ridden work.  He is taught to change gait and direction using verbal requests, only using reins/feet/seat, if no response from voice.  He is about 75% reliable on voice requests.  I’ve attached an article which was published in the UK’s Equine Behaviour Journal, which explains how Harry was trained.  The following year, I went on my first camping trip with him around Devon and Somerset for a few weeks. 

  

All the best!

 

Greg Glendell

_________________________________

 

Thanks Greg for your explanation, but here is where we differ regarding learning theory.

 

LT teaches obedience - that’s all it does. It is purely a cue/response system of training and this is its biggest failing. A horse makes up its mind to do something long before it does it. Let’s look at your example of asking a horse to walk on.

 

LT tells us that the effectiveness of our training is measured by when we apply a cue or pressure, does the horse walk on or not? If the horse walks without conflict, the training is going well, if not the training needs more work. That’s fine if all a person wants is obedience. But obedience only gives you the movement, the quality of the movement comes from a horse’s emotions/thoughts.

 

Before I ask a horse to walk on I want their focus. Once I have their attention I then want to direct that attention towards where I want them to walk. It is only when I first direct their thought to be somewhere that I am okay about letting their feet move. This is because the horse’s thoughts control their feet, not the trainer. The human’s only job is to talk to the horse’s brain and the brain commands the horse’s body. 

 

If I can’t first direct a horse to think through a gate, making him walk through a gate will entail some trouble, some resistance or some bad feelings. LT does not take this into account and therefore misses all the vitally important internal stuff that gives the walk a decent quality. Using the LT approach a horse can still be trained to walk on and feel crappy. But by directing the thought first, you are addressing the feelings that determine the emotions and quality of the walk. When the horse’s thought goes first, the feet will follow without trouble or resistance. But when the horse’s thoughts and feet are in 2 different places, there will always be some degree of trouble and lack of togetherness.

 

Consider your own circumstances. Everything you do begins with a thought. Every action starts with a change of thought. You don’t just wake up in the morning and find yourself showered and dressed. Showering and dressing only occurs following thousands of little thoughts that tell your body to walk to the shower, how to apply soap, how to dry your hair, which shoes to wear and how to tie your shoe laces. Each action first involves a change of thought from one action to the next action before your body actually takes action. LT does not take this into account. It views each response a horse makes as a simple on/off switch.

 

This is hard to explain in writing and much easier when people come to a clinic to see it in action. But my point is that training involves teaching a horse a cascade of events that happen before the actual movement. However, LT only addresses the end stage of the task (i.e. obedience of the movement) and misses addressing all the stuff that happens first that determines the quality of the movement. LT trains horses to be machine like, not horse like. I have dealt with enough horses that have gone through the process of LT to know this is true. Even the most venerated LT advocates miss the point in their training.

 

Furthermore, most of the studies that LT is based on in the horse world are crap. The science is crap. Most of the studies are designed to prove a theory, not test it. I could site several studies that fit this category (eg remember the McGreevey study of the horse in a round yard being chased by a remote control car - one of the worst examples of behavioural science studies you’ll find anywhere, but hailed by many as brilliant and definitive). I think the problem is that most people doing the work come from psychology or ethology or veterinary labs and are not trained in the hard sciences to learn scientific method. Their studies are poor and most would not get published if peer reviewed by people who truly understood scientific method (edit: I know this is a generalization, but it is generally true).

 

It is my hope that one day the science will be good enough and offer real benefits to horses and horse people. But at the moment the science is decades behind what good horse people already know.

 

Lastly, just a comment about using voice commands in your training. They are fine if you just want to keep life simple with yes/no type responses. But horses are not good at understanding voice commands. They only have 9 sounds in their own vocabulary, so don’t understand any complex sounds. This means that you can say “trot” to get a horse to trot, but the trot it gives you is the trot you get. A horse can’t give you a different response when you say “collected trot” or “extended trot” or “5km/hr jog” etc. If you want any variation on the trot from what the horse gives you, you need to apply reins, leg and seat. So from my perspective I don’t see any advantage to using voice commands when I know that I will have to intervene with feel to get what I really want. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with using voice command, it’s just they are extremely limiting and not very useful. As long as a person does not expect or ask for much from a horse when they use voice commands, there is nothing wrong with them.

 

Cheers

Ross

Photo: Greg and Harry


A Conversation With Greg Glendell - Part 2

This is the second exchange between Greg and myself. It follows more on positive reinforcement and adds some thoughts on learning theory.

 

There is one more exchange between Greg and I to follow, which expands on our different views of learning theory and the idea that training is about directing a horse’s thoughts or its actions.

____________________________

 

Hi Ross,

 

Thanks for replying; again, you have some good points there and I certainly agree that both +R and –R can be misused by trainers.  But I think this would be unlikely to be the case with behaviourists, as opposed to trainers.  In backing my own horse I made the mistake of seeking advice from two trainers; they had been ‘schooled’ via the British Horse Society’s system over here. I ended these sessions and realised that I could only get proper advice from qualified behaviourists, who helped greatly. 

 

Getting into the mind and thought processes of any animal, (including another person we share a conversation with) can be extremely difficult.   Perhaps we can never really know for certain what anyone or any animal is thinking or feeling about something.  This means we can only speculate as to their feelings.  So I tend to stick with what a horse (or more commonly my clients’ parrots!) are actually *doing*, not what they might be thinking.  If I work with a self-mutilating bird, and it reduces or ceases to self-harm, then I’ve helped make things a better for that bird.  When using food rewards with birds, the birds have access to all their normal foods.  It is only their favourite items they are asked to ‘work’ for.  I try to do this with horses as well.  So there is always hay or grass for them to eat while training, but the favourite items are given as rewards.  I think this reduces any pressure/ frustration they may feel re food rewards. 

 

If I can ride my horse and keep him calm in potentially risky situations, then I’m better able to maintain stimulus control and keep us both safe.

 

Perhaps –R training can be done well; and while I’ve seen some of this with behaviourists,. It’s rare to see it with trainers who have been through the UK’s BHS training system.  Again, I feel that where those working with horses have a sound knowledge of learning theory and the equine ethogram, then their interactions with the horse tend to be failsafe.  Where this is not the case, the methods risk being ‘fail dangerous’.  Our BHS system does not cover either learning theory or the equine ethogram in their course materials. 

 

I might one day get to OZ, you have some great parrots there which I only know as captive birds here, all too often kept in small cages. 

 

All the best,

 

Greg Glendell

______________________________

 

Hi Greg,

 

I totally agree that the BHS is a very poor system and falls way short of the very best that training can be. Unfortunately, I also put learning theory into the same category. Learning theory continues to be at a very primitive level and I equate it to Galileo’s understanding of the cosmo. Good trainers are generations ahead of the best learning theorists. Nevertheless, if all you know are the big names in the horse training world, then I can see why you would think that horse trainers don’t get behavioural models. But there is so much better out there and learning theory has a long way to catch up.

