Chores and clocks... Changing what defines a "training session"

Over the years as I try to give people ideas on how to keep their interaction with their horse “interesting” so not to fall into the seemingly inevitable “patternized” routine I often suggest for folks who keep their horses at home, to do chores with their horse.
Recently I just saw a great photo of a numeral clock with no hands on it titled “Horse Time.”  I re-posted it on Facebook adding, “When I have a horse in training often people will ask how long a session is, and this picture of the clock is my answer.”  After posting it, I realized I ought to expand my thoughts on what I might consider part of a “training” session.

I believe that every moment of interaction with your horse increase or decrease the quality of your relationship based on what you “offer” your horse.   Society often likes to categorize and contain things, and it is no different in the horse world.  The 45 minute or one hour lesson.  The “magic” 30 days of training.  The feeding two or three times a day.  Keeping horses in stalls.  Tying their heads down.  Changing their natural movement into unnatural gaits.  We try to contain and suppress the horse until he becomes whatever the “ideal” goal is in our head and all too often we take the “horse out of the horse.”

What if instead we started to question our current acceptance of the “rules” in our head, and at the same time no longer accept the preconceived notion of “this is how we do _______________ because that is how we have always done _______________.”  I never ceased to be amazed when talking with a completely non-horsey person and having them watch a session, whether ground work or riding, and their clarity of being able to literally “see” what is going on with the horse’s behavior tends to be far clearer than the person who has spent their entire life around horses and who has taken a lot of lessons.

I get a lot of colts to start each year, and typically most owners have been waiting a long time to get on their horse want to get on and “go.”  I on the other hand like things really, really, really boring.  Even if I’m galloping, it needs to feel soft, balanced and boring.  Most people approach interacting with their horse with a “survive” the ride mentality.

I believe the foundation of a horse’s education should include him learning things such as becoming mentally available towards a person, learning to focus on what is being presented, learning patience, and increasing his confidence and independence while still participating in communicating with me in a reasonable manner. 

So what does doing chores have to do with what I’m writing?  My “practical” mind tries to make my life more efficient as I run a “one woman” operation so all property maintenance, training, teaching lessons, bookkeeping, etc. are included in my day.  When I have a horse in for training I’ll often use some of his “training” session as a good opportunity do chores.  By doing so, it can help present “scenarios” that can teach him some of the things I mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Let me give you a few examples.

For my Dressage arena perimeters I have white chain, which can break when loose horses or wildlife crossing through the property and step on it.  I’ll often take a horse, whether lead or riding, and find a broken link, and ask him to stand and wait while I fix the fence.  If I’m riding, it may require I mount and dismount multiple times (from both sides,) and the horse starts to realize the ride isn’t “over” just because I’ve gotten off.  As I fix the fence, the horse needs to stand at attention almost as if he was watching (I try to imagine I’m doctoring a cow), so there is no mentally “tuning me out” or grazing just because he has to wait.

I have tons of weeds this year with all the crazy rain, so I may actually have a horse that is standing at the end of the lead rope or ground tied as I use a shovel for a few minutes to pull weeds.  The motion of the shovel, the gently “tossing” of the weed clumps, great desensitizing, and again the horse needs to be focused on what I’m doing, either ground tied or with the lead loosely slung over my arm.

Cleaning out/scrubbing water troughs is another great one, especially because the “flooding” of the emptied tub makes a great muddy water hole for the horse to learn walking through, without me leading him, never mind the sound of the automatic waterer refilling.

Opening and closing gates is another great opportunity for him to learn to be helpful and participate.  One time I may lead him around the gate, another send him in and turn around to face me while I’m still standing on the opposite side.  If riding it is a great opportunity to use the initially taught literal “one step at a time” tool, also a great time to show him WHY he needs to be able to move his front end independent of his hind end.  The clanging of the gate, the shifting of my weight in the saddle as I fuss and fidget with the gate are also great ways to improve his confidence of movement.

If I’ve “left” things such as halters, lead ropes, etc. hanging on the fence, teaching the horse to sidle up the exact spot I need him, leaning off to the side of him to reach for ropes, “dragging” stuff along his shoulder, over the saddle, etc. as I carry it back to wherever I need it.  Again, the goal isn’t to pick up my stuff, but rather to have the horse learn how to participate in a reasonable manner for whatever the task may be.

Changing jumps in the arena is a great time for loose horse to learn to follow, wait, follow, wait, as I drag jump poles, standards, walk distances, etc.

Sometimes I’ll teach a lesson to someone else while I’m sitting on a young horse.  They have to learn to stand relaxed and wait, and yet be ready as soon as I pick up a rein to participate.

