This blog has MOVED!

Please visit for the most updated content. All these posts and more can be found over at the new URL.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Being a horse person

Over the last couple of days I've emailed a friend and blog reader about trailer issues that morphed into a more abstract discussion. I can tell my "mojo" is coming back because as I was writing my latest e-mail, I realized that what I was really writing was a blog post!

Thought #1
I had a jump lesson yesterday. It was 3 jumps on a 20 meter circle. The exercise was to go round and round and round at a canter and over the 3 jumps. Janelle kept yelling at me "FIX THE CANTER - It's not about the jumps!" The point being I was suppose to focus on the "dressage" of the 20 meter circle work - the jumps were just something that happened within the circle. I feel like trailer loading is the same - it's not about getting the horse in the trailer! If your method results in a better horse each time with more relaxation, than the method is "working". Some horses can handle pressure, some can't. Some can handle repetition, some can't. It's about reading the horse and deciding how you are going to get the final result with the least amount of stress in an acceptable time frame. What worked with Minx during her trailer issues wouldn't have worked with Farley and vice versa - what matters is that at the end of everything they both go into the trailer calmly, by themselves, with confidence every single time right?

Thought #2
Farley gets stressed through repetition. It's like she says "look - I understand and I did what you wanted. I don't understand why we are repeating this. What am I not getting!!?!?!?!?!?" It quickly unravels from there. Minx thrived on repetition. With Farley it is important to quit sooner rather than later - because she'll often give me more the next day when I ask if I stop too early the first day, but not if I've pushed too hard with too many repetitions. The realization that repetition isn't always the answer has made me consider the difference between Farley doing something through training as opposed through habit.

Of course, there's the argument that training is based on the habit of obedience, but instead of thinking about these terms in their "correct dictionary" definitions, consider instead that I'm using these words as an imperfect way to describe a concept.......

For example. I don't consider trailering a "trained skill". I want it to be a habit. When I walk up to the trailer - the horse gets in every time. I'm willing to accommodate individual horse's quirks as long as they don't compromise safety or the underlying "value" of "I point you at the trailer and you get in". As a result, once the horse gets in the trailer reliably (even if it takes me several approaches and it's not self-loading) I don't spend a lot of time "training" the trailer. As soon as possible I try to move to the "you load, I close the doors, and we go" concept. I trailer so often (several times a week) that there's PLENTY of repetition to reinforce the concept as time goes on, and I find that the horse isn't thinking "unload" when I'm loading because the routine is "load and then go". I'm picky about trailering. I know people who have died in trailering accidents when loading and unloading and I'm EXTREMELY conscious about MY safety. IMO loading and (especially) unloading is the most dangerous thing I do with horses. But I'm digressing - back to the original point - when I trailer a horse there's nothing for them to figure out - they just need to do it. It's a habit. It's done the same way every time. Other examples of "habit skills" might be: how to move on the lead rope as I open and close gates, going through an endurance vet check, walking on a lead.

Let's contrast that to the "other" type of skill that are about "training" (remember - using imperfect terms to try and describe the concept!). An example of this is training dressage. It SEEMS like in dressage there should be a series of buttons that I can press to make her do X, Y, and Z - but it doesn't work like that. A combination of aids (and sometimes the combination isn't exactly intuitive) produces different effects. ADDITIONALLY, once she does something - let's say something as simple as cantering a 20 meter circle.... - we set about to IMPROVE the gait and the figure. There's constant adjustments and signals as we tell the horse "be more through", "stand up straight", "more impulsion", "shoulder fore". Trust me - dressage only LOOKS effortless and as if the rider isn't doing anything. There is a CONSTANT line of communication between rider and horse to achieve the movement. Nothing is every "good enough" for more than a couple of strides before I tell Farley "let's do this even better".

Do you see the differences between the two types of training behaviors I'm trying to describe? I think I see the most problems between people and their horses when they confuse the two types of training - yes, obedience is at the core of both, but the final results we are training is completely different (habit obedience as opposed to responsive obedience). If there are any horse trainers out there, I'd love to hear your opinions about this - do you train for all skills in a similar way, or do you take a different approach depending on the type of training (habit versus responsive)?

Thought #3 - A good thought to end on
I think the hardest part of being a horse person in a boarding situation or as a competing equestrian (example: endurance riding) is keeping my mouth shut. :) And by shut I mean both not talking about them to others, giving them advice unless asked, or writing about them on my blog. And I must admit I've learned some surprising things by watching others. I may start by thinking they are totally WRONG and inside I'm TOTALLY snickering.....but then I continue to watch and keep my mouth shut and I start to learn that some things they are doing have merit - I may not agree totally with what they are doing - but often there's more than one "right" way to do something. I think coming to the realization that not everything I think is "right way" is the way and often, what I take as the "only" way to do something just a preference!


  1. My observation agree with yours. Another habit item I would add that I see too many horses (or maybe horse owners?) not "trained" to pickup up feet for cleaning! Should not be a question or fight. I pick up, clean, and release. Horse does NOT resist or make my job hard!

    As for the your increasing tolerance and wisdom; it is called age. Young people see in black and white; as you get older and see more, you begin to realize that there many shades of gray. (Of course judging by some of the old people I know, you get to go back to black and white later!)


  2. Interesting post.
    I am not so sure that the two types of training, which you described, have to be different. I want my horse to walk onto the trailer with less and less input from me, but I also want him to carry himself in the canter with less and less support from me. Carrying the rider becomes habit as the correct muscle groups strengthen and incorrect groups weaken. And of course he must understand that I want him to canter a certain way, just like he must understand that he is walk onto the trailer. I like the idea of making riding the horse simple. Once he shows some understanding, move on or he will never know that he got it!

  3. This post reminds me of some of the conversations I've had with some folks I know who are approaching horses from a more or less natural-horsemanship approach, as opposed to my sport-horse background. For the longest time, I couldn't figure out why we had so much trouble understanding each other--we were all smart and thoughtful and open to hearing other perspectives. Then one day one of my friends was wondering out loud why it is that sport-horse people don't do much talking about getting horses on trailers--she was thinking that we didn't talk about it because we didn't care about it--and I said, "Well, I expect that a horse will load. I expect that behavior to come standard on any model, and if it doesn't, we just install it and go on."

    It was a lightbulb moment for me. Not about the trailering, but about the problem we were having communicating about so much of the other stuff we were doing with our horses. They were mostly working on teaching the horse to respond to cues--the button-press you mention--and I was mostly working on teaching the horse to respond to aids. The stuff I put on a cue is typically the stuff where, like loading, I don't care so much about the details as about just getting the job done safely and sanely and getting on with life. Whereas the stuff that's aided...yes, I expect my horse to develop a habit of jumping jumps and a habit of self-carriage and, y'know, a habit of responding to the aids appropriately! But I expect and want to have a conversation with him about the next fence on course, for example, in a way that I don't expect or particularly want to discuss every footfall on the way up the trailer ramp.

    I do think there's some blurring of the edges--and I wonder if that's where the tension between obedience and intelligent disobedience comes from and/or lies. And now I suspect I'm rambling, so I will stop!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.