Be Still

“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” -Blaise Pascal, Pensées

 

One of the most difficult aspects for the human in training an animal, is learning to just be still. When a person gives their horse a cue, it can be challenging for the person to wait for the horse to respond. Often times, when the horse doesn’t respond immediately, the human will react in an excessive manner that negates a teaching/learning mindset for both horse & human. The tendency is to immediately repeat the cue, over and over again, until the horse responds or to add threatening and intimidating gestures to get the desired response. The most complicated part of resolving this problem is that most people do this unconsciously, making it very hard to change.

For example, when asking a horse to back up using pressure and release, the trainer will shake the lead rope and begin to move in to the horse’s space. If the horse doesn’t respond immediately, the trainer will start jerking on the lead rope, aggressively move in to the horse’s space, and may even hit the horse with their whip or the end of the lead rope. The horse may throw his head up and move back quickly, but now the horse is scared and simply reacting - no real learning is taking place, except maybe the learning that the human is scary and unpredictable.

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Or, when halter training with positive reinforcement, if the horse doesn’t drop his nose in to the nose piece right away, the trainer will try to pull the halter up on to the horse’s face, causing the horse to pull his head back instead of pushing it forward in to the halter.

This lack of patience - this inability to allow time and space for the horse to process and respond, is often why a person’s training program is not progressing and why each day feels like starting over.


 

The other day I was working with a dog and her person on a recall behavior. The person was bending over every time she called the dog, so on the next repetition, I instructed her to stand up straight.

Blank stare.

Now, I know she heard me and we both speak english, so I’m sure she understood me as well. Why the blank stare? Because her mind was working on the task of calling the dog and hiding the hand that held the treat, and just trying to remember the sequence - “call dog, wait for dog to come, reinforce dog”. My instruction was so unexpected that she simply couldn’t process it for a moment. After that moment, understanding crossed her face and she stood up. Of course, it was too late and she had already gone through the sequence of calling the dog and reinforcing the dog with the treat while bent over. No problem, I simply explained the new behavior and she tried again.

Imagine how things might have gone if I had yelled at her for not immediately complying with my instructions…

Now imagine what it’s like for our horses, who don’t have a verbal language and often must engage in a guessing game to figure out what we want.

Waiting for your horse to respond to your cues goes hand in hand with giving your horse clear cues to begin with. One of the things that I’m so very guilty of in my own training is moving around too much!

Horses are experts when it comes to body language and are far more attentive to the non verbal cues we unconsciously give them than they are to the audio cues we purposely give them.

This is why I instructed the dog owner from the story above to stand up. If she continued to call her dog while bent over, bending over would become part of the cue and when she tried calling her dog at some point while standing, the dog would likely become confused and not know what to do.

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One of the mistakes many people make when clicker training, is moving their hand towards the treat pouch before they’ve clicked the clicker. The horse quickly begins to cue off the hand moving towards the treat pouch instead of waiting for the click. If you move your hands a lot, this can become a real problem as your horse is taking each move as a cue that he's about to be reinforced. This is often times where the mugging and biting behaviors people are so concerned about come from. 

In pressure release training, when lunging the horse in a round pen, the cue to move in a certain direction is usually to point in that direction. If the horse doesn’t move, pressure is applied from behind by raising the other arm to swing a rope or tap a whip. The problem arises when the trainer doesn’t follow the correct sequence and instead raises both arms at the same time, causing considerable confusion for the horse as he has to work out which arm is going to point and which arm is going to apply pressure. This is why so many people struggle with getting their horse to lunge. 

These are just some of the many training scenarios in which things can go a bit wonky when the trainer lacks the ability to just be still. Next time you go out to work with your horse, keep this in mind and see where your horse might benefit with a little stillness from you.