Comfort/Discomfort in training
Comfort, discomfort and the training of horses.
This is a topic that I have recently been thinking long and hard about, and have come up with a theory I would like others to comment on. It's probably not new but I have developed it using a combination of the teachings of Mark Rashid and Karen Rohlf.
Mark talks about horse's main task in life is to feel more comfortable. They don't care how they get to feel more comfortable, just that they do. For example if they are thirsty they go to water and get comfort. If they are scared they do whatever it takes, runaway, buck (right brain extrovert) or go inside themselves and pretend the threat does not exist (right brain introvert) to make themselves feel better. In this context it does not matter if they feel as well as it is possible for them to feel just that they feel a bit better than right now. When you think about this it is easy behaviour to recognise, and we probably have a similar response ourselves. The difference with humans is that we have the ability to project a long way forward in time, which horses don't. They live in the moment. Thus we can experience discomfort for a long period to get to real comfort in the future whereas horses just want to feel better now. As I write this I am sat in a cosy cottage in the mountains of Snowdownia. Ritchie and I have just come off the mountains in pouring rain. We did pass some shelter stones that would have got us out of the rain, but we could project forwards to the cottage and so ignored the small increase in comfort of the stones in favour of a warm dry cottage and glass of wine. I suspect that a horse's mentality would have lead them to just take shelter under the stones and feel a little more comfortable.
Karen Rohlf has this idea that we need to coach our horses through discomfort to find greater comfort elsewhere. In this example it would mean saying to the horse "let's ignore the shelter stone and continue to the barn an hour away where you can spend the whole night in comfort with some hay". As we pass the shelter stone the horse will experience increased emotional discomfort as they wonder why we are not taking such obvious and immediate shelter. Karen actually does not use this example, I doubt she mountain climbs in the rain ! She uses the example of trying to get your horse to go in a straight line. Many horses have learnt to walk crooked, and for them that is comfortable. They would be more comfortable in the long term, however, if they learnt to walk straight. In the short term this is not going to be comfortable as it is not familiar and the muscles have probably developed to walk crooked. Thus as trainers we need to coach them through this discomfort because we can project forward and know that in the long term we are taking them to a place of greater comfort. The same can be said about training the horse to be collected. We have the knowledge that,once learnt, the horse will find it more comfortable to carry the weight of a rider when collected with more of their weight on the hind quarters. The horse doesn't know this, and will only experience the fact that in the training phase what we are asking them to do is less comfortable then the way they are familiar with going. Thus given Marks idea that all a horse seeks is to be relatively more comfortable than now it is easy to see why they will resist such training.
To make use of this idea we need two things. First we need a very clear picture of what the finished, more comfortable, product should look like and second we need strength of purpose and resolve to follow through with the training with the clear idea that we are "doing this for and with the horse, not too the horse". In James Roberts eyes one of the great crimes was to ever do anything to the horse, it must be done with and for the horse. Thus if we do not have a pretty clear idea as to what the finished product is going to be we should not put the horse through the discomfort of taking them there.
I have an example from my own current training with Filly. She is my 4 year old thoroughbred mare and is called "Filly". The problem is the application of porcupine (which is Parelli speak for steady pressure) to any part of her body to ask her to move it away from the pressure. Thus if I want to move the hindquarters away I apply steady pressure, increasing in force, to her flank area. I know that this is not physically a problem for her as she likes much firmer scratches there than I ever use in porcupine. She will escape this pressure and move those hindquarters away but it is done with a really negative emotion, tail swishing, cow kicking the lot. It is the emotional pressure of being asked to move which is the issue, not the physical. So emotionally having the porcupine applied creates a lot of discomfort in her mind, and she reduces this discomfort by a) escaping the pressure with a big move and b) acting so as to discourage any attempts to porcupine her again. She thus falls back into the little comfort zone where there is no porcupine pressure being applied. However she still has the fear of porcupine and discomfort being applied again in the future. I have knowledge of the finished product from other horses however. In the finished product the horses yield gently from this pressure with no mental discomfort at all and are thus not continuously stressed by the fact that this discomfort may happen in the future. The cumulative stress on this "finished product" horse is much less than on Filly as they can accept the necessary requests to yield that humans make of them on a day to day basis without the emotional discomfort she endures . But the only way I can show Filly that a better place exists is to apply porcupine pressure to her until she accepts it as just another part of her life, nothing to be defensive or upset about, just something that happens from time to time. But during the application of the pressure she is going to react with discomfort for a while until it has happened for long enough that she starts to understand that it's ok to move without emotion. Of course should the pressure be removed at an inopportune moment then she is going to get back to her old comfortable place and the idea that acting against the pressure works is going to be reinforced. This is going to make the training task harder as the hill of discomfort is going to become bigger and bigger each time it is reinforced with a release.
