August 6, 2014

Comfort & discomfort

I just attended an amazing clinic on emotional fitness with Linda Parelli and Jenny Susser. Comfort and discomfort were definitely central themes as Jenny taught us to embrace discomfort in ourselves as an opportunity for growth and as Linda talked about how to help our horses find comfort. But that’s not why I’ve titled this entry “Comfort & Discomfort.”

Instead, today I want to muse on a very specific comment that Linda made. She was talking about how the heart of horsemanship lies in figuring out what your horse needs, and about looking for ways to help him be calm, connected, and responsive. At one point she added quite intriguingly that the comfort/discomfort model is, by current standards, “caveman horsemanship.”

She was referring primarily to the way that, for instance, in the past Pat would work on trailer loading a horse by making the area outside of the trailer uncomfortable (via movement, noise, pressure, etc.) so that the horse started hunting the inside of trailer as the place where all of that pressure was removed. Now, however, Linda said Pat will instead think about what that individual horse needs in order to be able to get on the trailer.

Most people who practice or teach natural horsemanship are familiar with the idea of making the desirable behavior easy (or comfortable) and the undesirable behavior difficult (or uncomfortable). Just this morning in my news feed I found this quote from Buck Brannaman: “As a rider, you must slowly & methodically show your horse what is appropriate. You also have to discourage what is inappropriate, not by making the inappropriate impossible, but by making it difficult so that the horse himself chooses appropriate behavior. You can't choose it for him; you can only make it difficult for him to make the wrong choices.” 

As Buck implies here, the appealing idea behind the comfort/discomfort model is that you don’t take away the horse’s ability to choose; instead, you guide him toward making “better” choices. Or, in Pat’s terms, you “cause” your horse to want to do something rather than “make” him do it. In an ideal scenario, then, you are empowering your horse while simultaneously getting the result you are looking for.

This is, undeniably, a step above just making your horse do what you want without caring whether he is on board with your plan or not. On reflection, however, it does seem that the horse must feel as if he is simply being channeled between banks of discomfort when he’s with his human.

For example, say that we want our horse to go in a straight line. When he’s on the line, we leave him alone. When he goes off it, we get busy with our aides (rein, leg, stick, what have you). Again, this is a step up from just micro-managing the whole time because there is a reward (being left alone) when he’s doing what we want. But it seems to me that the horse’s main perception would be that, when he’s with his human, there’s a lot of discomfort that he has to find his way to avoiding.

What’s good is that we have provided a way for him to do this—it is no longer a lose-lose situation for the horse as it is when the human continues to pressure the horse even when he's on focus. But nonetheless, it seems like the best deal the human is offering is a cessation of discomfort.

Now, many people agree that this is pretty dang motivating for horses. While other species, like dogs, are motivated by praise, horses really are motivated simply by being left alone. But they have that already when the human isn’t there. So what are we adding, then, that will cause them to really want to be with us? Just a lack of being an asshole means that they’ll like us okay, but as Linda said, we want our horses to be passionate about being with us—to love being with us. What would inspire them to feel that way?

I’m thinking today that the real limitation of the comfort/discomfort model is that, traditionally, our focus has been much more on the discomfort side. Sure, we are careful to offer, in Buck Brannaman’s terms, “the good deal”—which is to say that we start with just our focus and an invitation for the horse to follow it. But most of our effort and attention then goes into creating the appropriate level of discomfort to inspire our horse to accept that good deal. Hence, we focus on a line for the horse to follow, then pick up the rein, stick, etc., then tap with a rope, stick, etc., then tap harder, etc., until the horse finds our focus and we quit. Most of the process has to do with discomfort.

What if, instead, we put more of our effort and intention into the comfort side? What if we made that focus delicious for the horse to follow by being positive and enthusiastic about it ourselves? What if we worked on tuning all of the static out of our focus by having a clear idea and not getting sucked into distractions so that it’s easy for the horse to see it? What if we softened our focus by asking with relaxation and mental lightness rather than determination and direct-line thinking? What if we envisioned the good feeling of harmony with our horse and invited them to join us out of that space? What if we asked our horses, “Can you do this with me?” instead of “Can you do this?” What if, while asking our horse, we also radiated gratitude for all that our horse has already done?

I’m not suggesting that we focus exclusively on comfort, and I don’t espouse the “positive reinforcement only” model of horsemanship; sometimes you need to apply some form of pressure. But I think we’ve let our obsession with how and when and how much to apply pressure and when to stop applying pressure hijack the other side of the equation. I think there’s a space for positivity, not only in our release, reward, and gratitude when the horse does the right thing, but in the way we ask in the first place.

If we put half or more of our attention on envisioning the different kinds of comfort our horses need, then we’ve begun to balance the equation. What does comfort mean to your horse? Is it really just a lack of pressure? Or is it having a companion who speaks his language, understands his needs, seeks to create harmony, and helps him feel better mentally, emotionally, and physically? And how can we help our horses with all of these things?

These are the kinds of questions that, I think, will bring the comfort/discomfort model from a “caveman” level to a level that is present, immediate, and highly relevant to our larger horsemanship goal, not of getting our horse to do—or even to want to do—what we want, but of getting truly in harmony with our horse.

First, I’d like to give a big thank you to Mark Rashid, who has done a lot of thinking, writing, and teaching about softness and harmony with horses. (See, for example, Mark’s excellent new blog: Considering the Horse).

Second, I am excited that Parelli seems to be evolving in the direction of really emphasizing the comfort side of the equation and all of the things we can do to be positive presences in our horses’ lives. That element has always been in Parelli—in fact, “putting the relationship first” is, as any Parelli student knows, a central tenet of Parelli. But it’s a concept that needs a lot of fleshing out for people to be able to practice it successfully.

The good news is that, based on the things Linda and Jenny talked about this weekend, I believe the methods for doing so are about to come much more into the foreground, and I can’t wait!