Horses are pattern animals, just like us!
You know how you have a morning routine, you get up at the same time, make your coffee exactly the same way, mine is with boiled golden milk. We leave the house at the same time each day and go to yoga on Thursday mornings. Some things, may or may not happen on schedule, like the spinning classes at the gym, they happen three times each week and I like to catch one, I know I’ll get there but not sure when. They are on the radar.
Consistency can be calming and create predictability. Predictability gives me a sense of control, confidence and well being. Even inside of things I know, like the yoga class, if I know the teacher, I feel more able to try harder, than if I have a new or unfamiliar teacher who teaches differently, I may get a bit lost, my senses are heightened, I’m looking around gathering information and listening more closely for the instructions.
Horses, have their routines. Many horses go out and then come in at the exact same time every day. They eat at exactly 8 am and 4 pm. When this happens, the horses are waiting at the gate to come in around 3:15, they come in orderly and are happy to go right where they belong. Some people even, just open the gate and all the horses run into the barn into each of their stalls, right where they belong. They are confident, know where to go, they know what is happening next. They even feel more able to try a bit harder, maybe trot or canter in. The horses can teach a new person just how feed time goes, pretty quickly!
Sometimes, when this schedule changes, horses will get upset, pacing the fence line, calling, kicking others. If they are inside they kick and paw at their stall or feed bins. Clearly, they know what should happen and when! Even if they live outside 24/7, they have their routines. They know what time their people show up to feed them and they are usually waiting at the gate, sometimes even pacing or showing other signs of heightened awareness like carrying their heads high and looking more quickly and intently
If any of the things in my routine don’t happen, things are just not right, sure I can adjust but too many interruptions in my daily habits can cause unsettledness, maybe some confusion and a longing for some normalcy. My golden milk for example, I like it and crave it, if I have to settle for a coffee out and put whatever cream is available in it, I might be ok for a day, but by the second day, I’m working on fixing this problem or getting anxious about my inability to get it fixed.
We can liken horses being sold or moving away from their herd to the current news of human refugees, trying to regain some comfort, safety and normalcy in their lives. It takes time to get acclimated to a new routine even after it is found. Sometimes, it takes years and years to find consistency and all of the confidence that comes along with knowing what comes next. Some horses with a dominant nature will become more dominant, perhaps fighting for food and causing problems for themselves in their new surroundings, and some with a more passive nature will become more passive, perhaps isolating themselves and loosing weight, perhaps causing problems for themselves in their new surroundings.
Studies show and of course parents know, kids thrive on consistency, nap time at 1, bath time at 7, bedtime at 8. Everyone knows what happens if that nap time is skipped or even delayed! Kids teach everyone around them what works and when, pretty quickly, just like the horses. Even with the variety of special occasions or vacation, parents know to be consistent inside of the variety. And the confidence built from consistency is not just inside of one week but a habit practiced over time to help create resilience wherever we are.
Here’s the tip!
Consistency is a great teacher and helps foster resilience, confidence and even a boldness to try harder. It can also create complacency, boredom and even demanding behavior because consistency is so predictable. All this happens over time. It’s the pattern that creates the stuff we want and the stuff we don’t want.
Variety can create a heightened awareness, greater attention to detail, incentive to pay keen attention to nuance and an ability to act on that nuance. Too much variety can create confusion and emotional response.
The key is to create consistency inside of variety. The Natural Horsemanship Guru Parelli, said, Consistency is a darn good teacher but variety is the spice of life. Too much consistency is downright boring, too much variety is downright confusing.
Again, in all things, balance is the key. Helping your horse know he will eat and will be satisfied, safe, cared for, stimulated, challenged and appreciated creates a balanced happy horse! So in the words of that NH guru, Be Consistently Inconsistent!
Here is a super simple way to implement this consistent variety in one training session and over time. You may want to adopt this philosophy over longer periods of your life with your horses.
Here’s how to do it!
We’ll use release, praise and treats, 3 different kinds; thumbnail size carrot pieces; cookie and peppermint, to create a variety of rewards in a consistent way to encourage calm and an incentive to search for the answer and try harder.
The scenario: Trailer loading. The horse loads every time but, it takes longer than we want, we walk up to the trailer to load and the horse does not jump right in.
We begin away from the trailer clearly asking the horse to move forward next to us. When he does, we release the request, relax and say thank you in words and body language. Next we ask clearly again, this time we would like him to come forward with more energy, perhaps event he trot. If he does, we praise bigger, releasing the request, making much of our horse and even adding a piece of carrot! If he only improves slightly in his quick response, we release, add praise and acknowledgement and perhaps reserve the carrot for more try.
Ask again, this time we will increase the incentive by asking quicker and a bit clearer, more telling than asking, for the quicker forward, when he comes quicker, even at the trot, we lavish him with release, praise, a high tone in our voice and even the carrot.
Now that he is getting the idea that we want a snappy, come forward, we can go to the trailer and repeat the exercise. Stay next to him outside and ask him to move forward in the same snappy way. If he offers any forward, release and make much of your horse! Ask again, this time expect quicker, just like you did away from the trailer. When you get a quicker response, release, get your cookie out and reward, big! Use the high tone of praise and get the cookie as soon as possible, you want him to think, BINGO! I got it! If he jumped all the way in the trailer, break out the mints or whatever your horse loves, it can be grain or alfalfa!
Can you see we are building excitement, pressure and reward and taking the rules away. We are looking for places to make him right and assume his good will and want, to try harder! He will get praise if he tries, he will get a piece of carrot if he tries harder, he’ll get a cookie if he gets in the trailer and a mint if he jumps in! Then he’ll get grain and special hay in there, all the best things. This is a hierarchy of treats, adjust according to your horses likes.
This consistency will happen over time in a session and over time in consecutive sessions. The variety will be in the timing and the rewards. By the third session of training your horse to jump right in the trailer, while you are practicing away from the trailer first, he will need to be putting in a lot of effort into coming forward quickly, from the first time you ask to receive the release reward, otherwise, you simply ask again, quicker with a more telling style. This quick response will become a habit away from the trailer, so when you get to the trailer, he will know, there is a reward waiting for me when I put in the effort! And when he jumps right in the trailer consistently, he will begin to demand his mint. This will become your new problem to solve! No kidding, you will need to get out of the way because your horse will want to jump into the trailer. You’ll have to teach them to wait for you to ask.
To solve this new problem (only when it becomes a problem, and it will! ) have him wait in the trailer, while you get the special hay ready or the special grain ready, or unwrap the mints, then give it to him. Make sure he knows you are working on it and he should just wait, it’s coming. The consistency is that it is coming, he can count on that; the variety is that it is not already waiting inside when he gets there. Create the consistency first and then add the variety.
Soon enough your horse will jump in the trailer and wait patiently.