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Rewarding the 'try'

From: Kathi

Dear Jessica, I was totally blown away by the Horse Gathering and can't wait for next year to come around so I can go again. All of you were just amazing. I'm so tired of hearing one clinician after another say that everybody else is crappy and worthless and that they're the only one with the Real Deal. Well what I saw at the Horse Gathering was ALL the Real Deal. I hope you get all the same people back again next year, even "Dr. Deb" although I hope she gets a little nicer by then. Anyway you and Harry Whitney and Mark Rashid were absolutely the best people I have ever seen work with horses, and I totally loved it that you all kept referring to each other and saying stuff like "as Harry said yesterday" or "As Jessica said this morning". I got the feeling that you all liked each other personally and professionally both, is that correct? You don't have to answer me if I'm being too nosy! Anyway that wasn't my question I just thought you might like my impressions of the Horse Gathering.

Here is my question. At the end of the riding session with Christie (was that her name?? the tall girl with the chestnut horse that was blind in one eye) you were talking about riding being just like groundwork about rewarding the try, but more complicated than groundwork. It was really interesting and I tried to find you later to ask more about it, but you were always answering questions for everybody and I didn't want to butt in. I did listen to all the questions and answers anyway. Could you tell me some more about what you meant? I had the idea that since you and Harry and Mark were so much alike in your philosophy, it meant something like the kind of reward you can do is more complicated? Or, something else? I really wanted to learn what you were talking about. Please, please will you explain, I don't want to have to wait until I can ask you next year. But if I have to I will. Thank you! Your happy admirer, Kathi

P.S. What I meant by that last sentence is that I will be at the next Horse Gathering no matter what! And someone said that you would be doing riding again but also talking about bits and bitting and horse psychology, is that true? Because if it's true, that is TOTALLY great.


Hi Kathi! I'm so pleased that you enjoyed the Horse Gathering. All the presenters had a great time too. And yes, you're right, I think that we all got along very well personally as well as professionally, but that didn't take much of an effort. All of us care about and are working for the good of the horse, and I think that all of us appreciate one another's methods and techniques even if our own aren't precisely identical. Actually that made it much more fun for me - usually, when I'm lecturing or teaching, that's all I get to do. This time I got to go to class too! Believe me, it was a privilege for me to work with and learn from Harry Whitney and Mark Rashid and Deb Bennett and everyone else who was teaching at the Gathering. I hope you also attended Vic's talks on adult learning and Jeff's computer lectures and Dave Genadek's saddle-fitting discussion and Dave Siemens' chiropractic work, and that you managed to watch Todd's presentations on equine dentistry and Stuart's horseshoeing demos and Chris Ryan's discussion of legal issues... because I did, and I learned something valuable from every single session. What an incredible group of people, and what an amazing learning opportunity for all of us. And when I say "incredible group of people", I don't mean just the presenters! I'm talking about everyone who attended the Horse Gathering. It's an amazing experience to be surrounded by so many intelligent, eager, interested people who took the time and made the effort to come out to Colorado because they wanted to LEARN. I'd like to salute you, and everyone else who came - you're my kind of horse-people. ;-)

Okay, after all that, I really am going to get to your question. But you did give me an opening, and I'm very proud of what happened in Estes Park in August - there's never been anything like it before, but I hope that it will start a trend. Thank you for coming, and thank you for letting me know what it meant to you.

"Reward the try" is a very important part of any kind of training - or teaching, which is really what good training is all about. We want to engage the horse's mind, not just to create a series of automatic unthinking responses to cues. On the ground, in the round pen, it's fairly easy to teach humans how to recognize and reward a horse's "try". The human can see the whole horse; the horse can see the human; each one can SEE every small movement or gesture that the other makes. As soon as you get on a horse's back, all of that is gone. Of course you can still use your voice, but something very important has changed: Now your body language is all a matter of position and balance and timing and FEEL. Your feel of what the horse is offering and how you should respond, and your horse's feel of what you are doing and how it should respond. Suddenly you're invisible to the horse - and suddenly most of the horse is invisible to you (unless you're looking down.... which OF COURSE you aren't doing, right).

Riders affect horses with their position, their movement, their balance, and their breathing. Riders affect horses with their ability to respond quickly to the horse's action - or to that crucial moment when the horse is THINKING about an action. "Rewarding the try" is more than just saying "Yes, yes" or "Good horse" after the horse does something you want, it's also saying "Yes, yes" or "Good horse" just as the horse begins to do something you want, or -- and this is really where "feel" comes in -- just BEFORE the horse begins to do what you want, in that split second when the horse is THINKING about turning, stopping, yielding, changing gaits, or whatever it is that you wanted it to do. And again, all of this becomes more complex and difficult when you are ON the horse, because for you to be free to respond instantly to the first second of a horse's "try", you have to be sitting correctly, with your body in balance - and in balance with the horse - and with enough physical security to yield the rein as soon as the horse yields - or, better yet, just as he is beginning to yield. This doesn't work if a rider is stiff, uncomfortable, unbalanced, or depending on grip (with legs, reins, or seat) to stay on the horse. Such a rider will have bad timing or be unable to feel what the horse is doing and thinking - not because of any lack of intelligence or good will, but just because the rider is so busy working at staying in the saddle that s/he can't focus on what the horse is doing, thinking, or feeling. You can't "give" with a rein if you're hanging onto it for dear life. You can't make a small deliberate shift in your balance when you're just praying that you can stay in the middle of the saddle. You can't tense or relax a calf muscle at will if you are using your legs to grip the saddle for security. You can't use your seat to listen to the horse if you're tensing it in fear - or trying to use it to issue orders to the horse. I'm sure you can think of many more examples of poor position and/or balance interfering with communication. That's why really good riding is an art -- and that's why I say that it's more complicated when you're actually ON the horse.

And, to go back to the subject of the Horse Gathering, that's exactly why it was so much fun for me to work with the riders there. I could focus on the riders, their position, balance, breathing, communication, etc., without having to worry about whether they understood the basic ideas of recognizing and rewarding the "try", because I KNEW that they understood - those riders weren't just working with me, they were working with Harry and Mark, too, and if anyone can get the REAL round-pen work message across, it's those guys. ;-) I didn't have to worry about what sort of nonsense they'd been taught by a "let's pretend" round-pen wannabe, I could relax and talk about riding issues, secure in the knowledge that those riders had a good frame of reference from the genuine round-pen experts - the real deal, so to speak. That's a luxury I don't often have; usually I have to fill in the blanks and teach the round-pen work myself. I don't mind doing it, but it's much more fun to know that the riders I'm teaching have already had the very, very best in round-pen education. What's really nice about top-level teaching is that it makes no difference at all whether the teacher is wearing a helmet, a top hat, a cowboy hat, or a baseball cap... or no hat at all. The philosophy and the techniques get more and more similar the closer you get to the top, which should tell you something. ;-)

Jessica

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