Now further along in their education we may get to clearing the trails in the woods.  If a heavy limb or branch has fallen down, I’ll teach a horse to drag it, just like he was dragging a calf.  Him having to learn to shift his weight according to what he is dragging, getting used to movement and noise behind him, etc.  I can do this whether I’m leading him or riding. 

Another similar one is instead of hiking a ladder all through the woods, I’ll sit on a horse and with small clippers I’ll trim the slightly overgrown trails.  Patience, movement from above his head, and branches falling down.  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!!!!

My point is that based on the quality of the initial relationship and respect of how you communicate, you can use your horse as a practical “tool” but also be improving your relationship AND furthering his education. 

Now you could go through each of the ideas I’ve suggested above, and if there is brainlessness in either you and/or your horse, there is no point in doing the tasks.  And really, the point isn’t to accomplish the task.  The point is you have a task which mentally gives YOU intention, whether you realize it or not, that then gives the horse the sense that what you are asking of him is “important.”  Also, by specifically having to accomplish the task, it will help you slow down and assess where your horse is perhaps starting to tune you out, offer less than 100% brain and effort, etc. 

BUT REMEMBER… If your horse isn’t “doing” what you want, always, always, always, stop and assess what YOU are doing and offering your horse in terms of clarity.  Most times the horse doesn’t “get it” because the human is unclear.  If you’re feeling stuck, start describing (out loud ) first what you want from your horse, and then literally how and what you are going to do to communicate each “step” in order to get him to understand.  If you horse gets “stuck” a portion of the way through, check to see if you may be “trying to do it for him” without realizing it, and therefor may actually be accidentally preventing him from accomplishing what you want.

At clinics I often do an exercise where I have a human “play” a horse, and another human play a “rider”.  The rider has only a lead rope held lightly in the human-horse’s hands across the front of their waist, to communicate to their horse (whose eyes are closed) and certain tasks I’ve assigned to the rider (the human-horse doesn’t know what they are.)  No voice, no clucking, no physical touching of the human-horse, no nothing except using the lead rope to communicate.  Afterwards everyone who plays the part of the horse talks about how they had to keep guessing at what the rider wanted.  The riders, all usually say it took a huge amount of mental effort to figure how to communicate and be specific.  Then I remind people that what they felt as a “horse” is usually what their real horse is feeling, and I always ask that if they addressed their real horses with as much mental effort as they did their human-horse, they’d probably see a big difference in their relationship.

Now what did this blog have to do with clocks without hands?  Well for all the ideas I suggested above, none I would every present in a “we have to get it accomplished in this amount of time” manner.  If it takes three minutes until we find quality, fine.  If it takes a lot longer, so what?  My goal is quality, not quantity.  So if I have to take a lot of “baby” mental and physical steps in order to accomplish a task, so be it.  When there is quality, your horse should feel like putty in your hands.  Light, sensitive, responsive, reasonable, participative, curious and much more. 

So if you’re a rider who is used to only have a certain amount of time to be with your horse, try and experiment with perhaps changing when you work with your horse so that you don’t feel the “pressure” of always having to hurry up.  If you’ve had a great session, even if you have more time… stop early!  If you present something and your horse makes a really big improvement, leave him alone… that is the best reward you can give him!  The irony is the more you initially “leave them” when they get it right, the more they want to be with you and the more they offer you because they realize you recognize their efforts and don’t just try to take advantage of them.

I haven’t worn a watch for almost fifteen years, and it isn’t an accident.  But then again, I live in a lifestyle where I go to town once, maybe twice a week, and in my world, it doesn’t even really matter what day it is… Perhaps I’m living on a horse time?


The value of a voiceless day...

If you’ve ever read any of my past blogs you can probably imagine that in person I talk a lot.  It is always a challenge as an instructor to convey to the student exactly ALL of the information I want to offer in a single session.  Amazingly my voice holds up over my 3-5 day long clinics (thanks to the best-investment-ever PA system I have)… But usually once a year I’ll lose my voice for 2-3 days.  Although it can be annoying, I find it can be a great reminder forcing us to raise our awareness in how to best communicate with other people when we can’t talk, so too could we use that same awareness in how we interact with our horses.

It is also the time of year in which I invariably get a few calls about young horses that are progressing in their education and have “suddenly” started acting dangerously; bucking, kicking, bolting in response to something their rider has asked of them…   I find (and perhaps this comes from WAY too many hours spent pondering as I mow the property on the tractor and the riding mower) that there is a relationship in the various ways people “react” to my having no voice and how they attempt to interact with me, to being similar in how people approuch working with their horses in using “body language” when we communicate.  I know the comparison may seem a little odd, but bear with me.

