Episode 189-Why I teach with patterns…and how it isn’t about the pattern.

When I say that I ride the same pattern over and over again in training, the most common question is, “Doesn’t the horse memorize the pattern?”

In this podcast, I explain:

-the reasons I teach with simple patterns
-how using the same pattern with different techniques can help you understand how the technique influences the horse 
-why switching patterns when horses anticipate the pattern actually robs you of a great training opportunity. 

There are three stages that horses and riders go through if they ride my four leaf clover pattern over and over again. Riders who commit to moving through all three stages create a situation where both horse and rider realize, it was never about the pattern at all. 

It was about improving communication.


Stacy Westfall: [00:00:00] The pattern riding didn’t create a horse that was a robot. Riding the pattern gave Willow the opportunity to relax and listen for the subtle cues that I was giving.

Announcer: [00:00:16] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill, this is the Stacy Westfall podcast. Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

Stacy Westfall: [00:00:36] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. In this season of the podcast, I’m sharing with you some of the concepts that I teach to my students inside of my programs. I want to talk today about the idea of riding the same pattern over and over again and how in the end it isn’t really about the pattern at all. This is fresh in my mind because I just held a private event here at my house and the only students that were invited were those who are in my advance at home private coaching. So this means that women flew in from all around the world to attend. It was amazing. And I’m quite sure that you’re going to hear more about the event sprinkled throughout the podcasts that are coming up. Now in the middle of the event, there was a moment when I was teaching and I said, and many of you may have seen this pattern once or twice in reference to the four-leaf clover pattern that I teach inside both my riding course and this advance at home course. And my comment was followed by a round of laughter because it’s an inside joke for any of my students because I use the pattern a lot. One of the things that I frequently say is that you’ve ridden the pattern enough when you no longer need to set the cones up and you can ride the pattern perfectly into the dirt.

Stacy Westfall: [00:02:16] While the students were here at my house, they got the opportunity to interact with my horses, either in groundwork or by riding them. And what was really interesting was the fact that the students already understood this four-leaf clover pattern meant that in this two-day period, I never once had to spend any time explaining the pattern. When somebody walked into the round pen to do groundwork, I could simply start coaching them on their technique, what they were seeing in the horse, what they were doing with their body, and we didn’t have to spend any time discussing the pattern. They weren’t lost as to where they were going next, and that gave them the power to focus on the experience they were having while being instructed and working with a horse they didn’t know. In this podcast, I want to explain why I teach with patterns and the same ones over and over again. I also want to explain the three stages that I see, and I guess really the fourth one is kind of where you want to get to and why in the end, it’s really not about the pattern at all. So let’s go.

Stacy Westfall: [00:03:37] When I teach, I’m always very aware that at minimum there are three of us involved. There is me, I’m showing up as the teacher. There’s the rider, which is my student and there is the horse. When I teach with patterns, it makes it very clear to me what the student is attempting to do. When I know what the student is attempting to do it makes it easier for me to evaluate how well they’re doing it and where they need more information. This also makes it easier for me to communicate with them because I can reference the pattern in relation to what they’re experiencing. And all of this is possible because we agreed to a goal ahead of time and the goal is to ride the pattern. For the student, riding a pattern gives them something to focus on. This is true whether I am standing there coaching you or whether you are riding at home. In my steering course, I even recorded audio ride guides, which are little audio clips that you can download and play while riding the pattern. I say little audio clips, but they’re 15 to 20 minutes long. They are meant to be played the entire time you’re riding the pattern. And this makes it very clear to the student what they’re aiming for. When the student is very clear, it increases their awareness of where they’re going to look next and it also helps them evaluate both in the moment and after the fact when they’re watching the video, because the pattern itself is giving them feedback, even if I’m not standing there talking to them. And then what’s really interesting is after the student has learned the pattern, just the basic pattern, what I can then do is I can teach them techniques without changing the pattern. And when this happens, the student can actually experience what the technique does to the horse’s body instead of thinking that it’s a change of pattern that created it. So, for example, when somebody rides the four-leaf clover pattern, they can try out several different techniques on the pattern. And although the pattern stays the same, the clarity comes from changing the technique and feeling what that change is about how the horse is moving around the pattern. The techniques will influence the horse’s body in a different way, but the pattern will stay the same and that is a beautiful thing when you’re trying to figure out how each individual aid influences the horse. And then for the horse, the experience is also more clear because the student being more clear, the rider being more clear, means that the cues and the directions become more clear to the horse. So if the rider is looking up to the next cone and is focused on where they end up, and then they turn and they look to the next cone, this focus, this looking ahead, this is the foundation for all of the advanced riding.

