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Saturday, September 24, 2011


Much like the realstate agent that harps "location, location, location", I would argue that endurance is a product of foundation, foundation, foundation.

Here is what I want in my "finished" product. 

  • I don’t want to have to continually “talk” Farley through a behavior step by step. 
  • I want her to choose correctly in a novel circumstance
  • I want her to be mentally happy - ie she is in a happy place because she is doing what her “nature” is in a constructive way
  • I want her to practice self restraint - in the absence of me talking or physically holding her in place.  I consider this a subcategory of "making good choices".  
  • I want a willing partner - which is the culmination of all the behavior above - offering choices, having her chose the "right" choice, having her in a happy mental place.  

Here's what's interesting - It wasn't by contemplating endurance that I was able to articulate these goals. As I sat down and begin to formulate the kind of agility dog I wanted, I realize it very closely matched what I want in an endurance horse.

Foundation work is foundation work and strikingly similar whether I'm doing endurance or agility. 

Currently I'm in a "foundation" block at school.  Yes, that's actually what it's called.  :) .  I was taken aback for the first couple of weeks.  For some reason, foundation = easy or simple in my mind.   I sat in dismay during my first week as classes, as I thought the expectation was that I had previously learned these concepts - when in fact I have never taken a cell biology class, and had studiously avoided molecular biology.  I felt lost until I realized the foundations block wasn't intended as a review of the material that I had as an undergraduate, or as a "easy start" into school.  The block is intended to impart a HUGE amount of information that encompasses a WIDE range of subjects that will provide the foundation for the next 4 years, and for my career as a veterinarian.  Whether I learn the intricacies of oncology or the canine eye is less important than that I understand the material being presented right now, in foundations.

Although I love biology and medicine and thus I AM enjoying the material I'm learning, I will confess that foundation material is rarely sexy or exciting....much like laying the foundation of an endurance horse or an agility dog.  Foundation work is not done during an endurance ride or while on a course.  And while we are on the subject, I want to make clear - "Foundation" is not the conditioning miles you put on your endurance horse.  Foundation is everything you do with your endurance horse EXCEPT actually physically conditioning it for the trail.  

Here's the thing about foundations - they follow you wherever you go.  Lack of attention or dedication to proper foundations is the reason why failure follows people who "sport hop".  A common thread in their continuing frustration of not being able to accomplish their goals is often related to a lack of foundation.

Here's where my thought process gets complicated.

Nature versus nurture.  I used to think that nurture made up a LARGE part of how an animal "turned out".  However, after working with horses and trainers and dogs and purebreds....I'm not so sure anymore.  Nature matters.  A lot.  Pedigrees, something I held in disdain ("that's nice if you are breeding or selling...") actually matter to me now and I think can say something about the innate tendencies of the horse.  But the whole philosophy of training is that we can mold and shape behavior into something useful and positive.

This is where I stand now on the issue - my comments below relate to those animals that are being used for a purpose that they are suited for.  The trainer doesn't get all the credit for the success, for if they have chosen wisely, then they have set themselves up for success.  Farley is really nice endurance horse.  She excels because she is suited to the sport, but there is also a part of that success that I can claim credit to as well.  I think the trick is not to over or under estimate the impact you can have an animal and try to always have perspective.

So, assuming that I am talking about that piece that the trainer can take credit for.....

In general, an unwanted behavior, is a missing foundation piece.  There are exceptions (like were discussed above), but my horse or dog, is a product of ME.  I think this is more true of dogs than horses, since horses have usually been handled by more people and seem to act more on conditioned response while the dog seems to have a greater ability to "think through" something, but it's important for me to remember that even thought there is ingrained response or conditioned response, how I respond to the behavior will determine how the behavior will proceed in the future.

When I evaluate my horse or dog's behavior I remind myself -

"Do not be the victim.  It’s unlikely that MY dog or horse, (especially if the behavior is a pattern in ALL my animals) defies all the normal modes of learning that everyone else’s dog/horse seems to be able to learn by.  I may not have been able to overcome the natural tendency of an animal to do something - but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done.  It means I didn’t have the tools or time to do so."

It’s OK to admit that.  It’s OK to not have a perfectly behaved animal, but i think it’s a mistake to say that it’s impossible to fix....and if I can look at my shortcomings and critically evaluate them, it makes me a stronger trainer.  (and it's important to remember that every interaction with a dog or a horse is a training lesson!).  If I have to explain and make excuses for the behavior, then I am playing victim.  The biggest success story is getting compliments on how well behaved the animal is - and then dragging out the story of what a little terror it was and how far we've come - not the other way around. 


  1. standing and clapping and cheering

    Yes. Exactly! Precisely!

    What you said!

    When I was a more serious dog trainer, my friends and I said that the dog you have after a year is the dog you other words, in that first year with a dog, you will extinguish the behaviors that you completely abhor and will "grow" the behaviors you enjoy. After a year, you can continue to change the behavior of a dog (and yourself), but the dog you have after the first year is a snapshot of your priorities.

    With horses, I think the same concept applies, but perhaps the time period is closer to two years, because most of us can't hang out with our horses as long or as often as we are able to hang out with our dogs. Buck Brannaman says that our horses are the mirrors of our souls, and I say that this is because we will be diligent in eradicating the behavior we hate, and equally strong about teaching the behavior that we absolutely must have from our chosen mount(s).

    Of course, this also means that if your first horse was a spooky son-of-a-bitch, and your second horse was a spooky son-of-a-bitch, and you bought a completely different breed of horse for your third horse but it turned out to be a spooky SOB as well, the problem is very likely living in the mirror, and not in the barn!

    WV: "undamp"
    A condition devoutly to be desired in Swampland winters: "I plan to go home tonight and change into my warm, cozy, undamp clothing."

  2. Glad you liked it :). i think this concept really hit me over the head this week, when I realized that my foundation work for agility had nothing to do with the obstacles, telling her to sit on command, or even heeling on a leash. It was about setting up questions and having her figure out the answer without me spoon feeding it to her. It was about crate games and asking and impulse control. And it got me thinking....and that's when I realized that foundation work isn't always intuitive - it doesn't look like the end product at all! Instead, you ask for the behavior first and then adapt the behavoir to the goal.....I'm learning a lot about training from Tess, much of what I can apply to horses - but horses are different - perhaps because of the time/living difference from dogs, or because their brains are wired different? Although a horse is a 30 year time investment and a dog half that.

  3. Yes, but the concept of "figure out what you want, and then figure out baby-steps to take your animal there" is the same for dogs and horses (and, uh, co-workers...)

    Most of training is the process of trying to figure out how to break up the desired behavior into small pieces so you can move in the right direction. That's the HARD part of training--and the most rewarding part. All that carrotstick crud is just gimmick. What training really requires is thoughtfulness and that's the part that many people just don't get.

  4. In some ways I like dog training better than horse training. I'm a scardy-cat and working with something that could kill me....very difficult to think about putting that first ride in etc. The hard thing about dogs is that you live with them and you are ALWAYS training - versus a horse that you can skip a day and just put them out to pasture.

    LOL - coworkers.....and managing people. And in relationships. LOL!!!!!! I've always said management is a way of manipulating people to do what you want, by getting them to think it was their idea and them WANTING to do it. LOL. Same for dogs and horses I guess. I guess that's the definition of training.


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