Do you see the horse of your dreams? A magnificent war horse suitable for a king? A pure, innocent, beautiful spirit? Your best friend? Your partner?
Or do you see a machine that eats money and spits out dirt? A scheming, naughty creature? An ugly, fat, misshapen thing? A mean, lazy spirit? A daily chore?
What’s your horse’s nick name? Lovely lady? Mr Magnificent? Handsome boy? Superstar? Gorgeous?
Or - Old bag? Fatty? Hop-along? Tart? Lazy boy? Dimwit? Trouble? (Believe me, these are the repeatable ones, I have heard far worse!)
You might think it doesn’t matter because horses don’t understand English after all. But actually your horse does feel your intention, he picks up your inner picture and resonates on the language you use.
Horses are naturally masters of the subtlest body language and energy.
He will respond to your words and become the image you project onto him.
Positive, uplifting words will raise your horse’s self-esteem and give him self-respect.
Speaking about our horses with respect and treating them with dignity is fundamental to creating a relationship of mutual respect and enjoyment.
Treat me like a fool and I will behave like a fool. Treat me like a king and I will behave like a king.
Do you have a great nickname for your horse? I would love to hear about it in the comments below.
In my family we have a tendency to talk too quietly, too fast, or in a monotonous tone, or all three at once. Most of what is said is probably quite interesting or funny – at least it would be if anyone could decipher it! So we end up having to repeat what we are saying several times because we simply can’t be understood, and end up shouting and everyone gets annoyed!
This is a pattern that repeats itself and doesn’t seem to improve.
If only we could learn to speak clearly the first time around!
With horses we strive to use the lightest and subtlest of aids, but we also need to avoid going from a whisper that is too subtle to getting annoyed and shouting, like in my family!
If he can’t figure out what we are trying to say our horse is going to be confused and might seem uncooperative.
Instead we should take the time to explain more clearly in language the horse can understand. Teach him in simple baby steps the language we want to use and how we would like him to respond. Once he understands the meaning, the aid can become gradually quieter and he will be able to respond to that whisper with certainty.
Having defined our language, we need to stick with it. Being consistent in the language we offer can be challenging! Just attempting to apply a single meaning to each of the vast array of verbal cues that we use illustrates just how complex and confusing the communication we have with our horses can get.
A common mistake to send the horse out on the lunge using whip and hand aids, but at the same time folding one's upper body over and drawing the stomach in. This gives conflicting messages, because the body language is saying come in towards me while the arms are saying go away.
With verbal cues horses will often respond more to the tone – high or low, loud or quiet, harsh or soft - than to the actual word used. They read our facial expression and the energy that we project, for example whether we feel happy or sad.
Verbal cues with tonal variation, facial expressions, energy and body language, along with a clear inner picture and inner feeling, combine to create a powerful set of tools to communicate clearly with the horse.
So for example your jackpot cue might be the word ‘excellent!’ said with great enthusiasm, a big smile, buckets of appreciation and warm loving energy, open body language and repeated rewards, so there is no doubt in my horse’s mind that he has pleased me and he is a most awesome being.
It all comes back again to being self-aware, and consistent.
Next time something is not working, ask yourself:
Our brains are constantly developing, even into old age. It only takes a few repetitions of a certain behaviour to create a neural pathway of nerve calls in our brain. Every time that behaviour is repeated those pathways become stronger and wider and gradually they become superhighways and a habit or addiction is formed. It is just the same for horses.
The definition in the Oxford dictionary for ‘Habit’ is:
1. A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.
‘he has an annoying habit of interrupting me’
‘good eating habits’
‘we stayed together out of habit’
1.1 Informal An addictive practice, especially one of taking drugs.
1.2 Psychology An automatic reaction to a specific situation
A behaviour repeated just 3 times can form a habit.
Habits and routines can be very beneficial. A large proportion of our everyday actions are habits and 95% of our brain activity is unconscious. In animal training we strive to create good habits by using operant or classical conditioning to teach desirable behaviours in response to controlled stimulus.
As horse trainers we aim to bring ourselves, and our horses, to a level of unconscious competence, a state where we have developed a high level of skill that has become second nature; good habits we can do without even thinking. A lot of practice and many many repetitions will form the mental superhighways we need.
Bad habits are formed in the same way as good ones. These could be our own, or our horse could have developed a bad habit, even though the original stimulus that caused the behaviour in the first place has long gone.
Deeply ingrained habits can be difficult to change but being aware of the way neural pathways are formed can help.
Ignoring an undesirable behaviour often just makes it worse because the horse continues to practice the behaviour which in turn strengthens the neural pathway.
The trick is not so much to stop a bad habit but to replace it with a good one.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” - Henry Ford
A change in routine will help to change the circumstances that lead up to a bad habit. That means noticing what happens before what happens happens - and changing your response to it. Interrupting the chain or pattern of behaviour.
Bad habits in horses are almost always inadvertently created by the handler or trainer. The causes can be obvious, or very subtle: too much pressure, constant pressure, lack of release of pressure, poorly timed aids, lack of leadership, misjudged timing or dosing of food rewards or otherwise somehow unintentionally reinforcing an undesirable behaviour, and all of these can be due to a lack of self-awareness.
The best prevention is to stop bad habits from forming in the first place.
To avoid unintentionally reinforcing undesired behaviour we need to be self-aware; to notice our own habits - all the time. Not only what we are doing but what we are thinking; how we think and when; our attitude to ourselves, our horse and to others; our physical way of moving; what our inner voice is telling us. All these things can be habitual and they massively affect our horse when we come to train him.
Finding self-awareness is about constantly observing ourselves and our actions. But it must be done without judgement, and without beating ourselves up or making ourselves feel bad or wrong. This includes noticing things like:
Let’s help our horses out by making it a habit to notice our own habits, and be proactive to change them into habits that will empower us and improve our training as well as our lives.
There is a mine of valuable information about training horses and dealing with undesired behaviours, easily accessible within the Straightness Training Mastery course. More information here. The list of Straightness Training Instructors worldwide is here.
Boy oh boy it can be tough training horses at this time of year! The dark evenings, the cold, the wet and the mud. If it’s not raining and blowing it’s freezing. It can be hard to get motivated, sometimes leading to feelings of failure. As if we need to add negative thinking to our struggles!
If this rings true for you, read on!
When things are difficult, instead of focusing on the problems look instead for what can be done – today - however small.
A wet or windy day will often make our usual training routine difficult or even impossible. But, because we know this, we should change our expectations and set a new, more realistic goal. It's a fantastic opportunity! We can teach a horse how to relax, how to behave when he is stressed. We can set up a "safe spot" in the arena that we can gradually expand. And this will improve the trust in our relationship. How wonderful will it be when we can go out and train without even having to think about how the weather will affect our horse!
And if time is short it is perfectly possible to make progress with just 3 x 15-minute training sessions in a week. Successful, short training sessions can be hugely rewarding for both you and your horse.
Here are 3 simple things to help you keep momentum:
Achieving our goals, however small, makes us feel successfuland allows us to make progress, and that, in turn, brings motivation in difficult circumstances.
And if it is all impossible, as long as your horse has adequate turnout on dry ground and good equine company to keep him stimulated it is perfectly fine to give him a break from training. After a 4-6 week break he (and you) might even come back better than before!
Check out Marijke de Jong's 4 part Facebook post for some really awesome advise about goal setting in 2018 below.