There is a long established wisdom that goes something like “you should always leave a horse better off than you found him” or “always finish on a good note” or “don’t stop until you get a better change”. There are probably other aphorisms that you can think of along a similar vein, but you get what I am saying. For some, these are almost golden rules of horsemanship. I am not going to challenge the sentiment or intent behind these beliefs, but I am going to add a condition to them. In any particular circumstance, the degree to which we should apply this principle will depend.
Most of us understand the idea that training is aimed at improving a horse’s mental, emotional and physical state. If we don’t do that then training becomes rather pointless and we should probably just look at our horses from afar and enjoy the great outdoors. If a lesson ends with no more clarity than it began, not only has the horse learned nothing positive, we also run the risk of making things worse. Doing nothing is usually a better option than doing something badly. This seems just common sense and difficult to argue with. I certainly won’t argue with this principle.
But here comes the BUT.
I don’t agree that it is a golden rule. I don’t agree that the concept that we end each lesson better than we started is a MUST. I don’t agree that it is a mortal sin to finish a session before a horse has made clear progress. It certainly should be our desired intent to ensure a horse is better off at the end of a lesson, but we should not be married to this agenda.
Some of you will be wondering why I think this.
The first point to make is that every horse and every person has days where things just go wrong. Even after a really good session with your horse, you know there are some bad sessions in your future. Training is not a smooth progression and more like driving over a corrugated road (washboard for the North Americans) – lots and lots of bumps.
However, it is exceptionally rare that any of these bad days do irreparable damage that can’t be undone in the next session or two. Most screw-ups can be repaired if enough care is taken. I know this because, as a trainer, I have retrained a hell of a lot of horses that have been subjected to years of screw-ups, yet they always came through. It is one of the reasons horses are so trainable – their ability to let go of the bad stuff if you can show them a better way.
The second point is that when things are not going well a horse’s emotions become high and often the human’s emotions also become elevated. The more that anxiety and frustration raise their ugly heads the more they interfere with learning. It requires a cool head for a horse (and human) to search through their options and problem solve their way out of a difficult situation. If we don’t recognize the rising emotional state of a horse and try to push through the problems, we run the risk of pushing a horse into a reactive state where learning the “good stuff” becomes an impossible mission. Nothing positive can come from further work. The solution is to stop what you are doing and bring the emotions down to zero. Until the emotions subside there is no point in continuing. Sometimes this may require a short break and a quiet moment and sometimes it might be best to put the horse away for the day and return to fix it tomorrow. But the point is there is nothing to be gained by continuing until the horse transitions from a state of high emotions to low emotions. Stop the work and try again later.
Why do I say stop the work instead of keep working until the emotions transition to a state of calm and relaxation? The reason is that sometimes no matter how bad you think things are going they can always get worse. You might think your horse is not going very well and feel the impulse to try to help him feel better and have clearer clarity. But if it is “one of those days” or you are lost in how to help your horse make a change and the hole you are digging is getting deeper by the minute, it is better to quit when things are not good than to continue and push them into being horrible.
So now that I have explained why it is sometimes okay to finish a session without making things better for your horse, let me tell you that it is not okay to do it all the time. If we end a significant proportion of the lessons without clear improvement, we are dooming our horses to serious trouble. It’s easy to think that the one-hour a day we might work our horse gives the horse 23 other hours to recover. And this may be true if only occasionally we mess up in that one-hour. But if we regularly create trouble for our horse in that one hour and we don’t reverse the trouble by the end of the session, we have now created a pattern of trouble that no amount of recovery time will help.
In my book, The Essence of Good Horsemanship I use the analogy of a kid at school being bullied by another kid. If it happens only rarely (say once a year), the victim does not usually carry too much turmoil inside them and it gets shrugged off. But if the bully starts to pick on them regularly, after a couple of weeks the kid does not want to go to school and after a month he is picking on his little sister, talking back to his parents and getting in trouble with the teacher. The more the kid is bullied the more trouble grows inside of him. This can happen with horses too. It is not true that what happens in the arena stays in the arena with a horse. They will carry the trouble created in the arena everywhere they go if we don’t make sure their bad days are the exception and not the norm.
I believe we should approach every experience with our horse trying to make their life and our relationship better. However, sometimes this just won’t happen and it is better to finish a session early with a little trouble inside our horse than to continue and drag them kicking and screaming into hell in order to make something happen. There are very few instances in a horse’s experience that are so traumatic they cannot be undone with consideration and care. So don’t be fixated on making it a golden rule that you can’t quit a session with your horse until he makes a clear improvement.
Photo: This looks like some quality let down time for horse and rider that will help bring the emotions down to zero.