September 25, 2013

Leadership essentials

In my last post I wrote about a different way to view what I call a left-brain freak-out: the angry response that LBI's sometimes give and that looks a lot like a temper tantrum. "Okay, fine," you might say, "but while I'm taking a rosier view of my horse's behavior, what am I supposed to do about it?"

I had a big realization when I was watching a friend with two of her horses, one a right-brain and one a left-brain. Both had a tendency to over-react when she asked them to do things: the right-brain horse would get explosive quite quickly, while the left-brain horse would pretty much just leave. Though I am a horsenality junkie and love the different strategies for the different analities, in this situation I found myself putting together the same solution for both horses. Which got me thinking.

It seems to me that when your horse is getting lost in emotion, whether fear or anger or confusion or what have you, there are a few basic things you do pretty much no matter what. These aren't earth-shattering, and they're not some major breakthrough in horsemanship, but I think they're worth emphasizing all the same. To me they are the most important components of getting your horse calm and back on the same page with you, particularly when his over-reaction is caused by something that you're asking him to do rather than an environmental stimulus (though these basic leadership skills will apply as well if he's spooking).

Here they are:
1. Be clear about what you want.
2. Keep your focus.
3. Don't react emotionally.
4. Really release.

All of these are things that sound obvious but don't come easily. I'm going to break them down and talk about the first two in this post and the next two in the following post.

Be clear about what you want.
If you don't have a clear idea in your head of what you want your horse to do, there is no way you can communicate it clearly to him. It's amazing how often we *think* we know what we want, but our idea is so vague as to be meaningless.

I was at a clinic with Dan Thompson, who is provocative in the best sense of the word, and we were all playing around on line with something or other when Dan's voice rang out, "Why are you playing this game?" And of course we all said, "Because you told us to." He smiled in the way that lets you know you have another think coming. "That's a good enough reason when you first start Parelli, but by now you should have your own reasons for any game that you play." He waited expectantly. We stared blankly. "Because I want my horse to get better," someone offered. "In what specific way?" Dan asked. It was then that we began to have a notion of what he was driving at.

If you send your horse out on the circle with the vague idea of getting it "better," what are you actually waiting for your horse to do? Be snappier in his departure? Maintain gait more consistently? Ask more questions? Bend his body more on the circle? Be more responsive when you ask for transitions? Go out on a larger circle? What?

We learned at that clinic that, if you don't know what you're looking for, (a) you can't communicate it to your horse clearly, and (b) you won't know when to reward him. And if you're waiting for him to improve on all those fronts before you reward him, you'll be waiting a long time because he's going to give up if he tries several things and still hasn't gotten a release. So it's best to pick one manageable thing, focus on it, get it better, and quit.

That's not to say, of course, that you can't reward him when he offers something really cool that you didn't ask for. When I started Parelli I was so focused on my horse getting the "right" answer that it took a while for me to learn to be flexible when he offered something equally positive. But if he's truly lost and freaking out, he needs a clear direction to head in. And the more lost he is, the clearer and simpler it needs to be.

I realized that one reason the Touch It pattern is early in the sequence is because you can make it very black and white: did my horse touch the thing I was focusing on or not? Once your horse learns that you consistently do have a goal, and one that he can be successful finding, he will start to look more to you to find out what you're asking. He is gaining confidence both in your leadership and in his ability to problem solve, and from there you simply build in more and more complexity. But most especially as you get more complex, you need to keep asking yourself if you know why you're playing the game: what does my horse need to do for me to say "game over" right now?

Keep your focus.
I've written before about how I learned at Fast Track the importance of maintaining focus, most particularly when your horse is upset by external stimuli or is unmotivated. What I've realized since then is that focus is equally if not more important when your horse is resisting or reacting to what you are asking him to do, though it can be highly difficult for us to maintain focus in this situation.