 

In regards to truly understanding the thought process of animals, I agree it is difficult and we are only guessing. But I don’t see this as any different to behaviourists studying a horse’s response. Observing an animals response and giving it explanation is open to interpretation just as much as interpreting what it may be thinking. For example, very many people notice their horse gets excited when approaching a jump and interpret this as the horse loving to jump. In most cases, I watch the overall response of the horse’s behaviour before a jump and see it as most horses being afraid of the jump. We speculate which is the case through our own interpretation and bias rather than empirical evidence. Learning theorists are not immune from this problem.

 

I believe it is a lot easier to assign cause and motive when studying a horse’s thoughts and emotions than it is to just watch for reaction/behaviours. I don’t believe it is so hard if a person works at it. Horses are always talking to us - they hardly ever shut up. The problem is that people don’t listen. Just because we don’t hear our horse, doesn’t mean it is not talking to us.

 

My point is that emotions determine a horse’s thoughts and its thoughts determine its behaviour. If you know how to tap into their emotions and thoughts you can easily shape their behaviour. But if you rely on shaping their behaviour first, you can only hope that it may alter their thoughts and emotions.

 

To get the topic back to +r, I think +r is a good example where you can train a behaviour well and the horse still feels crappy, yet people are convinced it is a better way to train because they used less -r. From a horse’s point of view, I think crappy feelings are crappy feelings and they don’t care about the methodology that creates those ill feelings.

 

Finally, I would be more easily convinced that +r was a better way to go with horses than -r IF I saw examples of horses trained using +r going as well as horses trained well with -r. But I don’t. I have seen a lot of horses trained using both approaches and I have never seen a single instance where the horses felt and performed better from +r methods than those from -r methods.

  

I think you would enjoy the birds we have on our property - lots of king parrots, galahs, black cockatoos, sulphur crested cockatoos, rozellas, owls and raptors etc.

 

Cheers

Ross

 

Photo: This is Greg’s Arab gelding, Harry. It seems Harry couldn’t wait for Greg to present him with a positive reward so he went off finding his own.

A Conversation With Greg Glendell - Part 1

I have been conversing via email with Greg Glendell from the UK regarding positive reinforcement and learning theory. Greg is a professional behaviourist and trainer of parrots, who also has n interest in horses and training.

 

I thought our conversations might be of interest to some of you and with Greg’s generous permission I am posting some here with minimum editing.

 

Let me know if you’d like to read more of our conversation.

____________________________

 

Hello Ross,

 

Just came across your excellent website, via a friend on Facebook.  You have some really good info there and it’s good to see more horsey folks advocating more benign methods of training and managing horses.  But I’d like to comment on the problems regarding the use of food rewards. 

 

I trained and backed my first horse, Harry, Arab gelding, 3 years ago.  The conventional advice I got (from the British Horse Soc here in the UK) was dreadful, and potentially dangerous re training methods.  They use some very aversive methods when backing and schooling horses, which increases the risks to both rider and horse if the rider loses stimulus control.

 

I work as a behaviourist, but only professionally with birds, not horses.  I am reasonably familiar with learning theory, and some equine ethology.  So, I used the same principles of learning theory when working with Harry and my other horse.  This included food rewards (positive reinforcement) and allowing the horse to set the pace of progress, so he always remained calm and interested, not confused or rushed into doing something.   I don’t think the problem is the use of rewards in themselves.   The problem centres on how a *trainer* reacts the first few times a horse becomes too demanding/aggressive in trying to get food rewards.  If the trainer remains present while the horse is mugging them; then yes, the mugging will be reinforced and likely to get worse as it is repeated.  However, if the person removes themselves from the horse each and every time this might occur, the behaviour will not be reinforced, and most horses soon learn to cease the unwanted behaviour.  This ‘negative punishment’ is very effective.  It’s a passive way of informing a horse that any unwanted behaviours will result in an end of the training session, so, no rewards.   Horses can also be taught to turn their head *away* from the trainer to get the reward.  There are similar problems to those you mention, with some people who use clicker training; the horse appears to become ‘addicted’ to the sound of the clicker, thus wanting to work obsessively.   Again, if the trainer had a better knowledge of learning theory, (and was interpreting the horse’s behaviours accurately) this would not arise.   Well, just my thoughts. 

 

Best wishes,

 

Greg Glendell

Companion parrot behaviourist

For parrot care advice see:

www.greg-parrots.co.uk

___________________________

 

Hi Greg,

 

Thank you for your thoughtful explanation regarding using food in +r training.

 

I completely understand how food can be used without teaching horses to get pushy and constantly mugging the human. Very few people know how to use food treats well (even professional +r horse trainers), but I know it can be done.

 

However, there is a bigger problem with food and +r. That is the problem of stress that food treats impose on horses.

 

As you probably know, in order to take a simple exercise further, food is withheld in an effort to encourage a horse to try something new. For example, it you want to teach a horse to pick up a stick in its mouth you begin by rewarding when the horse touches or sniffs the stick. When this behaviour is confirmed, the treat is withheld until the horse makes an attempt to wrap its lips around the stick. But the horse has no idea why the treat is not forthcoming and only starts searching for a new response in a desperate effort to get another treat. In a lot of horses this creates considerable stress and anxiety because they don’t know what they need to do to get a treat. They are desperate for a treat and yet have no idea what to do. This anxiety is repeated at every stage where the training is being advanced.

 

Even if a horse learns not to mug people for the treat, the thought to get a treat is never eliminated. The horse may have been taught not to grope around for a treat, but it still wants to because the idea of getting a treat is still a strong desire. This creates stress and in my view good horsemanship is about eliminating as much stress as possible.

 

All training involves some level of stress/discomfort because it is the stress that motivates a horse to search a behaviour that relieves the stress. But it is my experience that people who use +r claim is a kinder and stress free-way of training horses and I think this is not true. In fact, many horses trained with +r carry as much anxiety as those treated abusively with -r methods.

 

So while I understand that the behaviour we see with horses always trying to hunt for a treat does not need to be, the stress associated with needing to be given a treat remains. Just because a horse does not mug people for food does not mean it doesn’t want to. Plus the stress instilled by withholding food from a horse to advance the training is for many horses extremely troubling and possibly abusive because there is no clarity regarding what to do to get their reward.

 

What we train a horse to do and what a horse feels about it are not always the same thing.

 

Ross

 

Photo: This is Greg and his nice looking Arab gelding, Harry.


Intent

About a week ago I received a message with a series of questions. Among them was this question,

“…. have been asked to back a friend’s (horse) every time I stop it so it gets to the point every time I stop it automatic backs up. Won't this create a problem down the track as in things like dressage for the walk ….?

