Repetition Vs. Consistency

There’s a moment, sometimes at the beginning of a lesson or during a clinic, where I meet a horse for the first time. I might ask him a question, a simple thing like taking a step back and I might ask him with my feet. The horse isn’t sure what I’m asking so he’s thinking about it.

Meanwhile, his rider is anxious for him to do well, so she tells me how she cues him and sometimes steps in to demonstrate it. Meanwhile, the thinking horse becomes what we see as an obedient horse. He goes back to habit along with his rider.

There is a comfort for both horse and rider in familiarity. It is a cue that they have drilled; a known answer exchanged between partners. Like starting church with a hymn or a ball game with the national anthem. It has a comfort we all understand.

In the beginning, training is repetition. We ask for something, the horse tries a few things, and gets a release when he finds the right answer. We cue him, he steps back, and the cue stops. He learns in hindsight and then gives us the right answer when we ask because he likes it when the cue stops. Simple success.

The problem is that we want more. More cues, more obedience, more good feelings. Most horses oblige to a point. Then we want bigger progress and get frustrated when he doesn’t keep up. A cue that makes sense to you leaves him blank. Or something changes; the routine gets altered and the two of you lose rhythm. Or the horse is distracted when we ask and we startle him with a correction. Somehow, things come apart. Because they always do.

Or you might want to change things in your training for the very best reason. Maybe you are aware of how hard your horse tries. Aware that he gives you the benefit of the doubt at times you might not entirely deserve it. You see past the surface of obedience, recognize his intelligence, and decide you need to do better because you want to match his kindness. He has inspired you; wonderful.

The two primary training principles that seem to carry across disciplines are these: You must be consistent. You must change things up.  This is why so many longtime novice riders get stuck. It’s a crazy contradiction so our behaviors go nuts to match.

Repetition isn’t a bad thing unless we repeat it too much. But that’s kind of how humans do things, left to our own instinct. We turn the key in the ignition switch, happy that the engine roars. Gas. Brakes. Gas. Brakes. We love that control. It’s too bad it doesn’t work the same way in a saddle.

One of the ways that learning and understanding sinks deeper, allowing for breakthrough work with horses, is by re-defining old words and taking that new awareness into the present moment. We might evolve from wanting an obedient horse who answers by rote to wanting an engaged horse who is answering spontaneously. The secret to improving your riding is to give up some desire for control to encourage your horse to be more curious and willing to take a guess. It’s the kind of counter-intuitive idea that feels just like a stone in your boot.

Riding more often, repetition, doesn’t make a horse better. If that was true, those old sainted lesson ponies would be in the Olympics.

Consider evolving the definition of a new word: Consistency. Being consistent is more than scheduling rides a certain number of times a week. It’s altering the quality of those rides. It’s being aware of each cue, even the ones you didn’t mean to give. As a rider lifts her awareness, it means that engaging his mind becomes more important than giving the stock answer. It’s the act of having a conversation of cues rather than a command to be obeyed. The challenge for a rider is to keep a horse interested in the conversation; it takes mental focus. We must stay engaged in each stride if we hope to have a responsive horse.

It can start as simply as asking for longer strides in the walk. Do it with a subtle cue, using just your sit bones in the saddle. If you feel a tiny difference in his stride, good, reward him with an exhale. Then return to his working walk and in a few strides, as for some shorter strides, again just with sit bones. Feel his response. He’s right there, connected in each stride. That part was almost easy.

Eventually, the canter. Instead of a jerk-and-kick canter depart, breathe and relax yourself at the trot. Be still, keep your shoulders back, and feel the landing of each stride. Allow him to stay relaxed and cue in rhythm with his movement, so he can make that transition with balance. Keep your energy in check; you’re asking for a change of gait, not a change of speed. Give him time to understand the difference and reward his effort to understand. Let the canter depart have the steady confidence of a jet plane on the runway.

Prepare for the day when you think the cue, allowing subtle changes in your body, and letting time slow down. You feel a lift in his supple shoulders, his neck is long and soft. His head is on the vertical, not because you are pulling on the reins, but because when he is forward and relaxed, and that’s his natural head position. On your inhale, he lifts you to a swinging rhythm, your body follows as he glides over the earth. It’s a canter that feels like more air than ground. It feels like being weightless and powerful; the peace inside the eye of a hurricane.

Consistency isn’t about drilling the same question, judging right and wrong, punishing or rewarding. Consistency is an ever-evolving mentality that stays present with energy and an openness. It’s rewarding his curiosity with your creativity; a witty repartee of cues and releases that feels like laughter between equals. It’s knowing that he’ll give the best answer if you focus on asking the question in the best way.

Trust, first defined as not being afraid of falling, grows into the confidence to fly. Consistency is a rider working toward being the best they can be, allowing their horse to do the same.

Horses reward us for our uplifted consistency, usually with something a little sweeter than what we expect. Generosity.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning upcoming Concept Clinics. 2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

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Anna Blake

29 thoughts on “Repetition Vs. Consistency”

  1. Anna, this is one of your posts that I read thinking, “Some day this will all make sense to me. Right now, I can just catch a glimpse of what Anna is talking about. But someday I will understand it better.”

    For now, I will continue to work on “You must be consistent. You must change things up.”

    Some day, I will better understand “…rewarding his curiosity with your creativity; a witty repartee of cues and releases that feels like laughter between equals.”

    Thank you for continuing to challenge and inspire me to learn more. 🙂

    • That crazy contradiction is a great leaping off place to get past old methods. (Just between us, there was a time this would have made me shake my head and tear my hair.) Thanks, Joe.

