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WHY HORSES BEHAVE DIFFERENTLY AT THE SHOW

Don Jessop

I like being obvious. That's why I write about obvious things, such as why horse's behave differently at the show. The answer is obvious, isn't it? Horse's are not robots.

They are susceptible to all kinds of changes, including environmental changes, like a showground, for instance. The pressure build up of all the extra horses, smells, sounds, and sights at a showground, can cause horses to behave differently and become more easily distracted. Why? Because their life depends on it. Their prey animal instinct guides them. They are emotional beings, like you and me. Because horse's are emotional, non-robotic creatures, it's not possible to get robotic, non-emotional behaviors from them every day. So you can forget about perfection in every place you visit. It doesn't exist. But master horsemen and horsewomen around the globe have figured out how to avoid the problems that arise at the show. And that is what I want to share with you.

Imagine this scene: Lets say you can perform all your desired tasks at home. Beautiful flying lead changes, speed control, jumping without missed steps or ducking out... but at the show your horse resists your commands, dodges the jumps, or worse, doesn't focus at all, and you end up fighting for his attention all day... and losing! And I'm not just talking about losing the ribbon you worked so hard to earn. You may end up losing the "I love my horsey" feeling you get from riding. That whole experience is painful.

Over the years I've heard dozens of different strategies to overcome this problem of horses being different in new places. Most of which don't really make a dent in your experience. Not because they aren't good ideas, but because they aren't complete ideas that help you understand the way a horse thinks. I've heard people say: "Do more work at home so the horse doesn't question you anymore.", or "Ride like your at the show, while your at home.", or "Be a better leader."

Good ideas - but incomplete and ambiguous.

Here is what really works, If you want to solve show related problems, or any problem for that matter, you MUST begin to realize that horses are like humans. They pay attention to what seems most important in any given moment. I call this the "shiny penny syndrome." Which means, anything that looks out of the ordinary, like a penny lying on the ground, is important and therefore warrants your full attention. And because so many things look important, the attention level of the person (or horse in this case) looking around is thwarted every few seconds. If you're riding, this is problematic. It could mean your horse misses a jump, because he's suddenly focused on a part of the jump that looks "shiny" and "important." It may be curiosity, or it may be fear that drives his attention to shift, but no matter what caused the attention to shift, master horse trainers recognize the shift in attention and know how refocus the horse.

It seems obvious, but it's not as easy as it sounds. Many novice or intermediate riders, ride quite mechanically, like their pushing a motorcycle through a course. When the horse makes a mistake or finds it hard to focus, these early trainers try to get the horse's feet back on track by driving the horse in the direction they want to go. But what happens most often, is the trainer fights the horse to go in that direction, and ends up frustrated, or worse... hurt.

So what's the cure?

Answer: Practice, but not mechanical practice. I'm talking about attention based practice. You see, most people practice jumping, for instance, by getting a horse over a series of fences and rewarding at the end of a course with a pat on the neck. Master trainers don't practice like that. Master trainers practice guiding the horses attention and rewarding the horse for giving his or her full attention, regardless of the jumps. Then at the show, they win!

All good teachers know this trick. You don't take a kid sitting in a kindergarten classroom and give him a mechanical task, then tell him to do it over and over and over until he understands it. (Well, at least you shouldn't). Instead, you guide the child to focus on you. Even respond to you. Then reward him for responding. After a few successful response and reward cycles, you begin asking the child to focus on a task, instead of you. You don't reward the task completed. Instead, you watch for the child's attention levels and reward his focused energy. At first you make the tasks easy, then over time they get harder. But the point is, a good teacher focuses on training focus, not mechanics of motion. When the child learns to focus, anything becomes possible. ANYTHING! And horses are the same.

So what am I saying? In a nutshell, this: Learn to ride based on the horses attention level. Stop being so mechanical. If you can notice the horses attention shift, feel free to shift it back in your favor, then reward the pants off your horse when he gives you his attention. Don't just jam him into motion. Remember, he's like a human. He's not a robot. He's emotional. He needs to know you care.

Reward him for his effort to focus on you. Then, like the good kindergarten teacher you aspire to be, ask him to focus on a simple task. Reward him for the effort he puts in, and slowly build your foundation of focused behavior. If you do this at home, in your weekly practice, you'll find you have a horse that finds no value in distraction and fear. At that point, you can start to travel out to shows and do the same thing. After a few shows, he'll get the idea that no matter where you go, his job is to focus on you and forget about all the stimuli, and at that point, you will begin to feel unstoppable. Unbeatable! Blue ribbon, here we come. Olympics, here we come!

How does one begin to notice where the horses attention goes? Well, again the answer is pretty obvious. They always try to look at the very thing they think seems so important. When you notice that his or her focus has shifted away from where you want it to be, simply shift it back, sooner rather than later. Sometimes it's useful to shift it completely away from where he wants to go, even if it means shifting to a new direction of travel all together. Use your reins to redirect his head and feet. Be direct, but be nice too. Think like a kindergarten teacher.

So let me give you a real example. Let's say your horse approaches a jump, then at the last second, he slides out to the left and completely misses the jump. Most novice and intermediate trainers go around in a big circle to the left and re-approach the jump. This might be useful at a show, but not good practice at home. I almost never do this, because it's so mechanical and thoughtless.

I say that because, by continuing on to the left, you just allowed your horse to keep going the same direction he wanted to go in the first place, therefore rewarding him for being unfocused. And... all you have left is one more feeble hope he'll go over the jump the next time around. Instead, what I do, based on hundreds of conversations with master trainers in nearly ever part of the horse industry, including jumping... is stop my horse in his tracks, turn him directly right instead of left, and go out in the opposite direction.

