What are you practicing?

“What you practice,” I remember Tom Widdicombe telling me, “is what you get good at.”

This is undeniable, in fact it is fundamentally obvious. What else would one get good at? After all, practice is how we get better at things. If you want to improve any skill, just keep practicing it.

But Tom wasn’t talking about me at that point, he was talking about my horse. Being creatures of pattern and habit, horses learn by practice as well. If something has worked for them one day, they will probably try it again the next. Before you know it, they have developed a pattern that will take some effort – and probably cause them some concern for them – to change it. So if you give your horse time to practice something, expect them to do that more in the future.

One day you might be working your horse on the ground and they are in a slightly flighty mood, pinging around on the line and overreacting to everything around them. You ask them to move off and they go flying round at top speed, maybe throwing some bucks or other silliness in while they go. When that happens, what has your horse been practicing?

A palomino pony, in the snow, holding a glove.

If your horse isn’t practicing bringing you gloves in the cold, maybe you need to re-evaluate your training strategy.

“Wait,” I hear you say, “that wasn’t me asking my horse to do that, they put all the nonsense in, I just wanted them to do a nice calm circle.” That is all true but all the time they are doing their own thing, how much do you figure in their thinking? Are they practicing working with you?

If I ask a horse to work and they decide to put way more forward in than I wanted, there are a few different things I might do depending on the horse and the situation, but they all have one goal: Get the horse’s attention, so that they stop practicing doing their own thing and practice being with me instead.

If you have a bit of space around you and your horse wants to go gallivanting off ahead then you can just walk out behind them. Unless they have the art of dropping their shoulder on the rope and running off, which thankfully very few horses do, they will have to come around and catch you up, allowing you to reset your relative positions and helping them to understand that charging off is harder work than listening to you.

You can also just turn them to a stop – where you ask with a gentle pressure on the lead rope for them to turn to face you and stop running forwards – and then walk towards them and slightly to the other side ( so if you were on the left rein you will walk to their left) asking them to move their shoulders out of the way and turn to move along with you, staying on your right the whole time. This is a good way of changing the rein and a really good way of bringing a horse’s attention back to you if they are inclined to keep thinking about everything else.

The other thing I might do is to use a clear up-and-down bump on the rope, which sends a wave down to the horse. This tends to cause them to throw their nose in the air and stop, sometimes bending to a stop, other times just stopping. Please note that it is an up-and-down movement, I’m not pulling on the rope, and that I don’t use heavy bull-clips on my ropes and wouldn’t use this technique if I did. This is a really effective technique for a horse that is determined to get ahead of what you are asking for.

With any of these techniques you can interrupt the horse’s thought and start them thinking about what you want instead of just running about doing their own thing. You’ll probably need to do the same thing a few times, but as long as you are getting an effect, stick with it and they will start to change and pay more attention to you. You’ll probably need to keep things low energy for a little while so they don’t get emotional again, but often it doesn’t take long at all to start getting a lot more interaction going on. The more they practice being with you and staying with you and the more they find that there is calm and quiet and comfort in doing that, the more they will seek you out and the easier all your work will become. Relaxation and calm are things that can be practiced too and the more of those that your horse gets to enjoy, the more likely they are to be in that mindset from the start of your sessions together.

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4 Responses to What are you practicing?

  1. Hi Ben

    This is a really interesting post. Something both Sarah W and Mark Rashid made me think about, is how often the horse actually thinks he is doing what you want, as that is what the two of you have been doing together, even when it’s really NOT what you want…It had not really occurred to me that my horse might think that moving off from the mounting block, or tossing his head when I put the bridle on, might actually be the job in hand. I guess this boils down to me allowing him to practice the wrong thing enough times for him to think it’s the right thing. I find it useful to refer to this when we seem to be getting stuck with something.

    • ben says:

      The first non-spam comment this blog has ever received! Best day ever!

      I know exactly what you mean- it’s really easy to teach a horse something is the job in hand when in your mind it isn’t. I guess it makes sense- if there are ten things a horse might do and we only want one of those things, there is a 90% chance they will try something else and we only have to get our release timed a little bit wrong for them to get the wrong idea about what we were asking for.

  2. Hi Ben
    Good post – and I’m not disagreeing with you at all.
    I have changed my views on horses a lot over the last few years. In fact it might be more accurate to say I have changed my views on humans more than horses. I think we have been guilty of dumping a huge amount of ridiculous humanisation onto horses, and this has made things really quite difficult for them.
    It’s a big subject, but in relation to this post, what I would say is, rather than chipping away at trying to change the horse’s focus, I would do something that would change his focus once and for all. ie change the relationship between me and the horse so that he decided that he needs to concentrate on me, rather than all the other stuff out there. That way, you get a safer, more useful horse. So rather than trying to train that focus into him, I would be trying to install it in him as a real thing.
    I’m pretty certain all the new agey type stuff that has been peddled to us for the last thirty years or so, is based on the idea that horses see and think about the world in the same way that we do – they patently don’t! Horses don’t have a problem with clarity – they love it.
    Just in case anyone reads this and starts to say, it’s really heavy, man! I’d just say – you don’t have to be heavy to get a horse to understand the correct relationship – just look at a herd of horses – they generally get it worked out pretty damn well. You do get the odd horse who throws his weight around unecessarily – bit the same as horse trainers in that way, I’d say.

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