These are two very misconceived words in the horse training thesaurus. I would like to take some time and explain what they mean to me and my training program. I hear these words a lot and they are two of the most popular, but sometimes I cringe when I hear it used in the wrong context…….
First, the word Discipline as taken from the dictionary….
Discipline means a field of study or is training to fix incorrect behavior or create better skills. As a society we often refer to it as a negative thing, yet, we join the military to receive it and are conditioned as children to sit in class, pay attention and take notes. It is a required skill to be respected at work or in groups and overall is something we are judged on in most aspects of our lives.
The same thing can be said for horse/animal training. As a trainer, I have disciplined myself to learn what I know and apply it correctly at the right time. It is a discipline to make sure that everything gets done to ensure that we can relax and enjoy our training time with the horses. Not losing my temper or asking a horse for more than he is capable of, also takes self-control, which is…… discipline. I have to know when to tell myself no or be patient! Not to mention that I continue to educate myself and sometimes see things in a new light through it or have to throw out old ideas, which also requires, yep……. discipline.
For the horse it means that he must have a basic pattern of compliant behavior and know the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. When he begins to behave badly or in a dangerous manner, a firm NO, correction and a calm-down cue is very appropriate. When they are thinking and trying to figure out the task that is presented to him, is when true discipline of thinking and learning without getting frustrated begins. Any treasured schoolmaster or lesson horse has more of it than any horse should have to. He has come to appreciate the consistency in his language and profession and that took many years of discipline to shape the behavior that is now used to teach the human.
It takes a commitment to a structured program of some sort to learn to communicate with your horse, take 10-15 minutes a couple of times a week to work on a cue or behavior and not beat it into the ground. Even military get time off the base to blow off a little steam, so, remember that it is important to balance your program with fun and trail outings to apply the things you have been working on. This helps the horse to understand the purpose of his education and become more confident in you. He gets a chance to realize that he does understand what is being asked and can calmly, successfully perform in his given tasks. I find that the more discipline my horses have, the less stressed they get when working and rarely even break a sweat anymore. Now, when they do get hot or sweat, I know to re-evaluate where the horse is mentally and physically and adjust accordingly.
Most of the young horses we train are well loved and a little on the spoiled side. They have been treated well, allowed to make many of their own decisions and feel like they have a full say in the matter. They are usually not used to the word NO and what it means. They have also been allowed to be themselves, which is a wonderful life for any child, but at some point need the skill set to behave in an appropriate matter and know to drop the subject when the word NO is presented. This usually takes about a month, and is recognizable by the soft eye the horse will have after being corrected, then relax. The alternative is an unruly teenager that rebels against authority when asked to be responsible for themselves.
Which now takes us to Consistency, as used in the dictionary,
Consistency means thickness or something stays the same, is done in the same way or looks the same. If we continually practice the same mistakes, we will get the same bad results. We see a video, read a book, go to a clinic and want to try something new, then get frustrated when it doesn’t work. We have to remember that the horse needs time to understand YOUR new behavior. The other thing to keep in mind is, what does your individual horse respond to best? Most popular is pressure and release, but I have met a few that would not respond to it correctly and tried thinking outside the box. Trick training has been an invaluable tool for changing the mind of a scared or defiant horse, as they are trying to figure out how to get the reward and not fear the repercussions. I have also seen clicker training work well for horses that need to know what is going to happen next.
We are hopefully always learning and growing in our lives as well as our horse training skills, which means we constantly change. This makes it hard to be consistent in your basic behavior and the handling of your horse. I have however found that if I consistently handle my horse in a calm, pleasant manner and reward them more than I correct, they are eager to work with me on any subject, any time! It also seems to exponentially increase the amount of material they remember from each session and accelerate their learning curve. When a horse is stressed or unsure, he cannot think clearly, if his feet are moving more than you are asking for, he is only retaining 10% if you are lucky. When they are totally calm and relaxed, able to stand still and focus on you, they will retain almost every second of the time you spend together. You might feel silly, but tape yourself working with your horse and see if you are sure of what you are asking him to do. Our concept of what we are doing and reality are sometimes two different things. Maybe practice your cues and body positions in a mirror to be sure that if you were a horse, you might guess the right cue. It is all really just an elaborate game of charades anyway! Not to mention that not all horses perceive the same cues in the same way and you will have to adjust accordingly.
It may seem like they are just taking a nap, but when your horse takes a minute to cock his hip, close his eyes and twitch his lips……..by all means, LET HIM SOAK! Their brains work a little differently from ours and it seems like those few precious moments the horse takes to absorb into his long-term memory and muscle memory are the real meat and potatoes of the actual learning curve. It seems that when I let a horse go through these quiet moments on any specific thing, they are ALWAYS capable of remembering and repeating the task! Working with untouched wild mustangs has taught me this as I know exactly what they have learned and understand for themselves, so, I have repeatedly proven to myself that I am on the right track!
Consistently does NOT mean doing something every day! It really pertains to being the same each time you work with your horse. So, if you are always quick and impatient, your horse will be hard to catch, excitable and stressed. If you are always calm and have a well thought out program for each horse, each time you work with him, they will begin to meet you at the gate and initiate trained responses. Sometimes, when I am not getting the right result, I will take some time and soak on a new approach rather than continue to frustrate myself and my horse. So, for the purpose of proving my point, the definition of insanity is……..doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result! If it is not working, step back, seek advice, or just re-evaluate your result. We are supposed to be the animal with the larger brain and with the internet at our fingertips, there is always a better answer.
So, in conclusion, I hope that I have helped to see these two terms in a new light. A horse can sit for years and still remember everything he has been taught. There is so much information out there and so many things you can do with your horse, it is time to discipline yourself to consistently enjoy your horse and the things you do together. If you think about it, it will also enhance your “enjoyment” time with your horse, it should be relaxing, fun and constructive, not stressful, frustrating or hard!