In my last blog titled ‘Relaxation, Confidence and Attention,’ I referred to the importance of relaxation in the horse’s body in order to work toward the levels of the ‘Training Pyramid.’ Musculoskeletal balance was addressed as a component of a horse’s ability to have a balanced nervous system and be able to experience levels of relaxation, and reference was made regarding the importance of emotional and mental balance.
In this week’s blog, I am continuing the theme of relaxation, confidence and attention, with an emphasis on attention. What do we have to consider in the handling of our horse, in order to earn the trust required to have the privilege of their attention, so we can teach them and learn together?
Even though the learning process is different for humans and horses, the actual ‘act’ of learning takes both species a little out of the comfort zone and into the learning zone, which in and of itself has different layers. The ideal is to develop through the confidence of the comfort zone into the learning zone, which allows free attention to be expanded and learning to take place. Relaxation must be present in order for the horse to feel safe enough in his environment that he has confidence enough to be attentive.
Unfortunately, in some areas of our equine world, the emotional and therefore confidence aspects that contribute to learning have been pushed aside. I have often seen a horse be chastised for not giving his handler, or rider attention. Perhaps at times a horse has lost focus for a moment and put his attention on something that has instinctively startled him, maybe environmental, maybe human and perhaps another animal. Either way, his arousal system has signaled that his attention should go toward that distraction. For a moment or more, you do not have your horse’s attention and at that moment you also have an important, deliberate choice to make. Will you enhance the distraction through insisting he ‘physically’ looks at you or ‘gets in a frame,’ or do you allow a moment of distraction to inform you of some possible holes in your horses training, or in the relationship you have with your horse? Indeed having your horse’s attention is a requirement for learning, riding, and performance, but how one goes about creating that effectively and from the horse’s point of view, is the question at hand here.
Many challenges occur because we expect our horse to operate with the same levels of attention that we do. Humans operate from within 4 main planes of ‘attention;’ selective, divided, sustained and executive. Horses are sensory based thinkers and they think in pictures, feel, smell and sound. The main focus of a horses attention is instinctually toward his safety, the safety of the herd, and food. In the horse, attention and learning is based on safety and motivation, and is relative to their sensory integration in any given moment.
So where does relaxation and confidence come in? First, as we discussed in the previous blog, relaxation is primary for the horse to even engage in a process that will develop confidence and ultimately lead to attention. A horse has to trust his environment in order to have confidence. Therefore if he is punished or mistreated, (even slightly in the form of a yank on the bit), when he is experiencing anxiety and an instinctive sense of lack of safety, his nervous system shifts into fright and flight, his muscles tense and his attention is guarded as his body is ready to flee. This ‘reaction’ may make no sense to us, as fear is a flee motivation in a prey animal that doesn’t exist in a predator, which we essentially are. In addition, we are not sensory based thinkers and unlike a horse who experiences associative thinking, we have an association cortex which allows us to discern the difference between a stimulus that is ‘associated’ with a pain or fear memory versus actual pain and fear itself, or in the case of the human mind, the ‘feeling and story’ derived from previous pain and fear.
This is why many times we don’t even observe what has caught a horses attention, but if something clearly has, and his trust in the handler is wavering, then we have an example of a fear zone in which a horse is obviously not relaxed, has no confidence in his environment or handler in that moment, and therefore cannot learn even with a motivational stimuli.
The equine system has to reset and the external factor must be diminished or removed in order for this to happen. A trainer or rider that is consistently punishing the horse,* then giving positive reward, will not succeed in gaining that horses trust and the horse will not learn because of the inconsistency in the behavior. *(No matter how insignificant the punishment might be, if the horse is not feeling safe, it is significant) A trainer that executes those types of principles will attempt to ‘get the attention of the horse,’ but you will notice the horses gaze quickly shifts into a tense posture, again looking away from the trainer.
Let’s take a moment to notice the difference between the fright and flight pattern in a horse and the fright and fight pattern in a human. As I mentioned earlier, prey animals are more prone to flee from fright, where as humans as predators, are instinctively programmed to fight. Our equivalent of a horses sensory based reaction, is a pattern known as ‘defense psychology.’ This is where our neuro patterning creates an emotional story around pain and fear. These threats can either be empirical (the threat is real) or priori (the threat is not real but imagined based on a prior incident). Either way, the physiological reaction triggered by your mind cannot differentiate between a real threat or an imagined one. It is the disparity of the human and equine brain that is responsible for the relative ‘reactionary’ systems. Unlike a horse, a human has a much larger, developed cerebral cortex, allowing greater capacity to think, whether advantageously or in some cases, to one’s disadvantage! A horse, in comparison has a cerebellum that accounts for about one third of the brain and all but rules them as motor/sensory animals.
Even though horses can become attentive and learn through the motivation of food ~ partly because of the association of a food stimuli related to inherent survival, ~ the foundation to the relaxation and confidence within, which they are able to learn with or without a food motivation, is essential to the relationship with the trainer or rider and is sometimes missing in the equestrian world.
In next week’s blog I will uncover some of the foundational building blocks that must be in place, in order to build the confidence necessary for your horse to give you the attention required for learning. In addition, I will begin the exploration of the emotional platforms that can be explored as a pre requisite for learning through the motivation reward system of food.
Have a joy filled week exploring these nuances. Please share this blog with any one you may think is interested.
Stay safe and healthy,