 

Of course, the answer is “it depends on.”

 

What it depends on is the intent behind the backing when asking a horse to stop. I’ll try to clarify what I mean by quoting what I wrote to the person.

 

“When I ask a horse to stop and it leans on the reins and it's thought is to continue pushing forward (even though its feet may have stopped) I will hold or increase the pressure of the rein to inspire the horse to stop pushing forward and to soften and bring its thought back to being with me at a stop.

 

“In the early stages, when I increase or hold the feel in the reins it will cause a horse to want to step back. But I hold until the horse actually thinks back. I can tell when this happens by the hindquarters taking a big step back (not a small step or shuffle). That tells me the horse has changed its thought from thinking forward to thinking back. I release when I feel the hindquarters take one big step back - don't worry if he is still heavy on the reins - release for the big step back. I release for a change of thought, not for a backup.

 

“With repetition, the horse will understand that the reins bring its thought back to the rider. When you feel the thought come back, release the reins. Pretty soon the thought will come back to a halt and it won't be necessary to wait for the hindquarters to move because you'll feel the horse's weight shift further back with almost no weight in the reins. Release for that. That's what you want to achieve - a softening through the entire horse when you pick up the reins. You are not trying to get a backing, but a change of thought and a softening - it's just that in the beginning, the horse may have to back in order to find the softness at first.

 

“Now if your friend backs the horse at a stop just to get it back up and not worry about a change of thought, then the horse will learn to back up automatically every time it is asked to stop. That's not something you want to teach the horse.

 

The difference between the two results is knowing what you are trying to achieve and knowing the timing of your release.”

 

I have quoted this conversation because I believe it is a good illustration of a really important point about how people misunderstand the process of training a horse.

 

It’s very difficult for a lot of people to see anything but what is going on at the surface of training. We find it easy to see the movement so we remember the movement. But we don’t find it easy to see the intent behind the movement, so we don’t concern ourselves with the intent. For example, we see a trainer back a horse when it halts and believe the backing is the important part. But it’s not, the reason why the horse stops backing is the important part and the part the horse is learning from. If we think the backing is what is important then our horse will learn to back each time we ask it to halt. But if the backing is an inconsequential part of asking a horse to soften, then the backing is soon forgotten and the softness is the part the horse learns.

 

This principle is in everything we do. Let’s look at another quick example. If I apply leg to my horse to ask it to walk off and stop it mid stride of the first step, what is the horse to think? The answer again is “it depends”.

 

It depends on the intent behind stopping the horse mid-stride. It could be that I stopped the horse to confuse it. It could be because I asked for the left foot first and it moved the right foot instead. It could be because the first stride was crooked and I wanted it to walk off straight.

 

People tend to see the horse being stopped mid-stride, but it is not the stopping that gives the intent to what I wanted. The intent comes from what happens next and when I allow the horse to walk forward off my leg. The horse doesn’t know that the way it walked forward was less than perfect until I give intent as to why I stopped its feet – clarity to my use of my legs and reins.

 

We could talk about a million different scenarios where people confuse movement and intent. It is one of the big stumbling blocks in the way a lot of training proceeds. A horse is usually very willing when it is not confused and believes it can complete a task without danger or discomfort. But it is only the clarity of our intent that eliminates a horse’s confusion. If we aren’t clear ourselves what our intent is, how can we ever expect a horse to be clear?

 

Photo: I’m riding a pony at a clinic that struggled to prepare to soften to the reins in the halt.

Training Rules

I have been thinking about the rules we make when discovering our path in horsemanship. I keep coming across new rules that trainers tell their students and they become non-negotiable or debatable rules. I know this because sometimes I meet a rider who tells me with a straight face that they won’t do what I just suggested because at another clinic or in a book or on a video Training God Number 1 (TG1) told them never to do that.

 

Let me say in the spirit of honesty that I have rules too. There are only 2 rules, but I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite, so I will tell you my two rules.

 

* Nobody gets on any horse they don’t want to ride or don’t feel safe riding.

* Nobody has to stay riding any horse they want to stay on or don’t feel safe riding.

 

That’s my entire list of rules that I won’t discuss or debate. If you want to ride with me, you must follow those two rules or find somebody else to ride with. (BTW, to my knowledge I am the only clinician that has those rules. Out of all the clinics, I have attended I have not yet heard anybody publicly state those two rules.)

 

On the other hand, here are some rules that trainers seem very happy to state publicly at clinics and won’t encourage debate.

 

+ Never teach your dressage horse to disengage their hindquarters because it will destroy the engagement.

 

+ Don’t use 2 reins on a horse for the first the several months of their career.

 

+ Always work in a square yard and never a round yard when starting a horse.

 

+ When starting a horse under saddle never teach it to back up for at least the first 6 months.

 

+ When a horse gets worried always apply the one-rein stop.

 

+ When training a horse to jump, never ask it to stop in front of a jump because it will teach the horse to refuse.

 

+ Never let a horse turns its hindquarters to you. Always ask for inside turns in a yard.

 

These are just a handful of examples and you probably know many more. In every case, I can think of good reasons why they are wrong thinking OR lots of examples where the rule should not be applied. For example, if you apply the one rein stop on every occasion a horse gets energized, some horses will flip over on you because they need to move and telling them they can’t move can convert a worry into a panic. Another example of a silly rule would be that teaching a horse to halt in front of a jump will cause problems. Being able to stop a horse in from of jump is helping to keep a connection with the rider and being able to interrupt a horse’s thought at any time without stress is an important part of a good relationship.

 

I guess the point of this post is to point out that just because TG1 or anybody in authority tells you something, it is still your responsibility to choose to apply it or not. Therefore, before putting into practice any rule we all need to thoroughly understand the why and wherefores of every angle of the rule. The buck stops with you, so you had better be clear about what your horse needs before you starting holding tight to a new rule. For every rule that somebody has chiseled in stone, there is always a horse or situation for which the rule should never apply.

USA Clinics - 2106

In just 2 weeks I have to leave my beautiful young wife to begin my journey to the USA. I have to say goodbye to my wonderfully comfortable bed that I look forward to greeting each night. I have to explain to our dogs, cat, chickens, ducks, horses and gold fish why daddy has to leave them for a while. I have to say farewell to all that makes my home my home and travel to a foreign land with strange customs and even stranger language (what the hell is a yonder?).

 

If you live in the USA and feel even a pittance of pity for my sacrifice, you’ll make every effort to come to at least one my clinics over the next several weeks. It’s the least you could do!

 

You’ll find the contact information for each clinic on my web site where you’ll be able to get your questions answered and reserve a place.

Schedule

The Importance Of Coping With Pressure

I come across people whose total priority is to have their horse relaxed. It’s an important goal and worthy of spending considerable time trying to achieve it. However, the trouble I see sometimes is that people are so fixated on having a relaxed horse that in order to achieve it they hardly ever ask anything of their horse that might be a challenge.

