Doc’s concept of Training all the Time has been a powerful tool for me. I used to think, “I am not a trainer,” little did I realize that I actually was training the horses! When one considers that horses are learning all the time, we do train horses every time we are with them. Taking that thought to the next level, it becomes our responsibility to be mindful in our interactions with them. We can use every opportunity interacting with them as a training session.
This model has taken me from thinking of ‘training’ as isolated formal lessons I scheduled with myself and my horses to training anytime I am with horses. As I feed, water, catch, groom, lead, tie, harness, trailer load, drive, ride, or simply move them from paddock to pasture, I do so in ways that teach lessons dealing with behaviors I desire from the horses. I set up situations that will make it easy for the horses to make the choices I want, and then reward those appropriate behaviors. I move, speak, and interact with them in ways that consider the horses’ natural language.
Every lesson, no matter how small the step, is also intended to help them remember that I am their herd leader. This idea has made me a responsible horse owner, given me more confidence, helps the horses behave in ways that are safer (for me and them) and certainly helps me appreciate the positive changes I see in their behavior. Training is no longer a mystery that was somebody else’s responsibility (ever heard anybody say they needed to “take the horse to the trainer”), but it is my opportunity to interact with horses in rewarding ways every time I am with them.
Here is an example of one way I have used this. Have you ever taken a flake of hay into your horses’ feed area, and have your horse crowd into your space, and take a bite of the hay you are carrying? Maybe it is dark outside, maybe muddy, or icy and you are not sure of your footing, and the crowding horse makes the situation unsafe. I currently must walk through a paddock with three horses to get to the barn where the feed is kept. The horses are so happy (or are they just hungry?) to see me at feeding times that all three are right at the gate when I get there. I greet each one with an affectionate scratching on their forehead, and then make each one “go away” from me. I make them go 10 or more feet away.
As I walk to the barn through the paddock, I insist that they all stay away, no crowding into my space, or coming any closer than 10 feet. Once I get to the barn, I have established a routine of putting each horse’s feed bag on, one at a time. The routine has gotten fairly elaborate, and I am surprised how willing the horses are to follow it. Sometimes one or the other of the horses will break the routine, and I go back to square one to remind them what that routine is. It is worth it to me to take the extra time to go get a horse, lead them back to the feed area, and resume the routine, so that we all keep the pattern going.
After they are done with their grain, they are given hay. The hay feeding station is inside the paddock; the hay must be carried through a gate and placed into the feeder. My arms are full carrying the hay; I used to feel vulnerable to their crowding and not very safe at this point.
Again, I have worked with them, and the three must go away as I come through the gate and carry the hay to the feeder. They are, after all horses, and frequently need reminding to stay away, however are willing to go back to the routine if I follow through with my request. If I let up on my requirement of them staying away, they would be back into my space; I have learned to be consistent. When I have placed the hay in the feeder, I tell them, ok, and they may then come in to eat. I am so much more comfortable feeding using this approach. It has been fascinating to me to watch the willingness the horses show to follow a routine, and the expectation they have for me to be consistent if they are going to be.