Reaching exercise goals while working with the horse's initiative on the level of single movements
When getting to know a new horse, I usually don't do the "Doing nothing" as an exercise but instead start building up a body language basis for our communication right from the start (for a description see Encouraging politeness
). However, for me the concept of not asking the horse for anything but working solely with his initiative is an important one. Only yesterday I was reminded of its benefits even for horses that I have been interacting with for several years and who already know that they will not be forced to do anything and are always free to interact or not. At the same time, I was a bit shocked by the fact that I seemed to have unlearned how to combine an actively goal-directed training (working on specific movements) with the concept of not being the initiator of our communication. It seemed like a dichotomy had formed in my mind of either just playing on the one hand (which was largely building on the horse's spontaneous offers), and a more focused training on specific exercieses on the other hand (where I was suggesting things and the horse's choice was just to make use of these suggestions or not).
What I had forgotten was that there also can be something in between, namely that it is still the horse who is initiating the activity, but that I pick up and reshape his communicative attempts to get the exercises that I had in mind. Therefore, and just in case someone else may have similar difficulties like me, I want to explain in some detail how I am working with the horse's initiative in a situation in which I am having a clear goal.
Just like in Miriam's description of the first exercise, I begin by not asking the horse to do anything. The difference is just that I do this on the much smaller scale of single movements or communicative acts. That is, I am standing still (or scratching the horse or walking around, or doing anything else except asking the horse to do something) until I see that he wants to do something with me. Or more precisely, that he starts
doing something with me. I do not react yet if he is searching me for treats or just looking at me in an interested way but wait until he actually initiates a movement.
Now one way could be to wait until he has performed a complete action (e.g. walking backwards for two steps) and then reward. This can be a great thing to do because it allows you to really work on the things your horse wants to do and completely go with his ideas. I love working in that way! However, as this post is supposed to describe how you can combine working with the horse's initiative and still working in a goal-directed manner, we need to start a bit earlier. That is, I start responding at the very moment when I see the horse initiating his movement. With my horses, this is reflected in small changes such as tensing up right before they are going to make a step, or shifting their weight in a certain direction. The benefit of me stepping in right at that point and not later is that I can still reshape the movement fluently, without interrupting the horse. This would be difficult otherwise, for example if he was already making a step backwards and only then I asked for a sideways movement. He would have to abandon his idea and instead go with mine, which might seem like a correction and thus be unpleasant, especially if it is done all the time. Therefore, what I do is that as soon as I see the horse preparing any movement, I change my own posture in a way that directs the movement into a certain direction (again, see the Encouraging politeness thread for details).
There are several benefits of this exercise. One is that it allows you to see at what temporal rate your horse wants to communicate, because it is always him who determines the when
component of your interaction. For me this is very interesting, because it is masked so easily when I am the one who is initiating the single communicative acts. Usually my horses respond to my requests, but that does not mean they are always ready for it or would have chosen to do so if I had not asked. In that way it also makes me more aware of the temporal fluctuations in the horse's motivation to interact, because as he can decide over the timing of our joint activity, it becomes much easier for me to see when he gets faster or slower, which in turn allows me to change something in the things I ask or the rewards I give, depending on that feedback.
Another advantage is that it encourages the horse to be proactive. In my own training with horses, one of the main problems in my behaviour is that I am filling in too much. That is, I tend to make up a very specific plan and instruction for a single movement, specifying in lots of detail at what time, in what speed, in which direction and in what other ways I want the horse to move. This plan is presented to the horse in the form of a body language signal, and he can choose to react to it or not (or react in another way). In case he chooses to react, this puts him in the rather passive position of someone who is receiving instructions and just performing the tasks given to him, while I am the one who does most of the planning. This in turn can become rather boring for the horse, because after all he just has to wait for what I am doing and then simply react, without playing a very active role in controlling our interaction.
Instead, when working in the way described above, the horse simply has to stay awake and be proactive, because otherwise nothing will happen. But besides the fact that it is necessary for the horse to be the initiator, it also can be a lot of fun for him to be the one who is calling the shots instead of just being prompted to react. At the same time, it remains to be a fundamentally joint activity with two active partners, because although the horse determines the when
, I am still playing a major role in determining what
we are doing.
I still have to do a lot more experimentation with this way of letting the horse be the temporal initiator, but this might turn out to be what I have been trying to find for a very long time: A way to combine my main goal of working with the horse's initiative and my interest in working on very specific details of a body language based communication.