This new trajectory may cause me to completely miss the jump, but I will end up going in the complete opposite direction of his attention, therefore causing him to pay attention to me, instead of his own desire to dodge the jump.

When he's gone a number of steps in my desired direction, I stop and reward him for his focus. Then, when I feel we're ready, we approach the jump again. If he dodges to the left again, I do the same behavior. But more than likely, if he doesn't go straight over, (usually they do) he'll try dodging to the right. This is progress. It means he's beginning to realize left doesn't work and he's exploring his options. But he soon realizes that right doesn't work either, because I send him in another 180 degree turn (left this time), directly opposite of his attention. When he's traveling in my desired direction I reward him again. Then the third time we approach the jump, he'll be thinking through his options. "Left didn't work. Right didn't work. OK, over the jump we go."

If I'm a good trainer, I'll reward the pants off him. (Not that horses wear pants)

Each day I grow from the challenges of the previous day. Each mistake leads to opportunities to re-align his focus. And day by day, I begin to develop a "true blue" partnership with my horse.

In the special case that he's a particularly clever horse, he may have a few more options up his sleeve, instead of jumping. Like stopping just in front of the jump. If this happens, I have to stop and wonder if I'm over-facing him in the first place. Maybe the jumps are too big for his confidence level and it's time to lower them. But if he's been over the jumps before, and I'm a super confident rider, I'll ask him to jump it from a stand still. There is no sense getting a run up, unless the jump is physically too high, and requires momentum. Most jumps, in the early stages don't. I've jumped three foot fences from a stand still many times to help horses realize the reward is on the other side. Once he makes it to the other side. I'll reward the pants off him again, and within one or two session I have a horse that will jump the moon with total confidence. Remember, knocking the poles over, doesn't really matter in the early stages. It's about getting him to respond, just like the kindergarten teacher gets the student to respond.

Besides, trainers that obsess about not knocking over poles in practice, aren't thinking about the horses experience. They're only thinking about the blue ribbon. They are being mechanical riders, instead of thoughtful and progressive teachers of attention and confidence. Also, training horses not to knock over poles should only ever come after the rider has earned the horses complete trust, attention, and responsiveness. Never before.

On top of that, training a horse to not knock over poles, is the easiest thing in the world to do when you have the horse's full attention. All you have to do is add a bit of energy or speed after the jump. As a pattern, he'll learn that the rewards don't exist on the immediate other side of the jump. The rewards actually exist in the effort he outlays. In other words, you're not really training jumping. You're training attention and energy levels. When the horse gives you the energy you want, and the attention you want, you give him his favorite things. Which is rest, food, or bonding time.

In rare cases, if the horse blasts directly through the jump instead of jumping over jump, you have a different problem. That's a horse that has been horrifically over-faced. Time to go back to square one. Time to call me. I can get you through that one too. And guess what. It's all about training the horse to pay attention to what you want, instead of what he wants. Its about training him to lift and rewarding him amply, every time he lifts.

But let's say you have an especially clever horse. One that goes backward instead of going forward. Again, consider calling me. I can help. I can give you the keys to breakthrough. But here is the answer in a nutshell. Help him feel rewarded for responding in the right direction. Start small and don't be afraid to over-reward him at first. Get him to focus on what you want by acting like a kindergarten teacher who sets good boundaries but encourages positive focus. A horse that goes backward at the jump has either been over-faced or simply doesn't understand simple signals well enough to go forward when uncertain. In this special case, it's simply a matter of going back to basics and rebuilding your horse's trust, confidence, and respect.

Anyway, it won't take long before your horse begins to trust that the only rewards he gets in his riding career, come from paying full attention and responding to his trustworthy leader. That's you! (You have to be a trustworthy leader, in case you didn't already know. You have to be someone who builds confidence. Not someone who expects it.) Once your horse realizes that he can trust you and that he is rewarded for focusing on what you want instead of what he wants, anything becomes possible. You can show up at the local, regional, and national shows and take first place.

In summary, the key to success at the show is this. STOP riding mechanically, at home. START riding to train your horse's focus and attention. If he's distracted, that's natural, but it doesn't have to be standard. With proper attention based training, every horse will see the value in ignoring the shiny penny and instead respond to the rider's suggestions willingly.

If your not a jumper, and you operate in a different part of the horse industry, the same principles apply. Stop riding mechanically. START riding to develop the horses attention, energy, and alignment. When you have that, you have everything.

Anybody who's ever done a clinic with me in recent years has heard me say one particular phrase over and over and over. Here it is: "Always Eat Chocolate!" It's a simple, memorable acronym to illustrate what master trainers pay attention to when training horses. The "A" in always, stands for Alignment. The "E" in eat, stands for Energy. The "C" in chocolate, stands for Concentration or attention.

If you're fond of chocolate, you'll have no trouble remembering what's most important to develop in your horse relationship. It's not mechanical. It's masterful. The techniques you use to get from point A to point B in your horsemanship journey will vary. I have thousands of different techniques, I've learned. But techniques don't really matter compared to principles. Different horses need different things, but principally, the master always comes back to "Always Eat Chocolate." The best horse trainer programs are devoted to training attention, energy, and alignment, instead of mechanical robotic motion.

If you want more information about this, and other horse training topics, continue to read the other blog posts here: Thanks Don

Don Jessop - Blog Welcome

Hi! I'm Don Jessop

With Mastery Horsemanship

I write to inspire, educate and encourage you on your horse and personal journey.

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