Thursday, April 2, 2015

Training Milestone: Asking instead of Insisting

I've long admired the training techniques of Mark Rashid.  I've had the opportunity to participate and audit several of his clinics over the years and I've read most of his books.  I also have his video set, Finding the Try.  Despite my attempts to emulate his philosophy, though, I find that I generally fall short of both his patience and his astounding sense of timing.

I recently had the chance to revisit practicing both patience and timing on my last conditioning ride at Phelps Wildlife Management Area this past Sunday.  I originally intended to crank out a longer and faster ride, but Nimo's celebrity status cost me a bit in terms of time.  We were delayed even getting out on the trail because of chatting with a couple of endurance ladies who wanted to know more about him, and we got hung up on the trail when we ran into a couple of Friesian fans.  I had actually sort of forgotten how inconvenient it is to ride a Friesian because the trails have been pretty barren these past few months, but the advent of nicer weather has brought out more riders.  Please don't misunderstand me - I love talking to people about my horse and everyone I meet is always overwhelmingly nice and pleasant, but it does put a bit of a crimp in my plans to move out at a faster pace, and I do find myself a little frustrated about it sometimes.  Hopefully, someday I'll find a way to balance Nimo's celebrity with my conditioning goals.

Anyway, because of a lengthy chat before we even got started on our ride and because the idea of following someone on the trail didn't appeal to me, I ended up deviating from my initial plan to ride a set of trails that I knew well to achieve a certain mileage and pace, and ended up shooting off onto a side trail.  As luck would have it, the side trail took me to the power line easement that runs through the park.  Both this easement and the one for a gas pipeline offer a really nice set of steep, rolling hills that are great for adding a lot of intensity to Nimo's workout.  They are often too muddy to ride because at the bottom of each hill lies a boggy mess, but despite a lot of recent moisture, they didn't look too bad, so I decided to risk it.

A view of the hills along the powerlines
In addition to the muddiness, though, there is another reason that I don't ride the easement hills as often as I should for conditioning purposes.  Nimo is really awful about crossing the boggy sections at the bottom of each hill.  For the most part, these sections are quite small and easily stepped over and it makes no sense to me how a horse who happily crosses larger streams and rivers could be so reluctant to step over the tiniest of ditches with water in them.  Every time we end up by ourselves with small ditches to cross, we get into a huge argument about it.  And I hate it.  I don't want to fight with my horse.  I want him to cross the ditch because he feels comfortable and not because I've terrorized him into it or gave up and got off to lead him over it.

I'm not really sure what it is that bothers Nimo so much about these small ditches - it could be a depth perception issue, a concern about footing, or just a long history of having trouble with them that keeps us from communicating well when we get to them.  During our last ride at Phelps, we worked on them, and I did a lot better about remaining calm, but I lost it on the last ditch we had to cross because it was one Nimo had crossed many times before and it is just not that big of a deal (in my mind).  I got so frustrated when Nimo wouldn't cross that I used the whip way too much and he got so wound up that even after I got off and tried to lead him across, it took several minutes.

Anyway, I was bound and determined during this ride that I would not lose my cool and I mentally mapped out a path that would not take us over any ditches that were quite familiar to us and might possibly send me into the no-patience zone.  That meant, of course, that we might get lost in the 4,000 acres of unmarked trails, but I decided it was worth the risk.  I had my cell phone with me and the reception is generally pretty good in the park, plus I was mapping my ride, so I figured I could always just retrace my steps.

Of course, we encountered one of those objectionable ditches right away.  My goals were fairly simple.  I wanted to keep both of us from "escalating" into a state where we're not communicating well and I wanted to maintain forward motion.  To do that, I asked Nimo to keep moving forward until he indicated he was uncomfortable by tensing up and fidgeting.  Then I allowed him to stop, but he had to face the ditch.  After a few seconds, I asked him to move forward with either a cluck, a light tap of my legs, or a light tap of my whip.  As long as he moved even one foot slightly forward, I released the pressure to go forward.  If he backed up or whirled away, I just reset him facing the ditch again and started over.  I was very careful to modulate the pressure of my legs and the tapping of the whip so that the pressure was always light.  If he resisted moving forward, I would just lightly and quickly tap with the whip while clucking until he moved forward.

