Episode 199: The trickiest concept

The trickiest concept of them all…If the horse gives the ‘incorrect’ answer…it doesn’t necessarily mean you taught the lesson wrong.

This one can make you crazy…
Or it can make you micromanage…
Or it can tempt you to force things to happen…

The challenge is that in teaching the horse…we are always getting feedback from them, but if they give the ‘incorrect’ answer…it doesn’t necessarily mean you taught the lesson wrong.

If the horse questions you…and you think his feedback means you’re doing it wrong…you might change what you’re doing…even though the horse was just asking if some previous answer could apply here, or was offering something creative, or was asking for clarification.


Episode 199_ The trickiest concept.mp3
Stacy Westfall: [00:00:00] So is the horse always right?

Announcer: [00:00:06] 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: [00:00:26] 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’ve been sharing with you some of the concepts that I teach to my students inside my programs, and this is the trickiest one of them all. Here goes. If the horse gives you the, “incorrect answer,” it does not necessarily mean that you taught the lesson wrong. This one can make you crazy or it might make you micromanage, or it can even tempt people into forcing things to happen. Because the challenge is that in teaching the horse, we are always getting feedback from the horse. But if they give the “incorrect answer,” it doesn’t necessarily mean you taught the lesson wrong. Let me use a very simplified example. I’m even going to leave the horses for a moment and go to my puppy. I got a puppy, a border collie. Her name is Shadow. I started taking online classes and multiple in-person puppy classes, and they all use positive reinforcement. All of them started with teaching sit and down as in lie down. All of the instructors were very adamant that you only say the word once, or if you’re using hand signal, you only give the hand signal once. Then you wait. With this very limited vocabulary things can still get confusing. And you might think that having only two words would make things easy, but two means there’s just enough that there’s more than one choice that could be correct. And two words means that there’s a very limited number of habit patterns so it’s really common to accidentally repeat the same sequence as far as, like, sit and then down and then sit and then down. But here’s the main point I want you to take away. If I cue the puppy with the word sit and she gives me a different behavior did I cue it incorrectly? If the only cue I’m supposed to give is the word sit and I say the word sit, but the dog does something different can you hear how it’s very clear that I didn’t cue it incorrectly? Now, I probably cued it correctly so what else might have caused the confusion? She might be confused because she’s trying to work it out in her brain. Maybe she thought she understood it, but she’s thinking about down. So I say the word sit and she instead goes down and I’m waiting and she’s laying down, but thinking she’s correct, even though she’s incorrect. So maybe it’s just her brain working out the process. Or maybe my habit pattern of the last few days was saying sit and rewarding her and then saying down and rewarding her. And maybe she’s just skipping straight to what looks like the end, which is everything ends and down. This would be an example of what I talked about in Episode 197, The Delayed Side Effect of Your Habit Patterns. So basically what I want you to hear in this is that when I’m teaching the puppy the words sit or down and the instructors all clearly say, don’t repeat it, then what we’re doing is we’re leaving room for the dog to guess and to offer some incorrect behavior, to make some guesses, to make mistakes. And then when the dog gets it correct, the dog gets the reward. What I think that perfectly illustrates is what I said a moment ago. The challenge in teaching the horse is we’re always getting feedback from the horse, but just because they give the incorrect answer doesn’t necessarily mean you taught the lesson wrong. If the horse asks a question and you think that feedback means you’re doing it wrong, then you might change what you’re doing. So similar to the puppy the horse might be filling in the blanks with the last thing that worked, or the horse might be asking questions and you might just need to clarify. I think one of the reasons why this is such a tricky concept is because there is this idea that the horse or in my example, the puppy, is always right.

Stacy Westfall: [00:05:46] So is the horse always right? Yes. The horse’s observations and opinions are always 100% accurate for him. So the habit pattern that the puppy’s pointing out might point back to me or maybe no. Maybe it is just what happens when learning a new concept. Maybe it is just normal for them to ask some random questions to decipher what’s allowed. Do you remember way, way back when I taught about Grandma’s rules? Because yes, kids do this too. They explore while they’re learning, and they find the boundaries by asking questions that don’t always look like they’re on topic. So is the horse always correct? Yes. Their observations, their opinion, their random ideas that seem to come out of nowhere are accurate for them. But it doesn’t necessarily point back to an inaccuracy in us. Did I mention this can make you crazy thinking? So when I look at this, maybe the easiest way to make it make sense is that if you look at this process like you’re trying to learn another language. Like today, you just decided you’re going to learn to speak German, assuming you don’t already speak that. But now today you’ve decided you’re going to learn to speak horse and at the same time, your horse is also learning to understand human. When you start looking at it like languages being learned, it makes more sense that there would be some guessing involved and some nuances to the conversations. It also makes more sense why the elementary version of training the horse would be more basic, like what we’re teaching when kids or even adults are learning language early on. It also makes sense that the language gets more rich and magical when the knowledge of the language itself is more advanced. The horse can express itself more. The dog can express itself more. The human can express itself more. And that deep richness of the language creates that conversation that is much more rich than what happens in elementary school. So it becomes this game of reading the horse and understanding what the horse is saying while allowing the horse to make mistakes and ask questions.

