Listen to your horse

Sometimes my personality betrays me. I'm the type where if I come up with a plan, I stick to it. I'm an accountant. I have a linear and logical brain. Unfortunately, this spills over into my horsemanship. But as you will see, it backfired and I wish I could apologize to Aslan! I didn't do anything mean, I was just unfair. The lesson didn't turn out the way I wanted and I got irritated with him. Sorry bud. I will make it up to you later.

It started with him being in a mood. I don't know how to describe it other than he wasn't interested in what I wanted to do. Maybe he was tired and sore from our ride yesterday, maybe the bruising on his foot was bothering him. We will never know, but here is how it played out:

I figured we would do more walk-trot transition practice, plus I was going to add in serpentines to make it more interesting.

I started with a ground work warm up: the circle game. He had an amusing "attitude". He gave me hilarious transitions that looked like a canter in front and a trot in back. Then random stopping, and sometimes he offered a trot, other times he didn't really want to go forward, giving me a backup instead. At one point I got a really nice collected trot which was pretty cool. I can't even get that under saddle!! I laughed at a few of the things he did because he was so sassy with how he was responding to my cues, but I just chalked it down to personality. I didn't clue in until later.

I ultimately insisted on following our training plan, because this stuff is important! Unfortunately, once we got to the saddle part, the result was transitions and serpentines that were sloppy and terrible. He was getting treats for cooperation and effort. But he still gave me resistance, random stops, slow trot, ignoring the leg and even took me to equipment *he* wanted to work on. Finally, he took me to the gate. Gosh woman, take a hint? Actually, the last part of it was my experiment. I was baffled because he isn't normally like this. So I put him on a loose rein, that he might tell me what the hell was wrong. He first took me to ground poles we played with earlier. Then when I didn't allow him to practice that, he walked me over to the gate. At this point, I made him continue working because I didn't want him to think he could just walk to the gate whenever and quit. BUT, this behavior in of itself is REALLY unusual for him; normally he wants nothing to do with the gate because we are quitting! He loves earning treats. But now I see what he was communicating to me, even if I was deaf for most of the lesson. He was pointing out activities that he was interested and willing to do. And when I said no, he said, ok I'm done then.

Now I can hear the arguments already. He is "just a horse" and should do what you ask, when you ask it. Yes, traditional horsemanship is usually against the idea of being flexible or allowing a horse to make *ANY* decisions. The theory being decision making will create a horse that is disrespectful and disobedient. I understand the reasoning. I also understand that I can escalate pressure and coerce him to do the exercises he doesn't want to do. However what traditional horsemanship ignores is the fall out of using negative reinforcement and punishment. First, if I'm going to pick this hill to die on every time we train, I'm going to have to fight for correct behavior the entire time. Second, both of us will be frustrated during the session and there is always the danger that I can start to poison behaviors by MAKING him do it. Poisoning means that an animal will start to have a negative association with that cue or activity, and it has been well documented in behavioral science. Obviously this can take away willingness to cooperate. If this still isn't making sense, then look at it from the human perspective, it's like doing a task while someone is yelling over our shoulder and micromanaging. You will do it. But unless you are a very passive person, you will probably feel resentment. After a while, you may forever hate that task, even when the jerk is long gone. I know that sounds extreme, and some horse personalities may never take things as far as others, but I had the misfortune of meeting one who did, and I promised my future horse that he would NEVER be made to feel that way.

Now I do want to preface that I'm not implying that we should always let a horse pick the lessons, or that he can just ignore cues and run back to the gate. That would make no sense. I'm thinking bigger picture here. If your training session is going blah, maybe rethink what you are doing for today. After all, when we are using positive reinforcement, we want to minimize the "do it or else" factor because it removes the fun from the activities. So for the sake of creating a willing partner, is there harm in letting a horse occasionally choose what to work on today? Even if it's just a 1 out of 10 lessons? And that doesn't mean completely ditching your lesson plans. Be sneaky! Maybe you want to work on dressage and he wants to trail ride? Then go for the trail ride and sneak in some dressage out on the trail. Maybe you want to do jumping and he wants to do ground work. Go do the ground work and sneak in some jumping or trotting poles. Get creative! But what if he is tired and doesn't want to work at all???? (Don't we all have those days?) It's not like we have to give up and throw him back out in the pasture; there are plenty of exercises to try that don't involve massive amounts of physical effort. We can perfect some easier ground work, work on desensitization, tackle trick training, review husbandry behaviors or teach a brand new behavior. And to be honest, I have yet to get the impression that my horse doesn't want to do ANYTHING today. (I'd be concerned he was ill).

I guess my point is, I believe that flexibility will improve your relationship with your horse, not damage his respect for you. So learn from my mistake tonight and listen to your horse; take his opinions into consideration occasionally. At least for Aslan, I did end it on a good note. I picked some exercises that didn't involve transitions and serpentines . Then I got on the ground and let him do the pole work he was so interested in. He actually figured out how to side pass over the length of a pole! At that point I ran out of treats and we were done. Aslan, I'm sorry that I'm daft sometimes. Lesson learned!

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