I have a day clock on the wall in my office. It doesn’t keep track of hours. Just the days of the week. I need that because I often get off stride with Father Time. Most weeks, I feel that I wake up on Monday and put my head on the pillow on Friday, with little sense of hours passing in between. That’s because, as I explained in my last blog, I am passionate about what I do. The other reason? I am on Horse Time.
Time!? What a mind boggling topic. Humans have been grappling with its measurement for millennia. Bravo to the Egyptians for figuring out how to divide the day into measurable snippets! Hats off to those who came up with time zones! Daylight Savings Time? I don’t know how great that idea is, but interesting that we would mess with time constructs to better suit the economy. All things are related, aren’t they?
And what about the meaning of time? How slow or fast does it go? It’s relative, says Einstein, depending on one’s experience (two minutes for a man sitting with a pretty girl, or two minutes for that same man sitting on a hot stove are very different in length, he points out) or on the speed at which something travels. Scientists purport that a sense of time is developed by the ability to remember a sequence of events. This suggests that while animals have memory, they are not capable of understanding or measuring the passage of time. (Hmmm. I guess those scientists have never walked down a barn aisle at feeding time and heard the nickers, rumbles, and kicks emanating from stalls.)
Whether horses can or can't measure time, it is profoundly illuminating to watch them in the field. They graze. Meander. Run. Spar. Tails swish. Heads lurch shooing errant flies. Others yawn or lie down to nap in the sun. Sometimes they just stand, ears pricked, attentive to mysteries we can neither see, hear, nor sense. Whatever they are doing, horses have the art of living in the NOW down pat. Unlike humans. Most of us exist burdened in a morass of the past’s should have/would have/could haves or beleaguered by the "to do" lists of the future, barreling through our days worried and stressed, missing the joys of the present.
It's not that horses don’t carry baggage. They do, because they learn quickly (and Thoroughbreds especially so) and they have prodigious memories. Horses bring stuff to the table for sure. That’s why training them can be like playing cards. If you want to have the upper hand, you need to keep track of which cards have been played and figure out where the remaining cards are likely to be. Don’t be tricked by the fact that horses live and act in the moment. Remember they have trump cards from past experiences that may be played at any given time. As a trainer, it is your job, to get the horse to lay those cards down when you want to see them, and not the other way around.
Let’s say you want to teach a horse a given skill. As a piano teacher might start a new student with scales or one handed tunes, so a trainer must break down a skill set into intelligible pieces. If the horse doesn’t make sense of the pieces, it is the trainer’s responsibility to explain each step more simply, more clearly, and that takes the time it takes.
If, on the other hand, the horse understands the question being asked and chooses to ignore it or answer incorrectly, the trainer has a different challenge: That of presenting the question so the horse CHOOSES the correct response. In other words, ask the question in a way that makes the correct answer easy for the horse and the incorrect answer hard. You don’t want to force the horse to do anything--for as they say in the Spanish Riding School, “Nothing beautiful is ever forced.” Force creates resistance. Choice leads to partnership. And partnership is what we are striving for with our horses, isn’t it? We don’t want vehicles or servants. We want partners and friends. We want to do what horses can do: run fast, jump things, go places we could never go on foot. And we want them to do so willingly for us and with us. That is why we must make the correct choice pleasant and the incorrect one unpleasant. But in doing so, we must remember two things: 1. To let the horse choose. 2. To give the horse the time it takes to make the choice. Horse Time.
Sometimes this is inconvenient. Horses can and will just flat out dig in and say “NO!” on occasion either because they are willful or because they are in pain, or because they don’t understand and their brains get fried and simply shut down. When this happens the trainer has a few choices: 1. To use force. 2. To forget about the passage of time altogether and to be prepared for spending however long it takes to get the message across. 3. To alter the question.
Just as musicians play the same pieces with different styles and interpretations, so trainers will vary in how they deal with the inevitable training challenges that arise with every horse. Personally when I am not getting across to a horse, I pull up short and ask myself:
What part of my question does the horse not understand?
Am I asking too much from the horse either mentally or physically?
And, most importantly, am I on my time, or Horse Time?
If I can figure out the answers to these questions, and be truthful to myself about them (which can be a problem because EGO gets in the way), chances are I can restructure my request in a way that will bring about a positive result. If I have the time I might build on that result to see if I can get closer to my original request. If I don’t have the time, I will stop there, rewarding the horse for one good choice and hoping to pick up from that point in a subsequent lesson.
If however, I try to rush or force the horse to understand because I am listening to my own agenda, then I am guilty of the wrong choice. And it is 100% certain that I won’t get anywhere and things will end on a bad note.
I don’t like ending on bad notes, so I pay attention to Horse Time. Things take the time they take. Savor the gift of the NOW. Even one small positive step, rather than the leap you might have hoped for, is cause for celebration.