A Thinking Man's Game
I’d like to dedicate this first blog post to my dad, Mr. Melvin Davis, and to my mentor, Mr. Ray Hunt.
The one word that comes to mind when I think of both of these men is thinking. As far back as I can remember, my father would always ask me what I was thinking. He would say that it was important that I be thinking in every situation. “If you are thinking, you are ahead of the game,” he used to say. Further down the road in my life, Mr. Ray Hunt would add to this: “Be proactive not reactive. Look ahead of the situation you are putting the horse in: how will he react and answer the request put to him? Think of how you can make it easy for him to answer your question correctly; think about how you can make the wrong answer a harder choice for him.”
Think about what you are asking of your horse; use your foresight to set up his next lesson (and remember, every time you touch your horse, you are giving him a lesson). How can you help the horse find the correct answer to your question in a way that is easiest for him? The key words here are “help the horse find…” You probably know already that you can’t make a horse do anything. It’s a lot like a child; you tell them to do something and chances are it won’t happen. If you lead them to believe, however, that what you’re asking is their idea, they will do it all day long. You might go so far as to say, when dealing with a horse, that it’s all in the presentation. First, though, you need to think, plan, use your foresight. Think about how you can make what you need from your horse so obvious that he can’t help but want to do it. If you can then present something to him in this way, he might think it was his idea in the first place.
I firmly believe that just about anyone can get on a horse and trot and canter around an arena. You watch other people do it and it looks easy enough, right? In my opinion, it takes very little to no effort to get on a horse and trot and canter around an arena. Not much thought involved. The horse has been walking, trotting, and cantering since he fell out of his mother. You don’t have to do any real preparation to get a horse to go around an arena; it may not look pretty and you may not stay on, but it’s fairly easy because the horse can and has trotted and cantered, even galloped, before. You are essentially putting the horse on “auto-pilot.”
What is “auto pilot” for a horse? If he doesn’t understand what you want him to do, his first guess is to do what God prepared him for naturally in order to survive: MOVE and MOVE a lot! A horse is a prey animal, a “fight or flight” animal. For our purposes here, I’d like you to consider a slight but crucial change to that phrase. If you watch a horse in a situation where he is unsure, afraid, or insecure, what is his first instinct? It is not to fight but to take flight (i.e., MOVE). The sooner we begin to think of a horse as a flight animal first and a fight animal second, the more easily we can begin to understand, and then to predict, the horse’s thoughts and the behaviors that result from those thoughts.
To truly train a horse we need to understand where the horse is coming from before he takes action – in other words, before his instincts kick in and he takes flight. Once you understand this, think about how you can help him to make his next decision. One way to do this is to turn off the “flight motor,” and this begins with turning down the intensity with which you present and ask a horse for something. According to Webster’s Dictionary, intensity is defined as “severity, arbor, earnestness, strength, force, speed…” You will find at first that turning down the intensity is not as easy as it sounds. Throughout the years I’ve noticed that a lot my clients start off needing to be more assertive with their horses. Their intensity level is too low. And then, in time, most seem to go to the other extreme and end up needing to work on being less assertive! This is very common because, like a lot of things that have to do with horses, finding a balance takes time and a lot of fine tuning.
Think of your intensity, your assertiveness and forwardness, like the volume on a radio. A lot of times I need to teach my clients to “adjust the volume.” Too much or too little volume will cause you to lose your horse in a lesson. Too little volume and you will lose his attention; too much and you will lose his cooperation.
Think of it like this: when you were a kid and you and your parents were going on a trip in the car, chances are you really didn’t want to listen to their choice of radio station. Knowing this myself, I would hop in the car first and tune the radio to the station I wanted in anticipation of hearing a song I liked. And I would turn up the volume…WAY UP! Dad would get in, hit the ignition, and BOOM on came the radio full blast. Dad would immediately turn the radio off, glaring at me with great annoyance. Now, had I thought ahead and merely changed the radio to my station and slowly, ever so slowly turned up the volume after Dad started the car and as we were already going down the road, Dad might have just let me continue to listen to my station.
My father shut down the radio all together because I became greedy and wanted it all at once. Don’t go for broke in the first 5 seconds you are working with your horse. Go slowly with your request, adding more intensity (i.e., more pressure) over a longer period of time. Only increase this intensity/pressure to a specific point, as if you were asking and never demanding (you never yelled at your parents and got a good result, did you?) “The slower you go, the quicker it will come,” Mr. Ray Hunt would say. These days, in our society, it seems that we have lost our patience. Yet we expect to receive patience, and in fact, we demand it. My father used to say that “you have to give to get,” and if you show your horse a little patience, I promise you the horse will show it back in time. Because patience brings understanding and trust. Patience brings partnership.
When we are with our horses we have to change our thinking and remember that it is not about us, it is about the horse, and we are in their world. Think of your horse as the radio you need to adjust slowly so as not to make him run off in fear. Think, plan, use your foresight. My Dad used to say: “Life is a thinking man’s game. If you’re not thinking, you’re weakening the team.” There is no doubt in my mind that this holds true for horsemanship as well.
Be good and be safe…Ken