- a forward or onward movement (as to an objective or to a goal) : ADVANCE
2. gradual betterment
This is what we are all hoping for. If we are not disabled by disease or depression, progress if what pulls us out of our beds, into our jobs and into the saddle.
A human-like mindset often leads us to believe that progress is linear. Training is to progress forwards like a linear graph goes upwards.
When the line goes up, the horse is doing better. When the line goes down, the horse is doing worse. Over time, we compare the differences. If they are doing worse, than we need to do better or do something different, and if they are doing better, then we continue doing what we are doing, and change nothing.
If we do not know what to do, we visit a trainer for a kind of ‘prescription’ of what to do to fix it, memorise the solution, and practise that with our horses. When we hit another problem, we go back to the ‘training doctor’. To me this is a sickness orientated approach to training, rather than a health and wellness approach to training. I want to train each horse and client to eventually NOT need me. Rather than reliance upon me for ever. Neither do I want them to be reliant on a single technique or tool. I want them to be able to succeed, no matter what.
To a certain degree this linear outlook is useful and promising. Being able to simplify things can certainly help a lot of people and a lot of horses. It encourages an objective mindset and a result orientated approach.
This can also be dangerous for many people and for many horses. Horse are not machines. People are not machines. Progress is NOT linear. This is what history has taught us. Progress is not about going forwards, and only forwards.
Progress goes forwards, sideways, up and down, and sometimes around in circles.
Look at America right now, many of us thought that as soon as Obama got voted into office that the United States had left behind its deep history of racism rooted in slavery and prejudice? We thought the world had changed, and we were not going back. Eight years later, a fake-tanned reality TV celebrity with a shady business history and zero Political experience was voted into the most powerful political seat in the world.
What? Progress is not linear. Sometimes you go forwards. Sometimes you go backwards. That is part of progress. This is what dance taught me. Some days I would come into training and things which were easy yesterday are impossible today and I do not know why. But eventually, overtime, those inconsistencies melted away, seemingly without trying to ‘fix’ it. By just attempting those things in as many different contexts as possible, I gained the confidence and experience to be able to perform those things with ease and consistency. Usually I danced better when I stopped trying to ‘train’ myself but just focused on DANCING.
So many of us are confused. Without pushing any kind of left-wing agenda here, progress is not linear and many of us feel cheated when we discover that it is not. We were taught in schools that once you passed all the exams and tests, that you moved on to the next level of difficulty and so on and so forth. Many schools of horse training also encourage an identical formula. Follow my method and graduate through the levels to become better. Memorise this technique and your horse will become better and so will you.
But not everyone is better off after their education than they were at the start. Many people start school as happy, balanced 5 year old children with a positive outlook on life, and then 13 years later leave high school tired, battered and bruised, perhaps disillusioned with their experiences.
Many horses begin their trainings as happy, healthy weanlings, who can perform high level movements by themselves in the paddock through the pure joy of being alive and moving. Fifteen years later they find themselves in a riding school, sore backed, only able to move when whipped, punished or admonished.
Maybe we know more ‘things’ after education but do we feel better about life? At best, it is a crap shoot.
When I started high school, I loved to read. I consumed books with a ravenous hunger. Reading came easily and naturally to me and it was not uncommon for me to chew through several books a month. After high school, I no longer enjoyed reading. It took me three years to buy a book and read it start to finish for pleasure again. I had been forced in High School to read books I would never normally choose of my own free will, and not only read them but analyse them and then WRITE about them with some kind of educated excellence, make arguments for or against the issues in the book etc. The problem was, being forced to analyse a book you don’t enjoy is not good medicine and does nothing to improve your reading skills or improve your desire to want to read in the future. With me it had the opposite effect. After school I should have enjoyed reading MORE, not less, if education is truly linear. After school I had to re-learn my childlike love of reading. Many horses I meet, display pathologies from linear training approaches, and I try to reconnect them with their childlike joy of movement and being.
