Monday, August 19, 2013

Getting to "Forward": Decisions Made Easy

Four Tricks to Help You Make Any Difficult Decision

This article is one of the best I've read this week.  I'm not someone who has trouble making decisions.  In fact, I have trouble focusing long enough to think that my decision might not be the best one.  So this even makes sense to me.

Perhaps the most difficult part of horsemanship is that decisions are unilateral while the effects are multilateral.  The horse really doesn't have a whole lot of input into what we choose on his behalf, does he?  We pretty much call the shots.  And how our decisions impact the horse is how the horse's reaction also impacts his herd mates and the other humans who have to interact with him.

Example:  Years ago someone I know read about teaching a horse tricks.  She followed the instructions to the letter, and in no time she had her horse lying down on command.  The training regimen began with picking up the horse's front leg.  Then it proceeded through rocking the horse back with that leg lifted until gravity explained to the horse that lying down would prevent falling down.  Before long, just lifting that front leg was sufficient to cue a lie-down.  Awesome!  Cute! Stunning!

And so we begin...

It was all wonderful until the next farrier visit.  The shoer picked up that leg, and...yep.  On the farrier.

So the decision to trick train was an easy one to make.  It's a neat thing to to.  It builds a bond of trust between horse and trainer like no other.  It's fun.  And it's a great way to impress friends and family and kill time until the baby is old enough to start under saddle.  But it's not a decision to be made lightly.  Foreseeing unforeseen consequences of our behavior is an art form few have mastered.

Thorn Koslowski, author of the article above, has laid out four simple ways to make sure you're making the best decision.  For me, unleashing my inner Contrarian is probably the most useful.  I'm never at a loss for a quick decision, but I rarely bother to look at the down side before it smacks me in the face.

When Zips Buzzcut was just a little sprout, I taught him some nifty behaviors surrounding orange traffic cones.  I was learning about clicker training, and the book suggested not using anything as a target that is commonly in use around the horse for other reasons, so I bought a pack of tiny orange cones at Le Mart de Wal and went about getting Zip to do things using those as cues.  His fave was fetching.  I taught him to fetch so that he would pick up my dropped crop or whatever for me.  Score one for the lazy side!  I taught him to stretch both front feet singly and together because getting under his massive chest to do that to keep skin from getting pinched in his girth was far too dicey.  He loves to lick and chew on my hair, belt, bottom, arm...anything he could reach.  He's a very affectionate horse if a tad short on personal space limits.  It's all been functional and fun, and I really tried to think through the down sides of these endeavors.

But, alas!  I missed a few fine points.  For instance, the cue to "back up" is too similar to the "stretch" cue. So if I'm standing right in front of him and give him the cue, I'm as likely to get my feet stomped as I am to see him move back away from whatever I need him to move away from, like my body.  Likewise, the fetch-the-cone intro lesson was fine, but it got annoying when he started fetching and rearranging the full-sized traffic cones I used as markers in the riding ring.  

Deciding to make him a dressage horse when he was happy being a jumper was also not well-considered.  Some horses can handle being both scopy and highly collected without their brain hairs frizzing.  Zip, not so much.  The more I tried to collect him, the more tense and unhappy he became until he wouldn't move forward at all.  That made life fun for everyone who had to deal with him.  Trickle-down at its finest!  I'd had the same response from my first Quarter Horse mare, and I should have recognized where we were heading, but I didn't.

I'd like to add a fifth suggestion:  Decide in advance what "success" will look like.  It'll help you pick a clear path.  Perhaps the worst decisions I've made personally were bad simply because I didn't have a clear end point in mind.

So read the article; think about the ramifications, and maybe your future decisions won't be as tedious or stressful or chaotic as they might otherwise.  Or don't read it.  It's your decision.

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