In the previous sections I used the image of a runway to teach a horse to step on a mat. The point of using this image is to get you thinking creatively, with imagination. That’s what takes you far, far away from the mind set of do-it-or-else training.
Transforming Horse Training Into Play
We’ve all watched skilled trainers, whether in person or on video. I’m sure you’ve taken in a variety of images of how things are done. Now suppose you’re handed a horse who is pushy, or won’t stand still for saddling. You’ve seen how professional horse trainers deal with this in what often seems like no time at all.
It’s so easy to put on their “hat” and fall into the same-old, same-old of traditional horse training solutions. But remember – when you are watching one of those skilled trainers, you aren’t just watching fifteen minutes of training. You are watching fifteen minutes plus fifteen years. That’s a lot of experience – and a lot of mistakes made and lessons learned – to get to the point where things look easy.
Easy isn’t the only criterion we’re looking for. I remember watching a video of a trainer who was working with what was described as a “lazy” horse. The owner wanted to be able to lunge the horse, but her horse stayed in close to her and wouldn’t move out. There are all kinds of reasons why a horse would lock in close to a handler. One might be that the horse has learned that staying in close is the safest place to be. If that was the case for this horse, the trainer took his safety away. He charged into the horse with his lunge whip, sending the horse leaping away to the side.
The trainer was using negative reinforcement. His timing was excellent. As soon as the horse was in motion, he stopped cracking the whip. But the instant the horse slowed down, he was on the attack again. It took just a couple of turns around the circle to convince that horse that he needed to keep moving. Easy. The battle was over in just a few minutes.
The trainer stood in the middle of the lunge circle touting the virtues of his technique. The horse continued to trot around him the whole time he was talking to the audience. He no longer even needed to lift his whip. It was an impressive result.
But I was thinking about the lesson from the horse’s perspective. If one of us were trapped in a round pen with someone peppering bullets at our feet, wouldn’t we run? And we’d keep on running until we dropped from exhaustion. If we slowed down, the person in the middle would just need to gesture with the gun to get us running again.
It is the same thing. So easy isn’t enough. I can look at the behavior that emerges – a horse moving at a steady pace around me at liberty and think that’s a fun result. The question becomes: how can I get to that behavior but in a more learner-friendly way? How can I take this, or any other lesson, and turn it into true play for both myself and my horse?
One of the principles that is common to ALL good training methods is this:
There is ALWAYS more than one way to teach every behavior.
If you really believe that and know how to put this principle into practice then this leads you to the answer.
You’re going to break the task down into smaller components so your horse understands what is wanted in each step. You want him to be more than just comfortable with what is being asked. You want him to be eager to play.
To teach horses to step on mats, I set out the V runway pattern. The cones help handlers line their horses up with the mat so they have room to come to it on a straight line. When I first taught mats, I didn’t put the cones out. But then I saw that handlers would leave the mat and cut back around on such a tight turn that the horse had no chance to line himself up again straight to it.
They did the same thing at mounting blocks. If the horse shifted away from the mounting block, they would walk off on a tight circle that gave the horse little opportunity to come in straight. The missing step was the handler’s ability to visualize the path she needed to take to give her horse the most success.
So I set out the V shaped line of cones. The length of the “runway” obliged the handler to go out far enough so that she had room to line her horse up to the mat.
I could have set the mats out in a parallel lines. Then I would have had a different kind of runway, and I would have used different images to describe it. It might have become the catwalk for a fashion show. The horse would be a model sashaying her way down the runway – stopping periodically to show off her costume.
Instead I set them out in a V so the handler would have a wide funnel entrance and a better chance of getting the horse into the top of the runway. It’s only experienced pilots and co-pilots who can successfully enter into the top of a narrow runway. Novice teams need the wider opening.
Playing with Images
Playing with images takes you away from relying solely on the standard-issue horse training approaches you may already know. It puts you into a creative place where you can come up with your own patterns, images, and techniques that work for your horse.
People often feel that they have to follow exactly the instructions given by a clinician or riding instructor. I offer the runway as a starting point. I suggest that you begin with my image. Understand how this process works; learn the basics of good rope handling; see what it gives you when you have a horse who welcomes the information the lead provides; and then become creative. Invent your own images to help teach the skills your horse needs to meet your personal training goals.
For me, there’s no better indicator of success than hearing from someone that they have found a new way of teaching a familiar lesson. They don’t go about it exactly the same way I do. Their horse has shown them a different way, just as my horses often show me new ways to teach old things.
Creativity is at the core of our being. When a handler clutters up her work space with cones, empty supplement containers, bags of shavings, and who knows what else, and sees in that clutter a better way to teach a lesson, I know she has understood the greater game. She is becoming creative and inventive. She is creating new games. For both horse and handler it has become true play.
Coming Next: Unit 4: Cue Communication
Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.
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