Having studied engineering at university I find it pretty easy to think in terms of graphs and diagrams. Believe it or not a graph from differential calculus sprung to mind as a good, if not perfect, representation of this idea, and I add it at the bottom of this page for nerds like me.
I'd be interested to hear folks views on this idea, whether it is totally nuts or just needs modifying or expanding.
Let's see if I've got this right. You are suggesting that if we think something is a good idea, then we can make the horse uncomfortable until it performs the good idea, and we can repeat it until the horse learns a signal for this good idea, which we could call a "cue". Our justification for training a horse is that we are smarter than the horse and thus know what is best. Is that it?
BTW - I'm not sure this is a true statement: "We have the knowledge that,once learnt, the horse will find it more comfortable to carry the weight of a rider when collected with more of their weight on the hind quarters." Confronted with a heavier weight to carry, horses adjust by taking smaller steps and leaving their feet on the ground for longer periods of each step, just like humans do when carrying a heavy pack. True collection involves teaching and conditioning the horse to put more work into lifting the weight than in moving it forward, which may or may not be more comfortable to the horse. It is roughly the equivalent of teaching a human to hop or jog with a heavy pack on his back, which creates greater stress and thus less comfort than simply taking shorter & slower strides. However, I digress.
If my first summary is correct, then I'm not sure it needs differential calculus to demonstrate it. If it is incorrect, then I'm not understanding what you said, and I doubt differential calculus will clarify it for me.
In a lecture from Paul McGreevy he told us that collection was used in the days of the old war horses to help them balance better. Due to the heavy weight of armour on the horses front end and on the rider it was necessary to move the centre of gravity backwards and place more weight on the hind quarters than on the front legs. Also an arched, open back is more capable of carrying a heavy weight than a closed concave back which is why bridges arch up rather than down. So for a war horse carrying a heavy weight for a long time, whilst not initially natural, collection should be a more comfortable way of travelling. Thus, as with most other things in dressage, it originated from a war time role for horses. I agree that today it is less required except for a few noticeable exceptions of rider physique at my yard :wink:
As to the comfort/discomfort proposal I would relate the story of my own injury. I broke my hip badly in a fall last year, and took 6 months to recover. During my physio it was made very clear to me that I had to walk with a good gait, even when on crutches and not allowed to bear weight on the bad leg. It would have been much more comfortable to limp or hop along but I endured the discomfort in the knowledge that in the long term it would result in greater comfort of movement. I now walk without a limp and have just come back from a winter climbing holiday with my godson, so it worked.
Horses, however, just want to feel better now and don't care about the future. Thus if a horse moves badly, but it takes greater effort to make progress towards moving better with a view to easy times ahead they would rather remain as they are. It is up to us to have the knowledge, as my physio did, that temporary discomfort now will lead to greater comfort in the future.
This isn't only for physical issues, but mental issues as well. For example a horse that gets really stressed living in the human world by being asked by humans to move their body, like Filly, will remain stressed about it the rest of their lives, unless we can teach them that it is ok to move when a human asks. Then the mental stress will be lessened. What she knows at the moment is that if she reacts badly then 9 humans out of 10 will back off and she gets instant comfort. Wouldn't it actually be less stressful for her overall if she could just learn that being asked to move is fine and nothing to be defensive or worried about ? But to get there it will be necessary to invoke the stress she is reacting to and temporarily make her less comfortable. Depending on the hill of discomfort that has to be climbed this can either be a fairly mild process, or pretty extreme.
