OK so as I said in part one of this series, a key part of my nerves about all this is the fact that I don't feel I have had the time to get him out and about to the extent that I would have liked, in preparation for Equidays. That said, any person's definition of the appropriate degree of preparedness for any situation is going to be different from the next person, and I do tend to be a worrier / over-preparer. So to me, we are feeling very under-prepared.
However, I have had this horse his whole life, and taken him to numerous ribbon days and in-hand shows as a youngster. When I broke my arm I sent him away to be started under saddle by Ben Longwell so he spent a few months in a busy working "ranch" type environment. And during that time, Ben actually took him to Equidays 2015 to be the green horse in his "First 50 rides" demo series. So actually Hokey might argue that it's ME that hasn't been out and about enough - he has spent more time in the demo pens than I have.
All that aside, he has never been the "easiest" of horses in new environments (or even his home environment, half the time!). So I need to do what I can in the time I have to help us be successful.
Here's the plan:
And here's the results so far. I took him to the indoor arena on the weekend for some familiarisation. Basically, it looked like this. Hmmmm yeah not ideal.
To be fair, this happened mostly because I brought Cadence along and she was outside neighing to him. In hindsight, I should have kept his leadrope on and kept the rate of reinforcement super high. I probably should have brought her inside too, for a while at least. I thought maybe it might help him to have a run and let some of the adrenaline jiggles out, but it was clearly the wrong decision. He did come back to me numerous times, and gave me some focused work, but he was far more over threshold than I expected and the whole experience didn't exactly inspire me with confidence. However, there's nowhere from there but up I guess!
I've taken him out twice this week and he's been MUCH better. I am a little more optimistic now than I was after Sunday's episode. The second time I took him to the RDA arena (Wednesday) he was focused and connected with me almost the entire time, and when he did run back to the gate he turned and came back to me almost immediately.
This is us having a liberty play in the arena after my lesson with Cadence on Tuesday. He's never been to this arena before. He struggled a little with his park, but was totally connected and responsive the whole time. I'm keeping my rate of reinforcement a lot higher than usual of course, and not asking for anything hugely difficult.
More about him next time.
There's this amazing TED talk by Kelly McGonigal, called "How to make stress your friend". She basically talks about how our perceptions of stress are far more influential than we realise and that by viewing stress responses as a positive and helpful thing we may actually change the physiological and mental impact of that stress. Basically, when our hearts are pounding and we break out in a sweat, we often see these things as a sign that we're not coping well with the situation. Kelly argues that we should change our view, to see these as signs that, for example, our body is preparing us for the situation and making sure there's plenty of oxygen getting to our brains: "This is my body, helping me rise to this challenge".
Coincidentally, a friend sent me this talk by Mel Robbins today, the central message being that the state within our bodies of fear vs excitement is exactly the same. We just need to tell our brains we're excited rather than scared.
So when I head on into that Equidays arena, I'm going to try to remember that I'm excited (not scared). My heart is pounding in order to give me strength and energy. I will also focus as much as possible on being calm and connected in the moment with my little dude and supporting him through this. After all, this is my silly little game and he didn't ask to be part of it.
"Chasing meaning is better for you than trying to avoid disappointment. Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life, and trust yourself to handle the stress that follows."
People often chat to me about how frequently they second-guess themselves and their training choices. Sometimes they have a strong background in traditional or natural horsemanship but it feels like something is missing in their relationship with their horses. Maybe they find themselves flitting from one 'method' or trainer to the next, unable to commit to any one thing for long enough to see real results (or a lack of) before moving onto something else. Maybe they have followed a particular 'guru' or style of training but something has happened that they're uncomfortable with, to make them question their loyalty to that person or method. Often they are absolutely convinced of the benefits of positive reinforcement for horses, but peer pressure from friends, coaches or social media and the desire to conform is overwhelming and causes them to continually doubt themselves. And often they really want to train under a positive reinforcement paradigm, but old habits keep getting in the way.
Regardless, my heart truly goes out to those people. To you, if you're one of them. I've been there. What it means is that you are a seeker of truth, you're trying to better yourself for the sake of your horse, you're thinking critically and striving for improvement. That's a beautiful thing.
And I get it - there's so much information available out there, online and in person, and it seems that each trainer you listen to, or article you read, is recommending different methods/techniques (and sometimes dishing out judgement or subtle derision of alternative ways of doing things). It can be difficult to sort through it all and feel confident and consistent in which parts you should take home and actually implement with your horse. This is only made worse when the path you're walking is a lonely one, and outside of the accepted mainstream, such as it is for positive reinforcement or clicker trainers.
