I've been thinking about Bella. As I mentioned yesterday, her feet have gotten a bit sticky. Although I appreciate her level-headed, low-reactive nature, it comes with the flip side of (gasp!) laziness.
Laziness? I'm not sure that's the right word, but I'll leave it for now.
Anyway, another word with which I'm not quite comfortable -- despite having used it it capital letters in yesterday's blog -- is RESPECT. I got a good reminder last night when a friend commented on a social media post I'd shared months ago.
That post, written by Kathleen Beckham of Ethos Equine, questions whether horses are even capable of experiencing the complex, contemptuous emotion that we humans label "disrespect." She observes that horses act either out of instinct or training, including inadvertent training, and that feeling we get of the horse being disrespectful is actually a reflection of how we feel, not how the horse feels.
Some people have very negative feelings about the word "respect" as it pertains to horses. Personally, I'm not allergic to the idea. I think the problem is not so much in the word itself as in how it can influence our attitudes and behaviors.
What if, instead, we addressed (vs. attacked) the behavior (vs. problem) with a confident (vs. aggressive), teaching (vs. whip-into-shape) mindset?
In her post, Beckham writes, "I choose to replace the word 'disrespectful' with the word 'disregard' if I have to use a word for it. Many, many, many horses have found humans to be inconsistent, confusing, emotionally incongruent and unhelpful in critical ways, so they develop a 'disregard' for the human. In other words, the human is so difficult to make sense of that the horse simply dismisses them. If pushed, this horse will cycle through flight (try to get away), fight (kicking, biting, striking, pushing) and freeze (locking up)."
As trainer in my area, Dana Lovell, says, "Your horse isn't giving you a hard time; he's having a hard time."
Beckham advises labeling the horse in terms of "comfortable" or "uncomfortable," rather than assigning more complex emotions that are more likely to be our own. Framed that way, I can describe Bella as uncomfortable moving out with more energy. The word "resistant" comes to mind as well. When pushed, she tends to stall out or protest rather than speed up. This is most evident at the canter, but also true in other gaits.
Whatever you want to call it, the next question is what to do about it.
I don't want to swerve into the camp that views horses through a hyper-empathic lens and never actually makes progress because they're afraid to trod upon the horse's sovereignty as a living being. That lens, like the "disrespect" one, skews anthropomorphic.
In her podcast episode #47 on Locking and Unlocking Traits in Your Horse, Stacy Westfall says, "I think a lot of times people are afraid of intimidating the horse or patterning the horse, and...they don't allow that horse to learn that respectful foundation of following simple directions without complaining."
So there's a balance, right?
In Bella's case, I believe swift departures and energetic gaits instead of sluggishness and crowhops is a fair, simple expectation. Fine. My job is to help her to be comfortable giving that swift, energetic answer to my cues.
Taking further leaves out of books from both Clinton Anderson and Stacy Westfall, I went into today's lesson with an intention to reestablish the expectation of "move your feet now." I made sure that I raised my own physical energy and made the work both more intense and more brief than usual. It went like this:
1. Warm up (unsaddled, with halter) with the Lead Beside exercise. I chose this because it suits the theme of keeping up with my requested pace while being familiar and appropriate for a walking warmup.
2. Lunging for Respect Stage 1 (unsaddled, with halter) in the round corral. I focused on transitions rather than changes of direction, particularly from trot to canter to faster canter back to trot. In the interest of keeping her physically fresh -- especially given the hot weather -- and mentally relaxed, I gave her frequent breaks while doing a bit of desensitizing, head-lowering, etc.
3. Lunging for Respect Stage 1 (saddled and bridled) in the arena. I followed the same trot-canter-fast canter-trot pattern as before, again with several rests.
4. Ridden Transitions. I hopped on and followed exactly the same pattern from the saddle, for a total of maybe 10 minutes. Maybe even less. This was all about moving the established expectation from groundwork into ridden work, letting her succeed, then quitting while she was in a good place.
Overall, it went well! Bella still had a touch of resistance under saddle, but much less than before. I think she even had a little fun with the fast canter part, which isn't something I'd encouraged until now.
Here's what's interesting: I don't think the mechanics of the training session -- that is, what we actually did -- would have changed depending on the word I used to describe Bella's behavior (disrespect, discomfort, disregard, resistance, whatever). However, I do think the attitude with which I approached the session benefitted from giving the words some thought. I arrived as a teacher, not a dictator. Bella surely knows the difference.
We'll keep at it over the weekend and see how things go. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on RESPECT...or any other name?
Thanks for dropping by! I'm an endurance rider in the northwest region of the United States. This blog explores the mental, physical, and technical aspects of being a better horseman, athlete, and human.
The Sweaty Equestrian