Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Causing a Problem?

                                                by Laura Crum

            After my recent post “Freak Accidents” I read several posts on other horse blogs that touched on the same topic. One was clearly inspired by my post (she referenced it—thanks jenj at Wyvern Oaks, listed on the sidebar) and a couple were both on a sort of alternate subject—as in the idea that you create a disaster by expecting one. Since my post was basically advocating that we stay alert and vigilant, such that we can mitigate or prevent a disaster before it occurs, I gave some thought to the idea proposed—that by expecting a good outcome we can help create one. And by expecting/preparing for a bad result, we help create that, too.
            I don’t entirely disagree with this. No smart person who works with horses and/or dogs will have failed to notice that by holding a calm, confident, relaxed attitude and expecting things to go well, you can nudge things in the direction of going well. It works on kids and chickens, too. But…I do have a few points to add.
            First off, it’s my contention that the two points of view aren’t really in conflict. I know, because I do both. For example, riding Sunny down the trail by myself, I see an odd looking stump up ahead and recognize by Sunny’s body language (pricked ears, body tension, reluctance to approach said stump) that he is worried about it. Now, I did not create this by worrying about the stump myself or imagining that Sunny might be afraid of the stump. I don’t expect Sunny to be afraid of anything—and this is realistic, since he rarely spooks. I ride along the trail expecting him to be relaxed and confident, as he usually IS relaxed and confident. Thus I, too, am relaxed and confident on the trail.

            I wish to contrast this to the point of view raised by another blogger, in which she describes being worried because her horse always “looks” at a certain stump, and then feeling that her own worry has created a situation where the horse spooks. Well, yeah, it could, sure. If you tense up, even minutely, and you are thinking about your horse possibly spooking at the stump long before she even sees the stump, you can definitely bring on the spook through expecting it. But this is a different equation from being relaxed yourself and at the same time being aware that your horse is thinking of spooking.
            So, let us say, that I am quite relaxed and confident, but I can tell Sunny is thinking of spooking at the stump. Shall I just decide that I’m going to envision him not spooking and go merrily along? Uhmm, no. I don’t think that will be be very helpful. I honestly don’t believe any “good vibes” coming from me will stop my horse from spooking if he’s decided to spook. What works for me is awareness and being prepared. I don’t get tense, and I’m not particularly worried—I can ride a spook. But I do make sure that I am holding the saddle horn, I relax my body further, and I am very careful to keep the reins loose and my legs loose. I bump Sunny lightly with my heels to encourage him forward and I am apt to say something in a relaxed, conversational tone. “Its just a stump you silly horse.” And I prepare to ride the spook.
            Sure enough, Sunny spooks, one of those sudden, now-you-are-facing-the-opposite-way spooks. I ride it. I check Sunny, turn him back around, and still relaxed, let him know we are going by the stump. Sunny is wary, but he’s not dumb. He’s already figured out the horse eating monster is a stump, and he can tell I’m not worried—either about the stump or his spook. He snorts, and bows his neck up, but he walks on by.
            So…if I am happily pretending that Sunny will not spook, and envisioning him walking along the trail steadily, even though he is clearly communicating to me that he is going to spook, I think the only likely result is 1) I am more likely to come off, and 2) the spook is more likely to escalate into a blot if he catches me off balance and unprepared. By preparing to ride the spook, and being ready to check him, I have turned the spook into a very minor incident.
            It’s my contention that we need to ride in a relaxed, confident frame (as much as we can), and I think this is simply obvious. But I have saved myself so much grief by seeing trouble coming and being prepared, that I will add that pretending/envisioning that something is not going to happen when it is very clearly brewing, is just dumb.
            So now lets take dogs. Here are my two (very funny looking) dogs. Jojo is half Aussie shepherd, half Jack Russell, and Star is a little rescue mutt—we think Chihuahua, terrier and dachshund.

