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Tracy Courtney

Reprogramming Change

It's important to understand the programming behind the behaviour of our horses & ourselves. Horses can be viewed like little robots who are easily programmed to do as we ask or allow. What we don't realize is that we create all of the programming & are responsible for every behaviour elicited. We have also been programmed throughout our lives to believe we must look to external sources for causes of unwanted behaviour, but the cause is our own programming of beliefs & habits.

We have been taught to believe that training begins in the arena. Training time starts the minute we make eye contact with our horses. This is the moment the tone of our time together is set & all following interactions will flow or disintegrate from this point. If we allow our horse to crowd, push or blow through the gate without making immediate time for redirection, for example, we have just shown our horse that they are in charge for today. 

Most horses don't want to be in charge & the ones who do are going to have a great time playing games with us, such as seeing how much they can get us to move our feet. We have already shown these confident horses that we are not a leader who will follow through with the Ground Rules & insist that they do what is asked. This will later force us to adopt aggressive techniques which could have been avoided from the start, at the gate.

The unconfident horses who don't want to be in charge are going to try to get away from us by becoming buddy/barn sour, fresh, jiggy & explosive as their fear increases with every step away from their safe comfort zone. We have already solidified an idea in our horse's mind that we are not a leader who can be trusted to lead effectively if scary situations arise later. This puts the horse on the lookout for potential threats that we will not warn them about or protect them from. We have just taught these horses to disconnect from us mentally, emotionally & physically before we have even left the pasture. 

Behaviour requires repetition to solidify into habits. We understand this from the level of forcing horses to repeat sequences of steps in the arena during training time, but don't often stop to consider this application outside of the arena. If we spend time with our horse 7 days per week & are drilling our training time in the arena 3 days per week, what about the habits being created during the rest of the week?

We don't often consider that our horses are being handled outside of the arena much more than inside & what's being solidified during those interactions. If we consider this math for one week, just for this single example, this horse has been taught to become mentally, emotionally & physically unbalanced at least 14 times during this one week alone. This repetition created over extended periods & including multiple sources far outweighs the repetition of the drilling in the arena. So which habits will be most deeply reinforces & elicited?

Those involved in rescue situations often view the source of unwanted behaviour as the people & circumstances that occurred before the horse arrived, however, once a horse is moved to a new environment, there is a "window of opportunity" (a previous article) where the horse becomes a blank slate who actively seeks the installation of brand new programming to override the previous. When we don't take advantage of this opportunity, the horse will begin to display some of the habitual unwanted behaviour, but not all immediately. They will quickly begin to habituate to new routines & not demonstrate certain habits until a situation arises that pulls those habits from the "box of habits" once again.

It's vital to evaluate a horse's mental & emotional state as well as the physical responses during our time together. What we allow is what we get, so if we ignore & reward stress & anxiety which can easily be mistaken for excitement or exuberance, we will be habituating this state of being unbalanced. A common example is during feeding time. Many horses will display all kinds of behaviour other than being relaxed mentally, emotionally & physically. Some horses will charge, bite, weave or paw holes in the floor. If fed during these unbalanced states, these horses are being rewarded for their behaviour which is also being deeply habitualized & solidified by our choices & actions. We are always responsible for the habits displayed by our horses.

Horses aren't born with destructive, neurotic or aggressive tendencies, they are created over time by our beliefs & choices. The more we begin to observe & understand ourselves, the better we can begin to understand our horse's behaviour. This will better prepare us to be able to help our horses redirect & release frustrated & fearful feelings constructively & change our lives for the better. As we begin to notice patterns of behaviour, we can begin to create the necessary changes to help our horses & ourselves create a meaningful connection & flowing relationship. We can begin to create confidence in new situations for each other by offering an outlet for unbalanced emotions through immediate redirection without correction, not waiting until we get to the arena. Beginning to listen & understand our horse in these new areas will also help us realize if you may be pushing too hard for results or are unintentionally creating unwanted habits.

It's important to begin our new relationship with our horses by setting our goals & what we think we know aside for now, to be in the moment with our horses & to be prepared to observe & redirect anything other than a quiet & relaxed state of being. By stopping to observe & redirect with what's happening in the moment, we're showing our horses that we're listening & are a leader who can be trusted. The advice I often give is to view every single interaction as though a small child will be handling this horse. If you wouldn't feel comfortable allowing a child to retrieve your horse from the pasture & lead them to the cross ties by themselves, then this is where you need to spend your time creating new habits, not in the arena.