Thursday, June 11, 2009

Command or Control

When the Reins are Gone,
All that is left is your Relationship

When I speak of controlling a horse, his hindquarters, forehand, or any other part of the horse, I am not speaking in the physical sense. Physical control of the horse should be the domain of the horse. A rider may believe that he has physical control but that is only an illusion. In fact, a rider is only in control in so much as the horse has no desire to take control. As soon as the horse is angry, frustrated, or frightened enough, he will easily take control back from the rider, thus ending the fantasy. (Often in an unpleasant cloud of dust.)

An example of attempted physical control of a horse is when someone tries to push or pull a horse with a halter and lead rope or when a person tries to shove a horse with their hands. These attempts are usually unpleasant for both the horse and the human and, in many cases, the horses are able to show how easily they can take control back from the human.

Instead of control, what we can have is command. The difference is that having command allows us to exercise indirect control over the horse to whatever extent the horse is trained and willing to obey. There are four elements of command. These are:

1. Communication

2. Training

3. Obedience

4. Relationship

The first element of command is a channel of communication. The very definition of the word command is the communication of a desire from one entity to another. If we want our horses to do what we want, then they have to understand what we want. And since they are not psychic to any degree that is reliable, it is our responsibility to make our desires known to them in a way that is clear. The way to do this is covered in the post on Impulsion.

The second element of command is training. The horse needs to be physically able to perform the movements that we ask. Therefore he needs to be trained in its execution. He must be taught the mechanics of the movement, as well as be physically prepared for the athletic demands that the movement might require. For all but the most advanced movements, the horses are usually athletically capable, but the mechanics of many of the movements such as spins, pirouettes, roll backs, and side passes are unknown to horses until they have had it explained to them.

The third element of command is obedience. Obedience to a command cannot be demanded. It can only be coaxed and negotiated. This is done by showing the horse that the alternative to obedience is less desirable. Over time the horse will begin to understand that obedience will reap greater rewards in the long term. However, in order to learn this, the horse must be coaxed with short term rewards. This is done by the presentation of pleasant consequences. A horse that is given a command always has a choice. Assuming he is trained, and the communication is clear, he can obey or disobey. The rider must be very consistent in making obedience easy, and pleasant for the horse.

It should be remembered that outright punishments for disobedience, especially in the form of violence should be avoided if at all possible. For example, if a moving horse refuses to stop, the rider should avoid jerking on the reins to punish the horse in the mouth. If the environment is too dangerous for high speeds, then the rider can ask the horse to move in ever tightening circles until the horse decides that it would be more comfortable to stop. This is the origin of the “One Rein Stop”. It is extremely effective but should be used judiciously. On no account should a horse be run until it is exhausted, or spun in tight circles endlessly as a punishment. Although, these methods can appear to be effective in the short term, they will have long term consequences that will damage your relationship. Over time, they will render the rider unwelcome on the horse’s back and the horse will eventually develop other more irritating vices.

The last element is the relationship. We must never forget that command is a concession that we have negotiated. It is a mandate given to us by horses that can, at any moment, be rescinded. It is therefore vital that we maintain a relationship with our horses that is mutually respectful and beneficial. These elements of a relationship must not be taken for granted and needs both cultivation and maintenance. Without it, the other elements of control will not be in effect and we will not have willing obedient partners. However, if our horses are willing partners, then all that is needed is to let them know our desires in the form of commands, (a.k.a. cues) and they will do everything in their power to comply and help us achieve our goals. In return, we should be alert to our horse’s desires and try to be as considerate as possible.

Keep in mind that the horse has a job and he needs the freedom to get it done. If he makes mistakes, correct him. But remember that the horse learns from his mistakes, and so the more mistakes he makes, the more educated he will become. Give him responsibilities, and then hold him accountable. Given time and the right amount of freedom and he will surprise you with an iron core of self discipline.

If we do not impose overbearing and constant supervision on our horses, we can avoid falling under the illusion that we can control them. The result will be a happier horse, a safer ride, and a stronger relationship based on mutual trust and respect. And when you really do need your horse’s total cooperation, as you might in a competition, then you will have it given to you freely. And you will appear to be in total control of the horse’s every movement even though what you really have is cooperation. And that is a much more powerful thing indeed.


Caron said...

Thank you Robin for all your insightful knowledge. This has been a very rewarding blog to become a fan of. I look forward to each and every post!

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