            Both my two dogs will come back to me when called. The old dog (Jojo is 15 years old) is getting deaf, so that is a problem. Still, if she hears me, she will come. But both of them are not reliable if they become interested in another dog. So when they are off leash at the beach or on the trails, I remain alert. And when I see another dog, I call my dogs back immediately. If I call them before their interest has been engaged, and when the dog is still a ways away, they WILL come back to me. And then I leash them and we walk by the dog. No big deal.
            If, for instance, I decide not to call my dogs and leash them, and instead hold the thought (despite all prior behavior) that they will come to me and stay with me as we pass the dog…well, its my firm belief that I would end up with a mess. If the dog was friendly it might be run and play, but if it was not, it might be a fight. It’s not worth the risk and bother.
            Here’s the deal. My dogs mind me well enough. I’m not sure what to say about folks who can’t walk their dog by another dog while ON the leash. I’ve never had that problem. But I also don’t get bent out of shape thinking that my dogs must heel perfectly off leash. I don’t worry about it, I don’t stress over meeting other dogs. Just like when I’m on my horse, I cruise along relaxed and confident (or fat, dumb and happy, if you prefer) and I remain alert. Thus I spot the potential problem (or dog) before it is a problem, and I call my dogs back and leash them and on we go. It’s no big deal.
            So here’s my response to the idea that you can create a positive outcome by envisioning it. Yes and no. By remaining relaxed and confident you increase the chances that your horse/dog/kid will also be relaxed and confident. By being alert for potential trouble at the same time that you remain relaxed and confident you vastly increase your chances of being spared that potentially disastrous wreck. Blind confidence is no help at all. It only makes a true disaster more likely. And believe me, I have seen that outcome…though (partly) thanks to my vigilance I have so far been spared such a thing (knocking on wood).
            So what do you think? I think its an interesting subject and worth discussing.


Promise said...

I've always been a firm believer in expectation when it comes to animals. If you expect them to behave well, they will. If you expect them to behave badly...well, it'll probably be worse than you expected it to be! And so, I always approached Promise (and still approach any other horse, and my dogs, for that matter) with that frame of mind. If I expect them to behave and mind their manners - if I offer them the chance to succeed - for the most part, they live up to that expectation.

For example, a couple of years ago, my farrier called me about my then 15 or 16 year old horse, and said, basically, "How on earth am I supposed to shoe her when I can't get her to keep all 4 feet on the ground at any given time?" My first thought was, uhm...are you sure you have the right horse? Now, it wasn't that I didn't think she was capable of the rearing, striking, generally wretched behavior he was describing - I knew her better than that, lol - but I DID expect her to stand politely for farriers and vets and had always very worked hard to ensure their safety when they worked with her. He, after her antics, apparently, did not have the same outlook when it came to Promise.

So, I agreed to meet him at the barn for our next appointment. We got there about the same time, so even if the thought had crossed my mind to do some work with her beforehand, I wouldn't have had time. But I didn't feel it was necessary, regardless. My expectations of her behavior remained the same as they always had - you will stand here politely without fidgeting, pick up your feet when asked to and not pull them away or bug the farrier while he works. She stood there (ground tied, mind you) with her head down, ears floppy and relaxed and dozed the entire time he worked. He couldn't believe it was the same horse and kept marveling over the difference in behavior from what he had been experiencing. I met him there 3 or 4 more times, and then he said he wanted to try the next appointment without me there. He had no issues from then on.

I think part of the issue was that I wasn't there for the initial appointment and she trusted me far more than any other human being - especially most men. I think the other issue is, that after her initial misbehavior, he approached her with the expectation that she would be bad. She proved him right, and continued to escalate as his expectations worsened. My being there offered a chance for a paradigm shift for both of them. She felt safe with me there, and since he no longer had to try to work, stay safe and discipline her, both were able to relax and get to it.

AareneX said...

"Envisioning" works well as a method to figure out where you want to go, i.e. "I want my dogs to walk politely on a loose leash past other dogs that are snapping and snarling at the end of THEIR leashes."

However, if you keep one eye on the goal, you've only got one to watch the path in front of you!

My new dog, Roo, is a good example of why envisioning isn't a good strategy. Roo is a dumb dog. People often tell me that shelties are smart dogs, but Roo isn't. She's pretty, she's friendly, she's eager to please, but she isn't a problem-solving dog. You have to communicate clearly with Roo, using the dog-equivalent of small words: encouraging changes in behavior in very tiny increments. When you achieve a tiny behavior change with Roo and praise the dickens out of it and practice it and praise it more, it's okay to move to the next step. Trying to get Roo to take gigantic training leaps by envisioning won't work--she'll just get confused and scared, and she won't get any closer to your behavioral goal.

