TRUE TRAINING 53 - "Don't Think About It" -- Yeah, Right.
Working with young horses means dealing with frequent shying. After two years of near-daily work under saddle, True is only now beginning to be more trustworthy in terms of shying, but he can still spin and bolt with the best! Babies simply haven’t experienced many human items. The umbrellas, baby strollers, bicycles, trash bags, dark barns, invisible smells, and sudden sounds of human life are still new. And to a prey animal, new is frightening. In addition, her brain is designed to escape instantly from hazards, not to contemplate them.
There are a lot of ways to teach a youngster to accommodate scary items:
- develop a deep bond of trust,
- expose the young horse gently and very gradually to objects approached from all angles,
- reward the horse’s calmness and investigation
- use multiple sensory systems so your baby gets to see, sniff, hear, and touch the new item,
- avoid overwhelming “desensitization” techniques that flood the equine brain, and
- calm your own mind when approaching new items.
I’ve written about some of these techniques in previous True Training posts, and I’ll explain others in the future. Today, I’d like to focus on the last one: calming your mind.
Horses sense human emotions very easily through body language. If you’re nervous, your horse knows it. She transfers that tension to her own mind—if her Human Leader is worried about something, maybe she should worry about it, too. Many trainers tell riders “Just don’t think about it” – “it” being the umbrella or balloon or whatever. Ha!
Fat chance of simply not thinking about a scary item. It is extremely difficult for the human brain to notice and identify a potentially frightful situation coming up… and then ignore it. Brain science offers better ways of calming your anticipation.
Instead of attempting not to think about an upcoming hazard by making your brain blank, use the natural function of your brain and think about something ELSE. For example, if you are trotting or cantering past a scary object and expect your young horse to shy, begin to count steps or strides. With young horses, count out loud. It will help you keep on task, and it will help your horse to hear the rhythmic nature of your voice. Both of you now have something else to think about, a kind of steady simple distraction.
Counting strides is pretty easy. Sometimes an easy task is not enough to divert our brains from an upcoming concern. In these situations, set your brain to a higher standard: Count backwards from 100 in twos or threes: “100, 98, 96, 94…” or “100, 97, 94, 91…” Now you are speaking aloud and subtracting numbers at the same time. The combination uses enough attentional capacity that you have little left over to worry about that barking dog up ahead, but it still allows for steady verbalization whose rhythm will calm the horse.
The Chinese have a saying about success with farm crops: “Pray to your gods, but don’t stop hoeing.” I’m not suggesting here that you pretend an upcoming hazard does not exist. I’m saying calm your mental attitude toward it. But at the same time, push more weight down into your heels, sit more vertically, and deepen the position of your seat. This way, if your youngster does shy, you’ll be prepared to stick to the tack. “Use your brain science, but don’t stop riding.”