Consistency and Constancy

The last time I worked with Noella, she made no progress. In fact, by the end of the night it seemed like we had made negative progress; that is, her stop response had actually gotten heavier. Several times while riding I almost had to employ an emergency stop because she started speeding up and nothing would induce her to slow down. I wasn’t happy with what I’d had to do, and no doubt she wasn’t happy either.

I thought a good deal about that failed training session over the next week. What I decided was fairly simple. It was my fault. All of it—her poor responses that got worse, her obvious lack of understanding of what I wanted. I think I knew that before, but I also came up with the reason why it wasn’t getting through to her.

When I came up against her slowing/stopping/backing problem, I dug out Academic Horse Training again, from the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre. In years past I found I couldn’t understand their methods, but with careful re-reading (I honestly read each page about 10 times) I understood it. For each manoeuvre there are six stages through which the training progresses. The first is simply a try and the remaining five shape that first attempt. They are:

  • Basic Attempt
  • Obedience
  • Rhythm
  • Straightness
  • Contact
  • Proof

During the first session, I had managed to elicit a consistent Basic Attempt response. During the second, we had progressed far in Obedience. In the third, the failed one described above, I had attempted to move on to Rhythm. The problem was that when I did not receive a response that followed the criteria of the Rhythm stage, I switched my aids back to Obedience level. For practically the whole session I kept switching back and forth, getting frustrated at her lack of response when she was actually simply confused by my shifting requirements.

In the first two successful sessions, I had stuck to the level she was at until she showed signs of moving on without me; I had been consistent in my aids and their delivery. The constancy of my aids, or their dependability, had given her confidence to improve. In the third session, my consistency was lost and so was her confidence. She became confused, and as a result her responses grew heavier and heavier, and as a result my aids became less and less constant.

In the next session with her, I went back to Obedience level and stayed there. By the end, she was showing signs of moving on ahead of me into Rhythm level by consistently stepping back two steps from one light aid. Now she is ready; now we can go on.

Unlike a horse trainer in training, our God knows exactly what we can handle, how much we can take, and what lessons we need. After all, He made us and knows how many hairs are on our heads! His wisdom is far superior to ours, and I am humbled to have such a masterful Trainer working tirelessly on me with gentle lessons that will never go over my head. I have a lot to learn!

The Horsegentler


Go For It!

Riding is fun. I think you’ll agree with me. All the same, we don’t often act like we are having fun when we ride. I see a lot of scowls and tense bodies, and I am guilty of scowling and being tense too.

Try this for me. Find a trampoline or other bouncy surface (a small, four foot one works best, but I imagine any kind will). Step on and straddle your imaginary horse. Begin trotting, shifting your weight rhythmically from one leg to the other. Hold your hands like you are holding reins. At this point it may be necessary to ignore the neighbours looking over the fence.

Now think about the hardest equine manoeuvre you know. Perhaps your horse bucks every time you ask him to canter—then think about cantering. If you just learned how to leg yield, think about asking for that.

Wait a minute! I didn’t ask you to stop trotting! What happened when you thought about those things? If the subject you thought of was scary enough, I can say with confidence that the end result was your legs stopped moving rhythmically and you may have received quite a jolt from the trampoline.

If that didn’t happen for you, congratulations. You are a more relaxed rider than most of us. Try this instead; I still want you to feel it: go back into your trot and tense up an arm, your wrist, an ankle, your neck… whatever you can think of and see what happens. It will be the same as above: your whole movement will become stiff and your rhythm will be lost.

What the trampoline did when you got tense shows you just what your horse feels. You get stiff and concerned, your body stops giving him the support and cues he needs to keep on going or move into a different gait, and so he starts making up the rules or totally falls apart or gets tense and concerned too. And what do you do when your horse starts ‘acting up’ (even though you see now that it was your fault from the first)? Probably you get more tense or pull on his mouth or punish him…. Does that make the situation better? Hardly.

If we think that riding is scary, our horse does too. If we get tense, our horse does too. If we freeze, our horse takes over or falls apart. It follows that if we have fun, relax, and feel what we want the horse to do before making him do it that he would have fun, relax, and feel us too.

Go for it! Do that scary thing like it’s a walk in the park. If you are unsure of your aid, apply it and see what the horse does. Feel him, then respond to him and he will respond back. That is guaranteed.

The Horsegentler

Have New Parents by Friday

I think that I am not alone in occasionally finding that I am annoyed by those who love me most. In my case, this is my parents. As my situation changes, so will these annoyances, and I believe that what I have discovered will apply to all situations like this.

Friday is 4 days away, counting today. It’s not much time to turn the relationship around, so we had better begin directly.


1. Pray for your parents (or other annoying party) and for your relationship to them. It is too important to simply let fall, and if you don’t recognize that yet, pray that God will help you to see the truth about the relationship. Remember that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, both you and the party you wish to change.

2. Do your part in the relationship. In my case, this has been faithfully doing what they require of me or ask me to do, as this is what is most expedient in proving my love for them.


1. Pray again. If God has already begun changing your thoughts and feelings, ask Him to show you what you can do and to take care of the rest Himself. If not, continue praying as before.