Also with Roo, it's no good telling her what not to do: "don't chase the goats" is useless. She doesn't get "don't." She gets "do": as in, "DO come here where I am. Do jump up on this platform. Do roll over." So when she's inclined to chase the goats, and instead is told to come and sit and roll over, she eventually (dumb dog, it took her about a week) learned that chasing goats = getting called up the hill to do tricks, so she might as well just stay at the top of the hill to do tricks and earn a few pieces of carrot. Dumb dog doesn't know that carrots aren't really dog treats :-)

My vision was that she would not chase goats, but I had to give her tiny steps towards that vision, or it flat-out was never going to happen.


horsegenes said...

I agree with you 100%. I expect a certain behavior from my horses and generally speaking, I get it. I expect them to load in the trailer, to trust me when I point them in a direction and tell them to go, etc. I don't expect them to be mindless. Semper doesn't like big rocks - I know that when we have to pass a large gray moss covered rock he is going to get silly. Nothing bad but he will look, bow his neck, snort a little - whatever. I really don't care - But I am aware of this and just sit relaxed and prepared - I never look at the rocks - that is his deal not mine.

When I hear people say that their horse reacts a particular way because they "think" he "may" have been beaten or abused someway by someone somewhere... I always want to barf. I mean really - You have now created an expectation of a behavior - It isn't good for the horse and it doesn't make you a saint for "saving" this poor abused horse. Huge pet peeve. (picture me climbing down from my soapbox)

Calm, Forward, Straight said...

Working for a trail riding business showed me repeatedly that rider anticipation / expectation caused more accidents than "spooky" horses ever did.

Beginner and first time riders were usually physically relaxed and overjoyed to be on horseback, riding out to the beach. They often "rode" like sacks of potatoes, but didn't expend their energy looking for boogey men around every corner.

The majority of wrecks I saw came from riders with bad previous experiences overreacting - usually jerking around on their horses mouths. Invariably the worst incidents involved worried riders.

My horse is (slowly) being reintroduced to trail riding after having a super negative experience (rider error). When my focus stays on the positive outcome I want - often visualizing it - nothing stops us. When I cave to fear and negativity we go nowhere... literally.

I have no doubt in the power of positive thinking on horseback. :D

jenj said...

Totally agree! It's one of those "Expect the best, but be prepared for the worst" situations. If you expect your horse to be a raving loony and spook at everything possible, chances are it will happen. Horses are incredibly sensitive animals and can pick up on their rider's attitude so quickly. But, if you expect your horse to behave yet are prepared for the invisible horse-eating monster to leap out from behind the stump just up ahead... well, then as you said, the outcome is good for everyone involved.

You really should consider taking some of your posts like this and putting them all together into a book. "Common Sense Horsemanship" or something. Seriously!

ORSunshine said...

I think you hit the nail on the head and Aarene wasn't far off. Expectations seem to make a world of difference with animals. However, you have to convey what you expect. Animals, like kids, don't really understand the negative or contractions, so "don't" doesn't work. You have to tell them what you expect, not what you don't want them to do.

I think my chickens are prime example of this. I've told them my expectations (stay out of the road, stay out of the fenced back yard) and they have so far. They are allowed to free range all over my property, which is wonderful for flea and tick control. But, they do NOT go out into the road, or the back yard.

I do the same with my goats, who seem to houdini out of their pen when they want more attention. They don't usually go more than 50' from their pen unless they see or hear me, then they come looking for me. They don't wander out in the road or in the woods, or over to eat the neighbor's roses. Even though they haven't quite grasped the "stay in your pen" expectation, they aren't really going on walkabout and wreaking havoc either.

Val said...

I agree with your "yes" and "no" response. The last time that I went on a trail ride, I separated from the group for a nice canter down a flat stretch of trail. Harley was going along nicely until something caught his attention in the distance. I did not expect him to stop and stare intently into the woods, but he did it just the same. Like you, I remained calm, turned him around and returned to the group. Although my horse was definitely "up", he listened to me and we continued down the trail with the others. A short time down the trail we discovered a loose horse (!!!). Apparently, that was what had caught Harley's attention, my relaxed demeanor did not prevent this or convince him that there was nothing of interest in the distance, but I am sure it did keep him with me and under control.

windwalker175 said...

I totally agree. Animals will pick on your emotions and reactions which will feed into theirs to either tense up or remain calm. But, they also react instinctively so you best be prepared for the unexpected and plan accordingly.


Laura Crum said...

All the comments and stories are so interesting--thank you. This is a fun subject.

