Ever noticed how easy it is to see the horse who’s resistant? How easy it is to pick out the rider with bad hands? The biggest complaint that riders seem to have is that railbirds are critical of their horsemanship. So, they’re critical of the ones being critical. Some rider’s hate competition because they don’t like judgment, but isn’t that a judgment? And to be honest, I have some passionately held negative opinions myself, even knowing it’s like chasing my own tail.
It takes no special skill to find fault. It’s practically a human’s default position. Our education in right-and-wrong begins right after birth and our desire stay right kicks in just after that. Ever listened to a toddler reprimand a dog? It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Making corrections is so normal to us, we do it unconsciously. Small passive things like tidying a friend’s collar or mentioning food in their teeth, and it’s considered a common courtesy to point out such imperfections. We fix the things that aren’t right.
Naturally, it happens with horses, too, because we care. We want them to do right and we have the superpower to see wrong. So, ten strides from the mounting block, a horse gets corrected for being not quite on the rail. We’ll pull an inside rein, worried that they might counter-bend. We’ll judge the walk too slow, kick them forward, and then pull back because we didn’t’ ask for a trot. Have two minutes passed?
True, this isn’t brutal domination. Maybe I should let it go, we have good intention, after all. Like the comments some mothers make about their daughter’s hair, and clothes, and relationship choices, and a thousand other little things that she could point out to improve her daughter’s life. It’s the kind of “love” that can wear your confidence down.
Back to working with horses, constant correction sends the message that nothing is ever good enough. The problem with nagging is it doesn’t work, while demeaning to both sides. Soon the horse stops listening and the rider gets louder, or vice versa. Time for some serious training now. All the old voices come back: You can’t let him win. You have to show him who’s boss. Watch this video. Read that book. Get some spurs. Hire a cowboy.
It’s a runaway: The horse is wrong, so you’re wrong, but all the advice is wrong. In your heart, you believe dominance-based training is wrong, but every other idea you can imagine, including giving up, is wrong.
What if you just said YES?
The world comes apart, of course. Without discipline, we are all lost. Horses would become wild and dangerous. Toddlers would drive cars. Goats would clean out the fridge.
How much do we believe that good behaviors only work when taught with a threat (negative reinforcement) behind them?
Does being an affirmative trainer mean you’re permissive? Someone who never teaches boundaries and watches as her horse kicks the farrier? Someone whose horse doesn’t like arena work or much of anything else? Oh please, horses and riders rise to the very top of every riding discipline with affirmative training. It might be your imagination that needs to hear a YES.
Start by paying attention to your default behaviors. Notice the corrections that you usually don’t notice. Don’t change them just notice the things you do without mental awareness. What is the overall tone of your interchange? Let your horse answer that question. It isn’t about happy or sad, it’s about engagement and connection.
What if you just said YES? Consider it a dare. Literally, the only word you get to use is YES. And no, you don’t get to sit in a chair and mumble yes. You actually have to ask for a behavior, mounted or on the ground. So, perhaps a cue to walk on. If he thinks about doing it, you say YES. Inhale, and if he shifts his weight, again, YES.
Training happens by successive approximation; he does something kind of like what we want, and we say YES to let him know he’s getting warmer. YES to let him have the time to figure out what we want. YES makes it a game instead of a job.
Saying YES isn’t as easy as it sounds, is it? It means if you get a wrong answer, it’s on you to find a better way to ask. You have to say YES to your own creativity and spontaneity. Like chess, you must think ahead. It takes more energy to be positive. But we knew that; being critical is also the laziest thing in the world.
Saying YES requires us to stay engaged every second. We must mentor that energy and responsiveness we want from horses by staying engaged and positive.
Pause here. I remember holding a nervous horse for a vet and all our anxiety was growing but a harsh correction confirms his fear. I chirped out, “YES!” The vet looked at me like I was a crazy woman, the sort of dolt who teaches a horse to misbehave. Actually, I do know the type; a light chatter with the horse is commiserating, which is no help, but an affirmation can change everything. So, in a strong, confident voice, “Good boy!” and with that positive reminder, the horse relaxed. I’m sure the vet thought it was a fluke.
There are a million reasons for saying YES. The horse is trying. He’s getting closer. He got it right. He could use some energy. He needs a boost to his confidence, encouragement to keep trying. Say YES to hold interest. YES is the reward for staying in the process, until successfully completing it.
Saying YES lifts the quality of the conversation. Initially, you may need to do some translating: instead of unconsciously correcting each fault, you’re looking for the best response and aiming for a question that might evoke that answer. It’s you raising your entire thought process to find a way to encourage confidence, so the horse feels right all the time.
Less correction, more direction. YES is a game of possibility.
Pause again: In high school, my friend Bob always opened car doors for me. He stood a little funny when he did it, a hand on his belly. One day he told me that he had four sisters and if he didn’t rush to get the door, one of his sisters would punch him in the gut. He laughed in a self-deprecating way. Even now, I share his discomfort.
Affirmative training is an evolved choice, a place where there are no limits. Our horses volunteer a YES, with confidence that lets us feel better about ourselves. In time, affirmative thought changes the way the world looks, from the bottom up, not a mess needing correction, but a place of beautiful possibility.
Most importantly, affirmative training changes us. We become our best selves, not because horses have healed us but because we have earned our own confidence. They like us to stand a little taller beside them.