Process and Purpose

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In working with a horse, it is important that one focuses on and understands the connection between the physical process of training the animal and the ultimate goal or purpose for which the horse is being trained. The physical process of training a horse is made up of countless small interactions between horse and rider, and it is important that all of these interactions are carefully considered by the rider. If one interacts carelessly with a horse or does not ensure that each interaction supports the ultimate training goal, the horse is likely to become dull or resistant in his response.

Often times, there are multiple interconnected purposes behind any given process of training. For example, if the training process consists of encouraging a horse to engage physically and mentally, the immediate purpose might be to facilitate a compassionate and clear understanding between the horse and the rider. This purpose may, however, lead to a secondary purpose, such as allowing a horse to think independently, seeking and finding answers for himself.

This example is reflected in the process of starting colts and the purpose behind it. First, in the round pen you indirectly connect the horse’s feet and mind to yourself by correctly positioning yourself in relation to the horse. This process builds the connection necessary for a smooth transition to a direct form of connection, such as halter work. The same concept can then be applied to the transition from halter work to saddle work, in that direct connection between horse and rider via the halter will pave the way for a successful connection between horse and rider under saddle. Ultimately, this direct connection will mean that the human is able to communicate clearly with the horse and support the desired training outcome of fluid, controlled movement of the feet.

Just as correct halter work and saddle work build on the movements of indirect communication established in the round pen, each interaction builds on and refines the foundations of the horse’s training. Complete refinement can only be achieved if there is an even trajectory from indirect connection to direct connection in the horse’s training and each element is in harmony with all the others. Each process must reflect the ultimate purpose and build upon previous processes, never deserting any piece of the training along the way.

With consistent quality work, this process of building connection creates a horse that is the same in all areas of horsemanship, no matter what the given circumstances may be. With a cultivated awareness of purpose behind each element of the horsemanship process, you can reap unimaginable benefits for both yourself and your horse. Beware, though – it takes great desire, effort, and self-reflection to reap the benefits, and all of this has very little to do with the horse. It’s all to do with you!

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What Can We Do For The Horse?

img_0244At the end of the day, we do little for the horse.  Think about it –  the only things we can give the horse are peace of mind in places it naturally finds unnerving, a meaningful and enjoyable job to do, and a sense of superiority over other animals.

Horses, as prey animals whose instinct is to flee, are inclined to stay away from anything dangerous to their well-being. As riders, one of the things we can give horses is a sense of peace in ‘dangerous’ circumstances.  When a horse is encouraged by the rider to be calm and connected in surroundings that seem threatening, a rapport of trust between horse and rider is formed.  This rapport gives the horse a feeling of safety and comfort with the result that it learns to let down its instinctual guard and relax completely.

Horses can also benefit from the work that we, as riders, demand of our mounts. A meaningful and enjoyable job can give a horse a sense of focus and purpose that, once understood, can provide a great deal of enjoyment. A horse that enjoys his job can’t wait to be caught up and go to work.

Finally, by working with horses, we can teach them to be dominant over other animals. As herd animals, horses are constantly trying to establish themselves within the social hierarchy, moving up or down in accordance with their level of aggression or dominance. Horses in the wild often establish their dominance by forcing their herdmates to move away from them in deference to their presence. A newly alpha horse might need to bite or kick another horse to force it to withdraw, but eventually it will take only a look to send another horse away. When we train a horse to herd cattle or other horses, we are reinforcing this dominant behavior and instilling a valuable sense of confidence in the horse. If the horse grows to associate your training with its dominance over other species, it will come to associate you with the endorphin rush of dominant behavior.

In these three ways, we encourage the horse to grow and improve while simultaneously submitting themselves willingly to the training and leadership of their rider. This creates a harmonious partnership between horse and rider that is inspiring, and both parties will seek to strengthen the bond.

Teaching Vs. Mentoring

img_0238I believe that any perceptive teacher can see what his students really need emotionally in order to succeed far beyond mastery of the basic lessons he imparts daily. When a teacher is able to relate to a student on a deep level, teaching turns into mentoring.

To me, a teacher is a person whose priority is to educate their students on specific content. In contrast, a mentor is a person who not only lectures on specific subjects, but also has an underlying leadership philosophy that positively influences others as they move through life. He will inspire them to pursue their dreams and fulfill their true potential beyond the basics.

In order to become a mentor, first you need to become aware of the role you have in the eyes of your students and become intentional in the way you are interacting with them. If you are successful, you will find that the students are mentoring you just as much as you are mentoring them. Thus, if you are going about it correctly by working with them as individuals, the benefits will be priceless.

Change, Growth, and Mistakes.

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Change, growth, and mistakes shouldn’t be viewed negatively as inconsistencies in a person’s character, but quite the opposite.  They should be viewed as admirable traits found in those who continually reinvent themselves along their journey, as all life learners do!

I am always reinventing myself, causing everything I do to change with time.  A technique I was teaching one year may change, be dropped altogether, or maybe just be refined a bit.  A philosophy that I tried to explain one year may sound completely different when I explain it the following year.  I will have new examples and new stories that hopefully help transfer the information to people in a more digestible way, continually trying to convey my core message in a simplified manner.  My growth is based on knowledge gained through a variety of new experiences that are both positive and negative, and these experiences compel me to change.

