The Ugly Beginning — by Don Jessop
A few days ago, I was teaching a lesson to a bright young student with a dull young donkey. It’s not a slam on donkeys. He was a beautiful painted jack, and plenty big enough to ride. He was also plenty smart and very calm. But he was fairly dull to any suggestions coming from us.
At least half of our lesson consisted of ground training. The same ground training you’ll find in this specialty course: The 4 B’s of Leadership
Setting boundaries, the first of the 4 ‘B’s, was the biggest challenge. He simply wouldn’t back out of her space. And when he finally did, it was like watching a snail crawl backwards. He wasn’t being rude. He wasn’t running her over. At least not yet. In an emergency, without well-set boundaries, horses can run right over a human without blinking. That’s one of the many reasons we set boundaries first.
After a few minutes, I asked her to take a break and join me in the field where my horse Raspberry was grazing with his mates. I grabbed a halter and we walked out to meet him. He came over as soon as he saw us coming. I put the halter on, gave him a scratch on his favorite place under his belly, then stood up tall and asked him to perform the same basic yields we asked of the donkey.
He performed flawlessly. Light as a feather! He backed willingly away without any resistance, to any distance I required. His responses we’re immediate and without any resentment. As if we had rehearsed it a thousand times. In fact we had. I handed the rope to my student and said, “Feel it for yourself now.”
I stood back watching her. Wondering what she was getting from the lesson. Lots of different ideas can bounce around in ones head when they feel quality like that. When they feel the way something should feel.
Sometimes, a student will assume their horse can’t do it. Like something is wrong with their horse, because clearly my horse can. Other students see the gap in their training and cringe about how long it might take to get that kind of response from their horse. And with some students, a light bulb goes off. Now they know what they are looking for. Now they know not to settle for less. Even if it takes time and lots of pressure and lots of rewards. They set themselves on a track to make progress and the excitement is evident.
I took the halter off my horse, gave Raspberry a rub and a small treat, then we walked back to the arena with my willing horse tagging along of his own accord.
I said to my student, “Remember that feeling now. That’s the goal. Let’s see what you can do to make a few steps toward that goal today.”
Within a few minutes of what I call, “the ugly beginning,” I could see her mind whirling around. I could see questions forming. Then before her questions began popping like popcorn from her mouth, I spoke.
“You might be thinking,” I started. “Why is he so dull? Why do you have to put so much pressure on him? Why does it feel all wrong? You may even be thinking that you are doing something wrong!”
She looked at me and nodded.
“They are all good questions.” I said. “But all the wrong questions. There is nothing wrong with you, or with him!”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“The better question is…” I continued, “Was Raspberry ever like this? Was it ever this hard for me? Was it ever this hard for him? And to that I would answer… Yes!”
You see, I went through those first few days that felt like hell too. In fact almost every time you train any new task, your horse will not respond the way you want. The question is… are you willing to get through the ugly beginning.? Are you willing to experiment with techniques and pressure, like the masters do, or are you likely to give up and question everything you’re doing?
“But what if it is wrong?” You might ask. What if you are doing something to make it worse? What if you just need a better technique?
Let me explain something. The only way to be “wrong” with a horse is to screw up your bonding/training ratio. I talk all about this in my book. Leadership and Horses.
What do I mean by bonding/training ratio?
The worst techniques in the world are better than the best techniques in the world, if the trainer who applies them balances out the bonding/training equation every day.
In other words. If I force my horse to do something, I must apply an adequate reward for him. Something he values. Whether that’s undemanding time hanging out, grooming, praise, or treats. If the reward equals the challenge. No matter how much pressure I have to use to make it happen, the horse will begin to understand and even enjoy the process.
On the other hand, if I’m kind, and sweet, and never do anything unless the circumstances are perfect and my technique is perfect, so as not to upset my horse, I’ll never do anything period! There is no perfect technique!
I repeat. There is no perfect technique!
Lots of trainers ask something of a horse, then don’t apply adequate rewards. This is called abuse. Lots of trainers baby a horse and bathe them in rewards. This is fine, but dangerous outside a controlled environment. What I love more than anything is when I see a student fumble through the ugly beginning and remember to reward often.
I love it when students experiment with techniques. Just like real leaders do. I get excited when I see students come back after an ugly week and demonstrate a soft, beautiful response system in their horse. I love it because the horse shows signs of happiness, willingness, and an attentive, yet fearless attitude.
Back to my student. She’s tackling the ugly beginning with confidence and she’s making more progress than she ever imagined. She’s flying high and so can you!
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