Does Your Horse Wish You Would Drink More Tea?

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Typical of many riders trained in dressage I have an ingrained tendency to micromanage the horse through excessive use of the aids. Ironically, striving for that perfect gait, transition or movement can be the very thing that undermines it. I recently heard a story told that has given me an unusual, though charming, new mantra that helps to break up this counterproductive habit. And yes, it involves tea.

The quest for perfection amongst dressage riders can be both an admired attribute and a profound liability. Dressage is foremost a training system that insists on the correct biomechanical development of the horse. Improving symmetry and balance in both horse and rider are important and enviable goals to cultivate. This requires a dedication to hard work and repetition which judicially practiced should lead to the development of a happy, sound and athletic partner. However, when perfection is relentlessly pursued without understanding and empathy for how the horse learns the results can be decidedly different.

So how much is too much? It helps to understand how horses learn and process information. Unlike their human partners, horses do not have a prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain that analyses information, allows us to reason, and plan for the future. Horses do not possess the ability to partake in mind games and “play us for fools” as some people believe. According to Dr. Stephen Peters, a neuropsychologist and horseman, “the temptation to want to believe that horses process things in the same way as humans may make us feel better but it is inaccurate, leads to false assumptions, and is often at the expense of the horse’s welfare.” When the horse is in a relaxed state of mind and attentive to his partner, he can excel at discerning which of their responses to cues are being rewarded. As long as there is not excessive pressure or drilling, he can learn to respond to finer and finer cues over time. Excessive drilling and the stress it creates can lead to confusion, or even act as a type of negative reinforcement discouraging the very response we are trying to target. Excessive use of the aids can create dullness, or a “dead sided” horse known in science speak as habituation. The same process that allows him to become indifferent to the saddle on his back, can come into play with the use of unrelenting pressure and excessive cueing.

The good news is that there is a strategy that can interrupt the tendency to over drill while maximizing your training goal in a manner that your horse will appreciate. Many Natural Horsemanship style trainers employ a strategy that allows the horse to process the training through frequent rest breaks allowing the animal time to “dwell” on it. It turns out that this may have some scientific basis. Recently researches who allowed human subject to rest between learning tasks while undergoing Magnetic Resonance Imaging, found that the same areas of the brain were still being utilized during rest periods after the task was completed. When re-tested the subjects who were allowed the rest period seemed to incorporate the knowledge from the learned tasks better than those subjects who were not allowed a break. Despite the distinctly different ways horses and humans process information, preliminary findings from researcher, Fred Holcomb, indicate that the benefit of dwell time is not exclusive to humans. Mr. Holcomb directed a rider to ask the horses involved in the study to cross an obstacle (simultaneously stepping over a beam, passing under a tarp and passing through strips of tarp). In one group, the rider asked the horse to cross the obstacle for the entire allotted time (four minutes). In another group, the horses were given breaks after two minutes. This latter group was almost three times as successful in achieving the task. In other words, horses allowed to pause and rest were significantly more successful at learning to cross the obstacle. Ideally, when allowing your horse time to dwell, there should be no competing distractions or additional requests including the request to “walk on”, or otherwise “keep him moving”.

In order to break ingrained habits and really work toward changing our modus operandi in the training arena, we first need to understand exactly what we are doing, and how we are doing it. Next, we need an in depth understanding of why these methods are counterproductive to our goals. Last, and most importantly, we need a way to remember it all when we are in the saddle approaching that familiar yet precipitous Ledge of Overload! A memorable phrase can serve as a cue to redirect our own behavior.

In watching a recent documentary on holistic training and horse keeping practices I came across a gem of a story by Lester Buckley, an American horse trainer based in Kentucky. The documentary, “Listening to the Horse” was produced by Elaine Heney and featured over 70 of the world’s top horse people. Buckley’s “cup of tea” story, featured in the film, has given me a powerful reminder to take a break when I feel that inclination to overreach, overstate and generally overdo it while training.

Buckley recounted his tale to highlight two of the most important lessons he learned as a young trainer. First, to guard against the tendency to get intense and over drill. Secondly, the value of letting the horse take time to dwell upon his lesson. I am sure that I cannot recreate Buckley’s charm and understated humor in re-telling his story, but I can attempt to share the gist of it.

At the start of his career he was employed as an assistant to a revered trainer, and as such was responsible for starting all the colts. I can not recall if his boss was a cutting horse trainer or a reiner, but I do recall that he was expected to instill a particular type of “turning maneuver” into his charges. Amongst the many horses Buckley was responsible for training were two siblings by the same stallion. Both of them had problems learning to execute this turning maneuver.

One day he was in the arena schooling one of those colts. The training session was progressing seamlessly until he approached the tricky subject of the turning maneuver. At that point his demeanor began to change. Buckley explained that he was not one to aid with “a lot of spur or hand” but he became increasing intense with his focus and cues. He was soon interrupted by his boss who schooling a horse nearby. “Hey, Lester, why don’t you go up to the office and get yourself a cup of tea?”

Buckley’s reaction was a bit incredulous, thinking to himself, “What? Are you joking? I am in the middle of training a horse here! But he just replied, “No thanks, I am good.”

Again, the trainer suggested he have a cup of tea, and again, Buckley respectfully declined. The third time the trainer brought it up it did not sound like a suggestion. Buckley realized he was serious and asked him, “Are you telling me to go have a cup of tea?”

“Yes, sir.” You can tie up your horse and loosen his girth while you take your tea break.”

After taking a short break to make and drink a hot cup of tea, Buckley tightened his girth, led the colt back to the arena and resumed his schooling session. This time the very thing he had been trying to push through was “right there” and it was “awesome.” No stickiness, no bracing or hesitation. “Hmmm,” he thought to himself, “something just happened here.”

Coincidentally, the very next horse he chose to work with was the sibling of the previous colt. (This was in no way a conscience decision on his part.) Once again, Buckley rode through a smooth and productive schooling session until he introduced the turning maneuver. Same sticky hesitation on the colt’s part, same frustration and intensity on Buckley’s. As he could feel himself “go into trainer mode” he could hear his boss. “Hey, Lester, how about another cup of tea?”

“Really? Again?”, Buckley questioned.

“Yes sir.”, his boss replied. “Water is probably still warm. Just tie up your horse and loosen the girth while he waits on you.”

So, he drank his second cup of tea in under an hour while contemplating what it was, he was not quite getting. “There is a lesson in here somewhere.”, he thought as headed back to the arena, but was still was not sure what it was his boss was trying to teach him.

Back in the saddle the training resumed, but this time the colt worked through the whole session flawlessly including the challenging turns. The hiccups, bracing, and hesitation had vanished. The colt now “owned” the lesson. So did Lester Buckley. The lesson was no longer lost on him, in fact, it was an important lesson that has stuck with him for years, and one he often shares with aspiring young trainers.

Whenever I feel a bit of frustration creeping in, whether the cause is my own inability to access the aids I need, or perhaps my horse’s inability to understand them, “have a cup of tea” has become my new refrain. The next time you find yourself approaching that familiar gate of frustration perhaps you will hear your horse reminding you to a take some time for tea.

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