If I said, "never feed your horse treats," would you consider that to be a good rule or a dumb rule? Is it even worth making a rule for it in the first place?
Rules are important. They help us function and they help us stay safe, but does that mean you should never break rules? Does that mean you shouldn't be flexible?
Recently I posted a video demonstrating horse training at liberty using treats. I made a simple helpful rule in that demo that you should never feed treats to a horse that's asking for them or demanding them. This rule helps ensure you don't reward grabby behavior from the horse. It's better to wait an extra few seconds until the horse's energy changes to a calmer, less grabby state and then feed the treat reward.
However, in that same video, I broke my own rule several times. I clearly gave the horse a treat just after he lifted his nose toward me, indicating he was ready for his reward. Naturally, several people commented on how I broke the rules I established, as if I didn't know... and naturally, I started looking for ways to explain deeper levels of mastery, hence this article. You can watch the liberty video. I'll post a link at the bottom.
I have three general guidelines in this article (notice how I didn't use the word "rules") to help take us all a step further toward better communications with our animals and maybe even our human relationships regarding rules.
NUMBER 1: Sometimes, rules must be broken. Even safety rules must be abandoned in some unique situations. Take rock climbing for example. The rule is... you must always climb with a harness. But what if you're half way up and your harness fails you, should you stop climbing and wait for the fire department or find a way to climb down without the rules?
Take horse riding for another example. I have a rule for riding with a helmet. I almost always ride with a helmet. But sometimes I don't. Recently a friend came to ride and we only had one helmet that fit him properly. My helmet. (A poor-fitting helmet can be distracting and lead to more problems than it solves.) So I gave him my helmet and I rode without while taking extra care not to do anything too risky. I broke my own rules. So should I have opted to not ride at all? Or did I do the right thing?
The truth is... I've noticed over the years how people love rules. But I've also noticed how when, and if, a person clings to rules like life depends on those rules, that person will be severely stunted in their progress and often judgmental of others. Have you ever had a horse friend tell you, "That's not how you do it," and later you feel like they didn't really understand your point of view? Being to rule-oriented can keep you closed-minded.
It's the people who see rules as helpful guidelines instead of a rigid structure that succeed at the highest levels. It's the people who are willing to see the value in simple rules and the value in bending those rules, from time to time, that enjoy higher levels of living.
So I ask you, do you think you're a flexible person? Do you feel you are good at understanding exceptions to rules? I hope so. There is a beautiful life out there worth living, full of artistic variations to just about every rule you've heard of.
NUMBER 2: Sometimes rules must NOT be broken. This idea laughs in the face of our first idea that rules can be broken, but that's our reality. We have to learn to live with contrast.
Let's say you're an instructor and you've got a new student who's got an excitable horse that you wouldn't even ride without proper ground training first. You know the risk of injury is very high. Your new student asks you to ride the horse right there to show him what to do when he's riding. But you've got this rule about not riding ill-prepared horses. Should you break that rule to please your student and get on without preparing properly? I wouldn't.
That rule is there for a reason. There may be exceptions to any and all rules but you've got to start paying attention to your own feelings instead of listening to what others think the rules are. I have a cowboy friend who would ride that horse. Does that mean you should too? Of course not. Your safety is everything and you get to be the judge for which rules to keep and when.
NUMBER 3: Try not to impose your rules on everyone and everything else. It's important not to judge others for breaking your rules. Should I impose my safety standards on my cowboy friend and combat him every time he breaks my rules? Would you? If you saw a training demonstration and the instructor did something that opposed your preferences, or previous learning, would you tell the whole world how that instructor can't be trusted or would you open your mind a bit more? Your answer tells a lot about your personality and flexibility. Food for thought.
People make their own reasons for adopting rules and that's okay. Hopefully, their rules change over time to allow for progress because progress almost always requires flexibility. But even if nothing changes, it's important to me to stay open rather than closed. I believe an open mind is the key to growth in our beloved horse industry.
As a teacher I give out lots of rules. Rules like: Don't pet a distracted, disconnected horse. Don't ride an Ill-prepared horse. Don't eat chicken with waffles, etc. But that doesn't mean you can't make your own rules and exceptions to rules. You have every right to adapt and personalize your experience and communication with your horse. I try to help my students see rules as guidelines that should be upheld and sometimes broken but I also don't impose my standards on everyone.
For instance, I don't tell you that cowboy boots are stupid because I like to use top leather English riding boots. I don't judge you based on your rules or preferences because, in truth, I want to communicate with you. I want to share in your journey. I want you, all of you, to become closer friends because... good friends can have these kinds of meaningful debates about when and how to employ rules. I hope you see that's an invitation to you to share your thoughts. I want you to comment below.
Add your thoughts and experiences related to rules you've kept and rules you've bent. Let's become closer friends today.
PS here's the liberty training video