You want the horse to focus on the task and do it.
Let’s say your horse needs to stand still. He pauses, quiet for a few seconds almost before you notice, but he’s close and you can’t help but adjust his forelock. Like a horse even needs a forelock adjustment. Then he shifts to look away (a calming signal), so you pull his face toward you, so close he can’t see you. He looks away again and this time, you correct him just in case he might take a step. He didn’t take a step before but now you rattle the lead and he backs a step. So, you correct him again, you pull him forward, but he takes two steps. You poke him back again. This horse never stands still.
Let’s say there’s an obstacle. You bring your horse up to it and pause. Your horse drops his head to the ground (calming signal) and you jerk his head up because he isn’t looking where you think he should be. He is looking from a passive position, but now the horse knows he’s in trouble, so he shuts down a little. So, you pull his head forward but since horses don’t naturally give to pressure any more than we do, he pulls back. You swing your rope and pop him on his backside, and of course, he moves his backside away. Now the horse is head high and won’t face the obstacle. His eye is very still, but no matter what, he just won’t pay attention to the obstacle.
Let’s say you are asking your horse to transition up to either a trot or a canter. At the same time, you want him to bend but instead of using your leg at the girth, you pull the inside rein. That’s a whoa command so he slows. Then you kick him in a nagging repetitive way because he didn’t take the cue to go faster. He’s losing confidence and one side of his mouth hurts. He needs to escape, so he counter-bends (another calming signal) and pins his ears. You hold hard on the reins, frustrated and escalating now. And in the confusion of one cue to stop and one cue to go, he just does his best.
Is there a more frustrating, discombobulated, stubborn, tense, and just plain contradictory animal than a human?
It’s such a human thing to think someone else isn’t focused because the thing about a lack of focus, obviously, is that we don’t notice it’s us. If we have a discerning eye, we notice other people aren’t focused. When we finally notice it’s us, we make longwinded excuses for not being focused, but it doesn’t improve our focus. It just adds one more ingredient in the mess our lack of focus has stirred up. Wait, it gets worse. Then, we really focus hard on focusing and start to micromanage the horse, which is very similar to not focusing, if you ask him.
It’s enough to make you throw your hands up in the air and quit. Then, in that split second of silence, maybe you see your horse’s eye soften, or an ear turn toward you (calming signals) and you are drawn in, just like always. Because the rattle and bang didn’t work for you any more than it did for your horse. But your horse is right there, ready to give you another try.
It can seem like knowing horses and training them is a complicated thing. And it is, but here is the secret: You have to do it simply, and most of all, politely. We have to learn to not interrupt our horses when they are thinking.
Horses just think about one thing at a time. Humans are the ones who can multi-task, but is it an advantage? We chatter on, interrupt each other, forget what we were saying or doing. We have three or five things going at once, we can’t remember. The more productive we try to be, the less we get done. We contradict ourselves and then get frustrated if the horse answers the contradiction instead of the first thing we said, several contradictions before. Am I rude to be so blunt? Be glad I’m not a mare.
Horses try to teach us. They come near when we settle. We think it’s magic but no, they are drawn to us when we are less predatory, more peaceful. If the horse behaves differently when we muck out the pen or groom than when we train, hear your horse. He has common sense.
But cheer up. It isn’t our fault. Growing up, we got punished for lacking focus, too. When told we were daydreaming or distracted, (thinking about something more interesting than science or Shakespeare) it was a bad thing to be focused on the wrong subject. But when the lecture droned on, when the subject was dull, when we were drilled or worked too long, we got corrected, told to try hard and focus, as if we were a slow-witted horse. Focus felt like detention. and that left a stain on the idea of focus. Somewhere it got all twisted in our minds. Horses understand how that could happen.
You’ve heard it so much it feels like it’s tattooed on your forehead: Less is more. It means just do one thing at a time, don’t let other things distract you, and please don’t nag. It means when we do less, it gives the horse the space he needs to speak up and do more.
Focus doesn’t mean we try harder, instead we listen more. We aren’t more intense, we breathe more rhythmically. We don’t let ourselves worry about the next question, we stay on topic. We don’t ask-tell-make the horse, we pose a polite request. We respect the horse and give him time to answer. And somewhere in this process, we like ourselves better.
Let’s start again. It doesn’t matter what you are doing with the horse, because it isn’t what we train, but the quality of our conversation when we train them. Start by noticing the horse and acknowledging his utter perfection. Settle yourself. Listen for the answer he gives and learn from that. Let it inform your next question. Maintain politeness, release anxiety when it rises. Feel good about the process.
Your horse might not join in right away. He may have history in the way or he may need to build some trust. He may be waiting for an accelerating cue, braced for the “make” part of the request. You can’t do this part for him but trust him to work it out. Your horse wants to get along. While you are patient, expect the best.
Is there a more committed, enthusiastic, try-hard, well-intentioned, and just plain kind-hearted animal than a human? No. We can be pretty great.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.