 

In my opinion, it is not an achievement to have a calm and quiet horse if it means you don’t ask much from it. The challenge is to put a horse under pressure and still have it working with a relaxed body and a quiet mind. We can all look like amazing trainers on our horse’s best day when the sun is shining and the birds are singing. But what about when our horse is struggling with emotional turmoil? What sort of horse person do we appear to be then? Do we fail our horses on their bad days?

 

As the expression goes, actions have consequences. And so it does for training horses. There are consequences for how we approach our training and not push the limits of their comfort zone. Here are three of them.

 

1. The horse we really have is the horse under pressure. We don’t know what sort of horse we are dealing with and what it is capable of doing unless it is stress tested.

 

My retirement (and I think the retirement of most trainers) would be completely funded if I had a dollar for every occasion an owner told me, “he’s never done that before.” People would send a horse to me for training and the instant I asked something a little hard of their horse, and a moment of crisis would follow, I’d hear the words, “he’s never done that before.” And they are right, he probably never has. But only because taking him out of his comfort caused all the emotional junk inside to surface. It was always there, but the horse was never asked to do enough for the owner to see it. And if you don’t see it, it can’t be fixed.

 

The horse we really have is not the one we ride every day in the arena or on the same trail when the weather is good and all is right with the world. The horse we really have is the one we take to its first show or when we ride with our friends and they canter off over the hill or they have to ride across their first bridge.

 

We need to know who the horse really is that we are sitting on so we can then know how best to help him be a better horse.

 

2. In my book, The Essence of Good Horsemanship I wrote quite a bit about the importance of the pressure we apply to a horse being a comfort.

 

For many horses, being firm with pressure creates emotional turmoil. That’s because the horse has not learned with absolute certainty what that pressure means. They are not yet at a stage in their understanding that when a rider asks a question with X amount of pressure, they can be 100 percent sure the way out of that pressure is to perform response Y. Without that certainty, there can be no comfort for a horse when a rider applies pressure.

 

We should always be striving to do the least amount to achieve a good response from a horse. But when we need to make a correction by using more pressure or prolonging the pressure, we should like it that the pressure is a cathartic experience – an “Oh, I get it” moment, rather than “Oh hell, I’m in trouble” experience.

 

This is a really important concept if we are to establish a great relationship with a horse. We need pressure to be a horse’s friend because it brings clarity to their thoughts. This doesn’t happen very often and it never happens if we don’t use pressure to guide them out of trouble. Horses that are rarely under pressure rarely ever feel okay by pressure. There are few things more abusive to a horse than a lack of clarity, so we need to be vigilant that in our attempt to maintain a happy horse we fail to use enough pressure to bring them clarity.

 

3. Rather than avoid placing our horses in stressful situations, it is better to help them to learn how to recover from stressful situations.

 

We can’t protect a horse from everything in life that may upset them. There will always be something in their future that can’t be avoided. The more they see and experience of the world, the easier they will handle what the world has to throw at them. It is better that they learn that when life gets troubling, you’ve never got them killed (yet!) and won’t do it this time either. If you handle it carefully and with intelligence, a horse can learn to trust your judgment and have confidence that when you say he can do something, he can do it.

 

We all want our horses to be happy and not have undue stress. But it is a mistake to try to eliminate pressure from their life. We need them to learn that when we apply pressure it is not something to get upset about. And when the world applies pressure they have the coping strategies to laugh in its face.

 

Photo: Here are a few exercises to help your horse cope with pressure.

When A Horse Says NO!

I was reading a training blog a few days ago. The author explained what we all know about using pressure in order for a horse to learn a lesson. He went on to say that we must make what the horse wants unpleasant and we should never remove the unpleasantness until it does what we want. Most people understand that concept, but there is a potential problem with it. What this person was stating as a golden rule should not be a golden rule in my view.

 

I’ll try to explain with some detail and context of what I mean.

 

Most training consists of applying a pressure and waiting until the horse finds a way of getting us to remove the pressure. In that way, we teach them to stop when we pull on the reins or go when we apply our legs or turn left when we put a feel on the left rein. The assumption behind this negative reinforcement model is that the pressure we apply is more uncomfortable and more stressful than the reason a horse might have for not complying with our idea. It’s all very simple and easy to understand and forms the basis of behaviour modification across the animal kingdom.

 

Horses are really easy to train because their nature causes them to give in. Generally, horses are lovers or flee-ers rather than fighters. Think of those diving horses that were around in the 1920s in seaside resorts across America. They were taught to fall from a high platform into a tank of water day after day. It’s hard to imagine what it took to train those horses to suspend their instinct to survive each day. But every horse (including diving horses) has their limits of what they will and won’t do.

 

I bring this up because in the blog, the trainer discussed the idea of using enough pressure to inspire a horse to search for a response that gives them relief from the pressure. I have talked about this myself in previous posts and in my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship. But what I haven’t discussed before is what to do when a horse just says NO with such determination that it is not possible to mount that much pressure.

 

Even if you are an advocate of positive reinforcement and choose to use treats to bribe a horse to search for a response, what do you do when a horse tells you that NO is the only answer it is prepared to consider? Nothing is going to change its mind. The trainer who wrote the blog did not allow for this possibility and neither do most training scripts that are written or demonstrated. People do not allow for the possibility that a horse may say NO as their final word on the matter.

 

So what can be done?

 

When we want something from somebody, we first must know the goal we are setting out to achieve. We have to know what it is we are wanting before we can form a plan on how to get it. Then we have to choose a method to achieve our goal. That’s the two-pronged strategy that we all use in everyday life.

 

If our strategy is not getting us anywhere, there are only two things we can change. Either we change our methodology or we change our goal.

 

Let’s look at an example in the horse world.

 

Some horses worry about being asked to go forward when they are first started under saddle. Usually, this problem is not so much about going forward but about the worry created by pressure from the rider’s leg or whip or whatever. In many cases, a rider will apply more and more pressure to convince a horse that standing there is not a good option. This was the message of the blog I read recently – keep applying more pressure until the horse responds to the leg. However, with some horses, this creates so much tension that instead of yielding to the rider’s request, they ball-up and either refuse to move or they eventually move with an explosion. In either case, the lesson of going forward in response to a rider’s leg pressure is not learned. Nothing is learned except that the horse now believes it was right to be worried.

 

So if we eventually conclude our approach is not working we have to change either our mission teach the horse to go forward in response to our leg or we have to change how we approaching the lesson. Using more and more leg will not work – the horse has told us that.

