Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Direct-line thinking

What got me thinking about direct-line versus indirect-line thinking in particular was a mare I am currently working with, a 6yo Arabian mare who tends to be a bit spooky/reactive. She is not so keen on one end of the arena in particular, but I can't say I really blame her. A large door (think: semi truck garage door size) stands at that end of the arena and typically during the day, rays of light slip through the space between door and wall to essentially illuminate the entire one of those movies where light shines around the door and the person opens it up - and hell roars back at them in full force. Yup. She was typically skittering past this door sideways rather than walking straight past it, so finally I simply pushed her sideways myself - if she wanted to go sideways, she most certainly could...but by my choice and not hers.

Horses, as prey animals, are not direct-line thinkers and if you watch them, typically, they do not approach something directly, by walking straight up to it. They usually approach an unknown object or even a hay pile in a zigzag fashion or something such. It is fairly rare they will boldly stride up to something with 100% confidence and no break in stride. That's (typically) only something predators do. In addition, when we push a horse who is unsure or resistant, they tend to push back in opposition. It is how they survive in the wild so it is what comes naturally if they feel they might be pushed and trapped.

When I tried to push the mare in question toward the 'bad' side of the arena, she just balked and tried to back away. Even though she knew leg aids, she was sufficiently tense in her ribs and focused on the door that I could not arc her barrel into the door and thus prevent the spook. But she moved sideways on her own like a pro! So what did we do? We went sideways. I pushed her sideways back and forth along that end of the arena and finally tried walking her past it again. She walked past it this time (and every time afterward) - straight.

The same can follow for horse trailers. Rather than grabbing your horse and walking them directly up to the trailer, have them play some games around the trailer first. Casually saunter up to the trailer with them and have them move between you and the trailer, have them sidepass along the sides of the trailer, have them back past the trailer - anything you can think of that does not involve directly walking them into the trailer. Get them thinking and relaxed - interacting with you and following your leadership, then ask them to walk into the trailer. Don't just pull them in though; instead, send them in by themselves. By sending them in a) you are not packed in an enclosed space with them and thus at possible risk of being run into a wall or crammed into a corner, and b) they can offer less opposition than if you were to try to lead them in, where they can pull back. If they back up when you try to send them in, there is less opposition - you simply resend them. However if they back while you lead them in, they end up placing tension in the rope and creating something they can push against.

Lastly, I wanted to point out the value of making the wrong answer hard and the right answer easy. By asking the mare in question above to sidepass, rather than walk straight, I was a) giving her something to do and keeping her brain busy and focused on what I was asking in lieu of the spooky door, and b) creating more work for her when she chose the wrong answer (focusing on the door). Set it up so it is their decision alone and so that what you want becomes what they want.

Final point: rather than always approaching a scenario in a direct line, see if you can approach it from another angle, from an angle that might be more natural to your horse and encourage your horse to do what you ask.

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