Monday, July 29, 2013

The Importance of the Right Word

Once again, I learned something from my horses the other day.

I have this amazing young Paint Gelding, Turner, that I started competing with last year in hunter shows. He's wonderful; willing, smart, quiet, athletic, easy to train. He listens and is very attentive to everything I tell him - except when I tell him to stop. This is odd, because he is a quiet horse. Not one you have to constantly nag to keep going forward, but not one that is always going to fast.

Like all my horses, before I started riding him, he knew all the voice commands: walk, trot, canter, and whoa, which means either slow down or stop depending on how it is said. Under saddle, Turner responds to voice commands and leg and hand aids quickly and easily. Except when I want him to go from a trot to a walk, or walk to a halt. (Because he is inexperienced at the canter, he's always happy to go from a canter to a trot.)

I'm used to guiding my horses with my voice and body cues. I barely have to use the reins, especially for stopping - I simply sit back and tell the horse with my position that it is time to walk or halt and they do. This doesn't work with Turner, which is odd because he moves off my leg when I want him to move to one side, turns as soon as I look where I want him to go, knows to change direction when I change my diagonal even if I haven't cued him to go the other way. And at the canter and trot, when I say whoa, he does slow down. But I have to pull on the reins to get him to stop trotting or to halt. And I hate using the reins this way, especially because pulling doesn't work either. It is always a battle to get him to a slower gait.

For months I have tried everything I can think of, anything that has ever worked with other horses, and nothing got him to slow down except yanking on the reins. It finally occurred to me that maybe when I said "whoa", I wasn't saying it in a way that he could distinguish "whoa" as a command to slow down, which he has no problem with, from "whoa" as a command to stop, which he is oblivious to.

So I (finally) thought to try using different words. When he was trotting, I used my position to tell him to walk and said "whoa", as I always do. He kept trotting. I pulled gently on the reins and said "whoa". He kept trotting. Rather than resort to pulling harder and harder on the reins, as I always had to do, I said, "Walk", a term he knows, but I had only ever used it to tell him to go forward from standing still.

He didn't walk. Not immediately. But in his usual attentive manner, he let me know that he recognized this as something new. When I said "Walk" again, he slowed his trot and finally, as if not sure he was doing the right thing, walked. I cheered and hugged and praised him. We tried it again. This time he understood and walked as soon as I said to, without me having to use undue pressure on the reins.

I felt like an idiot. Why had it taken me over a year of wrestling with the poor horse, who has never done anything but try to do as I asked, to figure this out? Once he was walking, I tried my usual, never-successful means to get him to go from a walk to a stop. It was, as always, unsuccessful. I said "halt". This word was not familiar, but he figured it out. It took a few hesitant seconds for him to stop, but he did. I told him he was brilliant. He looked around at me as if to say, "This is what all that pulling on my mouth was about? Why didn't you just tell me to walk or halt?"

This isn't  a new lesson in communication; it's one everyone has - or should have - learned, possibly multiple times. When someone doesn't get what you mean, don't just say it louder or keep repeating the same words. Change the words or change the way you say them. This also applies to writing. If the words on the page don't convey what you want, change the words or how they are written.

I had to be taught - "told" - this again, from someone who doesn't even use words to communicate.