 

If we decide that the problem stems from our horse’s worry about carrying us on its back and therefore it refuses to move, we should stop trying to make it move and get it feeling okay to carry our weight. A thought that comes to my mind as I write this is perhaps I would put some hay in the round yard at 3 or 4 locations (just a handful, not much). I could sit in the saddle and do nothing except stroke my horse. I might wait for the horse to decide to wander over to one of the small piles of hay. This might take a minute or it might take 2hr. But I would keep waiting. When it moved I would do nothing, wait until it finished that pile and moved to the next and the next. When the hay was all gone, I’d get off and put the horse away. I may have to repeat this several times until I felt the horse ready to move when I mounted, rather than ready to plant its feet to the ground. Once the horse feels okay about a rider in the saddle, it is now time to teach it to move in response to a rider’s cue.

 

On the other hand, if I felt the horse was stuck because it was confused and worried about leg pressure, I might try a different strategy to bumping with my legs or whip etc. I might start by having somebody lead the horse around while I sat on it and just rubbed it gently. This could graduate to being lunged while I sat on the horse. [Note: this is also an approach you might consider to help a horse that was worried about carrying weight]. When the horse was feeling okay, I would cluck and rub my legs against the sides and then have the ground handler ask the horse to walk forward a second later. With repetition, the horse would soon work out that a cluck and leg pressure meant to go forward. Once this was clear to the horse, the worry about a feel of the rider’s leg would be gone.

 

There are lots of examples and scenarios where it is better to be smarter than be firmer (see my stories about training Satts that appeared back in April and May this year for examples). I’m sure the trainer who wrote the blog knows this too, but not enough of us talk about what it is to be a thinking horse person. Every trainer I know says that to be good with horses you need to be thinking, but so few explain what that really means. In my view, it is better to be a smarter horse person than it is to be a braver one.


Mark Langley

This is short clip of a young Aussie trainer, Mark Langley. I think Mark and I are thinking along the same lines about directing a horse's thoughts.

 

Soft Feel

Since my post criticizing the claims made by Cowboy Dressage that it is based on classical principles, I decided to look more closely at what is a central tenant of the discipline, which is ‘soft feel.’

 

When I was younger and a student of dressage I never once heard my teachers talk about soft feel. So when I began taking an interest in horsemanship, I was confused by this term. A lot of the trainers talked as if soft feel was important and how it changed the entire physical and emotional outlook of a horse. But when I observed what they were doing, this did not appear to be true. Their talk did not match their walk. I believe it’s still true today.

 

For many years I have heard, seen and read about the concept of soft feel. I have heard everybody talk about it. Those that try to teach soft feel interpret it as anything from vertical flexion of the neck to heavenly harmony of horse and human (don’t ya just luv alliteration?). It appears that different people assign different definitions to soft feel. For the most part it seems the common usage of soft feel is taught as a horse yielding to the reins through vertical flexion of the neck (whether at a stand still or in motion). However, I have seen a video clip describing it in mother earth statements that tried to convey soft feel as much more than vertical flexion without actually saying anything. It was portrayed as the ultimate achievement between man and horse, without actually saying what it is. My own view is that soft feel is not the ultimate achievement, but the very reason why so many non-dressage folks confuse soft feel and collection (which should be the goal).

 

Irrespective of what various teachers choose to define soft feel as being, it is my experience that they are all teaching it as one thing. Every person that comes to one of my clinics who has had previous experience with the concept of soft feel understands it as vertical flexion on a light rein contact. From memory, this is without exception whether the student has a minimum experience with the idea or is deeply entrenched and committed to the notion that soft feel is their ultimate goal. It is only after I discuss and demonstrate it at clinics that the concept of soft feel evolves beyond that for many of them.

 

So it doesn’t matter what trainers or clinicians say about soft feel because their students are all coming away with the same interpretation. And what they are learning (ie soft feel = vertical flexion on a light contact) has little long-term value and definitely not in anyway related to the classical principles of dressage. It is deceitful to say otherwise in my view.

 

I will try to expand on the problem in a little bit, but in a nutshell it comes down to the difference between lightness and softness. Just to remind people who have forgotten or have not heard my interpretation of the two concepts.

 

Lightness is a physical response to pressure.

Softness is an emotional response to pressure

A horse can be light, but not soft through evasion of pressure. But a horse that is soft is also light through a mental and emotional yielding to pressure.

 

In my research before writing this essay, I watched and studied a lot of videos, read a dozen or more articles and blogs and have concluded that almost universally that when people are talking about soft feel they are talking about lightness where the influence of the reins runs from the horse’s poll to its withers, and no further. I am sure there are a few people who get it and are not guilty of this, but from what I can find the vast majority seem to be. In all the clinics I have attended where soft feel has been discussed, people are only talking and teaching about lightness and the reins being blocked at the wither. I am sure the vast majority doesn’t even know the problem exists; yet their horses do. So cries from people that tell me I am wrong and that I don’t get it hold no sway over my opinion because the evidence is everywhere despite the rhetoric from gurus and students.

 

So let’s examine the basis of my concern about soft feel and why I believe it is anti-dressage and good training.

 

In essence, the issue is that with soft feel horses are learning to give vertical flexion in response to the feel of the reins WITHOUT influencing the topline to soften and the hindquarters to carry more weight. This makes it very (if not extremely) difficult for horses to develop self -carriage and eventually collection. Collection is the ability of a horse to soften mentally and through its whole body to raise the base of its neck, relax the muscle across the back and offer more flexion of the hocks. Whereas soft feel is simply the ability of the horse to flex its neck without pulling on the reins. See the problem?

 

Once soft feel is taught to a horse, it is very difficult to convince it to connect the reins through the whole horse and not just to the end of the neck. It is far easier for a horse to learn early on that the influence of the reins should go all the way to the hocks. It does take longer to teach this than it does to teach vertical flexion, but that it is because it is physically more demanding than soft feel. So connecting the reins to the entire horse (via mental and emotional comfort) needs to be done in much smaller increments as the horse both understands and builds the muscle strength to carry itself in this new correct way. Soft feel is easy to teach and requires very little muscle development from a horse. It is a trick.

 

I see no advantage to teaching horses soft feel. It is mostly taught as an evasion and requires no alteration of the way a horse carries itself that is much different from how it carries itself in the paddock (except for the bent neck). It offers no advantage to a horse during periods of work. On the other hand, collection has huge advantages for a horse’s physical well being during workloads. That’s why I am at such a loss to comprehend why Cowboy Dressage thinks soft feel is the pinnacle of harmony and is not interested in collection. To me, that’s like saying Ikea is the ultimate in furniture craftsmanship – looks good on the outside, but falls apart easily and not made to last.