When a right-brain horse is exploding, or a left-brain horse is pitching a temper tantrum, our first impulse is to stop what we are doing. This makes sense: the horse is over-stimulated or upset, so we try to take away the thing that's upsetting him. However, if we do that, we wind up training our horse to be reactive because that's when he gets the release. 

I have struggled a lot with my LBI because he tends to get big and scary when I do things he doesn't like (generally these are things I'm asking him to tolerate being done, like oral dosing, although sometimes they are things I'm asking him to do, like leaving his sweet spot).

I find myself in these instances walking a fine line between backing off enough that neither of us gets hurt and persisting enough that he doesn't get a release while he's resisting. And I can tell you that, at this stage, we're both on a fair amount of adrenaline in some of these situations, which makes both of us quick to get angry and defensive (more on that in the next post).

It's a tricky situation, but I stay in it because I know one key thing: once I push one of my horse's buttons, it is only going to be worse for both of us if I don't hang in there and finish things on a calm note. My reward happens when it's easier the next day, which it usually is. (That's not to say he won't still pitch a temper tantrum, but generally—don't always say always, usually say usually—he's not as committed to resisting and we move through it more quickly.)

But there's also something else that I know, which is a bit more positive: when your horse is upset, whether they're scared out of their mind or fighting you or both, your focus is like a life line to your horse, helping them find their way out of emotional chaos. If you abandon your focus, they will think that you don't know a way out of the chaos either.

While it can feel to us like we're asking a lot out of a clearly distraught animal by persisting in our focus, what we're really doing is proving to him that he can find a way out of distress by listening to us. We're not being mean; we're demonstrating leadership. And we're helping our horse learn how to cope with things that cause discomfort—to learn how to be braver and calmer when facing the demands of living in a human world.

It's possible to over-focus, however—to put so much pressure on your horse that he can't calm down. I learned this with tying near the cow, where Lupin was too emotional to learn. In these instances, it's necessary to find a way to back off without abandoning your focus. Depending on the situation, this may mean you play a less adrenaline-riddled version of the game you were playing (with the cow, I continued to play with tying and extreme friendly games, but I took the actual cow out of the equation).

Or it may mean—if, for instance, your horse is hyper-sensitive and freaking out at pressure you are directly putting on him in the form of a stimulus—that you briefly reduce your phases down to a thought, which is a form of approach and retreat. This is very different, though, from taking all the pressure off when you retreat, even if all you're doing is still holding your goal in your head until he calms down enough to re-approach. It may look to an outside observer like you have quit playing the game, but your horse will feel the difference if you're still thinking about your goal rather than getting sucked into his emotional chaos and worry. And if you hold out until he does the appropriate movement in response to your stimulus rather than wigging out, he'll learn to understand and appreciate positive pressure.

Or it may mean that you break down something complex and focus on one smaller part where your horse can find success. The important thing here is that you then put the whole thing back together again once you've gotten his confidence better on the smaller piece. (Unless, of course, you've figured out that thing is way more challenging than you thought and you need to break it down over several sessions.)

Or it may mean playing a different game altogether for a little while. Often Lupin's resistance isn't about what I'm asking him to do, but about his druthers—what he'd rather be doing. In those instances Dan has shown me that it's much more effective to play a quick, high impulsion game to get his focus back on me generally, or to play a form of passenger lesson to show him that while he can go where he wants, it will be more comfortable for him to be where I want. The critical thing again, however, is that once the druthers are in better shape I go back to the game I was originally playing, so that he doesn't learn he can change my focus.

The number one way that horses get us to change our focus, of course, is by causing us to get emotional. As Pat Parelli has explained, they are masters at frustrating the predator. I'm no zen teacher when it comes to this stuff and I still take the bait and get emotional sometimes, but in my next post I'll share a few things that have helped me be less reactive myself.