The most extreme example I saw was James Roberts taming a stallion. This was a very very difficult horse, dangerous in the extreme. I saw it pick a vet up by the leg after she had sedated it (sedation aggression it is called) for dental work to be carried out! The "conversation" James had with this horse took it to a place of extreme discomfort before he could convince it that being lead gently was a much nicer place to be than rearing, striking and fighting all the time. All this horse was doing is what it had learned to do in the past to get back to a comfortable place as fast as possible. It had no idea that there was actually a much more comfortable place of "being" until James took him there and showed him, but that was on the far side of the discomfort mountain. As James said afterwards "do you have the emotional control to go there with the horse and immediately relax back to neutral when required?".
He strongly suggested to the owner that it was gelded as soon as possible to prevent injury. To my knowledge they did not take this advice :cry: and now James is gone I don't think this horse will have a nice or particularly long live.
I don't offer this idea up as a mandate to go out and make horse lives uncomfortable for no purpose, that would be abusive. What I am suggesting is that with this knowledge and idea it has made me more emotionally able to cope with pushing Filly, a horse I waited 2 1/2 years to own and cried like a baby when she was temporarily taken from me, to places she would rather not go. It is hard for humans (me anyway) to put stress on a being they love, but this idea has allowed me to put stress on Filly knowing that in the long term she will actually feel better for it and have a better live. It is what allowed me to train her to actually go out in a field again and be with other horses. She had been stable bound for 8 months before I started helping her. It took six months to achieve and she would have much rather stayed in her stable, her only place of safety and comfort, during much of that time. But we got there and she loves her field time now.
When this is done there has to be a clear purpose to it and a real knowledge of what the final product should look like, without those it is just abuse, however mild.
The western trainer I took lessons from for 5 months said that sometimes you have to take a horse where they don't want to go so they will go where they need to go. Training a horse isn't all sweetness and light. Another phrase I've heard is "Don't pick a fight with your horse, and don't lose one". I'm writing as a non-pro, non-trainer type, but it applies to daily riding as well.
Most of the time, Mia is a very sweet horse. While riding her yesterday in 25-30 mph winds, she was very obedient up until near the end. Then something on the left - I don't know what - spooked her. She wanted to look right and watch for a while. I wanted her to look ahead at the trail and move on down the trail. I asked, she refused. I didn't want a fight, but she wouldn't do what was ultimately for her good without one. We did a left 270 to point her back down the trail. I had my legs forward to keep her straight. She decided that wasn't enough to keep her facing straight, and whipped her head left and started to turn. I dropped my left leg back and yanked on her mouth. There wasn't room for any sweeping turns, and if she worked herself up to a bolt, we both could have been badly hurt. We did 2 very tight turns to the left. When she hesitated at the end of those, I asked her to go back a step. She's good at backing. At that point, I became more important in her mind that whatever had startled her. She dropped her head a few inches, we started forward, and her head dropped again. She relaxed.
She wanted to relax all along, but her instinctive reaction wouldn't ever get her there. We've done enough bolts for me to know what would happen if I let her focus on her fear instead of me. I didn't want a fight. I like riding with slack in the reins and relaxed legs. I don't ever want to 'fight' with my horse, who has a lot more muscle than I do. But she was choosing the wrong emotional path, and that can be as dangerous as choosing the wrong physical path.
In the world of training, it was very minor...for most riders. It was work for me because I'm not a skilled, graceful rider. But I would be doing her no favors by letting her work herself up into a blind panic. Been there, done that, spent 2 hours on a scared horse and ended up jumping off a moving horse - not fun, not safe, and actually NOT what she wanted and craved. But 15 seconds of 'fighting', and she focused on me, calmed down, relaxed, and she was 'happy' for the remainder of the ride. That is 'going somewhere you don't want to go so that the horse won't want to go there either'.
We can leave the collection argument for another thread. I think most historians who look at it agree that the movements involving a lot of collection had nothing to do with combat. There is also a lot of misinformation about fighting in armor and weights and sizes of horses, etc. Wiki has a decent summary here:
Horses in the Middle Ages - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
But this thread should be about training a horse and what is or is not acceptable pressure and ways of using it...
