Horse Training 101: Catch Them When They’re Good

What are you focused on as you ride?  Are you anticipating your horse’s next spook?  Are you feeling for the moment your horse comes above the bit to correct him?  Are you looking for resistance?  This seems to be the standard operating mode for riding.  We look for all of the little discrepancies between the movement that you want and what your horse is doing.  Makes sense if you want perfection but it requires living in a negative state and constantly reprimanding the horse.

In fact, this is often the way we operate in our lives.  How often do you focus on what your partner, child, or co-worker did or didn’t do in relation to what you think they should or shouldn’t do?  It’s like we have laser focus that will pick out every little flaw or action that goes against our beliefs about what should be happening.  For example, if you have the belief that it is your partner’s job to take out the trash and you come home to a full trash can it’s all you can focus on.  You may get irritated and make a sharp remark about the trash even if they went out of their way that day to do the dishes and clean the bathroom.

We set up expectations surrounding a belief about what should happen in reality.  We have no authority over anyone else’s actions so if our beliefs are based on what someone else should or shouldn’t do then we cause ourselves pain.  We become frustrated because they are causing us stress by not doing what we believe they should do.  This isn’t really fair and will weaken our relationships.  The first thing we have the ability to change is our attitude.  Can you change your belief system about what your horse or loved ones should or shouldn’t do?

When you spend your time trying to catch them doing something wrong it gives you a chance to assert yourself, prove your point, or correct the behavior.  However, looking for faults in others does nothing to encourage the behavior you want.  It also doesn’t leave you feeling good about the situation.  Often when we wield power and judgment over others it leaves us feeling remorseful for taking our frustration out on those we love.  Furthermore, the response that you are going to receive is either resistance or compliance with resentment.  They are not going to willingly fulfill your request and feel good about it.

So why not try to catch them when they’re good?  Can you start to focus intentionally on what your horses, or the people in your life, are doing well?  This is a very simple shift in perception that has the potential to make an enormous difference in your training and your relationships.  If you are focused on the good stuff it gives you a chance to reward them, encourage more of the behavior you want, celebrate success, and feel joyful.  Both parties walk away feeling good about the interaction.

If you ride with a lot of encouragement looking for all of the things that the horse is doing right it will inspire him to try new behaviors and work collaboratively with you.  When you no longer shut down their effort by making constant corrections, the horse will become an active participant who is trying to problem solve.  It is much more effective to encourage others to seek out pleasure instead of acting in a defensive way to avoid the discomfort associated with doing something wrong.

If you are looking for behaviors you like it gives you an opportunity to provide a timely and appropriate reward or encouragement to cultivate more.  If you use a “jackpot” reward on occasion it will reinforce the behavior even more.  For example, your normal reward for coming onto the bit may be to soften your hand slightly, give a little scratch on the withers, or tell him he’s a good boy.  This will encourage him to keep trying.  However, if you randomly give the horse a loose rein or allow him to rest when he comes on the bit he will try the behavior more often to see if this is the time he will hit the jackpot.  What he is looking for when he comes above the bit is a break so provide what he is seeking as a reward for the behavior you want.

Trying to catch them while they are good has an added bonus because what you think about grows.  You will get more of the things that you focus your attention on.  So if you are in a constant state of looking for negative attributes to fix them then you will get more of the thing you are trying to avoid.  Whereas if you focus on what you want and the positive emotions associated with that you will generate more of those thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and results.

This is compounded by the fact that your thoughts and feelings intertwine to show up in your body as signals the horse can read.  So if you are resisting his improper movement he will mirror you and resist your aids.  If you are celebrating and allowing his proper movement he will be more expressive and fluid.  This is not to say that you just ignore everything that your horse does that is wrong.  You definitely have to maintain boundaries and consequences around potentially dangerous behavior.

However, can you remain neutral in your response to training glitches?  For example, rather than anticipate your horse breaking from canter to trot so you can correct him, can you celebrate the canter as its happening?  This will encourage him to keep cantering.  If he breaks then just put your leg on, ask for him to canter again without making a big deal out of it, and then celebrate some more when he picks the canter back up.

Keep an eye out for other things not related to breaking the canter to reward, such as a balanced corner.  This will give you the opportunity to focus on something else and cultivate a positive experience.  In addition, you could also use a jackpot on occasion by asking for the downward transition as his reward for a couple good canter steps which will encourage him to try harder in the future.

Or with your partner, can you celebrate the fact that they did the dishes and cleaned the bathroom without harping on the trash?  Can you change your belief and take the trash out in honor of their effort to do other things in the house?  Can you think of a jackpot reward to use when they do remember to take out the trash that will encourage them to do it more in the future?

Trying to catch them when they’re good will strengthen all of your relationships.  It makes you feel good because you get to do nice things for those you love.  It makes them feel good because they are being recognized for their efforts.  It will slowly dissolve some of your conflict because you will see things in a more positive light.  It will also improve your training by encouraging the horse to be a willing participant who finds joy in their experience.

A Message from the Horses
Download this guided meditation to tune into horse energy.

Relax in the heart-energy of Equus and hear what they are calling you to do.

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