Training Tip #5 with Felicia Britt
It is my hope that you are making progress with your training program, diligently keeping a journal, and adding tools to your toolbox. It is important to know that any measure of success hinges on one thing: BOUNDARIES. These are the lines and limits of expectation you set as herd leader. It is difficult to be viewed as believable, respected, and strong if everything you ask your horse to do is up for discussion; because as herd leader, you NEVER NEGOTIATE.
First, let me be clear. There is 'Consistency in Teaching' and then, there is 'Never Negotiating'. Although they often overlap, they are not the same thing. Never Negotiating is ALWAYS Consistent Teaching, but the reciprocal is not true. For example, let's say I am teaching my horse to halter and unhalter quietly. She wiggles, moves and bobs her head, so I repeat the process umteen times over a period of days until she learns what is expected. This is Consistency of Teaching. She is learning boundaries. Once these boundaries have been cemented in her training, my expectation rises and she should halter and unhalter willingly. So then, one day I begin to unbuckle her halter and she slings her head and turns away. The truth is, she knows better. So, is this up for discussion or non-negotiable? Non-negotiable. If I roll my eyes, mumble under my breath, and go hang up the halter, I have chosen the easier path but, in doing so, I have blurred the lines of accountability and made much more work for myself in the long run.
Setting boundaries takes time and a heck of a lot of patience. Make it a priority while the issue is still minor. In this case, I would halter her again, back her up 15 or 20 steps, make her stand,then begin to remove her halter. If she moves one centimeter, I would calmly repeat the backing but, add more steps or a side pass. We are passed the point of discussing halter manners in her training. I would increase her workload, while being only as serious as I need to be to help her with her decision. The moment she relents, I soften, remove her halter and spend 2 or 3 minutes scratching her head and ears as she wonders why in the world she wanted to get away from this so quickly. She was testing the boundaries and I was building her confidence in me by letting her know they were right where I left them. This is Never Negotiating.
In my experience, most 'negotiations' have to do with manners. Handlers that are just not sure about their own boundaries often struggle with enforcing any on their horse. Consequently, respect goes right out the window. Letting a horse lean or push on you crosses a physical boundary. Allowing him to turn his rear to you is crossing a psychological one. Communicating what IS and IS NOT acceptable, as well as, clearly enforcing it, will make you believable.
It takes an incredible amount of fortitude to never negotiate. It is sort of like telling your teenage daughter for two years that 11pm is her curfew. Then, one night, she calls at 10:30pm. Everyone is at Suzy's house watching a movie and they just ordered pizza. “Can I please stay until 11:30?” You love her, you want her to be happy, and so what can it hurt? Saying 'yes' is so easy. Then, in a moment of weakness, you relent. And then you pay for it for the NEXT TWO YEARS as every Friday night she reminds you of that 'one time' you let her stay out passed curfew! Was it worth it? The same is true of horses. You let him graze on the trail 'just this once' and you spend the next 50 trail rides playing snatch and grab with every blade of grass in sight! LESSON: either change the boundary permanently or don't, but NEVER NEGOTIATE.
Not all negotiating has to do with manners. As horses become more seasoned, some seem to take pleasure in seeing just how many times you will ask him to do something. These guys are usually very intelligent and fun to watch. Let's say I am riding in the arena and ask for a trot. My expectations of this mare are high but, she hesitates then speeds up in the walk. No room for a discussion here. We back 20 steps, then side pass 20 steps, then walk 3 steps and ask for the trot. I usually get it. I bring her back down to a walk. Then, very subtly, I ask for the trot, providing her with the opportunity to give me her best effort. After all of that backward and sideways work, going forward seemed like a great option.
It reminds me of the occasion when my son, who was eight years old at the time, melted his plastic army men in the sink because they were defeated in a re-enactment of the Battle at Gettysburg held in his bedroom. We were well passed the “My Darling Angel, what did Mommy tell you about matches and safety?” speech. He was provided the opportunity to dig a 2 ft Wide x 2 ft Long x 2 ft Deep hole in the backyard while he pondered the merits of his military campaign. Now, he is a grown man in grad school, but we still laugh about it to this day. When discipline equals work it makes an impression. That goes for horses and children.
Boundaries cultivate security in your horse, making it sensible for her to trust you. Never negotiating is NEVER a harsh, headstrong, or superior presence. It is a calm, matter-of-fact, this-is-the-way-it-is kind of confidence that actually FEEDS your horse's courage and makes her want to be around you. This is the hinge on which all of your training swings. Consistency of teaching and steadfast boundaries make you a believable leader that can communicate with your equine partner in a way that she understands, so both of you will have more confidence, courage, & self-control.
Take care and HAVE FUN!!