Stacy Westfall: [00:08:34] When you look at something like steering, something as simple as asking the horse when you’re riding it to turn to the left, if you look at elementary school, it’s really common that the left rein means bend to the left and move your feet to the left. And then for the more advanced for the other end of the spectrum and I don’t care whether you put this in the Western world for neck reining or in dressage where they tell you inside leg to outside rein, basically they’re both talking about neck reining. And when you’re talking about neck reining, it’s the opposite. Instead of the inside rein, the left rein means go left now to go left, the neck rein, the right ring goes on and the right ring means bend to the left and go to the left. Can you see how somewhere between elementary school and high school, upper high school, the horses have to learn to be able to decipher many more layers of language? The question for you is, will you try to stay in elementary school to avoid the messy middle and just hope that your horse doesn’t get bored and ask too many questions? Because the problem with elementary school is that left rein means bend left and go left until the day that you pull on the left rein and the horse realizes, you know, just because I’ve been my head to the left doesn’t mean my feet have to go to the left. Hmm. Let me try that out. That is how I hit a lot of barrels when I was barrel racing as a teen and a few trees with my knees when I was trail riding. Because eventually some of the basic stuff, the horses find the holes in it. Or sometimes what will happen is as you approach that next level with your horse, you’ll find more and more people recommending that you approach the more advanced things from a correction or punishment mentality. So jump back to the puppy. So instead of allowing there to be this searching for sit or down, you can imagine how easy it would be to simply force the puppy into that body position. You can also imagine that there’s a difference in what the dog learns when they find the correct answer versus when they are forced into the correct answer. So the question becomes, are you interested in committing to learn a new language? I love the detail of the language. I love how the horses feel when they get a chance to practice, when things become repeatable and become consistent and you can see the confidence that the horse has in giving the answer. In my opinion, this is the method that leads to the highest possible relationship.

Stacy Westfall: [00:11:40] So at this point you might be thinking, what should a rider do if they are faced with this challenge? I’m going to recommend that you do the same thing that I did when I was looking for someone to teach me about my puppy that will eventually become my dog. I looked for an instructor or a program that would teach in a style that I could understand. I looked at a lot of different dog training courses online before I picked the one that I did, and I picked it after I had been listening to her podcast for a while. Inside of her program, I am committed to practicing the basics. There’s a quote that I memorized years ago that says Mastery of the basics equals success, and mastering the basics is often a challenge for people not because they can’t do it, but because they want to move faster through the process. And I totally get it. Again, I’m teaching my puppy to do things and I can feel the temptation in me to want to rush ahead. I’m teaching my puppy to do a turn on the forehand right now, and I feel the temptation to use it when I leave the house. But in the house, it’s not fully solid. And once I go out the front door and there are bunnies and horses and cats and all kinds of things, the puppy is not going to succeed if I put her in that situation and I ask her to do something that she’s not super solid on in all the rooms of my house. And for those of you who are really curious, I will put links to the dog podcast and the program that I’m using in the show notes over on my website. But at the end of the day, it turns out that if you want a relationship with a horse, with a dog, with a person, then you’re gonna have to learn a language, which is perfect because I have always wanted to speak horse, which is why I’ve spent so many years dedicating myself to understanding what they’re communicating. And fascinatingly enough, the horses seem to find us two legged creatures fascinating also, when we go about it, in a way, inviting them in to a communication with us. If you would like help applying any of the concepts that you’ve been hearing here on the podcast to your own riding, I would invite you to come join me in my online program. I just did another video review today for a whole bunch of different students that were on. They were coming on live asking questions. We were watching their videos and it’s so rewarding to see the understanding happening in the students and their horses and the visual journey of all the videos that we have to prove it month after month. When you join, you’ll have immediate access to all of my riding courses and the opportunity to join me on live calls four times a month. You can ask your questions in written form or live on the calls. You can submit videos to be reviewed. You can watch other students working through the process, and it’s all risk free because it has a 30-day money-back guarantee. Thanks to all of you for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Announcer: [00:15:24] 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 Comment

  1. Jan on September 16, 2022 at 8:56 am

    Great podcast as all of yours are. Wish that in my early years of having horses there had been learning resources like now. I was pretty much on my own to learn. At 11 years old my parents leased me a smalll shetland pony from the 3 acre “Melody B Ranch.” Rebel was aptly named. As soon as a human would come to his stall door he would go head first into the far corner, he wouldn’t let you near his head to halter him and he wasn’t afraid to use his kicking end. I was told to always take the buggy whip to wack him on the butt and that way he would turn his head toward me and I could catch him. He was actually pretty immune to the wacking and those hind legs were flying as he tried to move backwards into you. Once walking past his stall he reached out and bit me hard on the forearm. A decent instructor could have alleviated the entire situation, alas there was no one. Other than feeding, the owner was seldom there, Only kids like me hung out there. Between 6th and 7th grade I bought my first horse, Sir Red, from the ranch for $150. A $75 down-payment and whatever I could pay monthy until paid off. Of course, the horse was a yearling (no one mentioned that probably wasn’t the way for a 12 year old to go), fortunately my grandparents gave me a horsemanship book for Christmas 1963. Luckily I already loved to read and that started changing my knowledge, along with joining 4H where we were exposed to a few lessons. Fortunately, “Red”, was a kind and tolerant horse. In a divorce, my dad got custody of my sister and I, and we moved. My second 4H leader lived nearby and I would ride to their house almost daily and we’d all ride. Her husband was a horse whisperer before that was a popular term. Mostly, I was a very unsupervised kid growing up. The moral of the this somewhat lengthy story is that You change peoples and horses lives for the better. I bought your tape series about 10 years ago and watched your Jack series. I was glad to see you enter the dressage arena as I’ve entered training level in the past with my Missouri Fox Trotter and my other area of interest is trail obstacle challenges. Right now the internet is the way to go on training as the inflation has eaten my budget that paid for truck diesel for trail riding. occasional lessons, lunches with friends, etc. I’m sure you know the routine. Thank you, thank you and other like minded trainers that are giving opportunities with our horses through the internet.

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