 

I am excited that people from western disciplines are interested in incorporating dressage training into their ranks. I believe every horse benefits from good dressage. But the emphasis needs to be on good dressage. It doesn’t matter if you ride in a dressage saddle, western saddle, racing saddle or bareback. It is irrelevant if you use a snaffle, curb bit, double bridle, or no bit. It does not matter if you do it in an arena, on a trail, paddock or in a yard. Who cares if you ride a Warmblood, Fell Pony, Mongolian Pony or Akal-Teke.  None of that stuff matters. But correctness and softness does matter and there is no substitute for it if your motive is to benefit your horse.

 

Photo: This horse has developed a soft feel.

Horses And Children

The first horse that I belonged to was called Luke. Well, when he came to live with me his name was Sebastian, but I couldn’t let him carrying that burden for the rest of his life. He didn’t deserve that. So Luke became the name he answered to when I called him for dinner or when he ordered coffee at Starbucks and when the bakery asked what name he wanted on his birthday cake.

 

I met Luke when I was about 23 and despite many years of riding and training he was my first, but I was his fourth. At the ripe old age of 4 years old, he had changed hands 3 other times.

 

In later life, Luke was a mellow mature man who handled each challenge with the wisdom that age bestows. But in his young life, he was a firecracker and a cry baby. Every little inconvenience or imposition was met with tears and a tantrum. If a mosquito bit him he would insist I take him to intensive care in an ambulance with the siren blaring. If he were human he would have been a hypochondriac with a ‘chicken little’ complex. In short, he was lovable, but a pain in the arse.

 

But it was Luke’s propensity to overreact that alerted me to how athletic he was. His leaping in the air at the slightest distraction made me realize his potential to be a talented jumping horse. And so it was that his career path was set and we had a few years of fun and success leaping over obstacles instead of shadows.

 

One weekend my older brother and his family visited. My 4-year-old niece, Olivia was fascinated by Luke. I didn’t have any experience with kids, but I knew she was small and he was huge and she needed to be protected from the damage Luke could inflict on her tiny frame. But Olivia has always been a strong willed person and she insisted she be allowed to pat the horsey. Her mum and dad didn’t know anything about horses except they could hurt a grown up, which meant they could probably kill their tiny daughter. Knowing how reactive Luke could be and how wary he was of strangers, I was equally concerned about Olivia being hurt by him. However, eventually she wore us all down as children are so often apt to do. I told my brother that I would lead Luke up to the fence and if he held Olivia on the other side she would be safe to pat him. It was agreed.

 

Olivia was so excited that she squealed with joy as Paul picked her up. I called Luke over to me. I thought he was coming to be caught, but he walked right past me and headed straight towards Olivia on the other side of the fence. He stretched his neck out as she waved her hands around widely in front of her. Olivia whacked him in the face with her frantic arm movement and I feared he would either run away or get angry, but he just nuzzled closer and sniffed her face. She laughed raucously and whacked his face a few more times. Luke continued to explore the smells of his new mini friend. The adults all relaxed.

 

I took Olivia in my arms and lifted her over the fence so she could pat Luke’s sides. He stood quietly as if loving this new way of grooming. Eventually, I hoisted her onto his back and held her while she laughed and squealed excitedly. Normally I would have expected Luke to show at least a little concern, but he seemed happy to share this moment with her. After a short time Olivia’s mum noticed how dirty her clothes had become and insisted it was time to change Olivia’s clothes and the moment was gone. However, later that day I took Olivia for a ride on Luke, along with my friend and housemate Mark. Luke was the perfect gentleman in a way that he rarely was for me at this early stage of his life.

 

The reason I am telling this story is because I was recently reflecting how gentle some horses can be with children. Even very troubled horses will sometimes discover their inner saintliness towards children. It’s like they have a personality transplant when interacting with a small child. It’s not always true and sometimes one has to be careful how a horse will react to a child. But it is true often enough that it makes me think something unusual is going on in the way a child can affect the inside of a horse.

 

I don’t know why some horses seem to have a personality shift in the presence of a child. I see it more with human babies than other species. I mean Luke use to chase young goats and if he grabbed them he would toss them into the air. I had to mend many broken legs from his reaction to baby goats. And he hated calves with a vengeance. I’ve seen other horses get very stropping with the young of other species, but for some reason their reaction to humans was different.

 

There is something about the demeanour or smell or sound or body language or intent of children that a calms certain horses. I don’t know what it is, but maybe you do. I’d like to hear your theories. Maybe if we could bottle it and sprinkle it behind our ears we would all have really easy going and gentle horses.

 

Photo: I’m riding Luke with Olivia and my friend Mark acting as support crew.


Persistence Beats Aggression

We all know that in a herd of horses there is a pecking order. It is not a democracy with every horse having an equal say as any other horse. In fact, no two horses share the same space in the pecking order. There is always someone above and someone below. Sometimes horses switch places in the order as one grows more confident and another gets older and weaker. Sometimes a horse will work their way through the order by stealth and other times by sheer assertiveness. It’s a fluid existence.

 

Most of us have witnessed a dominant horse move another by unfiltered aggression. We see tougher horses lay down the law to more submissive horses all the time. It’s part of keeping order in the herd. And because it is so obvious when a dominant horse exerts their authority we tend to believe that’s how things get done in a herd. When one horse wants to get their way they threaten violence to the other horses until space is yielded or some form of submission is granted.

 

I even teach this principle at clinics. I tell people that the horse that moves the feet of the other is the one that is in charge. I usually say this at least once every clinic. But while this concept of herd dynamics and behaviour is true, it is not the whole truth. There are other truths that I don’t talk about and I don’t know anybody else who does.

 

It’s been my observation over many years that persistence trumps aggression when it comes to horses getting their own way. By that I mean a horse that persists on pressuring another will wear down a more dominant and assertive horse in the long run. It doesn’t mean the persistent horse becomes dominant or less submissive because the horse higher in the pecking order will still be able to move them with threats of violence. But I think what happens is the dominant horse gradually stops using strongly aggressive language. They are like mothers that are worn down by their kids until they finally tell the child, “fine, you can stay up an extra 30 minutes – but then it's straight to bed.”

 

I don’t think the dominant horse gives up in exasperation like a parent might, but instead they just no longer feel the need to keep demonstrating their super powers.

 

I’ve seen this phenomenon a lot in my life.

 

I first noticed it with a ram that wanted to share the horse’s grain. The horse kept chasing the ram away and even kicked it several times. The ram was protected by 12 months of wool and would only be chased off a few metres. Then when the horse would turn back the feed bin the ram would slowly creep back and inch closer and closer until the horse felt the need to attack again. But each time the ram returned it got closer to the bin before being chased away again. Within 15 minutes or so the horse and the ram were sharing the bucket of food.

 

I was absolutely surprised by this and wondered if there was something special about the relationship between this particular horse and ram. So I watched other interactions.

This is what I have concluded.

 

Firstly, it’s not an everyday day thing. Only some horses have the temperament to persist in the face of threatened violence. I feel these horses are often the ones that hang onto an idea and find letting go of a thought and behaviour difficult. They are commonly the hard ones to retrain because they are sure of what they already know and believe its ideas are what is keeping it alive.

