Looking Deeper

I thought I’d share a few last thoughts on not just Special Needs horses, but also the learning of horses in general, and the idea of using active discovery to learn how to teach them, and teach ourselves.

These people practice that concept, or have said it beautifully, so I’m sharing their words or pointing you to their thoughts.

There’s a very good article at Artistic Dressage (May 25, 2009) by Dr. Thomas Ritter, called The Root Principle.  (You may have to scroll down)

I read his article after writing about my experience of getting to know Sunshine, the horse I wrote about in Special Needs Horses.

In the article, Dr. Ritter speaks to the need to go below the surface of the  apparent ‘problem’ to find the root cause.  Very thoughtful article.  I highly recommend it.

The article reminded me of Sunshine, and how hard his trainer had to work to keep his training geared to his learning needs and ability, and how much attention to who he was this required.   When I think about it, it’s  miraculous he made it to 4th level.  The article also made me think of the mis-read horses who possibly have learning disabilities or low IQ’s.  Are they branded as disobedient, untrainable, or dangerous?

This may be the more common event, and why we don’t see many horses like Sunshine.

Sunshine was lucky to have also been blessed with an ultra-sweet temperament.  It made him easier to teach, less easy to brand as recalcitrant or difficult.  A cranky horse with a low IQ is most likely going to be read as being a ‘bad’ horse.

Dr. Ritter asks riders to momentarily set aside the presenting problem, and ask questions that will take you deeper into the issue.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with Shaun recently, after I heard her say to someone on the phone “I keep telling you, it’s all about the five Y’s.  You can’t stop at the first Y, you have to go deeper.”

The 5 Y’s?  Is this some retro reference to Y2K?

“Shaun, what are the five Y’s?”

“You have to ask Why (note to self: DUH, the five WHY’S, not the five Y’s) something is the way it is, and when you get the answer to that, ask why THAT is the way it is, until you get into something real, otherwise you get stuck putting out fires instead of proactively creating something.”

She explained this meant going five levels deep, minimum, with your “why is it this way?”.  That it might take a lot of “why-ing” to get closer to the root of the issue, and find out what the real conversation is that needs to take place.

What if Katherine had never asked why Sunshine didn’t respond immediately to her aids?  What if she hadn’t gone further, and asked herself why, if he didn’t appear to listen, he then went ahead and did what she asked much later?

Wendy (Wendy’s Horse Adventures) had some interesting thoughts on how horses learn: stacked learning and lateral learning, distinctions and differentiation.  This, her Fields of Chocolate post, Dr. Ritter’s article , and Shaun’s Five Why’s are all  chasing my thoughts, attempting to sort themselves into a connected order.

The common theme seems to be approach situations with discovery and patience before making and judgement calls that might affect you or your horse’s learning.

Comment box is open for ideas, input, discussion, experiences, dissent,  finer points, whatever!

Honestly?  I find it difficult to keep asking why without coming to a conclusion based on the immediate surface answer.  It is a lot of work to step back and ask: why am I getting this response, exactly?

7 thoughts on “Looking Deeper

    1. Why not, indeed? 😉 Slowing down makes a lot of sense – we don’t try to learn how to ride at the top level during our first lessons, and if we were always corrected for our elbows sticking out when the real problem was our insecure seat, it would be sloooooooooow learning. If ever. And frustrating.

  1. I love Artistic Dressage- had never been there before!!

    What a provocative post here – thanks for making me think about this again.

    When our pony got sour to the jumps awhile back (after a period of doing extraordinarily well) my daughter’s trainer started asking her to push him forward, which ended up being “smack him harder” – which resulted in my daughter feeling horrible, the pony bucking in anger, and me saying ENOUGH.

    It just wasn’t our style and it wasn’t working. We spent a full year letting the pony be. My daughter spent hours with him on the ground and mostly rode him bareback, but when she did tack him up, the only goal was to get forward and soft w/o anything but a gentle squeeze of the leg. There was no jumping.

    It took nearly the entire year to discover that he had sore hocks. It was subtle soreness and there was never swelling or lameness, but an astute acupuncurist/vet helped us sort it out and in addition to the acupuncture she had us wrap the hocks in warm wet cloths – mainly to let the pony know we finally understood where the problem was!

    Once we began to address the hocks, the soreness moved up into the hips, so we added warmth there. (and acupuncture, and a very focused warm-up routine that only went further if each “step” was met – i.e. walk until tracking up, if not, stop there; when tracking up, trot with no circles or sharp turns until tail was doing that lovely S-movement, if not stop there. Only canter if everything else went well, etc.)

