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Playing Catch Up

If you follow my blog or Facebook pages, it will come as no surprise to you how much I learn from and admire my horsemanship mentors. One of them is an Australian horseman, whom I’ve followed intensively these last two years. Warwick Schiller is known for his reining prowess and is probably just as famous for his ability to help riders of all ilks improve their communication with their horses, rehabilitate problem horses, and increase their performance levels, all by using techniques that fall under his principles of training.

I found Warwick (pronounced W-Ah-rrick) thanks to YouTube. I was scrambling for more information on how to start a colt. I knew I’d be buying a young horse soon, and needed guidance—fast! Warwick stood out from other video-posting types in that his videos didn’t pack lots of action, graphics, edited scenes, or loud music. What they did contain were real-time lessons imparted mostly verbally; yes, that means 45 minutes. Of Warwick. Talking. Non-stop. (I know, it doesn’t sound fascinating. And, yes, the videos could have been boring. But, they were just the opposite. Mesmerizing is a good word to describe them.) And, fast forwarding was never a temptation; you knew that, if you didn’t want to miss some critical piece of information or insight, you had to make sure not to miss a word.

I became an online subscriber to his video library and have watched every one of his hundreds of videos at least once. It was a huge time commitment and every second was well spent. His teachings gave me such clarity! One concept he taught made me re-think a lot about how I was training my horses, and even parenting my high school son. This concept was: “Getting your horse to catch up to your hands, seat, or focus.”

The premise of this concept is, when you ask your horse for something with a cue, are you releasing the cue pressure when the horse gets there, or do you continue to cue? Take the hands. If, at a stop, you want to help your horse learn to spin around like reiners do, you wouldn’t try to get the spin right from the start (impossible anyway!). You would try to get the horse to do a step by step spin with lots of pauses at each step. Eventually you would add all the steps together, take out the pauses, and, voila! you would have a spin!

So, to teach the spin, the first thing would be to get the horse to be able to understand the hand cue. So, if you take your inside hand (the one that will be inside your circle, so your left hand will be inside a circle that moves to the left) and open the rein into what will be your circle, you are asking the horse to bring its body straight and left to meet your hand. Sounds easy, right? It’s not.

What ends up happening is that the horse will try to come and meet your hand, by stepping left with his left foreleg, but you may, without realizing it, keep pulling it further out and to the left such that the horse can never reach it. He can’t catch up! This will confuse him, maybe even frustrate him to the point he stops trying, and you don’t want to do that!

It takes a lot of focus to bring your hand out, urge your horse to “meet it”, and then drop that cue as a reward once he has caught up to your hand. Releasing the pressure of the rein (which is pulling on the bit in his mouth) is like saying “You got it right! That’s what I wanted!”. If you can get your timing right, to release your cues (be they hand, seat, or legs) at the moment the horse is responding correctly (even better, at the moment the horse is THINKING of responding correctly), you will engender respect, trust, and relaxation in your horse. On the other hand, if you hold onto your cues or even amplify them after the correct response has been given, you will lose all three! Your relationship and performance will go downhill from there.

In parenting I see such a clear parallel. We want so much for our children! We want them to be healthy, happy, responsible, successful, fulfilled. What high goals! We want these things so much for them that we often overshoot our cues! When they’ve (finally) gotten up from the table and put away their plates in the dishwasher, instead of rewarding them for that, we might ask them to put their sister’s plates away, too. When they’ve finally done their laundry, we might ask them to fold their clothes right away and wipe down the washer while they’re at it. They come and show us a good grade on a project, and we talk about how they could increase their GPA by doing well in all their classes. The list goes on and on.

How many times are we so intent upon the big picture of the goals we have set for our children that we don’t reward the small steps they are making towards them? In percentage terms, I’d probably say I’ve done this 80% of the time. Thank goodness, our son has a forgiving nature.

The point, I hope, is clear. If we want to ask for something from our children or horses that will enhance their physical or mental wellbeing (and even promote a better relationship with us), we can ask for it. But when it’s given, we need to practice gratitude in a way that is felt and understood by the person or horse responding to our demands. Gratitude doesn’t ask for more. Gratitude says, “Wow! Good job!”

Waddaya say, fellow horsepeople and/or parents? Shall we release the pressure when our charges “catch up”?

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