The Little Things

Humans, by nature, have a tendency to focus on the big things. And typically, big bad things. Our brains are biased toward negativity as a survival mechanism. This is important because it keeps us safe. For example, we might be planning a big pack trip in the mountains. We sit down and think of all the what if’s. What if the weather turns? What if we’re stuck out there for an extra week? What if our horse blows a shoe? When we consider these things, we can plan appropriately.

We need to be aware of that bias because it can also crop up when it’s not needed. It can cause us to focus on the things that didn’t go right, or are not going according to plan. Here’s an example:

A few years ago, I had a client and her horse attend a Trail Obstacle Clinic. Her horse was so very fearful of everything. But as we worked through exercises to help him understand and build confidence, his wonderful and curious personality really shone through and he began to try, rather than avoid.

The following morning, we had a short debrief on the previous day’s events. When it was this person’s turn to speak, she said, “Yesterday was horrible. My horse didn’t do anything right.” And honestly, my jaw dropped, because my view was completely opposite. I had to give my head a shake and think if we were talking about the same horse. This gelding had made some huge changes in thinking that I was certain would change the rest of his life. But her focus was only on the big things he didn’t do.

leona riding ditch
Leona riding Ditch

There is definitely a matter of perspective here. But there is also a matter of leadership; of self control. As humans, we can control and manage what we think. We can choose what to focus on. We can decide to be positive. Want a good method to do that? Here it is:

At the end of every session with a horse, write down three things that went right. Three things that were good. Unless you deliberately tried to make everything a failure (in which case you should have stayed in bed) there will be at least three. What that does is get your brain on a different set of train tracks – positive tracks that lead to positive thinking.

It’s not hard. We can work our brain however we want.

And in order for this to happen, we need to be cognizant of what those little things are. And I suppose, that’s what our style of horsemanship is all about. Our work in progressions is an example of that.

Sometimes these will be little things. But once in a while something huge will happen. I’ll share this with you, because I’m so stoked about it.

Last week, I had an incredible ride on my colt, Jerry. He’s the horse I call “Little Squeak”. But he’s not so little, so we might have to drop that! His previous owner was at our ranch, to work with his horse, Mack, – who just happens to be Jerry’s brother. I hopped on Jerry and things just clicked. It’s his 12th ride and we nailed all the obstacles. His lateral work was awesome. He was super relaxed and felt so good under me. When I hopped off, he stood between me and his big brother, Mack, and almost fell asleep. He’d just had the best ride ever, too. Now I can look at this in many different ways. For example, here’s three:

  1. He struggled a bit going over the platform. Therefore the whole ride was a failure.
  2. We accomplished things that we’d never attempted before (riding over the platform and a log).
  3. He was proud of what he did and his experience with me in the riding took him to confidence, understanding and peace.

If you haven’t guessed it already – I’m at number three. I honestly don’t care if we ride over the platform on ride #12. I’m training a horse. So the only think I need to care about is that what I’m doing meets his needs and he’s coming away from our sessions with a sense of accomplishment and pride.

That, and nothing else.

Because that’s what will inspire him to try again, the next time we ride. And those tries will take him to great successes. And that will be our future. Together. And I’m super excited about that, because Jerry is a really good buddy.

Those were big things that Jerry did. But they were built from hours at working at little things. And it’s those little things that are the most important. The little things start with a change in our horse’s thought. Instead of thinking to avoid something, our horse thinks about trying. Instead of ignoring, they share our focus. Instead of bracing, they release.

Jerry and Mack – watch the video.

They might be subtle things. Things that might seem minuscule to us, but mean the world to the horse. And they’re the building blocks to success. For our horse, it’s important that we recognize those things and let them know. Just like humans, feedback is the only way that they’ll be aware that what they are thinking or trying is on the right track. If we focus on the big things – like getting a horse over a platform or a lead change – we’re missing the most important stuff.

But I think you get that.

People, horses and other animals are not that different in one respect: we all understand praise and acknowledgement of a try.

It’s an interesting way to work with a horse. More than that, it’s enjoyable. With Jerry, for example – he has no idea what wrong is. It’s a word I never ever use in horse training. He only understands that the things we do together feel great, and that when challenged, his try is worth everything to me. He understands that when he struggles with a concept, I’ll help. He understands that he doesn’t have to fear anything we do.

There are many parallels in human interactions. Think of it from the opposite side of the fence. What works for us when we’re trying to learn something new? Patience and understanding on behalf of our teacher. Taking time to note how we’re doing and make sure we’re comprehending things properly. Pausing when we struggle and helping us through. Ensuring we have clarity in the little things, because they’ll form the building blocks for the big things.

Here are some tips that work just as well in the people world as they do in the horse world:

  • A belief that leadership is learning how to inspire, not how to control.
  • In order for something to go right, we need to set up a situation where it can go right.
  • Before we start, plan out the positives we’re going to create.
  • When we’re doing it, we focus on the little successes. We don’t focus on the ultimate goal.
  • We adapt in the moment so that every try becomes a success.
  • Be the inspiration for someone to succeed. Be the motivator for someone to try.

What are some little things we can do with people, even on a daily basis? An honest thank you. Eye contact when having a conversation. A smile. A phone call instead of a text. A compliment. These little things don’t take any extra time, but can mean so much.

With this new property, and all the cleaning and construction we’re doing, we have had to make hundreds of trips to the local waste disposal site. So we get to recognize the people that work there. One of them was relating a story of the trouble they’re having with break ins. Basically, their day was not going great. So on the way back from town, we stopped in at the site again….with a box of cookies from the bakery. Just a little thing that says, “Hey, we appreciate the job you’re doing.”

Working with horses is no different. They understand praise. They understand what it feels like to have clear thoughts and no anxiety. They understand peace.

When we do those little things, we not only make someone’s (or our horse’s) day, but we get a good feeling as well. Someone doesn’t need to do something spectacular to earn our praise and thanks.

This season, how about taking a moment to thank someone for a little thing. Maybe a friend. Maybe your horse. It will pay back. I guarantee it.

Scott Phillips

December 2023

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About admin

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting and re-starting horses, producing horsemanship webinars and podcasts, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and of course, operating Amazing Horse Country. He affectionately refers to his herd of horses as his "kids". Scott has uniquely integrated his horsemanship with a knowledge of equine bio-mechanics and psychology to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals.

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