I know you're doing your best. In fact I believe, at the core, everyone is trying to do their best by their own standards. And there's something else important you need to hear too. Don't be critical, not yet anyway. Reserve it for after you compliment your horse. Oh... and by the way, you should take what you do with a horse into the real world. People don't respond well to criticism right out the gates either.
I can't tell you how many times I've seen horse people criticize their horse for breaking gait or doing any number of "wrong things." Don't do that! First, compliment. First, notice the effort. Then help them understand with more critical information. Then remind them that you still recognize the effort. It's called a criticism sandwich.
Many years ago, a great friend, who was also my first horsemanship coach, set me to a task with my horse. Imagine me standing on the ground, lead rope in hand and lifted in the direction I want my horse to go, and training stick lifted to guide the horse forward over a jump. My horse wanted nothing to do with the jump and started pulling on the lead rope and backing away from the jump. I immediately started smacking his butt, trying to force him forward. What happened next completely surprised me and left me contemplating my entire career forward with horses.
Just as things started to escalate into a dust storm and a fight, my instructor friend said "STOP," loud enough for me to hear over my own thoughts. So I turned to look at him. He held his hands out away from his body, palms up in a passive posture and said in a calm tone, "I understand what you're trying to do, but there is a better way. Would you like to know more?"
You see... I thought I had to win the fight with my horse and he invited me to think of it differently. This intrigued me enough to let my hands down and take the pressure off my horse, which still had no intention of jumping the jump, and that made me feel like a failure. But his words and caring tone held my attention. "If there's a better way, I should probably learn it." I said to myself. "Yes, tell me more," I said aloud.
"Great, I knew you had it in you," he complimented. And he sent me back to the jump with my horse. "Now this time," he continued, "lift your lead hand and ask him forward. Now lift your stick and support him from behind but don't swing it, don't touch him, just hold it."
As I followed his instruction I noticed my horse resisting me again and begin to back away from the jump. And I felt the urge to deliver another smack on the butt. My friend noticed my urge and invited me to steady my hands, and not add any extra stimulus. My horse continued to back away from the jump, all the way to the end of my lead where he began to dance in place, still showing no sign of jumping. I called over my shoulder to my friend and asked, "Now what?"
He said, "Wait." I scoffed inside. "Wait for what?" I thought. All my horse is doing is resisting me. The thought irritated me and I spoke up. "I feel like if I don't make him go when I say go, he's going to learn the wrong thing." And he responded... "Don't push him any harder while he's trying."
That irritated me even more. I replied by saying, "He's not trying, all he's doing is trying not to go over the jump!" And that's when he had me.
"What did you say?" He asked. "I said... he's trying not to go over the jump."
"Say that again please." "I said... he's trying not to go over the.... oh.... I see now. He's trying."
"That's right," he replied, with a smile making it's way up his face. "Even when their trying to do the wrong thing you should still recognize the effort. Don't reward it, just recognize it. Don't release, just hold steady and add no extra pressure unless he stops trying."
As if on cue, my horse planted his feet and dropped his effort all together. "Now you can tap him lightly on the butt." He said, "While he's dead in the water with no energy in his body. That's when you add energy. Otherwise, just hold your suggestion and wait to see if he tries anything new. Eventually, he'll figure out what you want."
So I played the game. I asked him to go over the jump. He'd back away, but with less anxiety. All because I wasn't forcing anything. And then, after a minute, he'd stop altogether. I'd apply a little tap from my stick and he'd resume dancing or pulling, then stop again. I'd add another little tap and he'd resume his effort, still unsure of how to do what I wanted, then finally he took a few steps forward, toward the jump but not over. Immediately, my instructor friend asked me to drop my suggestion. He asked me to drop my stick and lower my lead rope. So I did, and then he said, "Now is when you reward your horse, because he's finally on the right track. Even if he didn't go over the jump, he's finally on the track to eventually go over the jump."
I got it, at least in my head, for the first time. And over the years I've worked to perfect it. Recognize the effort, hold the critical information, and compliment for the correct movements. It took about fifteen more minutes working with that horse to jump. Then... with total confidence and no added pressure from me, he got it. He jumped to the other side where we both took the pressure off ourselves and relaxed for a good ten minutes. The next time we came to the jump, he didn't hesitate. And I... I learned one of the most valuable life lessons there is related to communication between two beings.
First, recognized the effort, even when it's not in the right direction. People are trying harder than you might know, but if you criticize them for going the wrong direction you'll destroy that precious effort mechanism. Then, when you feel they've truly been heard and understood, and only then, you can begin to add in the extra information they need. If you don't add in the critical information at all, you end up with a leaderless relationship. I know it sounds simple but you'd be amazed how many people refuse to add critical information for fear of destroying the friendship with their horse or partner. You don't have to fear that if you deliver the info correctly. Then, always at the end, pile on the good! Reward the effort in the right direction. Reward your partner for listening, for being attentive and responsive. Don't just reward them for behaving. Reward them for being present and giving effort. Reward them for trying. That's the real magic.
And for you, dear reader, just know I believe in you. You don't come this far in the horse industry just to become sour and fail to see people around you give their heart to their horse and their dreams. I see that in you. I recognize your desire. Even in the questions you ask, I see a desire to learn and understand more. I love that about you. Keep trying, keep open, keep learning. And just like you, I'll continue to learn and grow with you. We're on this journey together. I find that pretty exciting!
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Sincerely, Don Jessop