Like most children I learned to tell lies quite early in life, because I learned lying was one way of avoiding trouble. When I was an annoying and disobedient kid I learned how to behave well enough to avoid getting into too much trouble with mum and dad. When I was a teenager I learned how to just apply enough effort to my schoolwork to avoid getting into trouble with the teachers. When I was in my first year at university and away from home I learned how to plan my driving route from a night of drinking at the pub back to avoid getting into trouble with the police.
I learned all those strategies as a way of avoiding trouble. But I only learned them because people allowed me to get away with it. In effect they taught me how to avoid trouble by just doing enough right things to keep them happy. I didn’t necessarily learn to do the right thing as much as I learned to avoid doing or being caught doing the wrong thing.
We do this with our horses too.
People train horses evasion behaviours rather than yielding behaviours.
What do I mean by evading and yielding? You may have your own definition, but for the sake of clarity this is how I think of those two concepts in terms of my horse training.
Evasion is an escape from trouble. Evasion incorporates enough anxiety in a horse to motivate it to flee from something. The flee might be very small or very big, but it is nonetheless an escape strategy. Evasion involves a horse mentally creating distance between it, the pressure and the source of the pressure (human).
Yielding is not escaping from trouble, but moving towards comfort. Yielding involves a horse moving towards a thought the human is suggesting, not fleeing from pressure.
I see so many horses that are very obedient, but carry inner turmoil because so much of what they do carries the burden of anxiety. Their obedience only exists as a means of escaping trouble.
Recently, a woman at a clinic brought along a very nice pony that was very obedient. She had followed the teachings of some well-known trainers and taught her horse a lot of fancy exercises. I believe many people would be pretty impressed by the work the pony displayed. Yet, in almost everything it did the pony carried a level of anxiety that made the movements rushed and tight. There was very little flow or quietness about the work. It was good example of a horse that lived to escape the trouble that pressure brought to its life. The pony saw its choices as life and death decisions.
In another example, a few days ago I saw a horse that kept offering responses to questions that had not yet been asked. It was so troubled by what might happen that it tried to throw out the answer even before the handler had time to ask for something.
In both these cases, the horse had learned to evade pressure, rather than yield to it.
How does this happen? I believe there are a few factors that create the mindset in a horse that it should try to escape pressure.
First, there is the adage that people quote over and over again, “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.” For many people the emphasis is on making the wrong thing difficult and the “right thing easy” is merely a matter of removing the pressure. This attitude is too simplistic and guaranteed to cause problems along the line.
If removing the pressure was the best way to “make the right thing easy”, then a horse would always choose the “right thing.” But of course that doesn’t happen. We need to appreciate that in a horse’s mind the right thing is not easy, otherwise it would always choose it by itself and without us having to ask. But because we don’t make the effort to make the right thing a sweet spot that the horse would choose on its own, we focus on making the wrong thing difficult. In doing that we teach our horse to flee or escape the wrong thing.
This leads me to the second cause of horses learning obedience through evasion of pressure, rather than yielding to pressure; “controlling horses is about controlling the feet.”
This is one of my biggest peeves. If we think of training just in terms of training the feet to go where we want and the body posture to shape in the way we want, we are merely training obedience. As the lady with the pony I mentioned had done, training the feet alone can only teach a horse to flee from pressure. There can be no yielding or possibility of the horse and human going together.
A natural follow on from this concept is directing versus driving a horse. People who teach horses evasion behaviours almost always rely on using driving methods to instill obedience.
For those who have not read “The Essence Of Good Horsemanship”, driving a horse is sending a horse away from something, eg swinging the tail end of a lead rope at a horse to send it somewhere is driving a horse’s feet away. In contrast, directing a horse is directing its mind to think of going somewhere and the feet will follow the thought. Driving is sending a horse away from something and directing is sending a horse towards something.
When you direct a horse, you are asking it to yield to an idea because the feet follow the horse’s thought. However, when you drive a horse you separate the feet from the thought in that its mind is focused on the source of the pressure and its feet try to escape that pressure. So driving teaches evasion behaviours.
And finally the other factor that contributes towards training that teaches evasions rather than yielding is our sense of superiority. I feel that we so often think of training as something we do to a horse. We own them. We are smarter than them. We feed and care for them. We are their boss and our job as trainers is to teach them to live by the rules.
But in my view, training and working with a horse should not be something we impose on them. It is something we do together. In everything we do with a horse we need to offer them a feel to follow and go with, that presents as the right thing being easy. When we perform groundwork, we offer them a feel to follow that makes the right thing easy for them. When we ride, we offer them a feel to go with that makes the right thing feel easy. When they are struggling, we need to see it as our failing and not theirs. Working with horses should be a team pursuit and not an activity where we issue a command and watch the horse perform its magic.
All these factors play their part in whether a horse yields to a good idea or escapes from a bad one. But probably the biggest factor that determines which it is that we teach our horse is our attitude as to what training and working with horses means to us. If we view horses as our dear friends who need our help to understand the world, we take a very different attitude to the arena than a person who sees horses as their chattel that needs to be taught the rules.
From my childhood Popeye cartoons were one of my favourites, but Bluto was always the bad guy. Not only did he try to steal Popeye’s girlfriend, but he treated horses as chattel too.