Promise--Love your story.

Aarene--I agree with everything you say there. I do use negative reenforcement with my dogs--because it works on them. They are not allowed in the horse corrals, and if one forgets and ventures in, a harsh "get out!" has them scurrying outside in a second. Also, I have known maybe a half dozen shelties in my life and all were sweet, eager to please and not very smart. I'm sure there are smart ones, but I haven't met them.

horsegenes--Having been on a ride with Semper, I know how reliable he is. I handle the equally reliable Sunny's spooky moments the same way you handle Semper.

CFS--I don't disagree with what you say. But I believe there needs to be a clear distinction between visualizing a good outcome (I often do this when riding an unfamiliar trail) and ignoring your intuition/very obvious signs that trouble is coming.

jenj--Thank you! Maybe I'll collect my blog posts into a book some day. I think you've summarized what I meant to say perfectly. Yes. I do expect the best and yes, I am also alert for a potential problem.

ORSunshine--My chickens have similar rules. Don't go off the property, don't fly into the fenced veggie garden. They usually comply. But when they don't, they know the command, "Chickens out!" And they will depart the veggie garden quite smartly.

Val--That is an absolutely perfect example of what I mean. Don't let your confidence/visualization get in the way of noticing trouble that is coming your way. Good job being aware and thus keeping the problem very minor.

Laurie--I agree. You do need to be alert for the unexpected--especially on the trail.

Dom said...

Nothing productive to add, but OMG the EARS on that dog...

Laura Crum said...

Dom--I know. Everyone notices the ears. We get "bat ears" and "Dumbo ears" a lot. And "she ought to be able to fly with those ears." Star is funny looking, but she is a smart and reasonably obedient little dog, allowing for the fact that she IS part terrier and has a determined streak. But she comes back quite reliably, is a great fetch dog, and knows many, many words. I never had to tell her more than a couple of times to stay out of the horse corral, and she understood the concept. Smart little dog.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

It's an interesting topic. I was riding through the village last week (imagine a postcard English village in a TV show) when a pheasant flew out around Brena's feet. She jumped sideways then realised that I wasn't alarmed and settled right down to walk ahead quietly. There's a need to stay calm when those small and momentarily alarming things happen. This only seems to come with time and familiarity with the horse, in my case anyway. It's difficult to be that calm - to me it's a learned behaviour. If I see something like a pheasant lurking I don't "expect" trouble but I am aware that a little spook might result. I might talk to Brena or ask her to change pace or direction so that at least she isn't in a daydream when the spookable stimulus arrives.

There's also a need to react more positively when a bigger thing happens - like the hot air balloon that appeared a hundred feet above from behind some trees. That was definitely time to jump off and hold Brena by the head, at which point she focused on me and lost interest in the huge roaring thing above.

Incidentally my current safety initiative is to trim twigs that hang over the trail at eye level.

Laura Crum said...

I agree that the "calm pose" is a learned behavior. For me, too. Its taken a lifetime spent on horses for me to automatically, without thinking, relax my body when I see the potential spook causer ahead. And what a great idea about the twigs. We sometimes go for a ride or a hike with garden clippers and a small pruning saw, just to clear the trails of those head high branches which are at best annoying and at worst quite dangerous when one is on horseback.

Lorna said...

I totally agree! I once did an experiment to see whether my pony responded to how tense I was- he was walking along calmly and I would tense my body at random intervals. Every time I tensed, he spooked, even if there was nothing that he was scared of.
A really interesting post :D

Lorna xxx

Laura Crum said...

Thank you Lorna. And that is an interesting concept--testing to see if the pony spooked when you tensed. Fascinating.

HHmstead said...

My worst accident was when I was as confident as a rider can get, gone a lot of miles on some hot horses & had survived an amazing amount of spills! :-) In my own backyard. I ignored warning signs though - that the mare liked to rear etc.
When I was recovering & trying to return to riding, I envisioned the way Dean's Mexican's ride - with TOTAL confidence & yet reading the animal they're riding & correcting what needs to be corrected.
There's Nothing & I mean Nothing that will prevent a "freak" accident when they happen - the best seat, etc. is no match for 1,000 lbs. of lightening fast reactions - especially when the "flight" instinct kicks in on a horse that might not be the smartest one in the barn! :-)

HHmstead said...

