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Horses Value "The Little Things"

Posted by Tanya Drayton on December 10, 2011 at 3:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Many people tend to ignore “the little things” when dealing with their horses, which becomes a major roadblock on the trail of the human-horse partnership. “The Little Things” are extremely important to horses. Why? Because first, foremost and last, above all else, they are prey animals. Ignoring the little things could cost them their lives and horses are hard-wired to survive.


Everything counts – all the time.


I tell my clients and students, ad nauseum, that there is not a time when “it doesn’t count”. Everything always counts to a horse whether you are at home, in the show ring or on the trail. For them, it always counts, no matter what “it” is. From the horses point of view the “boogieman” could be real. Every time you handle your horse, you are teaching the horse something.


If your horse is difficult to catch, do you really believe that it trusts you implicitly and that it will behave well the rest of the time you handle it?


If your horse is difficult to halter do you honestly feel they should be willing and cooperative with the bridle?


If your horse can’t leave the herd at home and walk around the neighborhood or an adjacent field calmly, why on earth do you think he could do it at a trail head?


If your horse isn’t good about having its feet picked out, what makes you think the farrier is going to have an easier time of it?


If your horse freaks out when a rope or branch touches its leg or underbelly are you truly certain you will be OK out on the trail?


The bottom line is this: if your horse has behavior challenges at home, those challenges will not magically disappear when you take the horse to a new and, from its point of view, potentially dangerous environment. Those challenges could be exacerbated, potentially to a level that is dangerous for everyone involved.


There is a magic bullet for success!


Time. It’s such a simple concept and yet it is so often ignored. I spend quite a bit of time on the little things but I do it in small chunks. A minute here, a minute there. A clinician named Harry Whitney, the only one I have ever spent my money on (to audit or participate) in a clinic, said once (where I actually heard it – he probably said it a lot…;) that horses are gamblers. If they get away with something one time, they will try 100 more times to do it again. But, what happens if you take that concept to the other side of the equation? When the horse does something that you want it to do and the reward for doing it is worthwhile from the horse’s perspective, then wouldn’t it try 100 more times to get that reward? The answer is YES!


Catching the elusive horse...


Therefore, I break it down for the horse. For the purposes of this article and since it is a huge problem for many I will use catching a horse as my example. For every time I want to catch my horses to ride them, I “catch” it three to four times just to love on it. When I have only minutes to spare I will go out to the pasture and score them a treat in their buckets then scratch them when they come up. I may or may not carry a halter when I do this, but when I do carry it, I don’t bring it with the intention of using it, I just want them to see me carrying it. When I have more time but not enough to ride, I may actually catch them and halter them before I score them their treat.


We may even make it up to the hitching rail where they get a good scratching but no food incentive at all. For that matter, I may enter the pasture without treats to touch and scratch them, just to make sure there are no injuries. For horses, getting a good scratching is a treat within itself and I have literally turned many horses into “scratch addicts”. The potential to score a good scratch overrides any desire to escape work. The point is, if they never know whether or not your there to ride them, they will take a gamble on the “not”. I have seen this work hundreds of times and, I personally, don’t know or own any elusive horses because once they understand that things can be different (another Harry-ism) they become pocket ponies.


Having patience will give you the advantage...


Although I know this works, it won’t happen overnight. The horse’s owner has to commit to making this “new” behavior habitual and in order to do that they have to invest…wait for it…TIME! The time and effort investment could be 5 seconds or 50 years (it normally falls closer to the former) but the point is, if the owner isn’t willing to try, why should the horse? Aside from the obvious, another payoff is that someday, when they least expect it, one of their friends will say, “Wow, your horse is so easy to catch! What’s your secret?”


This method of small increments of time, invested wisely and done correctly, will reshape many of your horse’s “bad” behaviors into “good” ones. When things become habitual for them,, the horses will begin to anticipate your expectations, becoming more cooperative and your equine relationship will improve exponentially.

Copyright 2010, Tanya Drayton, Equi-Praise


The Round Pen - Part 2

Posted by Tanya Drayton on December 10, 2011 at 3:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Before we ever enter the round pen, the horse and I have already started our conversation. I once asked Harry Whitney during one of his demonstrations if he was trying to get us to “consciously” work our horses. He looked at me, considering his answer for a moment, and then said, and I paraphrase here, “I would rather you work your horse unconsciously.” He didn’t mean passed out or asleep or any other euphemism for the antonym to consciousness. He meant he wished for us to be so habitulized in doing the right thing and so habitualized in plugging into our horses that it became an unconscious behavior for us, like breathing.


Horses are extremely good at making assumptions of what humans want and then trying to provide it. Humans are pretty darn good at assuming the horse gave them what they wanted. Quite regularly, neither assume correctly. Very rarely are people consciously or unconsciously working their animal. That being said they do work the animal habitually, but the habits are habits formed from assumptions on both sides that are never really questioned. Many times I see people doing the same thing over and over, despite the fact that it isn’t working for them. They believe if they try it often enough, eventually it will, and so they perpetuate their problems ad nauseum.


