One of the biggest problems that people battle in their quest for a better working relationship with their horse is their own preconceptions. Preconceptions have implications for not only how we do things, but also how we feel about doing things. It has both mechanical and emotional components.
To clarify what I mean, consider the following. When we are told or read or shown how to do something with a horse, the way we interpret the instruction is influenced by both our experience and emotional bias. For example, the statement “do as little as possible and as much as necessary,” is absolutely true and wise. But it is also so vague that for people with insufficient experience it is unhelpful and unclear, and for people with enough experience, it is obvious.
For most people who learn this concept, their understanding of how little is little and how much is necessary are open to their individual interpretation and preconceptions of what is a little and what is necessary.
Recently, the aphorism of “set it up and wait” came into a discussion. The student had picked up this piece of sage advice from different trainers and figured it made sense. But what was missing was the clarity of what it meant to “set it up” and how long is the “wait.” And of course, “wait” for what? Do you wait for the result you want or the horse’s thought to change or the horse to stop doing what it has been doing even if the new response is not what you want? There is a distinct lack of explanation of what the “set up” and the “wait” stands for when people spout this type of wisdom.
The student was left to guess what these things meant and how to apply them to help her particular horse. As it turned out, the student was not having much success with the concept of “set it up and wait” because her prior experience and particular emotional bias meant she tried to present as little pressure as she thought would make a difference so that she did not unduly worry her horse. But in the process, there was not enough incentive for her horse to change it’s thinking. In this case, waiting was going to be forever since the lack of incentive for the horse to change it’s thought translated into a lack of clarity of what was being asked of it. The outcome was the horse became dull.
There is nothing wrong with the advice to “set it up and wait”. There is nothing wrong with the advice to “do as little as you can and as much as necessary.” There is nothing wrong with the advice “accept the smallest try” or “the only change worth having is a change of thought”. I’m sure you can list a heap of these wise sayings you’ve heard from the mouths of horse people over the years. They almost all have merit and worth considering. The trouble is that if you don’t really understand them then you are left to interpret them in the void of your own lack of experience or emotional bias. The way a person applies these principles is subjective and prejudiced. This inevitably leads to some bad decisions and sometimes bad outcomes, despite applying good concepts with good intentions.
Like many things in life, the value of something is not in what you do but how you do it. This is certainly true when working with horses. Two people can apply an identical principle in an almost identical way with very different results purely because of differences in the tiny detail and subtle understanding.
The fault lies in the fact that we let our individual biases make the decision of when and how to apply a principle for us. We make the decision making about us. Our priorities are to work within our own comfort limits and beliefs about the nature of horse training whether or not that is what our horse really needs. It’s like raising a child with a certain philosophy of child rearing because it feels good to us despite leaving the kid floundering in life. In order to avoid the pitfall of allowing our own prejudices to rule our training paradigm, we need to make it more about the horse and less about us.
I’ve had several experiences where I have helped a horse make a really good change, yet the owner rejected everything I said and did because it clashed with their own beliefs and emotional prejudices. They were not able to make it about them and see the benefits to the horse.
It’s hard to put aside personal bias. People whose nature causes them to want to only work with kind and gentle ways will always lean towards not doing enough to bring clarity to a horse. And those who lean more towards seeing a horse as a utility (like a car) and have a strong agenda will often push a horse too far towards slavish obedience. Yet, both can do this by applying identical principles. This is because their view of how little is little enough or how long a wait is necessary or how much of a try they will accept is very different and shaped by their own biases and experiences.
I think teachers like myself have a serious responsibility to do much more than spout wise words and then let the student figure it out. I believe we fail in our duty to both the student and the horse to drop them into a world of clichés and leave them to stumble upon some practical meaning from it that leads to enlightenment.
Like each horse, each student requires enough handholding to ensure they have a good chance of finding the right answers that suit them. This means that each and every principle and instruction needs to be clarified sufficiently so that no student is left scratching their head by what the teacher meant. It’s hard enough for a student make a new concept work when there is clarity, let alone having any hope of it working out when there is significant confusion.
So I want to make a deal for those that are interested in taking my advice. For my part, I will try to be clearer for each student. And in return I want each student to try to make their training choices less about their personal prejudices and more about what works for their horse.
Photo: I guess at this clinic in Canberra I was so absolutely clear in explaining the principles of training that people got it very quickly and did not feel the need to stay after the morning break. Gee, I must have been good that day because they were so excited to rush home and try out what they had learned they forgot to take their chairs with them!