I've come across a slew of different issues in the past few years between horse and rider, horse and trainer and horse and owner.. And the majority of it comes down to the idea of control. Human brains are very forward thinking, but also very narrow minded with horizon ideals. One way, get there. That's it. But that's a huge issue for a horse; our best example of a trial and error thinker. If something doesn't work, they don't get upset about it; they try something else. Failure is not something scary or bad to a horse; it's an answer to a question they asked. So now it's time to ask another question, and get a different answer. Unfortunately for those of us who haven't trained our brains like this just yet, that one single ideal is very hard to grasp. We often find ourselves asking the same question over and over, and expecting a different result. But never get one. Which creates room for frustration; and we think we've lost control, which can sometimes lead to aggression and anger.
So how do those professional trainers keep a straight, calm poker face in every situation? You know what I mean, the Buck Brannaman face of pure comprehension; full of empathy. To me, it's to understand progression, the way your horse thinks, and to find empathy in everything that you do with your horse.
What is progression then? And how do we understand it so we can use it to the best of our ability? You need to start with the idea of visualization. You have a goal. Let's say you want to walk up a steep hill. So your goal is the endpoint, arriving at the top of this hill. How do you progress up that hill? In the simplest way, you would walk straight up the hill and arrive at your destination without having to change your path. That is how we think of most problems. But most problems do not have simple answers, and definitely not such simple paths. So imagine now instead of thinking the easiest way to the top is the shortest distance, instead think of the easiest way as the way that works best, each step of the way. So that first walk up the hill may have actually included you stepping over a log, through mud and maybe you even slipped a couple times. But you made it straight there. No harm done, right? Wrong. Our way of thinking says that even if we get knocked down, we should get up, brush it off and continue back into whatever we just got hurt on. A horse's way of thinking is not like that. If the horse arrived at a log for instance, it's first instinct is to find a way around the log, not over it. This changes the horse's straight arrow path up the hill, but it also means less chance of getting hurt, and using less energy over all. A positive plus for the horse. But a mind boggling decision to us. I mean come on, it's just a step over a log right? Here is where your empathy has to set in. Think about how important those legs are to your prey animal horse. They are his only means of escape, defence and entire life. Is he really going to risk giving them up to injury because he would have to go off course? I don't think so.
Back to progression. If a horse is ok with changing his path to get to the top of the hill, that means he does not necessarily "visualize" the entire path when he sets out for his goal. It means he has a start point, and an end point. With no real time line, no expectation except to get to the top in the most positive way possible. So each "step" up that hill, and every change he makes up there, is his progression. Maybe he starts up today, but finds a great patch of grazing only two steps up and decides to stay there for the entire day. Then gets another 5 steps and finds a fence in his way; now he has to go back a few steps to get around the fence. These are not set backs to a horse. They are necessary steps to take as part of the journey. Something that needs to be cherished more in our human like ways.
We're predators. We're straight arrow thinkers. We see a goal and attack it. To be better partners for our horses we need to step down the left brain thought process and embrace our right brain empathies. When we begin to lose control of a situation; instead of fight to get control back, we need to sit back and relax and wait for control to come back to us. Sometimes the most important thing we can do for our horse is to breathe and live in the moment. We can't have expectations and forward thinking goals; we need to be in this moment right now. Because that is exactly where our horses are. We can have end point goals, but we cannot have a set path of how to get there. Every horse is different, every situation is different. Therefore we need to constantly be willing to change to fit those situations, so we can bring our horses along with us. Safe. Calm.
I want to touch on empathy a bit more here too. Empathy is the most important quality you can have when working with a horse. And lending power to your empathy to make decisions for you, is going to make you the best of the best. Understanding what you do has an effect on your horse is very important. Relating to those feelings that you create is also important. It keeps you close, it keeps you grounded; and best of all it keeps you doing only what you would do to yourself, to your horse. This is good for both you and your horse. Giving over control is important to your horse, because gaining control is important to you. Having a moment to take a break is important to your horse, because being given a break is important to you. You often hear how people say our horses are a mirror to ourselves; this is true. Our horses show everything that we allow to do or happen to ourselves. Therefore to move forward, we need to know what we do and how that effects ourselves and our horses. We need to learn to be positive partners who empower each other. Push each other forward and reward the slightest try. Because we would want someone to empower us, push us and reward us. We would want someone to wait patiently while we work through a puzzle; rather than get frustrated and push us too fast. We would want someone to understand our fears, encourage us to be brave and walk hand in hand with us through the scary together. Instead of getting angry at how we respond to something we fear.
Emotional control is a very important aspect of life. In our every day life in the human lifestyle, as well as with our horses second by second. We expect our horses to have emotional control every second we are around them; we should expect emotional control from ourselves every second too.
There are a million and one practices to gain emotional control and to start teaching yourself how to think more like a horse... and it starts by playing with your horses! If you are interested in ideas for games, and training on how to best utilize your game time with your horse; send me an email! Let's chat.
Until then, keep on keepin' on!