    That year of discovery was the best thing that ever happened. The pony, who already had a bond with my daughter, became truly connected with her. It’s amazing to see how he responds to her. He’s not perfect and will still do his spunky pony stuff off and on, but she gets him back into focus quickly.

    One day during the acupuncture treatment, we had the needles in and the vet and I were sitting at our picnic table letting him have his bliss. He was at the end of a lead line, about 3 feet away. We were talking about the year-long journey of asking why and seeing that answer – and how nice it was to finally be seeing results. He lifted his head and walked the few steps to us, then put his head in my lap and licked my hands. He rested his head there and went back into his trance. The vet said it was the clearest “thank you” she’d ever seen.

    Our experience with the pony taught me a lot about looking for “why.” The only thing that made it truly happen is the fact the pony is too small for anyone to ride but my daughter. There was no hiring trainers to sort his issues out. I am so thankful for the natural horsemanship trainer who came out and helped us make a different plan for working with him and being with him. From her we learned that many of his misbehaviors stemmed from anxiety and that giving him soft but clear direction was the key. She always operated from soft and quiet – and taught us that if a horse isn’t listening, getting quieter instead of louder works better. (and allows us to listen better and look harder!)

    And then the vet who didn’t suggest nerve blocking or hock injections, but helped us show the pony through comfort that we knew where it hurt.

    She told me to never assume any misbehavior was due to training issues – but to assume it was either pain or fear of pain. I’ve generalized that to all the horses here. First I ask myself if my request was murky or unclear or unreasonable – and then I look to the horse to see what he/she is telling me.

    It’s interesting that over time you learn the shorthand. If Keil Bay stamps his hind leg when I groom him it means he needs the chiropractor. If he bobs his head at the mounting block, same thing. He only does these things when his pelvis or something in his neck is out.

    We’re still figuring Cody (the six-year old QH) out. He’s not nearly as clear as the rest of them, although in some ways he’s easier. But we have time! I now know rushing or assuming drags the murkiness out longer.

    I think I have strayed off on a tangent here!

    1. Not on a tangent in my book…it’s good to hear other people’s opinions and decisions regarding the handling/training of their horses. I loved reading the whole thing. I have a friend who has learned if her usually obedient horse throws her head up in protest at a certain request, her back is out. The only time she objects the the movement is when she’s out of alignment.

      I appreciate what you have to say about speaking softer when the horse doesn’t appear to be listening. It’s kind, it’s direct, it’s clear, and requires excellent rider listening and responding skills, which is win-win for all concerned.

      The idea of wrapping the pony’s hocks with warm cloths, to ease the ache and show him you get it is such good horsemanship. Tiny, who is prone to hoof abscesses, has learned we listen closely if he holds up one hoof. He’ll walk out sound a few steps, stop, look at me, and lift up the offending hoof. Sure enough, we’ll soak it and find the abscess before it becomes horrible. Once he knows we understand, he walks as normally as his hoof allows.

      Interspecies communication takes a lot of effort on both sides! Thanks for the detailed info, I’m sure others will find it useful as well!

  2. I think there may be many more horses like Sunshine – the ones that are backyard horses who were just perfect, well behaved, decent walk/trot/canter, nice ground manners – they don’t need to necessarily know more. What’s especially unique about Sunshine’s situation is that he was trained to 4th level.

    I think it’s amazing and admirable that his trainer continued with his training, continued believing in him, most of all saw the value Sunshine had to offer an upper level rider. My guess is that other trainers would have passed him along at a lower level to a different situation.

    As for the ones who also have a bad temperment due to continued misunderstandings, the sheer frustration of not knowing what’s expected puts a lot of pressure on the horses, pressure they wouldn’t know how to relieve. And that reminds me of the horse who learned the ‘give to pressure’ to the degree that it laid down when a saddle was put on him…where’s that from, I can’t remember…no ability to discriminate.

    I like the concept of the 5 whys…that’s a good exercise. For me, I should perhaps learn to limit the number of whys in order to avoid catatonia. 🙂

    1. This is a very good point, that many of these horses may lead decent lives as non-sport horses, and frankly leaves me feeling much better, whew. I hadn’t thought of that.

      I could see endless “whying” making one nuts. I’m thinking of the stage kids go through when they’re about 2, and everything is “Why?”

      Wow a horse that laid down when presented with a saddle sounds like someone overdid the lesson…scary!

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