      • So…on that crazy contradiction…can I ask you for confirmation of my understanding?

        I’ve read, “You must be consistent. You must change things up.”…or something similar…in Ray Hunt’s writing, and have puzzled over it.

        My current understanding of what this means is I must be consistent in my expectations of the horse. Whether walking in from the pasture, riding in the arena, riding solo down the gravel roads, or trail riding with friends, I should strive to be consistent in my cues and in my expectations of the horse’s response to my cues.

        However, I should strive to always change things up. I should get outside the arena to the gravel roads. Rather than always doing solo work, I should sometimes ride with friends. I should haul my horse to other locations and expose him to more environments. I should help him learn be just as comfortable making a tight turn around an oak tree in a park as around a pole in the arena.

        And, in those environmental change-ups, I should continually assure him and build his confidence by showing him our communication style and expectations do not change. Regardless of where we are and what’s going on he can still expect me to listen to him. He can still expect the same cues and the same excepted response to cues. He can still expect me to strive to time cues and releases to his movement and response.

        Does that sound pretty close to your intended meaning?

        • Well, I could write about 80k words to answer this… but I’m at an airport… Yes, that probably is what Ray might mean but your words mostly focus on his answer to you and your cues to him. It also means taking some cues from him. Partnerships work both ways. As for consistency, your consistent cheerfulness, smile, reward, optimism. You overall approach; the inside matters as much as the outside of a rider. Probably more. Change things up can be location, but also the order of work, the tempo of the work, time of day, no stirrups, no bit, and best of all, no expectations. That’s where you trust him to take you for a ride. So, yes, what you wrote, which I hope is moving inward for both of you. Riding the inside of the horse, with the inside of the rider. I know. Hard to explain. Come for a lesson sometime…

      • Thank you, Anna!

        This is what I love most about your writing…your continual exhortation to focus on dialogue rather than monologue…and to consider the human’s positive attitude as an absolute prerequisite. 🙂

        I would LOVE to come for a lesson sometime…but it’s a bit of a distance…

        Thank you! 🙂

  2. Yes, THIS. Thank you Anna for your ability to put into words the intentions and experience I strive to have with my horse every time we’re together. As a professional dog trainer I speak of this with my clients on a regular basis. There is so much depth and exquisite complexity of relationship to be had when we approach our animal partners this way. Thank you so much for putting it so beautifully into writing.

    • Thank you for this wonderful comment. I agree, it’s the same with dogs. We just have to let go of a few of our natural instincts for it to work. 🙂 Thanks, Valissa.

  3. Wow Anna, have I said this before? Your creative ability to shine light and wisdom is on a growing curve that continues to surprise, delight and inspire me (to keep rising up and do/Be my own version of ascension in authentic action presence). Thank you beautiful one. And I hear the horses clapping their appreciation w a fly by thunder of hoof beats. Ain’t life grand!! Penny

    • I constantly surprise myself… so much so that I can’t take credit. (It might be those thundering hooves doing the typing.) Thanks, my friend. Your words mean so much to me.

  4. wonderful article – it puts words on the subtle balance of working with horses where it is not about obedience but a mutual collaboration where the cues becomes so subtle! It resonates so much for me and how I try to work with my two horses.

  5. Thank you for another great one. I have often thought learning good horsemanship is like learning a foreign language. The student learns the rules of the foreign language, and then suddenly there are all these many exceptions to the grammar rules, and just when one thinks they have found solid footing, everything changes or needs to change.. That’s why building a healthy relationship with our horses is an “art” I suppose ! When I was a young girl, my horse was so well “trained” that he filled in a lot of holes for me in my horsemanship. Now I am learning that my current horses have not been educated or helped along in many areas and I must help them learn without being a nag or a bully. I appreciate these thoughts on repetition and consistency.

  6. Sometimes I feel like you are the angel in my pocket. It has been a challenging year, but lately I have been trying to make the focus of every ride be that ride, not what we should be working on or what is in the test we have to ride at the next show, but just what this moment needs to grow into something fluid and marvelous. I’m old and nobody cares if I can do this stuff anymore or not. But I have this incredible horse I really want to ride like she deserves, and she transforms time and reality everyday and makes me think hard and work hard to be here now for her. So, it’s so great to read your posts where it seems something like that goes on, something unexpected we keep reaching for that is the very thing we are hoping will happen, like something you have to look a little to the side of to see it. And then it does happen, and it’s not exactly what you thought you wanted, but it’s the thing itself, taking you over and gathering you up into a partnership of minds and dynamic bodies, like a wind coming off the Gulf swirling your hearts into a dancing embrace, like the bright phosphorescence in the bay touching your stroking hands with magic, total immersion with this most beloved being.

    Reiner Klimke said concentration is sacred, and I try to follow that map every new day. Thank you for being such a clear, reaching voice for this work.


  7. How your writing touches me so, Anna. You so beautifully, elegantly and eloquently described the ‘magic’ we can have with horses. I’ve printed this out so I can reread it before going out to interact with my horses.

    I don’t want obedience, I want collaboration and co-creation. Yes, sometimes it’s hard to hear No from my horse but it’s so joyous when we’re In sync and connected. They have become my greatest teachers – inviting me to be present, live in the moment, value connection over agenda and so much more. I am such a work in progress and I appreciate my horses’ patience with me.

    Thank you Anna for your illuminating and Inspiring post!! (Another one)

  8. Pingback: This Week With Indy: Consistency v. Repetition – Diary of an OTTB

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