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Problem-solving - alone or with help?

From: George

Dear Jessica, I've only been a HORSE-SENSE subscriber for a little over a year, but I have to tell you I'm impressed with your knowledge and the way you share information. I guess you'd probably call me a "cowboy". I've spent most of my life on horseback on the family ranch on land that was originally purchased by my great-grandfather. I thought I knew a lot about horses and training, but I learn something new every time I read HORSE-SENSE. Thanks! My wife says thanks too, because we always have something we can talk about with our kids. We're lucky, our kids seem like they want to keep running the ranch, so they're always ready for a discussion about horses.

I guess you'd call those my "bonafides". So you know I'm not new to horses or training or anything like that. What I want to know is sort of complicated. Over the years, there have been just a few horses that I couldn't work with, most of the time I can get things done with horses without too much trouble. Of course, we're working with the best, the American Quarter Horse! Sorry, just had to put in a plug for our American horses.

One of my kids is good with horses. He's eighteen and pretty much thinks he can ride anything and train anything, and he doesn't always pay a whole lot of attention to his old Dad who says that sometimes you need to back off and hand the horse over to a professional. I'm proud of him, but I'm getting more cautious in my old age, and when I was his age I made a lot of mistakes and broke a lot of bones that now I wish I hadn't. I know he has to make his own mistakes, we all do, but I'd just as soon he didn't get too busted up in the process.

I want to know how YOU make up your mind if somebody needs to work through their horse problem by themself, or if they need to get professional help. I don't think there's any shame in bringing in a pro, heck we do it all the time with vets and shoers, there's stuff we can do at home and stuff we can't, and we know the difference. That's what I'm trying to ask. When you're giving advice, answering questions on HORSE-SENSE or on the radio, teaching your clinics and all like that, how do you decide when to say "Do it yourself" and how do you decide to say "Bring in the pro!"? I guess I've always just done one or the other without really thinking about it, I just sort of get a feeling that either the problem is something I can handle or else it's something I need help on, but now that I'm trying to explain this to my son, I need to be able to tell him something more than "I just get a feeling." Still and all, I want him to learn to work through the problems he can work through, but I don't want him risking his neck taking on a problem he isn't equipped to handle. You're a lot better with words than I am. I thought if you could explain to me just how you decide one way or the other, is it information or intuition or a feeling or what, I could explain it to him, or at least we could read the answer together and talk about it.

I know this isn't a very good question, but I hope you see your way to answering it. If you do or you don't, I want you to know that you have all my respect. I never did know much about dressage, but I know it's not real common for a dressage expert to know so much about Western horses and training and traditions, or to be so respectful of them. You'd be surprised how many cowboys know about you.

Yours truly, George


Hi George! First, thank you for the kind words - I appreciate them all. ;-)

I changed the subject line, you'll notice, because I think this one is a little more clear. But the question itself is excellent. You're asking about a decision-making process, and more than that, you're asking about brain-mapping! That's not an easy question to answer, but I'll have a go.

There's a lot that goes into any decision - conscious thought, unconscious thought, everything you've ever learned about horses, riding, training, and humans, everything you know and believe about training, your basic attitude toward horses and humans and learning.... and probably some things I haven't even thought of. You don't run through all these things on a conscious level, but they're in your head, and they're informing everything you do.

That's why a good trainer or teacher has to be informed AND aware - being informed will equip you with good general information and principles to follow, and awareness will help you notice every tiny detail about a specific horse and a specific human and their interaction in a specific situation. Lacking the information, the awareness isn't very useful - you might notice that a horse had its ears back and was snaking its neck, but if you didn't understand that this body language is threat behaviour, you could get hurt. You might notice that a horse wasn't eating, and in fact was rolling and rolling in its stall... but if you didn't understand about colic, you might just go back to the house and think "Silly horse, playing instead of eating breakfast!" Or you might see a horse put its ears back and shift away when the rider starts to mount, and think "That horse doesn't like that rider" instead of wondering about how well the saddle fits the horse.

Intuition is a good thing to have, and it's something that you can develop over time. It's not a magical gift from the Intuition Fairy that is given to only a select few, at birth. It's accessible; it can be learned and practiced and practiced and practiced some more, and the more you use your intuition, the better and faster and more accurate it will become. It's not magic or witchcraft or a special psychic ability, and it's not foolproof - but it's useful. It's nothing more and nothing less than the ability to take in a lot of information very quickly, shift it around, process it, filter it, find a pattern in it, and come up with one or more possible answers.

The important thing to remember is that it's all based on information, LOTS of it, and the ideas you get don't come out of the clear blue sky. They come from inside your own mind, and what you get OUT of your mind depends on what you've put IN it over the years.

At clinics and lectures and so on, I try to get as much information as possible from the questioner, because sometimes the initial question isn't the one that really needs answering. For example: "How can I make my horse keep its mouth closed?" isn't a good question, but "What's making my horse open its mouth, and what can I do to change the situation so that the horse is comfortable and doesn't WANT to open its mouth?" is a very good question, and it's also what the questioner really wants and needs to know!

Since so many problems and horse behaviours are actually REACTIONS to things that a rider or handler is doing or not doing, I've learned to go under and around and through the actual question and try to deal with the real issues behind it.

As for when I say "do it yourself" and when I say "call a professional" - it depends on the situation, the circumstances, the horse, and the knowledge and abilities and attitude of the human. Most problems exist on a sort of sliding scale. If someone says to me "My four-year-old is just learning to go out on trails, and whenever we leave the property, as soon as he realizes that he's alone, he stops for a minute and gets a little light in front - I'm worried that he might actually rear one of these days, how do I prevent that?" then I have a LOT of information about that person's attitude and knowledge, and I have a good amount of information about the horse, and I'll typically say "Here's what YOU can do."

On the other hand, if someone says to me "I just bought a horse and I always thought I wanted a horse but this one is scaring me, I've only had him two months and he has a real attitude problem, he rears whenever he doesn't want to obey, he used to just rear up, but lately he's been rearing up so high he's fallen over backwards and I managed to get out of the way just in time, but I'm scared he'll crush me one of these days, how do I make him stop and get his mind right?", then I also have quite a lot of information about that person's attitude and knowledge and abilities, and a good amount of information about the horse, and enough information overall to know that this is an extremely dangerous situation that is rapidly getting out of control, and it's time to bring in someone who can help.

What will do your son the most good, now and later and forever, will be learning to ask himself "Is this the best thing for the horse?" and answer it honestly. If he does that, he'll handle things himself some of the time, and call in the professionals when he needs them, and his ego won't be on the line either way, because it won't be all about HIM, it'll be all about the HORSE. When you're eighteen, it's hard to learn to put your ego aside, but that's what horsemen DO, and it sounds to me as though you've raised a horseman. Realizing that what you're doing with a horse is about the HORSE, not the trainer, is quite an achievement, but it's worth making the daily effort to do what's right. As your son gets older and accumulates experience, that is, THOUGHTFUL, CONSIDERED experience (that's the kind where twenty years of experience IS twenty years of experience, not the same year's experience repeated twenty times), he'll be in a position to follow not only in your footsteps but in those of trainers like Bill and Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Mark Rashid, and Harry Whitney - good cowboys and real horsemen.

Thanks for asking - you've made me think hard about an interesting subject! And by the way, some of my best friends are "cowboys", and, as you can see, some of my favourite trainers are too!

Jessica

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