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What to Leave Behind, What to Take Forward: Part 3

Opening the First Lock

I always go back to this: I did some of my very best training when I knew the very least. At the time I was surrounded by people who knew how to muscle horses around. They were perfectly willing to use strong pressure to impose compliance. I was watching effective training, but I was also watching people who were willing to get into a fight with a horse because they believed they had the skill to come out the winner.

I was greener than green. I knew I didn’t have those skills. I couldn’t get in a fight because I couldn’t guarantee that I would win – and furthermore I didn’t want to fight. They relied on fear and intimidation. I relied on patience and persistence. At the end of the day, those two pillars of good training have taken me further with my horses than they ever went with theirs.

Patience and persistence open the first lock.

Avoidance or Attraction: Which Do You Want to Create for Your Horse?

Patience and persistence represent what is for many a huge paradigm shift. It is so much easier to reach for the stick. That’s what we have learned throughout our lives both in relationships with people and with horses. We have habits of actions and habits of thought that keep us from seeing or even searching for the creative solution.

Reaching for the stick is actually not the problem. It is what you do with it that is. Are you reaching for the stick with the intent to use it – hard – if your horse doesn’t do what you wish? In other words are you escalating pressure? That means that the horse responds because he knows he must. You have introduced fear, pain, anxiety, avoidance, learned helplessness into your training. You may see compliance and not think about these other things. To your eyes your horse is responding politely, even willingly. The emotions he’s feeling are hidden well below the level of your awareness, but to the horse those emotions are very real.

Avoidance is a terrible thing. It can be a small stress, just a background hum, always there, always eating away bit by bit at your sense of well-being. Think of the things you avoid. Maybe it is the stack of mail waiting for you at the end of the day. Most of it is junk mail, of no account, but then there are the bills – the credit card statements, the utility bills, the phone, the mortgage. It can feel overwhelming so you avoid the stack, but there it sits on your desk. You can only avoid it for only so long and then you have to face it. That is not how I want my horses to feel about me. I don’t ever want to be for them that “stack of bills” that you want to avoid, but can’t.

Pressure can also be used gently, kindly. It can be a guide, a gentle nudge in the right direction that brings relief because it brings certainty. When there is no fear associated with the information pressure provides, it is never something to be avoided. The hints it offers are welcomed. They become part of the puzzle-solving process. They are the clues you are given to find the hidden treasure.

Recently I was traveling through the Zurich Switzerland airport. I had less than an hour to get through passport control and get to my connecting flight. I definitely appreciated the clear navigation cues the airport provided. Go this way. Keep going this way. Now turn here and have your passport ready. I made it to the gate with plenty of time to spare. That’s a well designed airport that keeps stress to a minimum.

I have also had to make connecting flights in Toronto Canada where the signs are very confusing. I’ve ended up in a muddle, taking wrong turns and having to race to make connections. The quality of cues matters and how they are presented also matters. I would happily fly through Zurich again. I try to avoid Toronto. Same cues. But one situation has created an attraction. The other has created avoidance.

Using a lead in a clicker-compatible way so that you end up with attraction requires patience. You go to a point of contact and you wait. In Zurich if I were to try to turn down the wrong corridor, there would be a barrier blocking my way or an attendant redirecting me. In Toronto I am left to guess. When I wait with my horse, I can redirect. If he tries to push forward when I am asking for backing, I can stabilize my tai chi wall. I am saying: “Not this way. Not down this corridor. Look at the sign again and see where you need to go.” I wait for him to read the clues and to solve that tiny piece of the puzzle. Click and treat. In the airports I have learned to ask the attendants: “Is this the right way?” even if I am sure that it is. I like the click and treat reassurance that their yes answer provides. I am on the right track. Keep going.

If I become impatient, I will shove the horse back with my lead. The horse may back, but he hasn’t learned anything except perhaps to allow himself to be pushed. There are times at the airports where you are herded like cattle down long passageways. There are TSA agents everywhere telling you to keep moving. I don’t like those experiences. They feel too much like the lead and the whip driving you forward. Let us find our own pace and our own way along the maze. Guide, but do not force. That is so much better.

Learning to be patient is the key that opens the first padlock. Being patient means you’ll take the time to set things up so your learner gets the support he needs to make good choices.

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