I have to admit that the first ditch we did was not pretty.  It took maybe 10 minutes to get across and Nimo definitely ducked and weaved and spun around.  But I kept at it without escalating my aids.  And we did get across.  The next 3 ditches went faster, but still required some time.  At the last ditch we got to, Nimo wanted to go one way, but I thought the other way was better.  The way Nimo wanted to go had several 3-4" logs lined up at the bottom of the ditch to provide support, but I thought it looked unstable and like a soft tissue injury waiting to happen.  So I asked Nimo to cross further down, where there was more mud.  We slowly worked up to the ditch and then one of Nimo's front feet sank deep into the mud and I knew that was the end of his confidence in crossing at that point.  So I let him head over to where he had originally wanted to cross and decided to let him attempt it.  And he carefully stepped through the mud and logs with hardly any encouragement from me and cheerfully trotted up the hill on the other side.

We did the rest of our ride without getting lost and with Nimo doing a pretty good job of consistently trotting (except for the incident involving a small log in the middle of the road - Nimo was terrified and it took a good 5 minutes to convince him that it was actually a log instead of a horse-eating troll).  He even volunteered to canter at one point and seemed like he was starting to get the idea of walking where he had to and trotting where he could.

Nice non-boggy roads run throughout the park
I feel pretty good about this ride even though I didn't make my initial goals on distance and pace (we did still get 11 miles in, so it wasn't a total loss in terms of distance).  I've been struggling with communicating better with Nimo for a very long time.  And I have made a lot of progress over the years, but this is the first ride we've done where I was able to keep it together for the whole ride and really focus on the timing of my aids and on looking for that "try" so I could provide instant feedback and encouragement.  I also believe that I still have a lot of room to improve, but I finally have some level of confidence in my ability to improve.

The idea of asking instead of insisting is one that has recently become quite a bit more important and relevant to me.  Those of you who have children probably know that one of the biggest challenges is what discipline (or lack thereof) strategy to use and if you are a new parent, you can be assured that many other parents will be happy to tell you how you are doing it wrong.  I have found that I just can't deal with major conflicts unless they are absolutely necessary.  A sort of "pick your battles" strategy, if you will.  And my daughter is unquestionably my progeny because the second she senses that I am immovable on an issue ("You must eat a piece of salmon before you can have a piece of bread"), the game is over.  She will not ever give in.  She once went on a 6-hour hunger strike when she was 6 months old because I insisted she use a different nipple on the bottle.  I eventually gave in because 6 month old babies have to eat.  I don't wish to incite any kind of parental conflict here because I really do believe that each child is different and must be handled according to their temperament and a parent's comfort level, but I do want to say that I have had to rethink how I interact with my child, and in so doing, I realized I had to rethink how I interact with my horse.  Because in many ways, they are the same.  Insisting that something must be a certain way is a useless exercise (unless it involves a safety issue like moving said child out of the way of oncoming traffic).

And before you condemn me for "giving in" or "spoiling" my child, I'll give you one more piece of information about my thought process.  There was recently a time when a person in a position of psuedo-authority over me told me that she "insisted" that I absolutely must do something.  My immediate reaction was that I wasn't going to do it, no matter what, even if it meant that I would go to jail (not a likely outcome, but a slight risk).  Now, I hadn't been inclined to do that particular action in the first place, but her "insistence" on it meant that I would never, ever do it, and I absolutely found a work-around so that I didn't have to.  Nobody likes being told what to do, especially in situations where they feel like they have a bit of knowledge about the subject, and I am known for being "contrary."  But this particular situation brought home to me an important point about my interactions with others, including my child and my horse.  Yes, there may be times when something really does have to be done a certain way, like wearing a helmet to ride or putting on a seat belt in a car or giving me a safe amount of distance while being led, but the vast majority of things are negotiable in some way.  I don't claim to be an expert on raising a child or training a horse, but I do know that if I can avoid insisting on something, my outcomes are likely to be more pleasant and they may even be what I wanted in the first place, but without all the drama to get there.  So, my goal in the future is to ask instead of insist and work on my ability to be patient and look for ways that I can encourage the behavior I want without becoming so invested in the outcome that I have to force the issue.


  1. I too took the approach of picking my battles. Sometimes I still get locked into that mind space of "there is only one way" with both my child and my horse, but I try really hard to remember what it feels like to be completely powerless as a child (even more so as a horse) and find a way to compromise. Compromise does not undermine my authority as a parent, but it does elicit buy-in on the part of my child. Compromise with my horse (letting him determine his own path as long as we are moving in the correct direction) reinforces his feelings of trust in me and makes him an active partner in our endeavors. Those are things he values when we ride.

    Great job working through conflict without escalation. I think it's a tough thing to work out.

    1. Exactly, Karen. It's so easy for me to think that my method or my timeframe is the right one, but I think it's worth it to try to see other perspectives.