Monday, March 14, 2011

Synchronicity and the Thinking Horseman

Why Does He DO That?

Dakota:  "Look!  Horse-eating weeds!  Aaaaaargh!"
Me:  "WHY must you spook right there every time?!"
Dakota:  "Why are you such an idiot?"
[Better question:  Why did I do that?  This training tip seems pertinent during the mud season lull and in the light of so many horses being labeled "inappropriate" by their owners. ]


“Ms. Friedman?  This is Jim Stanley with the Internal Revenue Service . . .”

“Well, I’ll be darned!  You know, Jim, it seems like every time I get ready to cheat on my taxes, the phone rings, and it’s you!  What a coincidence!”

“Whatever.”  [Horses in the Yard]


Let's talk coincidence for a minute.  That's coincide-ence, in case you weren't up to dissecting it yourself.  When two events coincide--happen at the same time--it's sometimes difficult to sort out cause from effect from total happenstance.  That's what makes training horses, humans, and other animals such an intriguing game.  Did he do that because you asked him to, or did you ask him because you knew he would do that?  And what's all that with your SO leaving socks on the floor?  Coincidence?  I think not.
Anyway, Synchronicity theory is the rule of thumb that says that two things happening synchronously (cool word!) are not necessarily related. 

That's easily applied to training if you look at it through the fringes of your pillow.  You and Buzzcutt have been working long and hard on the "Get OFF my FOOT!" cue.  He just doesn't seem to be getting it no matter how hard you push, poke, and prod or how loudly you scream.  He just leans harder on that foot.  Why?  Well, he may just be  a fun kind of guy.  Could it be that all your fussing is making him giggle in that silent horsey way?  And after the yelling and other fun is over, when he finally gets bored and moves that foot or leans away from you just a smidge because his attention was drawn to the bird overhead tossing babies out of the nest so the circulation returns to your toes, do you sigh?  Pat him?  Tell him he's good?  Give him a cookie or his own cell phone?

Bet you do.  

Take that event apart and you'll see synchronicity written all over it.  It all began one day when, mid-bridle-path-clipping, Buzzcutt took a step to the right so he could get a better view of the filly across the street.  He landed on your foot.  Maybe he noticed, but maybe not.  If his attention was diverted, your soft little foot probably felt a lot like the lump in the rubber mat in his stall or the dog he walked over just yesterday.  

But...what ho!  In a moment a party happened! There was yelling and physical contact of a type not usually associated with clipping episodes.  If he's the laconic sort, he probably turned and looked at you then went back to long-distance wooing.  If he's the hysterical sort, he probably looked away from you to see why you were raising an alarm.  Squirrel at 11 o'clock?  Feed wagon coming?  What?  He may at that point have put even more pressure on your foot as he attempted to jump into your lap or climb on you for a better look-see.

Eventually he moved off and you praised him for following your instructions, such as they were.  He got happy, you got movement in your toes, and both of you got synchronous.  He thought he was being praised for looking to his left or ducking the fledgling or calling to the filly...or maybe stepping away from you.  Hard to tell.  What was easy to connect was the fun and excitement of your LOLHuman moment and his standing very, very close to you.  

If you're not totally in tune with the variables involved in this scene, you may assume you just taught him to move off.  You're all proud as Punch and ready to go forth and train other people in your newly-minted method.  But imagine your surprise when the next time you pick up the clippers, he immediately moves toward you and stomps on your boot!  For him, that's the beginning of the Buzzcutt and Human Comedy Show, and it's going to end with praise and treats.  He can hardly wait!

Ten seconds later, the detector beeped... Monster in the Pasture!
Obviously, you did train him.  You just didn't train him to do what you thought you'd trained him to do.  The same applies to the horse who learns to avoid getting caught because having you chase him around the pasture is bunches more fun than going to work.  It certainly makes sense in the case of the horse who develops what seems to be an irrational fear of something strange, like rootbeer cans or old ladies wearing mittens.  There's no way of knowing what synchronous activities have connected in his mind into something that, to him, is the purest of logical stimulus-response experiences.  

My personal fave was in the "running through the lead" category.  Zips Moneypit was young and I was foolishly arthritic, and he quickly learned that if he just bolted, he could pull the longe line out of my hands and prance around the arena yelling, "Look at me!  I'm free!"  This went on for a couple of weeks until in pain, I let go and synchronicity stepped in.  Off he went with the longe trailing, and there I stood at the opposite end of the arena.  He pranced and danced until...uh-oh!  Guess who danced right onto the end of the longe line.  The look on his face as he pulled himself up short was priceless.  From 150 feet away I had somehow managed to spoil his fun, and there he was, stuck, and me nowhere near to set him free.  We did that a few more times before he quit the game entirely.  Since I was there, I'd pulled him up before, and I'd been at the end of the line when we started, I had to be the cause of the sudden halt.  Even when he dallied the lead around the fence post while I was on the other side of the barn, I still had the magic.  That was many years ago, and I've opted not to disabuse him of his faulty belief system.  Works for me! 

Synchronicity can be your friend if you learn to analyze the situation in detail.  Use it and don't let it use you, and you'll be smarter than the average horse in no time. 

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