I am far from perfect, and this means I am going to continue to be flawed, make mistakes, and change the way I view the world. As a teacher, I hope I can help others use these moments of potential vulnerability to their advantage and encourage them to continue on their journeys of growth. We must all continue to change due to the accumulation of wisdom, and we should help others to accept change willingly and to learn from mistakes in order to grow to their fullest potential.

Life Learner

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A life learner is someone who focuses not on the end game, but rather on the process of continually refining their idea of the bigger picture. This continual refinement of the bigger picture is intimately connected with the continual refinement of one’s own skills.

In order for wisdom to be accumulated, it is vital that a person improve a little bit every day so that, over time, there is a steady pattern of growth. Over the course of this process of incremental growth, the bigger picture also has to change incrementally and be refined in keeping with the insights one has gained along the way. Personal growth leads to personal change, and consequently the lens through which one views reality must be refined to suit this change. As a result, the life learner is always refining his focus area and changing their views on the world as they understand it.  Life learners therefore gain a deeper understanding of reality than those who are shortsighted, and this gives them considerable insight into many fields.   

Preparation Through Groundwork

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Preparation is the key to success with horses, and it all starts with groundwork.  If you’re not properly prepared to handle the spontaneity of unexpected events, the answer can almost always be found on the ground.  Instead of working with your horse from a place of fear, try a little confidence and trust.  Start by preparing your horse for the real world, not the finite world of perfectly controlled atmospheres.  This means that yes, there will have to be a little hard work and consistent practice until you start to resolve the issues at hand.  The key is working from a perspective that horses can understand, not from a mindset of perfection or complete unawareness.

If a proper foundation of groundwork has been established, in moments of need your horse will not only take care of itself, but you as well.  They’ll start to look to you for support and guidance, instead of seeing you as a mechanism of torture and meaningless work.  If you are able to connect with the horse from its feet to its mind and vice versa, soon what might have been terror or boredom turns into a curious confidence.  If you give meaning to what you are doing, it gives the horse a sense of relaxation through purpose. The horse starts to look to you for the next objective instead of always trying to find something else to occupy its mind or interrupt the training.

What people don’t realize is how connected groundwork and saddlework actually are.  Groundwork provides the tools necessary to support a confused, scared, or threatened horse in a safe environment.  If the groundwork is properly done, it gives you everything you will need in the saddle to refine basic movements, bypassing any emotional and physical discomfort on the part of the horse.

Always remember that your horse would rather be out in a huge pasture with many other horses, so give the horse a reason to want to go to work with you.  If the horse is in a stall and only occasionally turned out in a small pasture, you may be the only thing that gives it purpose and peace. Alternatively, you could be the other side of the spectrum to the horse too. You could be the worst part of its day.  Which person do you want to be to your horse?  One who gives it purpose, meaning, and peace, or one whom the horse looks at as a hostile interrogator about to demand another session of “give me what I want or else”.

Prepare your horse instead of controlling it.  Give it a chance to search, explore, and even make mistakes without punishment, only support and guidance.  Allow it to find the correct answers through searching and thinking on its own terms.

The Benefits of Teaching!

dsc_0197The best part of teaching is continually having to find ways to present material so that the students discover the correct answer on their own.  The toughest part of teaching is having the patience to allow students time to search for the answer.  This process can be quite funny in that it reveals who the “student” really is…  the teacher!

With the horse, I’m always trying to set up situations that encourage the horse to discover the answer for itself.  All I have to do is keep searching for the best ways to set up those situations and hope that the horse achieves even a little piece of the desired outcome.  The bigger picture is creating a horse who is a willing partner and who can think for itself.

By discouraging the horse from making wrong actions, I leave a huge open door for the correct choices to be explored.  When the horse begins to search and think about what I may be asking of it, everything becomes really soft and quiet.  The horse becomes more balanced and connected, and this relaxes both its physical and mental states.  The horse builds more confidence, and it learns to trust me during the tougher, unforeseen challenges ahead.  This creates a very intuitively engaged horse who becomes excited for new challenges and really enjoys the mutually beneficial relationship.    

One of the toughest aspects of any teaching experience is finding the sweet spot of engagement.  If you ask too much or never engage a horse in a meaningful way, they begin to shut down, glaze over, and tune out.  If you do not ask enough of other horses, they respond by finding other things to stimulate their minds or by using everything a rider does against them.  

As a teacher, I struggle to teach my students about my own personal breakthroughs. That is the fun of teaching, though. When you see your students’ faces look as though you were from another planet, you know that more thought needs to put into the next attempt at teaching them.  It is like running a little experiment over and over, refining it each time till more and more people start to grasp the idea sooner with actual positive results. That’s where the horse and the students are actually my greatest asset in refining myself continuously.  As a teacher, I am humbled by and grateful to everyone who allows me to continue to teach them. Without you, my own refinement is not possible!