When I adopted Aesop, I was looking for a horse who could be a good teacher. He appeared open, calm and, just as important, he had rather flat movement. I didn’t want a horse who was terribly athletic if I was considering teaching more novice riders on his back. He was safe, kind and limited in his scope. Dragon, my big, flashy Friesian cross, embodied athleticism, sparkle and presence in my mind. Without knowing it, I had assigned Aesop to an “understudy’ position.
Late this fall, Dragon injured his sacroiliac joint in the pasture. It’s a deep injury, and a re-injury from an incident that happened to him when he was only three. Suddenly, I was faced with a year long rehabilitation program and Aesop being my principal riding horse. But I didn’t want to ride an understudy. I wanted to ride a star.
Unintentionally, I had set Aesop up for less than spectacular performance because I had different expectations of him than Dragon. Once those expectations became conscious, they were easy to alter. Every day when I got him out of the pasture, I would say, “This might be the most talented horse I will ever work with in my life.” It set the stage and it gave my subconscious a goal: to look for excellence. It’s a fun thing to say, too. There’s some good research on how powerfully expectations influence our learners. It is commonly known as the “Pygmalion effect”, or, the greater the expectation placed upon a learner, the better they tend to perform. I had always assumed Dragon would be nothing less than larger than life, but I didn’t know that that expectation sucked space to grow from all my other horses. Robert Rosenthal, a professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, says,“Expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When teachers have been led to expect better intellectual performance from their students, they tend to get it. When coaches are led to expect better athletic performance from their athletes, they tend to get it. When behavioral researchers are led to expect a certain response from their research subjects, they tend to get it.” My high school art teacher told me once that I should treat every new drawing I start with the care I would afford a masterpiece. It was good advice then, and it’s the expectation I take to Aesop now. This horse might be the most talented, brilliant horse I ever teach. I approach him like a masterpiece. Not a lesson horse, but a schoolmaster-to-be.
This is Aesop when he first started to trot in hand, about two years ago:
To say he was an energy conserver would be an understatement. I still remember trying to get him to move from a walk to a trot in hand. I would open my hips, lengthen my own stride, march, dance. Nope, nothing. But why would you want to add energy? I work in a positive paradigm, so I don’t use whips or any traditional sort of ways to goose or startle my horse forward. Finally, I figured out that if we walked toward the green grass I could get two or three flat but willing trot strides. I would click and reinforce by allowing a short graze time. Any time at all he decided to trot, I clicked and reinforced him. His self-containment was safe and made for easy handling, but definitely was not the material from which masterpieces are made. Look at him: he had school horse written all over him. Quiet, calm, on the forehand. It was hard to imagine a future Aesop as elegant, strong and athletic. Subconsciously, I let that shape me.
Nuno Oliveira said, “Ask often, be content with little, and reward greatly.” People write a lot about being content with little and rewarding greatly, but all three describe one contingency. Know what you want and ask for it frequently, be content with a reasonable approximation for where your horse is in the work, and click and reinforce! As I moved into this new territory, I became more thoughtful about what I wanted from Aesop. I began to ask for more energy very consistently. I began to ask for one or two strides of better and better balance, using his whole body more correctly. I paid deep attention to whether or not he leaned on my hand even a few ounces and made sure to re-set him so he could know my criteria exactly. I released him completely into his own balance and clicked him for maintaining engagement. Guess what? He could do all of it. It wasn’t that my expectations had been horribly low, I had been teaching him fairly intensively all along. I just hadn’t asked for the pieces that really help a horse sparkle. A real lift from the base of the neck, coming promptly onto a point of contact and balancing above it with real precision. Our conversations had not been detailed enough. Here is what Aesop looks like now that I treat him like he is made of moons and stars and the shining rings of Saturn:
To be clear, he had a very solid foundation and most of the component pieces for this in place. But it wasn’t until I started to envision him as a star instead of an understudy that he really began to change. When a horse lifts up next to you, voluntarily, and trots beside you in balance while you walk, a horse who used to fall heavily from step to step and lean on the rein, you feel gravity disappear. They seem less clear, the laws that bind us. Because really, it’s all in our imagination.