Stacy Westfall: [00:07:21] I’ve been teaching with patterns for decades, and in this time I have noticed three distinct stages that the horse and rider who are new to riding a pattern over and over again, one particular pattern over and over again. There are three stages that they go through to arrive at the final and fourth stage. So the first stage I notice is the one that I call calibrating or getting on the same page. The second stage is it’s more of a tipping point, but it’s a stage. It’s this moment where things feel really good. Maybe it feels glorious, maybe it feels amazing, maybe it just feels solid for the first time. But it’s this moment where things feel good. The third stage is the one where I jokingly say that the actual training begins, and then the fourth stage is the one that we are aiming for. So let me go ahead and break that down for you. The first stage is actually where the rider is learning the pattern. And the reason I call it getting on the same page or calibrating is because all I need the rider to do right now is just get around the pattern. For the students that came to my house and rode Willow it was really obvious to all of us who were watching and to that student that was riding that the horse and the rider were adjusting to each other.nIt wasn’t so much that a student got on to Willow and then was immediately training Willow. They literally were just adjusting to each other. So it’s in my mind that the first rider that got on the hands moved not very much, just like let’s say it inch a little bit left and immediately felt the horse responded a little bit right and the horse immediately respond. That was a moment that took seconds and it was a very clear adjusting to each other because the most common response from the students they got on Willow was for them to say she felt like a sports car. Some said Porsche. Some said Tesla. It sounded like it depended on what kind of sports car they had driven. But immediately, within just a few steps of getting on Willow, you could see Willow adjusting herself a little bit, but you could also see the riders adjusting themselves when they felt that feeling like a sports car. So that feeling of responsiveness that came from Willow immediately reflected in the rider and you could see the riders become much more aware of using the steering wheel or the gas or the brake. And this is what’s happening when you get on a new horse. But I’m also going to say it happens when you begin riding your own horse on a set pattern. When you begin trying a pattern like my four-leaf clover pattern, you’re going to begin adjusting your cue system as needed just to simply stay on the pattern. It’s a different form of calibration, but to me it’s the same idea as what was shown by the riders who got on Willow.

Stacy Westfall: [00:10:59] So another way to look at it is this first stage is going to give you a pretty good idea of how tuned in you and your horse already are to each other. The important thing to remember about this stage is that it is showing you how tuned in you are to each other. So if you get on your horse and you can walk this fairly easily, but when you move up to the trot, it becomes a little more wobbly. And then when you move up to the canter, it feels a little bit like it might not be possible. That is feedback coming from the pattern to you. That is explaining to you how tuned in, how fit, how balanced, how well the communication is. It’s giving you feedback and helping you calibrate or understand what’s going on with your horse and that’s going to help you move forward. The next stage of riding the same pattern over and over again, as I mentioned before, is actually a tipping point. If you go out there and you begin trying to ride, say, this four-leaf clover pattern, you’re going to go around it and you’re going to maybe look to the wrong cone.nYou might not realize that until you watch the video. Then you’re going to make a new strategy for learning the pattern. Then you’re going to realize that you keep cutting off one of the cones in the same spot over and over again. And this is all of that calibration I talked about. And then there comes a point where you go out and you have a really good day. And maybe that really good day turns into several really good days. And what begins to happen is it starts to feel like both the horse and the rider can relax into the pattern. And this stage, again, depends on some other factors that you and your horse have had coming into it. So sometimes this stage will last for a few weeks and sometimes this stage will last for a few days. It depends on the history with you and your horse. But there’ll be this moment where you’ll think, Oh, okay, I got it. This pattern, that worked, I can see. I wonder what comes next. And my advice to you at this point is just enjoy the plateau while it lasts because you’re about to enter the next stage.

Stacy Westfall: [00:13:35] This third stage that happens when you ride the same pattern over and over again answers the question, Don’t the horses just memorize the pattern? And the answer to that is yes, sort of. If I were going to claim that a horse were to memorize a pattern, I would imagine that if they memorized it, the pattern would get better instead of worse. But what actually happens when the horse starts to recognize or see the pattern is that instead of memorizing it, the horse starts to see the pattern, and the pattern generally starts to get worse. So why would that happen? It tends to happen because when the horse starts to see what’s coming, oh, we’re going to go to this cone and turn left, and then we’re going to go to this cone and turn left, and then we’re going to go to this cone and turn left. What happens is that because the horse sees what’s coming, and this is how I like to say it, because your horse tries to help you out then the horse starts to anticipate the pattern. So they see the cone and they cut in a little bit sooner. And this is where back years ago, when I would drive around the country and teach at horse expos, I would sell DVDs that had this pattern on it, and I would tell the audience about the phenomenon they were going to experience. And I knew this because generally about three weeks after leaving an area, I would start getting emails where people would say, Hey, the pattern that you taught us was really great, but now my horse knows it. Do you have another pattern? This is a sign that when the horse starts to anticipate, the rider wants to change the pattern, switch out the pattern. But my response would be, this is not the time to switch the pattern. This is when the actual training begins. I say this because up until this point, you were probably discovering more what was or what was not working. You were discovering, you were calibrating. You were understanding what was or wasn’t there for training, what was or wasn’t there for understanding. So while it’s true that the calibrating stage, that first stage could have been considered training, I really think this third stage is where the next level of training begins. Because once the horse and rider have a basic understanding of the pattern that was gained in the first stage of simply learning the pattern, this is where it sets you up for the second stage, where both begin to relax once both begin to relax and the rider knows the pattern. Now the rider is more equipped to be able to split their attention between the pattern, because it’s becoming second nature, and their aids or their cues. And because the pattern is now not the first thing they’re focused on, now because it’s fading into a habit, they can actually focus on their aids and how the horse is responding. And so because the rider is beginning to ride like this, the horse tends to be more rhythmic and relaxed, and the horse tends to have an idea of what’s coming up next because they’re seeing the pattern. And then right when the horse starts anticipating the riders often have a tendency to want to just switch patterns, thinking that the horse anticipating is a bad thing. But what I’m suggesting here is that if you stay on the pattern, you will allow the horse to anticipate and you will make the adjustments inside of that. Because what I see a lot of times is that people want to change the pattern and basically they avoid staying in the predictable and making the dialed-in adjustments, and instead they actually opt for becoming less predictable. So they switched the pattern. Switching the pattern will give you different issues, but it also can make you appear unpredictable. There’s nothing wrong with the predictability of riding the same pattern. Once you develop a solid cue system, a solid way of answering those questions that the horse asks that feel like anticipation. That’s when it’s all working. That’s when you can decide to change the pattern after you get through this third stage.

