I work with many great folks and their horses. I’ve observed a commonality we are all prone to: frustration. This might be frustration with the horse, frustration with yourself or frustration with a particular exercise or event. Here’s a helpful thought, one that may just help you with more than just your horse:
Frustration is simply a product of your expectations.
Frustration isn’t something imposed upon you, it’s something you create for yourself. Put another way, frustration is a result of a path you chose to go down.
Unless you enjoy being frustrated, and who does? – then a way to eliminate frustration in horse training is to change your expectations. Don’t confuse this with lowering your expectations, because our goal is still to produce a clear, concise attempt that leads to a successful result. Instead, ensure that your expectation is realistic within the context, the moment and the situation.
Another way of thinking of this is:
Always set up a situation for success.
It can be risky and even pointless to attempt an action without some confidence at succeeding. If there is a huge question mark over whether or not something will work, then step back and evaluate. Every exercise you do and every movement your horse makes has several prerequisite movements that must be executed at some degree of consistency before you can introduce something more complex. Eventually, when you do introduce the next maneuver, be aware that the proficiency with which it can be executed depends entirely on the proficiency you or your horse have attained at those prerequisite steps. Consider that next step as only a test of how well you built the foundation. This way, you don’t end up setting yourself up for failure…and frustration.
I recently helped a student that was having difficulty with a side-pass on a horse she’d recently purchased. We quickly determined that the horse was unable to move his hind because he was bracing from the feel of the rein and the learned expectation that he would get kicked or spurred.
- The trainer asks something of the horse.
- The trainer elevates the pressure of their request because the horse didn’t get it.
- The only possible response the horse has is to brace (not move) or flee (move but not yield). Elevating pressure is a negative reinforcement that will teach your horse to brace against you and dull your aids.
- The trainer realizes the horse isn’t responding and, out of frustration, elevates the pressure even more or resorts to pain as a motivator.
It’s much more rewarding and beneficial to your leadership to produce a fluid, connected yield. A more realistic method is simple:
- Recognize the mental state of the horse. What’s really going on in his mind? Is he braced because he is scared ? Is he trying, but confused because he doesn’t know if his tries are correct? Is he frustrated because the current request is beyond his (or your) current ability?
- Ensure both you and your horse are starting from a clear, calm state of mind. Achieve release.??
- Consider steps that will support your horse in the exercise; steps that will allow him to progress – with obvious success.
- Assist the horse in that progression.
Supporting the horse and showing him how to succeed is such a better way.
So what did we do? We started with the very basics of release, yield, space and energy – every step intended to show the horse a better way to succeed…and we eventually connected the rein to the hind.
Now here’s the kicker: my student was no longer frustrated. Why? Because we changed our expectations to those we had a great chance at succeeding at. When we started working with her horse, there was a tremendous amount of licking, chewing and even yawning as he let go of all his tension. Success! Now we were in a good spot to progress to the next step. We continued to work through progressions, praising the horse and really feeling we achieved something with each small step. Frustration eliminated for my student AND her horse.
It’s a different way to look at things. If you set up every situation for a reasonable chance of success you’re starting off on the right foot. Now, rather than focus on the ultimate success, focus on the try; on the attempt. This is how your horse is going to learn he’s on the right track. His tries might be small, but it’s important you recognize and reward them.
It has been my experience that when you start looking at things like that, you basically eliminate failure and frustration because they simply don’t exist in that context. It’s a powerful, motivational way of thinking. It doesn’t just apply to horses; it can apply to how you handle everything in your life.
Again, frustration is a product of expectations in a situation that you created. It’s not going so well? Then evaluate and create another situation that will. In a team comprised of you and your horse, you are the leader. Leadership comes with responsibility and accountability.
You are responsible for providing an environment where you and your horse succeed. You are ultimately accountable for his success. You can never blame or punish the horse for his response in a situation you created – to do so is forsaking your role as a leader.
Our clinics at Amazing Horse Country revolve around several key principles. One of them is consistently setting up successful situations for our horses. In addition to having a great time with friends and horses, we view our 60+ obstacle course simply as a way to evaluate:
- Where our horses are at; and
- What we need to work on.
We focus on the positive. We focus on your success. We focus on FUN. Thus our horses learn the value in trying and we eliminate frustration.
Scott Phillips, March 2016