The times I have lost my voice and have been around young children, when they realize my voice is gone and I can only barely whisper, I’ve noticed an entire change in the child’s mannerisms.  Behaviors such as responding to me in a whisper because I’m whispering, or literally changing their posture into a more “submissive” manner with their shoulders rolled forward and head slightly hunkered down as if they were telling me a secret when we were “talking.”  There also seems to be a slow tentativeness in their behavior such as when passing me an item or taking something from me. 

I find the same goes with young horses.  Horses are born with a curiosity that all too often humans diminish rather than support.  But initially that young colt or filly is curious about everything.  You go out to fix the fence, pull weeds, etc. and if you do it long enough, eventually that youngster will come over and inspect your activities.  If you’re “hunkered down” fixing fence, they will actually lower their posture as they inspect what you are doing.  Now they may bolt off and then come back again, but there will be gentleness to their curiosity.

Back to the days of no voice, when interacting with teenagers, at first there is a shock that I have no voice, and then you can almost see the impulsive, mischievous thought, “So if she can’t talk, then maybe I could __________.”  They may not actually act on that thought, but any initial intentions tend to be focused on restraining themselves from acting on those thoughts that might get them in trouble.  Then as they continue to interact, they will often come up with a sudden bunch of answers for you every time they ask you a question.  But none of their answers will really be appropriate and most will just be a result of them brainlessly talking.

All too often from a horse’s two to four year old age, which is usually the most common time people really start to handle, saddle and start young horses, the horses wind up getting anticipative while they get more “creative” in how they are reacting to the human.  The horse doesn’t really mentally slow down, so they wind up with a lot of excessive movement and chaotic thoughts, which eventually leads to them scaring themselves and not feeling too good around the human.  Because of the anticipation, they get defensive, usually by starting to offer dangerous behavior as a preventative measure to stop the human from asking more of the horse.

When voiceless and dealing with humans who are in their 20s-30s, often when they realize I can’t speak out loud, they tend to immediately “shut down” and end any form of communication, as if to say, “Since you can’t ‘talk’ there is no point in interacting.”

Often with horses from 5-10 years old they will have enough confidence and exposure to “get by” in how they interact with humans, but they have started to become accustomed to patternized behavior in how people interact with them and what performance is expected of them.  These patternized horses that often are calm and “quiet,” can suddenly turn into a fire breathing dragon when something is presented in a way they are unaccustmed to.  People don’t realize how their complacency in working "routines" with their horse can actually teach their horse’s brain to “shut down” towards anything new.

When dealing with people in their 40s and 50s when I have no voice, they tend to become the “let me do it for you” sorts… Meaning, that if I have no voice, in their good efforts and intentions, they will take over “all decision making” as if my ability to do that was directly related to whether or not I had a voice.  If you show signs that you do not want them to takeover, they tend to blow you off and continue.

Take a horse in their early to mid-teens and often their rider is someone re-entering the horse world after years of “having a life with school, work, and family” and now finally have to time to get back in the saddle.  All too often this group of riders has fantasized so long about “how it used to be” that they often lack the ability to really “see” what their horse is communicating to them.  They tend to assume they always understand and “know what is best” for the horse.  This can often lead to another version of “mentally shut down horses” that are old and mature enough to have the patience to put up with their riders ignoring them.  But they also are the group of horses that many times wind up having harsher bits, spurs, crops, etc. in order to get a response from them because they are “dull” or “stubborn”.

When dealing with older folks while I don’t have a voice, at first they think it is them that is having the problem in hearing me.  Then they realize it is me that can’t speak.  Then their eyes light up, as if they have nothing else to think about, and all the time in the world to “play” guess-what-I’m-trying-to-communicate.   They have the time and enthusiasm and can usually decipher what I’m conveying pretty quickly.

The older folks who interact with horses of all ages often have quality relationships because they aren’t in a “rush” to hurry up and accomplish anything.  That doesn’t mean that they don’t have goals, but often they enjoy the process of getting to the end goal, rather than just value in the sole accomplishment of the goal.  They also tend to notice a lot more of what is “going on” with their horse, even if they aren’t sure what to do about it.  If things don’t go “as planned” they don’t get stressed out.  Their horses also tend to respond a lot more positively to change and trying new stuff.

 So my point is, we affect and have the ability to influence every moment of how we interact with our horse.  The slower and more open minded we are, the greater the opportunity to take the time to really “see” what is going on.  Somehow I think being able to communicate vocally in the rest of our life, allows us to rush in our intentions, energy and movement when we work with our horses.  If for one day we had to rely more on our senses and pay attention to what we were actually doing, we might re-sensitize OURSELVES and be in awe of the mirror affect it would have on our horses.