And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones who cry out to Him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. (Luke 18:7-8)

2. Do your part in the relationship as before, but also add one unexpected act of willing service. If it is not noticed like you hoped, don’t draw attention to it. God noticed.


1. Pray some more. It hurts when our closest friends or family don’t notice our attempts and tries to restore relationship, but God understands that and will provide much needed support.

2. Continue to be faithful to your end of the bargain. Instead of adding only one act of willing service, look during the entire day for various things you can do or say and do them. Aim for at least three. They don’t have to be huge and take up all of your time, but time has to be spent, and spending it on valuable people is better than most time occupations.


1. Pray.

2. You’ve arrived! Keep doing these things. The Lord commands us to love and serve one another, and He said that for a reason.

But I’ll bet that it isn’t your parents or friend that has changed. It’s you.

In continued service,

The Horsegentler

Break it Down

This week I learned the importance of breaking the steps of a maneuver down for a horse. I’ve been told that it makes it easier for a horse to see what is going on by taking each section of a maneuver apart and teaching it that way, then putting all of the steps together. But I never really understood what that looked like or how to do it.

Well, in this situation, it looked like letting the horse do something ‘wrong’ in order to get another part of the process ‘right.’ Then I did the part that he had done ‘wrong’ separately, after.

The only reason I looked at breaking steps down a second time was because Joker is a horse I only see once a week for about 20 minutes. Our sessions are therefore very limited, and the only thing he has a problem with is bridling, which we only work on for less than 5 minutes each week. In between, lots of other people work with him, reinforcing his bad habit. With such limited resources for this horse, I have been forced to be creative.

Joker has a severe aversion to the bridle. He has figured out that, being a tall horse, he can lift his head up and point his nose to the sky to avoid the bit, and his nose literally touches the ceiling of the barn. Through repeated negative* reinforcement—the bit leaving—this behaviour has been reinforced so strongly that when he sees the bridle coming, he begins to look away, which in itself is a form of negative reinforcement. With horses, ‘out of sight out of mind,’ actually is true.

Usually I put one hand on his poll and one hand on his nose and ask him to bend around to the left and put his head down. Usually he resists strongly and starts backing up. So this time I took the steps apart and essentially performed them backwards. While I still insisted that his head remain at a tolerable level for bridling, I moved with him around to his right, where he wanted to have his head. This way he could not swing his head violently all the way from the left to the right, gaining momentum the whole way and losing the bit each time. Also, he was unable to raise his nose as far.

The bit was in in a much shorter time than it was before.

Then I began working on politeness.

I brought his head where I wanted it, curved to the left (but I still did not ask for his head to come down). Here I did up the throatlatch and noseband, insisting on the head position that I wanted. When I was finished messing with his face, I began training the head down. Without all of the distractions of the bridle being in my hand, he understood my request with only three repetitions within about 20 seconds and dropped his head immediately to a position lower than I have ever seen him go from light pressure on his poll and nose.

I will continue to break these steps down for my obstinate friend and see how we fare. I expect that this very smart horse will make great progress from here on in.

The Horsegentler

*please note that negative reinforcement means ‘taking something away’ such as pressure or an object, not punishment or something with a negative connotation.

Life Lessons from Gardening

I had a gardening job this summer for a neighbour. It was just on the side, along with my other job and the coursework I was doing in the summer semester. All the same, I learned some pretty interesting things.

The first was that even when my fingernails were black and my shoes were full of dirt and the mosquitoes were flying around my head and my face probably had several black streaks, I could still talk with God and He would graciously listen.

When you are pulling smooth bromegrass roots out of the same plot of ground over and over and over again and have gone through all of the Scripture you were memorizing and have thought about everything else you can think of and feel ready to purchase some Round-Up… talking to God was a much better option, and one that I came to look forward to. My two, three, or four hours sitting in the middle of a tangled mess of roots which kept relentlessly sending up grass shoots were pleasant hours with my God.

While I was working in a less troublesome spot, though, I learned something really interesting. I had been told to just take out whatever looked like weeds in a flower bed, and I set to work. About an hour later, all the dandelions were gone, the grass had been dug out, the spaces between the landscaping stones were cleaned out, and I thought it looked quite pretty—so much better than it had been!

Well, my employer came out and looked at it and said, “Well done. Now, that is a weed, so is that, this isn’t a weed, but it can be taken out, and so can this and this…” and in short I was almost back where I had been! But once those directions were carried out, even removing some of the ‘wanted’ plants also, the flower bed really looked good.

I find it so easy to congratulate myself when I call someone I don’t know, or when I resist some temptation, or keep my temper in check. And God says, “Well done!” But he certainly does not think, like I am prone to, that the flower bed is finished. No, there is still this weed, and that one, and this flower really doesn’t belong there. Christianity is a constant journey and it is a hard one that often involves getting our hands dirty and crying to God over those roots that Keep. Coming. Back. But God is there the whole time, and He has the master plan for our garden bed that is slowly revealed as we finish each round of weeding.

Now that the snow flies, I have no more gardening work. Part of me is (very) glad, but I’ll miss the botanical theology!

The Horsegentler