 

I also believe the persistent horse can be either stoic and dull or sensitive and reactive. It’s my experience that you can’t pick which horses will wear down a dominant horse simply by whether they are easy going or emotionally fragile. They could be either or neither.

 

Lastly, I believe this type of relationship is almost exclusively between horses that get along okay. When they are not directly competing for food or space or water or shade or shelter etc they are comfortable in each other’s company and happy to hang out. They almost never have an adversarial relationship with constant bullying. So I’m saying that in normal day-to-day dynamics, the dominant horse tolerates the submissive horse’s company reasonably well. It’s only when they are competing for something that you see the dominant horse assert its dominance.

 

I grew up believing what I was told about horses in a herd. I believed the stallion kept order in the herd and the lead mare was the decision maker and responsible for finding food and water. I was told that horses assert order by the more dominant horses moving the feet of the submissive horses through threats of violence. I believed that in a stable herd the only change to the order of dominance came about because the old horses grew weak and were no longer able to assert their will over the younger horses. This was fed to me as fact. And it’s not wrong. It’s still true. But clearly, the social dynamics of a herd is much more complicated than those simple rules. The ability of a dominant horse to be bested by a submissive horse that is prepared to keep nagging to get what it wants is something nobody told me about and I wonder why.

 

As interesting as this phenomenon is to me, it also reveals a lie that most of us are taught and believe. That is, when working with a horse we must always be absolutely consistent so that we don’t confuse the horse. That’s how horses learn because that’s how they learn in a herd. We are told that a herd boss will always do what is necessary to get a change in a subordinate horse to maintain its dominance. It’s the consistency that provides leadership that other horses can depend on. Yet, as I have pointed out herd bosses are not always consistent. Sometimes another more persistent horse challenges their will and the boss succumbs to the will of the subordinate horse. But the pecking order is still preserved. The horse that nags and persists until they finally get their way doesn’t become the boss of the herd and the boss doesn’t fall down in the order to serve the subordinate horse. It makes me wonder what other important aspects of horse behaviour have we got wrong?

 

I think the lesson for me from this is that the social order of horses and how they learn and behave is far more complex than we understand.  It makes me feel that our simplified understanding of horses and how they operate is too inadequate to ever see what horses are truly capable of achieving.

 

Photo: These are two horses from our herd. On the left LJ is asserting his dominance over Guy at feeding time. However, the photo on the right was taken less than 10 minutes later.

The Safety Of Stirrups

Today’s post is a re-visit to a pet peeve of mine.

 

It’s about people using stirrups that are difficult to come out of. It is a simple truth that if you have a foot caught in a stirrup, and you are dragged by a horse, you are sure to get hurt – maybe killed. Most people don’t escape injury from being dragged.

 

We are all aware of the importance of wearing a helmet. The safety campaign around wearing helmets has been going on for years and has been very effective. Many places insist on riders wearing a helmet. My insurance coverage requires that my students wear a helmet when riding. New standards of safety for helmets are released every 2-5 years in Australia. When we hear of a riding accident, many people ask the question, “Were they were wearing a helmet?” Yet, when a person comes off a horse there is only a small chance they will injure their head. It is still a significant chance and a good reason for wearing a helmet. But why don’t we devote as much concern to the need for appropriate safety standards for stirrups as we do for helmets?

 

In my experience, the people who would refuse to ride without their helmet are often the same people who give no thought to the safety of the stirrups they choose to use. Yet in my view the safety risks are far greater when riding in inappropriate stirrups than when not wearing a helmet.

 

Stirrups should be designed so that a rider’s foot can come out in a flash, with zero hindrance. This might be that they open up to release the foot or separate from the saddle when pressure is applied or that they are designed to allow the foot to slide out easily and quickly.

 

My personal view is that all stirrups should be the type that allow either the stirrup to open up or separate from the saddle because even some of the so-called “safety stirrups” can trap a rider’s foot. In either case, I think there must be a minimum standard that everybody should adopt. I’d like to see insurance companies, national governing bodies, pony club, parents and peer pressure insist on a safety standard for stirrups. I’d like to see safety stirrups be part of an equipment check before each and every competition.

 

I believe this is such an important issue that I don’t want to wait until I am declared Emperor of the Universe by the masses before I make this a decree. I think we should do it NOW.

 

Video: This is what can happen despite the rider using “safety stirrups” (the kind with the curve on the outside of the stirrup). It took many months for the rider to recover from their injuries. I think he is lucky to be alive.

 

The Paradox Of Being Right

This post is in the aftermath of my post about the horse that had its leg roped and later was pulled by somebody. I wondered what reason would prompt somebody to remove the post. This led to a revelation. But my comments are not targeted at the original poster. These are general thoughts about how people (including myself) function.

 

I realized today (as I was splitting enough firewood to keep Michèle supplied for the next few weeks while I’m away doing clinics) that I am a walking contradiction. A two-legged paradox! Even more concerning is that we are all probably walking contradictions.

 

What do I mean? How could this happen? It’s simple really.

 

Most of you have probably clued in that I think a lot. I think a lot about thinking. I don’t seem to be able to control it. It’s as much a part of me as my baldness, my love of mathematics and my passion for great jazz. The result of all this thinking is that when I finally come to the end of a logical conclusion, I believe it is as true as I can make it. From my point of view, it holds as much water as Sydney harbour. I can’t stop thinking about something until I believe in the truth of my conclusions.

 

But here’s the problem. I also know that not everything I know can be true. I am a typically fallible human being. I make mistakes all the time. I have written 3 books. I have published umpteen scientific articles. I have posted more than 250 essays on Facebook. I realize that not every word I have written can be true. There must be mistakes – probably thousands of mistakes. But when I write them I believe them to be true.

 

So from my point of view, I know the following to be true.

 

A= what I say and write I am certain is true

B= I am certain that not everything I say and write can be true

 

But how can A and B both be true? A and B must be contradictions. Yet I believe both A and B are true.

 

For example, I use to work for a bookmaker on race days. I was required to add up long columns of numbers very quickly and accurately. I was good at it. When I added up a column I was certain the total was correct because my boss required it to be correct. If I was wrong it cost him money, so I made sure I was always right. But I know that in the millions of numbers I had to add there must have been some mistakes. It’s not humanely possible to have done it right every single time. So I was certain the totals were correct, but equally certain there were mistakes. It’s a contradiction.

 

This is the dilemma we all face in our daily lives. But in the case of working with horses, it becomes problematic because horses suffer the consequences of this paradox.

 

It is in how we deal with this paradox that determines how we deal with criticism and learning new things.