If a horse brought all its power against the rider, then the rider would lose. But most horses are not that aggressive. Respect, for a horse, involves more than 'he's a good guy who takes care of me'. It also needs to include 'he's tough enough to protect me'.
Our gelding doesn't 'fight' with his rider. At all. My mare is a dominant, lead mare. Her instinct is to decide what is best for her herd. If I want to be in charge, I need to make it clear that MY will must prevail. If I don't, she can spin her emotions up until all she can think is "RUN!" - and that could kill us both. Being harsh with her can be the kindest way of riding her.
It is important to keep that harshness to a level the horse understands. If I tried to bully Mia, she'll fight to the end. She needs to understand that I'm fair even when we are 'fighting'. That attitude is critical. I'm her favorite person, and when she is hurt she wants me to take care of her - and that is also a critical part of respect and obedience.
That is a good example of what I mean bsms.
I have found that in the NH movement many people think it should always be gentle and soft. That is not the case. Pat named his stick the "carrot stick" to try and remind them that we should be somewhere between a stick person (you must do as I say now or I'll hit you) and a carrot person (please do what I say, I've given you a carrot).
It sounds as though you have a real good understanding of this, but I've seen many who don't. The idea of this thread was to try and reach out to those folks and say "It's ok to make your horse uncomfortable from time to time, so long as you have a clear goal and purpose as to why you are doing it". In your case it was for both of you to survive which, I guess, is a clear goal and purpose :-)
I know I suffered a bit from the carrot side of the equation when I started out, and as a result Filly would run rings around me. More importantly it meant I did not have the emotional strength to take her through her fears to a much better place on the other side. Fortunately I had a number of instructors and the support of my wife, who got me through this stage quickly and taught me that it was ok to "go there" when required. I remember that to start with I would come home devastated as to what I had had to do with Filly that day to make progress. The funny thing was that everytime this happened I would find that the next time we played the rapport had grown.
Principle number 5 of Parelli world is "the attitude of justice is effective" and that is an important part of what I am trying to say. It was noticeable with Filly that if I made a mistake and applied pressure without justification she would actually squeek in indignation, with justice and she just accepted it. That is partly why I love her so much, she has been my most important teacher.
Part of my reason for frequenting this forum and writing my blog is to try and pass on what I have learnt about myself and my emotions during my play with horses. And to try and help ease folks, just starting in natural horsemanship like myself, through some of the emotions I had to confront.
BTW - my mare was donated to a charity, who first sold her to someone else. They put her in a pasture with a couple of much larger geldings. 3-4 months later they returned her, at least 100 lbs lighter and with bite marks. The much larger geldings tried to make her submit, and failed. She won't be bullied, but she craves someone who will take responsibility for her. Of course, she was NOT in any way "a perfect horse for a beginner", so the road we've traveled has been pretty bumpy at times!
I am so pleased I kept a blog about Filly. It really helps the motivation to read some of the early posts and see how far we have come together particularly when we have the odd dark time now.
I like your musings, but will first off say that I find them very hard to read when they are in long, vitually unbroken blocks of text. If you could put in some visual breaks with your paragraphs it would help my old eyes track from one line to the next.
Regarding your Filly who moves her hind over but retains her resentment about it:
I wonder if you are staying too much in the same place with her. I mean, you are keeping the pressure too consistent, and the timing too slow or metered. This ends up being a kind of grayness where the horse, if inclined to be resentful about being moved by ahuman, has enough mental freedom to focus on those feelings.
Thus, if you were to up the amount of pressure and down the amount of time it is applied, it might be a "sharper" ask, and would break her out of that uncomfortable place where she keeps focussing on her resentment. It would , in effect, surprise her out of that emotional state.
Or, if she knows what you are asking, and yet you contintue to press on her with the same pressure level that you would a "newbie" at this, she may feel resentment. So, if she knows this, she should be able to move over without you touching her at all; with just a raised hand and an indication of your intent with your hand and body, letting HER complete the action on her own.
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