Horse training is rarely a perfect upwards curve. I am coaching a client with two yearlings and I just got a panicked message from them saying they’d mucked things up. The yearlings are both rescues, one of them was very reluctant to be handled and until we began training sessions had been getting rather worked up about interactions. He didn’t like to be touched at all and they’d ended up using food to try and win him round. It had worked up to a point, but he was experiencing a fair old amount of conflict (stress) as he wobbled between wanting to get the food and worrying about the contact. This meant that at times he was quite reactive and could get frustrated. My initial advice was stop the feeding, work on finding out how close he could tolerate the human and then working on helping him relax with that. Over the last week or so that has built firstly to head scratches and more recently to scratching all over, as he has discovered just how wonderful nice, safe, predictable human contact could be.
Unfortunately, today, with the wind, something spooked him during the scratching session and he panicked, fell over his legs and now won’t come near the human at all. Disaster. Or is it?
In my book, it’s all okay. He didn’t get eaten. The human didn’t pursue him. He has actually learned something useful. When he panicked, the scratching ended. Okay, so for now he’s scared to approach the human. But it doesn’t mean he’ll never do so again.
It’s easy to feel disillusioned and think that all the good progress has been destroyed. But that really honestly is rarely the case. In fact, sometimes I think these setbacks can actually be a good thing.
How so? Well, the key is in what you do next. My advice to my client is this. You are a good trainer. You may not have masses of experience, but you think about what you do, you are observant and you recognise that you are responsible for things and can therefore change them. You learn from your mistakes! This is the foundation for becoming a really great trainer. No one ever got to be good at anything without making plenty of mistakes along the way. The key is in how you respond to the situation you find yourself in. You aren’t going to beat him up, because he made a mistake, are you? So don’t beat yourself up.
So how does this help our spooky yearling? In his book, he made a mistake too. He went near the human on a windy day and he got himself in a twist. But his learning, like ours, is always going to have backward steps, as well as forwards.
We need to show him that there are no bad consequences. That we listen carefully to how he is feeling, and respond appropriately. So I advised my client (once she’d stopped beating herself up!) to find out how close she could comfortably get to him, without him wanting to leave (even if that’s quite far away) and to just quietly stay there, then leave him be.
How does this help the yearling? Well, a big bit of trust is about knowing that you are listened to and your feelings are respected. When he realises that he won’t be pushed beyond what he is comfortably with, he starts to relax. This in turn means that he starts to allow the human closer, and closer, and closer. Until they are back to the stage of enjoying contact and gentle scratches again.
This seems a bit of a roundabout way of learning, how is it beneficial to step forwards and back like this, how is this progress? Well, the big progress, as I have experienced over the years working with traumatised horses of all degrees, is that they start to see that even though mistakes are made, the human remains calm, consistent, and most importantly of all, listens to them and gives them space when they need it. The very act of allowing that space tends, in my experience, to reduce the need for it. And making the mistakes, but then moving forwards, is the thing the horse needs to experience to realise that you can in fact be trusted. And of course, if the mistake is actually because you picked a bad day to train, or you weren’t in that particular moment paying close enough attention to how your horse was feeling, well, you learn not to make that mistake again!
The only time I find horses are really unforgiving is when people repeatedly make the same mistakes of pushing too far and failing to pay attention to the warning signs and body language that say that the horse is worried.
So for my client, and her yearling, I’m not worried. I know they’ll get there, and they’ll build a better relationship because of it.
Be kind to yourself. Never be afraid of mistakes. Be brave enough to acknowledge and own them when you make them. And always always know that you can ask for help. That is how we all learn and grow.
How do I know this? Because I’ve made a million mistakes in my career and I’m sure I’ll make a million more. But I also know that I’m always learning. I have amazing colleagues and friends that I can discuss things with. I’ve experienced most of the situations my clients get in at one point or other in my life! I’m a learner too, and glad to be that way.