The first thing I do when I enter the round pen is remind myself that I already know the answer to the (any) question I am about to ask the horse. Maybe it is a question the horse knows the answer to also, simply because we have done that work before. Maybe the horse doesn’t know. Maybe the horse learns differently, at a slower or faster pace than the previous horse learned. Since they are all individuals, just like us, the onus is on me to make sure that I set the horse up for success. Since I already know the answer to the question I am going to ask, then I should make sure I frame the question to the horse in such a manner that he can get the answer right. Here is a sticking point for some because they just don’t understand why the horse “doesn’t get it” and seriously, the horse is thinking the same thing about the person! Many people assume that the horse can guess the right answer out of thin air, and given long enough, maybe he can. But there will probably be huge amounts of frustration for both the horse and handler. So to eliminate the frustration and to expedite the lesson I try to make sure I set all my questions up for the horse so that he doesn’t have to guess, rather the answer (hopefully) is obvious to him. When he answers my question incorrectly anyway then I must rephrase the question for him, not punish him. If he answers correctly then I must make sure there is no doubt in his mind that he got it right. Harry calls it “making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.”


To set the horse up for success I must also pay attention to his thoughts. I tend to think of myself as a narcissist when I am working a horse. I want the bulk of the horse’s attention on me or at the least ready to react to me when I ask for something. Since he’s a horse and therefore a prey animal he has the right to look around at his surroundings and keep an eye on things. However, when I am ready to do something, I would like to see him be able to let what ever random thought he has been contemplating go and concentrate on our conversation.


In the round pen, technically (physically) the horse can’t leave (one hopes…). He can leave mentally though and I want to give him the opportunity to do so. Why? So that I can make mentally leaving me difficult and help him choose to “hook-up” or mentally stay with me instead. It’s at that point when the most effective and rewarding work can be accomplished. In my humble opinion, fifteen minutes of work when things are “solid” is worth more than two hours of work when things are not “solid”.


 2010 Tanya Drayton, Equi-Praise



The Round Pen - Part 1

Posted by Tanya Drayton on December 10, 2011 at 2:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Many people use the round pen as a handy spot to get work done with a difficult horse. Others use it for “exercising” purposes. In addition, many of the round pens I see block all visual stimuli to the outside with solid walls, which conveniently forces your horse’s attention on you.

 For many years, I’ve used round pens for those reasons and for safety purposes too since most of the horses I work with are usually “green”. A few years ago I started attending clinics offered by a gentleman horseman named Harry Whitney. He pointed out that if you used the round pen to “exercise” your horse by running or jogging it in circles for a set time limit that you were actually teaching your horse to flee from you. He then got my attention by asking attendees to entertain the thought that the round pen was in fact, a classroom the horse couldn’t easily leave. My imagination went wild.

You see many clinicians use the catch phrase “hooking-up”, referring to getting the horse to consistently mentally track on the individual working them. From my point of view however, they leave out an important element: It’s a two way street. In order to receive and maintain that “consistent mental track” from the horse, the individual working the horse needs to give the horse the courtesy of reciprocation. In other words, if you want his undivided attention then you have to give him undivided attention. The other important morsel of information they leave out is the fact that “hooking-up” begins the minute you enter the pasture to catch your critter and doesn’t end until you let him go.

I’ve also found that many illusions exist inside the walls of a round pen, some are the horse’s illusions and some are the humans. The human’s primary illusion is that the horse has to pay attention to them in there, especially if they are using an enclosed facility. The person tends to buy into the notion that if the horse performs every action the person asked for then they must be “hooked-up” and everything is hunky-dory. I would argue this: If you put me in a spot where I have performed a certain activity exactly the same hundreds of times, I bet I can physically perform that activity a hundred more times and my thoughts could be wrapped up in the latest book I’m reading. Horses can do this too. They can easily perform the task they think you want them to and all the while they are thinking about their buddies or the grain they may score at the end of the workout. The point is, mentally, they are somewhere else. Every time we work them without realizing that they didn’t actually hook up we prove them right and reinforce the behavior. Pretty soon, you’ve got a mechanical moving critter with a very remote look in its eye.

The horse’s primary illusion is that he doesn’t have a choice in the matter and that it is easier just to do whatever necessary to get it over with. As humans we can change this for the horse by allowing him the illusion that he does, in fact, have a choice in the matter. When the human sets up the horse so that its correct choices have consistently pleasurable outcomes, a horse thinks it has a choice and it becomes a willing and eager participant in the work routines.

So, when you enter the round pen with your horse, my advice would be to enter it entertaining the thought that you’re going to have an uninterrupted, two-way conversation with your horse.


 2010 Tanya Drayton, Equi-Praise



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