September 11, 2013

On loving a left brain introvert — and why it can be hard

"Horses and humans have very similar emotions, but I think why they have them is very different. Horses are quite simple: they are pretty much driven by fear or dominance. They can get confused, frustrated, fearful, anxious, angry, maybe even sad or unhappy, but the reasons are very black and white. It is based pretty much on the moment, and while they can have past memories that drive their behavior today, they do not hold that against humans the way humans can."  —Linda Parelli

At one point during my Fast Track course, I was corrected by an instructor when I said that one characteristic of Left Brain Introverts is a tendency to get angry. "Horses don't get angry," she said. "They don't have that emotion." Since then I've heard Linda Parelli talking about horses getting angry multiple times, but I think there's a level on which Linda and my instructor are both right, for, as Linda suggests, horses don't get angry in the way that humans understand the emotion.

What my Fast Track instructor seemed to understand at the time (though I didn't) was the all-too-human tendency to attach lots of meanings to emotions. I believe she wanted me to see my horse without all the baggage that I was attaching to the idea that he was angry, and I've written previously (here) about how liberating that was.

But I think it's important to go a little further now because the fact is that horses—left brain horses, anyway—do get angry (sometimes quite angry), and they can be very dominant, and humans have negative associations with both of these characteristics that impede our ability to empathize with and appreciate our left brain horses. (Not having worked with a Left Brain Extrovert, I will restrict my comments from here on to Left Brain Introverts [LBI's], though I imagine some of this might apply to both).

Humans tend to view dominance as an aggressive, negative thing. We react defensively and judgmentally when others behave in a dominating way, or at the very least we see it as a challenge we need to answer by asserting our own dominance. Anger is even more difficult for us. If someone is angry at us, we tend to take it personally, once again becoming defensive—often by blaming or ridiculing that person—and in the process we become angry ourselves.

When LBI's show anger or dominance, we project a lot of these feelings and motivations onto them, and it tends to trigger our defensiveness and with it our blame, judgmentalism, aggression, etc.

It's interesting because right brain horses might exhibit more extreme emotion and more dangerous behavior than LBI's, but it's much easier for us to learn to accept their behavior. Once we get a little understanding about prey animal psychology, it's clear that when right brain horses are behaving in a dangerous way they are, quite simply, terrified, and once we have some Parelli skills, we can help them safely through that fear. This brings you and your horse closer as partners, and makes you feel like the hero who helped a small, distraught child find her parents. Good feelings for everyone.

But when your horse's unconfidence or intolerance manifests as anger, it feels bad to the human. We take it personally ("how dare he!") and we get defensive: "Look, dude, I may not be the perfect human, but if anyone else had to deal with you, you'd be at the auction already." Good feelings, indeed.

The problem is that, while right brain horses tend to say "I can't," left brain horses more often say "I won't." They may still be simply protecting themselves from what they perceive as a bad situation, but their refusal has a more defiant feel to it. Furthermore, while all horses are honest, LBI's are honest in a particularly ego-shredding way. Right brain horses might show you clearly where your leadership is lacking, but there's a part of them looking at you with eyes that say, "Please figure out how to do this better so we can both be happier." They are, as the Parelli's explain, looking for a leader, and as a result they're much easier to impress. It's almost like they want you to succeed.

Trying to impress an LBI, on the other hand, is like trying to impress your chain-smoking, tough old bird of a grandmother. LBI's don't particularly seem to care whether you get it right or not; they just tell you the truth in a kind of disinterested way, and there's always plenty more truth where that came from. And that's on a mild day.

On an extreme day, when they decide they do care, it comes out in the form of a temper tantrum. At this point your LBI is basically saying to you, "Oh no you didn't just push my button!" And things can proceed to get downright scary for the human—which is, of course, the LBI's intention: for you to be intimidated enough to drop the idea altogether. At these moments, when you feel that your horse is threatening you and you're concerned for your own safety, it is very hard to look at your LBI with love.