I have personally sat in the audience at clinics of very well-known and respected international horsemen and listened to them mock and denigrate positive reinforcement training, while clearly having little to no idea of how it works (let alone having given it a proper try themselves). I have left those clinics rather irritated at the ego on display, but still with a degree of respect for the horsemanship they practice and with a few ideas to take home with me.
"Knowledge makes people humble. Arrogance makes people ignorant."
Sometimes people comment how lucky I am to have "found my path" and have so much clarity and confidence in how I want to train (and how I don't). Yes I do feel pretty secure in my training choices, at a basic level, but it's still an ongoing journey and I still question myself constantly and doubt myself regularly.
After all, this is an ongoing and lifelong process. I'm constantly playing 'devils advocate' with myself, watching other trainers (of all species) and questioning the way I do things or whether I could improve what I'm doing. I think that's important to do, but it often actually causes me to feel less sure of myself! Such is life. I've learned to be ok with this sort of discomfort, it comes with stretching outside of comfort zones and it's a temporary feeling. As I work through the new ideas in my mind, or with my horses, or in conversation with peers and mentors, I consolidate and integrate and then continue on. I'm sure this is a process most people are familiar with to some extent.
Also, these things take time - for over 15 years I have been working through questions like
"What feels right to me?"
"How can I balance what is best for the animal with what is practical and efficient?"
"Where do I sit ethically on that spectrum?"
"How can I combine the useful parts of both 'common practice' and 'best practice' without compromising my integrity?"
Crucially, I've had some really challenging life experiences that helped cement my own ethical code when it comes to horses, and form the basis of my unrelenting dedication to empathetic and ethical training. During these times I doubted my own decisions and skills, felt lost, beat myself up, flailed around a bit then (eventually) found solid earth again and emerged stronger and more confident and with the benefit of hindsight. As usual, it's the difficult times in life that provide the biggest insights and catapult us on our way to clarity.
Bear with me here, and I'll give you an example. When I think back 12 years or so to when I was a Customs drug dog handler, I vividly recall my frustration and ethical quandary over the way I was made to 'teach' my dog Oscar 'obedience'. (Clue: with a choke chain). "Get more muscle into it. Correct him harder. HARDER." was the constant refrain, until I snuck away one lunch break with a clicker and some biscuits, hid behind a warehouse out the back of the airport and taught him what he needed to know, MY way. A few months later down in Trentham I had to bite my tongue and hide my tears of empathy when the police dog trainer in charge of our graduation course took Oscar's lead from me and jerked the chain so hard he yelped and was thrown off his feet (he was a very large black Labrador, so there was some force behind that 'correction'). *
There were a few reasons I left that job but that was definitely part of it. To this day I question whether I could have been a better advocate for my dog, but the reality is I was young and relatively inexperienced, and working without proper support or mentorship in a military-style hierarchy. Regardless, I left the dog section even more convinced that I needed to follow my gut and stick with reward-based training, much more aware of the gaps in my own knowledge and capabilities, and absolutely adamant that I would never again put myself in the situation of being powerless and forced to follow someone else's orders on how to train my animals. To this day, if I am taking my horse to a clinic or lesson with someone I haven't trained with before, I remind myself of my role as her advocate and rehearse how I am going to remove her immediately if the need arises. I'm not a fan of conflict so the idea of doing this doesn't sit comfortably but I am ready to do it anyway.
The point of relaying all of this, is that if you're second-guessing yourself, or feeling like you don't know who to listen to or how to proceed, or that things just aren't working for you, please understand that it's totally NORMAL. We all feel like that at different stages and many of us throughout our lives!
Some of my "tribe"
So in practical terms, what can you do if you're feeling that way?
So there's some slightly rambling thoughts about my own journey (so far) which hopefully helps to make you feel less alone, and also some tips on how to manage the nagging self-doubt or second-guessing that so many of us subject ourselves to. I hope it's helpful.
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
* (To be clear, the operational detection work was all trained positively, using play rewards and no corrections. It was the other early-stage obedience stuff that I am describing above. Also, things have improved a lot in NZ drug and explosives detector dog training since then, largely thanks to some inspiring and dedicated trainers who have introduced and implemented marker training into the detector dog community here in NZ. Unfortunately, any improvements were too late for me and Oscar).