Stacy Westfall: [00:18:36] So in this third stage, which I’m just going to call the anticipation stage. Everything that is learned here, how you deal with them anticipating the left turn and the left turn and the left turn, that is the stuff that transfers to all other patterns. Because if you start to stay on the same pattern and you start to see the question that the horse asks every time you go around cone number one, and how that is similar or different than every time they go around cone number two, what begins to happen is that you begin to see the questions ahead of time and you begin to build answers for those questions that are more dialed in than if your horse says, I think we should go left and you zig totally to the right. So you’re not leaving the pattern. You’re staying on the pattern and answering the question in a more refined way. Because here’s something else I have observed over the years. Whether you trail ride or whether you show in reining or barrel racing or mounted shooting or dressage or western dressage, there will be places where you will have repeating habits. So dressage horses always have a halt on the center line. And many, many, many of the tests have repeating elements. Reining horses always change leads in the middle of the arena. Barrel racers run the same pattern every time they go in to run a barrel pattern. Even trail riding I have noticed that I have a lot of things I do the same because if I want to trot or canter, there are only certain places on the trail that allow it so therefore I begin to become predictable in my gait changes in certain locations on the trail. And if you don’t think you fit into any of those categories and you think I go out and I ride around and I keep things interesting, if you videotaped ten of your rides, I will bet money on the fact that you think you’re keeping it interesting, but you’re more predictable than you think, but you’re just not aware of it. Because if you’ve ever been in a house long enough to notice the wear pattern in a carpet, or if you’ve ever read the studies about how we brush our teeth in exactly the same pattern, every time, you will start to realize that it is very hard to be random and you might as well go ahead and embrace the power of riding a pattern on purpose. If you commit to using a predictable pattern, one that allows the horse to find rhythm at all gaits, a pattern that encourages you to look ahead and give clear application of the aid and release of the aid you’re actually going to create a situation where you can begin to refine your cue system.

Stacy Westfall: [00:21:51] So once riders in my program get to the fourth stage they realize that they can ride the pattern easily and the horse doesn’t anticipate the pattern at all. Each rider that got on Willow and rode the four-leaf clover pattern was fully in charge of steering. Even though Willow has ridden that pattern hundreds if not thousands of times, the pattern riding didn’t create a horse that was a robot. Riding the pattern gave Willow the opportunity to relax and listen for the subtle cues that I was giving. A little more forward, a little more left, a little bit slower, a little bit faster. And now she’s so attuned to the rider that the pattern isn’t what she’s focused on at all. She’s focused on the rider. It was such a fun thing to watch happen. If this sounds like something that you would like to achieve with your horse, I’d encourage you to come join me inside of my online course. I teach four times a month so that in addition to the course, you can also come to the live calls and ask questions and see videos of other students that are working on these same patterns, this very same four-leaf clover pattern I’ve been talking about. And every time that I coach one student, it’s an opportunity for everyone else who is watching to learn. So if this sounds like something that you would be interested in, come visit my website to learn more. Thanks for listening to the podcast and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Announcer: [00:23:41] If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com for articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

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  1. Vickie Harvey on August 21, 2022 at 8:30 am

    I have always had in the back of my mind the saying, “anticipation can be your best friend or your worst enemy”. And as I have been training my young wicked smart and bold Lusitano mare, I have been actively avoiding predictability out of fear of creating anticipation. I as a result I have created a horse that is constantly anticipating! Ugh… I really needed to hear this podcast! Thank you Stacy. 🙂

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