One of the basic tenets in my work is: “Don’t steal from the horse’s flight response.” It means that even though it’s easy to get a horse to move off at a trot or a canter by shaking a whip or tossing a line, it routes through an emotional system created for survival and I don’t utilize those systems (at least on purpose) when training. So I am learning to be creative and figuring out how to ask the horse for trot and canter in this new paradigm. With Tarot, I had to be a thousandfold more careful, because of his past learning. He had only experienced trot and canter in his previous life during a training scenario in two ways:
- When he bolted away in escape from handlers, hoof care professionals and his few times under saddle.
- When the farrier came and he was round-penned (forced to trot and canter) until he was so exhausted they were able to work on a few feet because he was too tired to resist. In essence, sustained, effortful movement was used to punish avoidance behavior.
For the last six years, we have worked in the walk to avoid increasing his arousal and to avoid triggering memories of how afraid he used to be. Motor patterns, specific co-ordinations and postures are often classically conditioned with the emotional states that accompany them. In his past, his energy was used pathologically, meaning, his energy was used against him to induce exhaustion to prevent him from offering any behavior at all. In a sense, his energy expression was weaponized against him. In that way, people could handle his body despite his lack of consent. A constructive use of energy is to use it to empower the animal to run away if scared, allow them to grow stronger and more balanced and to teach them to move to earn primary reinforcers, extrinsic or intrinsic. I was very worried that all expressions of increased energy over a walk had been poisoned by his history. But, I also knew that before we really began ridden work in earnest, it was important he develop a new relationship to his energy. Before it’s safe or wise to ride, I have to know Tarot can walk and trot during training sessions and stay calm, focused and engaged. There is no question that he already experiences movement for the joy of it in the pasture. He trots, canters, rears, leaps and gallops up and down his lane, playing with the geldings in the adjacent lane. But my job was to change the old conditioning of movement around people from negative to positive. This was a completely discrete scenario.
This last fall, as we worked in the arena more and more and he became increasingly comfortable, he began to offer a really open and free walk with a lot of energy. I could feel that the trot was just below the surface, but I knew that the way I suggested trot to him would have to be with the utmost consideration..
I chose mirroring.
Horses mirror each other all the time, naturally. Just watch a herd of horses running and watch how they all turn at the exact same moment, no one so much as touching a hair on the other. Their sensitivity to each other’s movement is exquisite. Through our in-hand and liberty work, Tarot has been reinforced for mirroring movement with me over and over. It wasn’t out of line to assume he could make changes to his own gait based on changes I made in my body. The first time I tried, I brought my energy (and my knees) up way too high and he stopped short, threw his head in the air and snorted. Ok, too much. I re-established the energetic walk on a high rate of reinforcement and tried again. This time I rolled my shoulders forward, leaned my torso a bit out over my feet and “fell” foot to foot in a trot on my forehand. Presto! After a brief head shake, Tarot moved into a quiet, cadenced trot by my side. Click! He watched me with a touch of vigilance, but was able to
offer trot four more times that session. After that, trot was definitely on the table. He took the step that many of my horses do which was to begin offering trot all the time, even uncued. Of course, I accepted and reinforced it. Movement is good for him and offered movement is a sure sign the behavior is under the control of positive reinforcement.
A few weeks later, after some time off, Tarot and I went hiking in the huge farm field behind our barn. I really had no expectations beside exploring in the snow and getting some healthy exercise together. But Tarot had learned trot was a behavior that paid off. Over and over, as long as the footing was good he offered trot. Loose, in a field with no equipment he chose to hike with me and to offer the behavior he had learned in the arena. In the video below, you can see us heading toward home, Tarot trotting next to me, confident and relaxed. Movement as a road to reinforcement, constructional. The switch had flipped, quite quickly.
I no longer imagine there are any real limits with Tarot. There is only the time I am able to put in, the thoughtfulness of my plan and observation, and the reinforcement history we have built together. We are doing things together today that four years ago were a clear impossibility. It’s the long game, changing old responses by layering in skill after skill. You have to look at every aspect of your horse’s behavior. Assess their comfort. If they aren’t comfortable, go back. Go back. Go back. Teach another behavior to deepen their comfort, then another. Encircle the horse’s tension with roads to relaxation.This deep, detailed work is, for me, both a daily apology for the way humans have failed to listen to horses and a dazzling meditation on subtle emotional thresholds. I can go to Tarot and say,”Is this real magic or just an an illusion?” And he will laugh and gallop away or stay and join in the conversation. Real magic always yields engagement.