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The Round Pen - Part 2

Posted by Tanya Drayton on December 10, 2011 at 3:00 PM

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



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