To translate this phenomenon into the horse world. Lets look at certain classical methods of biomechanical training. We train a horse to form an outline or a posture with their body, ‘because it is good for them’. These postures, positions and exercises are designed to work for all horses, to improve their physical fitness and strength, to make them better movers, healthier horses and better horses for us to use. Some horses genuinely benefit from this training and quickly progress to high levels of training. Probably these horses also were pre-disposed to be excellent in this training anyway. Conversely, many horses are ruined in such training. If these postures and positions are supposed to be evidence of a ‘correctly’ trained horse, how can we explain the ENORMOUS prevalence of injury in dressage horses classically trained? Why then are so many classically trained horses able to do incredible ‘things’ during a dressage test but freak out at a flapping flag, a loud noise, or cannot walk through a real world situation with their rider without fear or anxiety? Why are so many highly educated horses unable to be motivated without having a stick or spur hit, smack or poke them?
Progress is not linear. Often it is very, very messy. It can be confusing. It can be overwhelming. To me, progress can look like this:
Horses and humans are not machines programmed for a single linear purpose or motivation. We can be motivated by thousands of things. The minutiae of motivation is vast and complex and beautiful. To me, the really good trainers are the ones who are aware of this huge beautiful mess, and don’t try to ‘control’ it, but neither do they get in there and contribute to the mess. They are like an Architect of Chaos. Not trying to stop the flood, simply creating irrigation, somewhere for the water to go where it can be useful and productive.
They have a sort of detached sense of wonder. Like a zen master might. They realise that the world is a chaotic and beautiful place. They have no sense of their destructive ego, therefore they realise that it would be arrogant to believe that a single being can control or contain this huge chaos. They detach and observe. They reshape, redirect, give boundaries, and learn more than they instruct.
Then, they pick a single, dominant theme, and decipher just that theme. They observe many things, but pick one thing that needs the most attention at that moment and work on making just that one thing better. They accept the fact that they could be wrong, and accept that they may or may not have the outcome they wanted. It is all simply information.
Progress is not linear. It is 3D. It is a three-dimensional object, and developing the ability to translate the bigger picture into a simple, productive action that makes sense to the horse and human is a huge mountain to climb. The degree to which you are able to succeed will depend on how much you like to climb!
A mountain is a three dimensional object of incredible complexity. Anyone who has ever done even amateur mountaineering, understands that false summits are real, what you think looks like the top, is just a false summit, with another false summit behind it and it is easy to feel lost, tired and confused. But how to people manage to climb these huge, complex, dangerous objects and reach the top? One foot in front of the other! Repeat that. And repeat it again. A complex issue, with a simple solution. Take thousands and thousands of small steps. If you have to go backwards, it is simply to find a better way forwards. If you cannot go forwards, it is not a failure, it is just a lesson in navigation.
This is how I see horse training. A complex and beautiful creature, co-operation gained through completing thousands of small tiny, invisible victories.
This can be hard for many horse people. We have been sold a linear view of horse training because it is easier to market, easier to sell, and faster to comprehend. It is easier to give somebody a 1-2-3, step by step method, written down in a book, with clearly defined signposts of success, than attempt to explain the huge complexity of the context of a horse.
It is easier to say, “follow this recipe to get the result you want” than say the truth, for example ‘Your horse needs a better diet (complex), they are not a horse with enough innate talent to perform dressage at a high level because their anatomy is set up in such a way that certain techniques will work and many will not, so you must now be a rule breaker and create a training program just for your horse as an individual, where many traditional rules don’t apply (complex), your horses lifestyle has created behavioural pathologies in them which automatically exclude them from performing the things you think you are supposed to perform with them (complex”……. I could go on. Easier to have a Sickness & Treatment mindset; Horse + Rider = Problem. Prescribe step by step solution= problem solved. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.
My mentors always tell me to think less and feel more. And despite how wordy my blog is, when I am with a horse, my world is a silent place void of much conscious judgement, and just progressing from one state of ‘feeling’ to another.
Needless to say, I have chosen the hard way. There are several hard rules to abide by, and I do make those clear when they are needed. There are even several clearly defined techniques I follow when the horse is in a place which makes it appropriate for them to follow them. But I am not a trainer who has a step by step program they memorized, and then I simply teach that to my clients and instruct them to memorise it too, then buy the book, the DVD and the magic tool, regardless of who they are or who their horse is.
It is a hard path, but it feels like the right thing to do. So that is what I am going to do. Instead of ‘Promoting the Method’, I try to just promote the horse. Both the horse as a species and understanding general rules, and your horse as an individual who may or may not follow those general rules.
And if this doesn’t work, that’s ok by me too.