Monday, January 17, 2011

It's been a while since I wrote anything here. The holidays kept me busy and I also started a new job. It's not exactly a new job, because it's still teaching and training horses and riders, but new in the capacity that I will get paid for it. At my stable, every penny I earn goes right back into the stable in the form of hay, grain, shavings and the like. At this job, there is no overhead so it's actually profit. The money still goes back into my farm, but at least it came from somewhere else.

The new job is slightly different, in that I will be specifically teaching students about training horses. Whether we like it or not, every time we are in the presence of a horse, we are training it. Horses constantly learn from people. They learn good stuff and they learn bad stuff but they are always learning. A horse is never "trained". You can say he's been trained or had training, that is all true, but a horse is never done being trained. Horses never lose training either. Training can get buried, but it's still there. Horses don't forget but they need constant reminding of skills they've learned.

Just because a horse has learned a certain behavior from one person does not mean he will exhibit the same with a different person. For example, one of the school ponies, Dancer, is a perfectly pleasant, polite pony when I lead her around the farm. As soon as she gets a small child at the end of her rope, she turns into Thomas the Tank Engine and drags the unfortunate victim from one food source to the next. It doesn't even matter whether or not it's a standard pony food source either. Dancer has been known to devour the duck food if the bowl is within child-dragging distance.

With consistent one on one training, a horse may maintain that level of training for a short time when presented with a new handler/rider. If the new person doesn't keep up the level of leadership, the horse will start to learn other behaviors. A horse will always rise or sink to the level of it's trainer.

There is no such thing as an un-trainable horse. A horse always has the capacity to learn. There are horses who are not physically or mentally capable of learning what it is the trainer is trying to teach. A frantic, nervous horse is not going to learn much of anything in that state so he first needs to be calm. A 10 hh pony is not going to learn to jump a 5' oxer. Even if he is calm. Not all people are cut out to help a horse learn how to be a good citizen or accomplished athlete. Some horses take more time, some take more patience, but they all learn. They learn even when we are not actively teaching. Horses don't take time-outs from learning. Training doesn't just happen in the saddle. Training happens from the second that horse notices you're there. In the paddock, on the crossties, being groomed, being tacked up... it's all training, all the time. If a person expects the horse to consistently behave a certain way, than it is the person's responsibility to allow that to happen. Carol Lavell, an Olympic medalist, once told me in a lesson, that the training process is like a teacher with a classroom full of children. That teacher can not let those children do as they please for two days, letting them climb the bookshelves, throw pencils, scream and run, punch each other, dance on the desks and so on, and then on the third day tell them they must now sit quietly at their desks and pay attention to their long division. There is no routine, no respect and no training going on when you let the horse do as he pleases for 30 minutes and then for the next 30 expect him to obey your every whim. That doesn't fly with horses. Or children.

As a trainer, you can't even allow an unwanted behavior to carry on for several minutes before you decide to do something about it. If you let a horse nip at you 3 times before telling him to quit, all he's learned is that he can bite you 3 times, but not 4. He does not associate the correction with the first bite because it didn't come immediately following the first bite. Even worse, is rewarding a horse for a behavior that is unacceptable. When a horse is pawing on the crossties and his handler settles him down by petting him and giving him a cookie, he's just learned that if he paws, he'll get attention and a cookie. If he's pawing and I go to him and immediately ask him to back up and then come forward and then back up and then come forward... for a little while, he'll associate the pawing with having to work a little harder and will choose to stand still instead. Then he can have a cookie.

If I could get a cookie for standing still, I don't think I'd ever move.