But there are a few key things to remember here:

(1) Though a horse having a temper tantrum feels more confrontational and therefore more personal to us than a horse that is simply driven out of its mind by fear, the LBI doesn't want to be in that emotional place of extreme intolerance any more than the right brain horse wants to be panicked. It looks more deliberate, more calculated, and therefore like something they are choosing to do, but they are still being overwhelmed by an emotion that they are not enjoying having. We associate a temper tantrum with bratty children and see it as a manipulative strategy. But even if bratty children are being somewhat calculating, if it's a genuine tantrum they are also the victims of their own excessive emotion and don't know a better way to cope with it. I believe it's the same with horses, and it is therefore just as incumbent on us to help our LBI's learn more tolerance for the sake of their own well-being as it is for us to help right brain horses learn how to be more brave.

(2) A horse pitching a temper tantrum is, still, a prey animal reacting. It is an animal that, having assessed the situation, does not feel that whatever thing is being asked of it is in its best interest. When your horse starts getting punky with you in response to such a situation, it's hard to know exactly what to make of him—it's hard to trust his intentions and to trust him with your well-being. But that is exactly what he is saying to you: "it's hard for me to trust you with my well-being right now." He behaves in a dominant fashion because he is taking responsibility for his own well-being. No, he is not respecting you in that moment, but it isn't personal the way we imagine it to be when other people are what we perceive to be rude or disrespectful. It is simply a fact: I don't respect your leadership skills enough to believe that you will take care of me in this moment and so I am going to take care of myself. (Side note: in humansville this is called being responsible for yourself and is generally seen as a good thing.)

(3) Finally, whether they are people or horses, LBI's are not warm and fuzzy. Their area of specialty is most definitely not blowing sunshine up people's asses to make them feel good about themselves. They are often, in fact, honest to the point that it is painful. As an LBI myself, I understand that this is actually one way of showing love. If I love someone, I want them to be the happiest and the best that they can be, and I know that only by facing up to the facts is that possible for them. So although it may not feel that way to them, I am actually trying to give them loving support when I am brutally honest with them.

Whether they intend it as a gesture of love or not, all horses will tell you the—sometimes brutal—truth. This is what makes them such valuable teachers. But right brain horses make this process a little more palatable by giving you a lot of extra credit bonus points for showing them that you care. LBI's, by contrast, want to know up front and in no uncertain terms that you both care and know—a lot. And they want daily proof. LBI's are more like those extremely demanding teachers who have such high standards that, if you get an 'A' in their class, you know you really earned it.

It's only recently that I've really started to appreciate the favor that my LBI horse does me every day by being this kind of demanding teacher. Now that I've started playing with other horses, everything Lupin has drilled me in is there at my fingertips without my having to think about it at all. And I realize now that what he has been doing is teaching me, not just unconscious competence, but excellence, and if this is not exactly proof of how much he loves me, it is proof of how much he cares that my leadership is solid, which in horseville I think may be almost the same thing.

In closing, I'll say one other thing for LBI's, which is that their seeming indifference goes both ways: Lupin may not be easily impressed by my leadership efforts, but he is not radically affected by my leadership failures either. As an example, I've been learning how to play with my donkey from Lupin's back. On our first trail ride, I was all kinds of spazzing out while I tried to manage the donkey, and Lupin calmly soldiered on, paying no mind to my frantic twisting and turning and—I'm embarrassed to say—cursing and swearing. Indeed, it was in large part owing to the fact that Lupin, at least, kept his head that we all came through okay.

The moral of the story? When your LBI remains completely non-plussed as you try to advance your skills, remember that he will also remain non-plussed in circumstances that could easily cause other horses to freak out. And when he does lose it emotionally and pitches the mother of all temper tantrums, try to remain calm and don't take it personally. Because when it's your turn to lose it emotionally, your LBI will be there, calm and not taking it personally.

Note: I am greatly indebted to Dan Thompson for changing my perspective on temper tantrums, and for helping me work through some of Lupin's tougher ones.