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Patternized Behavior... Thought for the day

Have you ever been in the shower thinking about stuff you'll need to get done that day and suddenly stopped and asked yourself, "Did I already put conditioner in my hair?" I know it sounds silly but I bet a lot of you have. This is what I call Patternized Behavior which I define as after having done a specific task numerous times it starts to become part of your "routine" where you no longer have to think in detail or focus completely in order to get the task done.
So how does this term Patternized Behavior apply to horses and their owners? I find most horses that are mentally unavailable are resistant to change. That means they "know what they know" and will be what I categorize as tolerant or obedient to what is asked of them. That is, until you ask them something different from the "norm." Then they come completely unglued mentally, emotionally and physically. Kinda like when the babysitter tries to do something with your kids and the kids respond "that's not how my mom does it."
The topic for this blog came to me this morning as I went to feed. While at my winter location we have stalls where we overnight the horses in, then usually around 11am we turn them out into the pasture for six or seven hours of grazing. This morning because of my schedule, I decided to turn them out in the morning and bring them in the afternoon. I like to do things as "simple" as possible, so when I turn horses out I swing open their gate and they know to go and look for the opening in the hotwire.
So this morning I opened each of their stall gates and all five horses (except one) stood with an absolute blank look on their face. Total shock had overwhelmed them that they were not being fed breakfast. I shooed them out towards the pasture where they reluctantly trotted off to. Then they promptly turned around and stood at the pasture gate with a look on their face saying "This is NOT how we do it."
People and horses can get VERY comfortable with routine and patterns. They catch their horse the same way, tack up at the same time of day in the same spot, mount from the same side, start their warm up in the same direction, ride for the same length of time, etc. So the horses start to learn what to "expect" from their riders and figure out how to "comply" within the demands of their rider. This seems like a quality relationship until the day the rider comes up with something new. Then "ALL OF A SUDDEN" (one of the terms I dislike most when people attempt to explain a negative occurrence with their horse) their horse does something "he's never done before..."
Hmmmm. Most "issues" are not the issue at all; in fact they are the SYMPTOM of an issue, not the issue itself. So how do we know what the real issue is? Well this is where we need to assess if both our horses and ourselves are suffering from patternized routines or behaviors. The next time you're with your horse try an experiment. Take a few minutes and interact with him in a way that you have not done before. Below are some ideas:
Catch him, let him go and catch him again.

Carry your tack to a different place than the norm and tack him up in his stall, pasture, at a trailer, etc.

Mount him from the "off" side.

Mount him then dismount immediately and start picking rocks out of the arena.
While you are offering this new way of presenting things to your horse you should be assessing his mental availability and be asking yourself some of these questions:
Does he appear to get stressed (swishing his tail, pawing, chewing on the lead rope or fence, excessive movement as you work around him, etc.)?

Does he get a blank (literally) look on his face trying to figure out what you are doing?

Does he try to resort to "the old way" when you are asking him to do something new or different?

Does his breathing rate increase?

Does he become physically resistant to where you are asking him to move?
Now both your fellow riders and your horse may think you've gone off the deep end when they see you doing these "silly" little things with your horse, but by doing so you'll be able to evaluate how much MENTAL availability your horse has towards what ask or present something, new or different. If he appears to respond by "shutting down" you may need to go back to the basics and review what tools you are using to communicate with your horse, how and when you use them, how effective they are in offering "black and white" communication and increasing your standard as to what behaviors your horse offers that are acceptable and those that are not...
Your goal is for your horse to offer in any situation, whether he has experienced it before or not, "How can I make this work?" If you horse is mentally availability he will be physically willing to do what you are asking.
Stay tuned!  Sam

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