 

For most of us, we absolutely believe that what we know is true and the concept that we make mistakes and get things wrong is slightly less true. In other words proposition A is more true than proposition B (A >B). Therefore, we put more faith in the fact that our understanding and knowledge is infallible than the fact that we are human and sometimes get things wrong.

 

When we do this, we are less open to criticism and learning new things. We so strongly believe that what we know is true and alternative ideas can’t be true (or as least as true). In other words, we know better than others. Everyone else has it more wrong than us.

 

I sometimes come across this problem at clinics. Once in a while, somebody shows up with such a strong belief in the ideas they already hold that anything I might suggest to the contrary is met with resistance or even total rejection. They come to the clinic because they have a problem, but they are looking for a solution that already exists in their own knowledge database or aligns with their established views. In this case proposition A far outweighs proposition B (A>>B).

 

As I said, I come across this problem at clinics from time to time. But I come across it a lot more often when I am talking to other professional horse people. I find most other professional horse people refuse to discuss ideas outside of their own. They seem to have no room for discussion, just agreement. I know this because I try to engage so many in debate and I’m almost universally shutdown. I have heard from students that other trainers and clinicians talk about me as a trouble-maker and unprofessional. I have been banned from attending a trainer’s clinics even though we have never met or exchanged communication and purely because of my reputation of asking questions. I have been banned from many trainers FB page for trying to respectfully open discussion on a topic they post. I know of a few trainers with FB pages who seem so entrenched in their own ideas they have zero tolerance for anything other than total agreement with themselves. As a result they attract only sycophants and immunize themselves against any opinion that might expose them to new knowledge or thinking.

 

Thankfully there are a handful of trainers who are open to debate. I had a recent exchange with a fellow in Scotland called Brandon from BMc Horsemanship. We disagreed about something, but the discussion was excellent and civil.  Several weeks ago I attended a clinic by Martin Corteras and we had a terrific exchange of ideas. I believe not only did we benefit, but people on the sidelines also learned a lot. I wish more professionals were as welcoming of discussion as Brandon and Martin.

 

In my opinion, people that discourage or evade critical debate believe proposition A is more true than proposition B (ie A > B). But professionals like Brandon and Martin are more likely to believe that A and B are equally true, despite the paradox (ie A = B).

 

I agree with the old adage “I may not be right, but I am certain.” I think this is useful to present certainty to both horses and students, but it also leaves the door open to taking onboard considered criticism and new ideas because it accepts that you may not be right. However, I think the philosophy “I may not always be right, but I am never wrong” is a hindrance to being the best horse person and teacher one can be.

 

It is easy for any of us to encourage and enjoy discussion with those that share similar views to us. But when the opinions are contrary, egos can become fragile and defenses are raised. It says something good about a person’s character that is prepared to engage in discussion with those that may hold very different views. I’m trying to be better at it and I admire those who do it well, such as the neuroscientist Sam Harris.

 

It may be a contradiction to believe what you know is correct and at the same time believe you can’t always be right. But I think it is the best way to be. The alternative is destructive in my opinion.

 

Photo: Since many of you admired the photo of the nice looking black horse that was removed a couple of days ago, I thought I’d add a picture of another nice looking horse that I had to trim recently. I guess I look a little different without my beard, however I can see now why Michèle much prefers me with a beard!

The Way We Look At Things

This is a shared post that I came across. Please click this link:

This link has recently been removed by the original poster. So you have to image it is of a horse that has had a leg roped with a lariat. The horse is leaping around violently as a trainer sits on his horse, holding the lariat and watches.

http://bit.ly/29mlGnT

The photo caught my eye, but what made me want to share it is not the image of a horse with a rope around its leg or the leaping in the air. It is the comments – including the comment of the person posting it. I don’t belong to the FB group where I found the picture, so I couldn’t make my thoughts known on that page. I figure second best is to tell you guys what I think.

 

The first thing people are going to tell me is that the photo is just a moment in time and everything worked out brilliantly for the horse. But to be honest, I don’t care. The reason I am posting this short essay is not because I’m bothered that the horse is leaping around obviously scared out of its wits (even though I am bothered by it). I don’t care that it had a rope around a foot. I don’t care what the trainer was attempting to do. I don’t care if the explosion was a result of something the trainer did or a sting from a bee. And I don’t care if the final outcome was amazing or not. The reason why I am posting this is because I care why the photo was posted and why almost all the comments are in awe of what the photo depicts.

 

If the final result of the session was a wonderfully happy and relaxed horse going along with the trainer’s idea, why not post a photo of that? What does it say about us as humans or horse people that we want to see or are impressed by images of training going badly? What is so “wow” (as the poster expresses) about seeing a horse in so much trouble that it has to explode. I’m reserving my “wow” remarks for when I see a horse offering a nice and relaxed trot circle, not for explosions or adrenaline pumping speed or whatever.

 

When Ray Hunt was alive I was lucky enough to see about a dozen or more of his clinics. I remember being perplexed how he would laugh heartily whenever a horse had a bucking episode. I couldn’t figure out how such an amazing horseman could say he was there for the horse first and in the next moment find humour in a horse’s emotional trauma. I still don’t understand it. Perhaps some of you who knew him well enough could explain it to me. Was it Ray’s way of dealing with stress or was a strategy to keep the other participants calm or did he really find it funny?

 

I want all my training to be so boring that people would bring along a good book to read. I don’t want the horse’s upset. Of course, it happens but I don’t want it to happen. Whenever I do feel the need to become firm with a horse and allow them to experience some trouble, I hate it. I do what I believe I need to do to help a horse, but I really hate it when things have to get worse before they get better. I am always bothered by it. Occasionally it even causes a sleepless night or two, which gives me more reason to hate it. But in a bizarre way it’s a good thing that I hate it. Except for the fact that I enjoy my sleep, I am glad that upsetting a horse plays uncomfortably on my mind. I believe it should. I don’t ever want to be okay with it. I don’t want to stop caring enough that I ignore the trouble.

 

My father was a WWII veteran. He was a POW, captured in North Africa and marched across Europe to work in a coal mine in Poland for 3 years. He once told me that on the march he saw dead bodies lying in the streets. He saw so many dead bodies that he got use to them and sometimes would even step over one without thinking about it. After the war it became a point of shame to him that during the war he lost his care for other people’s plight. He never forgave himself for being able to walk over a person’s body and feel nothing. I feel that way about horses too. I never want to feel nothing when a horse (or a person) is in trouble.

 

I don’t know the poster or the people commenting on the post. For all I know the poster maybe the most caring and talented horse person in Australia. I hope he is. But I wish posts like this were gone from Facebook and only used when it is useful to illustrate a point. But I can’t see what useful training point this post was trying to make. There seems no purpose to the post on the group page other than to attract attention. There is nothing to learn from it about training horses. If there were I wouldn’t feel the need to comment about it.

The Smallest Try

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.