P.S. "Calm pose" is what used to be called riding with a "soft eye". Taking in the entire landscape & not focusing on one particular "thing" that you might think your horse will spook at. It works as well as anything I tried. If you ride a horse that is insecure, not a leader... it's a hard row to hoe turning them around. Recently a friend called who's bred horses out of her amazing endurance mare. Of two geldings, one is incredibly forward, the other prefers to follow.

Laura Crum said...

HHomestead--I agree. Riding with total confidence and at the same time reading the horse and paying attention. That's what I mean by being confident and yet vigilant. I also agree that sometimes nothing will prevent a freak accident, but there IS a lot you can do to avoid one. In my own case, the most important thing I do is ride steady, confident, been there done that, older horses. My son and I ride a lot and the horses I chose for us to ride are (in my opinion) the main reason we've had no problems. That and the afore mentioned riding with confidence and staying alert. Back when I rode young horses and hotter horses (as you do), I definitely had more problems.

Francesca Prescott said...

Another interesting post, Laura. I'm not a great fan of going for outside rides (or trail rides, as you call them) anymore. The older I get, the more imagination I develop! And Qrac isn't the bravest horse on the planet (if Lusitanos are bred for the bullring, well he'd be absolutely hopeless!). He was getting better and more confident outside until we had a horrible run in with a crazy stupid moron on a tractor a few months ago (I wrote about it here). In the few times I've been out since then we've mostly been lucky enough to not meet any tractors head-on...but yesterday we met about ten! I felt like I was riding a bomb. Or a kangaroo. Or something like that. It was ok, but it wasn't my idea of a nice relaxing ride, and try as I might to stay relaxed and calm, when we ran into approximately the fifth tractor I was having a hard time steadying my heart-rate. So yes, you are totally right about expecting horses (or dogs) to behave but preparing for them not to in a calm manner (or as calmly as physically possible!). We didn't meet any bullies in tractors yesterday, but we met morons in cars who don't slow down. And there were some big scary rocks around. Thing is, when they start spooking early on in a ride, chances are they're just having a silly spooky day, don't you think? Then again, we don't help their spookiness by inwardly expecting it, despite sitting calmly with loose reins and soft legs. Mind over racing pulse? I need to work on that...

WHP: that hot air balloon incident?! OMG! We get fighter jets screaming overhead sometimes when I take Qrac to the farrier as there is a Swiss army base close by, and I always think Qrac is bound to go ballistic, but he doesn't seem to even notice. I'm sure he'd have totally freaked at the hot air balloons though. I'd have got off too...

Laura Crum said...

Cesca--I know just what you mean about some days being like that. I will admit that when I get the vibe that it is going to be a "difficult" day, we just ride in my riding ring and here on my property. Morons in vehicles of any kind that won't slow down are the WORST. And low flying helicopters at the beach have been my scariest thing so far--but God forbid we meet the low flying hot air ballon or a parasail. I read a blog post in which the two trail riders met a parasail that was taking off, basically sort of billowing along on the ground right by the trail, and both horses bolted. One rider thrown (and hurt), the other bailed. This sort of thing totally takes the fun out of riding outside. And its yet another reason I advocate staying alert and doing what you can to prevent/mitigate the potential disaster. Which sometimes means turning around and going home (!) Much better than getting hurt, or your horse getting hurt.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

That balloon was interesting! It looked like the pilot had misjudged the hill we were riding on, probably expecting an updraft where none existed, and was burning frantically to clear the trees on the top. (Hitting trees in a balloon can result in being tipped out of the basket.) I couldn't work out what the noise was before I saw the balloon - it sounded like gravel being tipped into a steel trailer, which puzzled me - and it was behind the trees which were dense enough to obscure my view. I think that she picked up on my concentration, which told her to be alert.

In retrospect I could have ridden Brena through the incident, however it was so much simpler to slip off and hold her head. We have encountered a whole troop of boy scouts flying kites (Brena just wanted to graze) and parasails (which she stared at then lost interest in). So I am fairly confident in her behaviour under duress.

One thing with Brena is that she does stare intently at objects she doesn't quite understand - like the top half of a person walking behind a low wall. She doesn't spook, just stare. After she's looked for a bit I ask her to move on, which she does.

I've also noticed her ask me what to do about a dubious object such as a flag flapping. She'll stop, stare and give a little snort. If I'm calm and ask her to walk on then she will with scarcely a second thought. I suppose that if I turned her and asked then she'd take off at full speed.