The firm, hard line — Don Jessop
Can you reach the next level without being strict about something, at some point in your career?
Sadly, no you cannot. At some point, you will have to find a leader in you. And I’m not just talking about being kind and rewarding. Most natural oriented folks are good at being kind and rewarding. But I’m talking about being firm, strict, even harsh, in just the right moments, in an effort to make extraordinarily clear boundaries and set a precedent for future progress. It’s easier said than done because anyone could say their a good horse owner with a horse that never challenges them. But what takes place in the game of progress is often, a whole other kettle of fish.
It’s a hard message to relay for me, and probably for any trainer who has a heart for the horse. The last thing I want to see is abusive training tactics. I’m not abusive and never will be. But there are times with a rambunctious horse, for instance, that being kind is out of the question for a few brief moments. In all my years, and all my travels around the world working with exotic animal trainers, and the best horse trainers the industry has to offer, we all agree on a few leadership ideals.
Number one. You have to bond with the animal. If you don’t bond, you’re just a jerk with a pet. Number two: you have to set clear boundaries that will absolutely, never be crossed. If you don’t set boundaries and constantly reinforce those boundaries, you will never make it to the higher levels of horsemanship.
Imagine these two scenes.
1. Sunny day, calm, interested horse, no distractions, and you.
2. Stormy day, tense, distracted horse, and you.
Only one type of trainer can manage both days. It’s the type of trainer that knows how important that firm, hard line is. Do you know that line? Can you set that level of concentration in your horse? Are you willing to be that firm if you have to?
When I write about these things, I’m afraid people will think I’m firm and strict all the time. It’s the furthest thing from the truth. Those who know me, know I’m kind, ultra rewarding, patient, and sweet, nearly every single moment of the day. But those who know be best know that in spite of my kind nature, there is no mistaking my leadership in stressful moments. Like when my 180lb body meets a 1500lb body on a windy day. I set a clear hard line that won’t be crossed. That’s what leaders should do. Then when the horse is connected and calm, back off and settle down.
Many people can work with their horse and do amazing things in the arena, but find themselves holding their breath and choosing not to participate anymore, if you ask them to venture outside the arena. These are the folks that refuse to set a firm hard line. It’s okay… It’s okay… It’s okay to be that way! Just remember, until you learn how to set that line, you will be stuck where you are, waiting for your horse to feel good and the sun to shine again. It’s okay, but there is more to learn, if you want to.
It’s okay… It’s okay… It’s okay to be that way! Just remember, until you learn how to set that line, you will be stuck where you are, waiting for your horse to feel good and the sun to shine again. It’s okay, but there is more to learn, if you want to.
The trickiest part of this lesson is how different people think and feel. When I teach people to be firm, I meet several types of people. One person believes they can’t be firm because it’s abusive and they are afraid to rock the boat. Afraid to make physical contact with the horse in a firm way. Another person has no trouble being firm but can’t back off when the stressful moment fades. That second person is too quick to be firm and too slow to settle. The first person is too slow to be firm and can only hope the horse settles first.
You can see why it’s tricky. I have to help folks who can’t raise their stick to block or strike at a horse, learn that horses do exactly that. Horses block and strike. Have you ever seen two horses fight. What happens after they fight? Usually… they eat. That’s right. They calmly go about life together as if nothing happened. The lead horse wins the battle then goes back to eating. People struggle with this concept. If they manage to get firm enough to be the leader, they often can’t let it go, and will stand there in a cold sweat with fumes coming out their ears. You have to let it go. Resume life like you just had a hiccup and that’s it. But in the heat of the moment, you can’t back down. You have to set a boundary, unless you want your horse to only be a “sunny day” horse.
With the other extreme personality, I have to teach them to slow down their firmness. But more importantly, I have to teach them to dial up their reward systems. People who are firm naturally, often fail to give fair rewards. They often fail to make the experience for the horse a pleasant experience that the horse can look forward to tomorrow. Have you ever heard someone say you shouldn’t use treats with a horse? The person that said that is probably a bit of a hardhead. I know because I’ve said that in the past. Treats, with clear boundaries, are fine to use. In fact, the firmer you become, the more treats you should use to balance the bonding/training ratio. You should know there are other types of treats besides food treats. There are time off treats, rubs and scratching treats, pressure release treats, etc. You don’t have to give more food, but you can certainly give more of what the horse deserves.
In the end… what we really want is balance. We want a horse that trusts us but respects us at the same time, especially when the heat is on. The way you trust and respect your mentors in life. To earn that trust we have to bond. To earn that respect, we have to set a firm hard line from time to time.
Wow… I feel like there is more on this topic. It’s a deep, unsettling thing to have to set a firm hard line. Even just talking about it brings up emotion. Believe me when I say, there are many, many ways to do anything so I’m not talking about techniques in all of this. I’m talking about principles in leadership and progress. I hope that by reading, you can dive into your own leadership models and work toward the most balanced approach to reaching higher levels of training.
Thanks for reading,