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Changing "Oh-No!" into "Ah-Ha!"

Our society looks at things that are not working, the way we’d like them to, with a negative “oh no” reaction. I want you to learn to see those “oh no” moments as “a-ha!” moments instead; to view them as positive opportunities to build and strengthen behaviour, relationship and balance with your horse.

Turning an “oh no” into an “a-ha!” will not work if you just practice the same old same old. How many times have you seen someone dealing with an issue simply doing the same thing over and over? Let’s take lunging for instance, as it was something I presented last month and will be fresh in your mind.

The horse refuses to move away from the handler or falls in on the circle or turns, and the handler becomes the one being lunged. The handler repeats the same cue, yet expects a different result.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” - Albert Einstein.

This statement makes perfect sense, yet I constantly see this behaviour when riders work with their horses! By the end, both are tired and frustrated, and the handler may have damaged the relationship that she was trying to build.

If you recognize yourself here, stop and ask yourself these questions:

Does the horse understand all the cues that I think he does?

Is my body language actually asking for what I am getting?

Am I aware enough of my body to be able to tell if this is happening?

Am I trying to get the correct part of the horse to leave first?

Does he want to be with me and bend on the arc of the circle, or does he want to leave and is looking away from the inside?

Do I have his mind?

Making a video of your session is invaluable to give you the information you need to answer these questions. Stopping the session if you are not getting anywhere is fine and a much better choice than “making” it happen. Getting bigger may get what you want, but does he really understand what you want? Or was it a lucky guess? Does he want to readily do the behaviour again or is he looking to escape because he really doesn’t understand what you want?

Component clicker training ensures he does understand and is very willing and eager to repeat the behaviour because he understands. Remember that you and your horse should be calmer at the end of the session than when you started. “A-ha!” moments allow us to see where communication and understanding is weak. Good clicker trainers will stop and think. They will make sure that each part of the behaviour is taught and reinforced before trying the whole behaviour again. They will dissect the behaviour into its component parts to see exactly where it is falling apart.

This is like taking your car to the mechanic. He plugs it into the computer and finds where the problem is. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do that with our horses? But we can achieve a similar result with component training and the clicker. And we can also find out which member in the relationship the issue is coming from - the horse or handler.

Is it the horse?

The issue may result from a lack of physical balance. Is he having a hard time bending to one side?

Is it a physical issue?

Is he sore? If so, why?

Where is the stiffness originating?

It could also be psychological in nature, such as distraction or fear.

Does he want to get back to his buddies?

Does he have a harder time being okay with you on a specific side of him? Is it the handler?

Perhaps it is your own lack of physical balance.

Are you better lunging to one side than the other?

Do you need to work on your co-ordination and skills away from the horse until you can ask the same way when lunging either side?

I always find it curious that we expect our horses to do everything equally well on both sides but not many of us can do the same. (Just try writing or brushing your teeth with your other hand.) Have you ever thought that the imbalances in your body are causing the imbalances in your horse? Perhaps that is something you should seriously consider.

Maybe you are the reason why he can’t get his right lead, or do shoulder-in to the left . Maybe it is a lack of mental balance in the handler? Are you concerned that others are watching? If so, be brave enough to take the time to find out why. Your horse will thank you for it. This is the important relationship you are working on at this time. Would you treat a human friend differently, in a way that would damage your relationship, if someone was watching? Or, did you have a rough day at work and are not mentally present?

Again, we want our horses to respond immediately but it is as hard for them as it is for you if you are mentally distracted. Take a deep breath and try to be present with your horse and ask softly again. If you THINK differently, then you will BE different.

Try the lunging lesson (June 2012) and focus on component behaviours; watch for those “a-ha!” moments that will help build a better relationship. Try component clicker training – what have you got to lose?

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