Alas, My Hopes Were in Vain

This January I will have ridden only once, my lesson last week.

Last Sunday it was too cold and the ground was too frozen.

Debbie called me on Wednesday just as I was starting to get ready to ride. It had rained a lot the night before, MJ's back was wet, the ring was super sloppy, and we agreed to reschedule my lesson for Thursday morning. So Thursday morning, for the second day in a row, I was slowly starting to get ready to ride and Debbie called me again. One of her boarder's family had been exposed to Covid-19, there were positive Covid-19 tests, and that family was in quarantine. No lesson. Then a few hours later Debbie called me again to tell me that one of her granddaughters and tested positive for Covid-19 and was isolating. Debbie told me I could not get a lesson for two weeks.

I told Debbie I understood. I have been reading about epidemics and pandemics for several decades and I told her I was not surprised at all, due to the American response to the virus this had been inevitable. I reiterated my belief that in times of epidemics and pandemics that the Public Health Agencies should be granted dictatorial powers IMMEDIATELY and that the whole population should be required, on threat of punishment, to follow all the Public Health Directives. I think, over a year into this pandemic, that Debbie is seeing that I have been right about this. I reminded her about the absolute necessity of wearing her face mask, gloves, and compulsively cleaning her hands since this is all we can do to protect ourselves until a large percentage of our population gets inoculated against this very unpleasant and often lethal disease.

So I went back to my new book. I had not been reading that much into my “Horse Brain, Human Brain” book by Janet L. Jones, PhD since my brain had to integrate the knowledge of the first hundred or so pages of this book. This week I started reading more, and the book just keeps getting better and better.

The next chapter of this book was about riding, how the human can best not interfere with their horse by having a proper position and applying the aids properly. She gets into muscle isolation where the rider only uses ONE muscle to give an aid, the muscle that works best with the horse in giving the horse clear aids. She writes that there are three muscles in a human's calf, and only one—the medial soleus right above the inside ankle, is supremely important for giving leg aids. She teaches how to develop the correct proprioception so that the rider's body knows where and how to use itself while riding. Graduations of pressure are also important, for instance in giving a leg aid rolling the aid down from the upper thigh down the leg in time with the horse's motion, and how the horse's brain senses, understands, and reacts to the aids.

The she gets into how horses learn. She calls horses “learning machines”, the horses' brains are set up so they perceive a lot and they remember all of it, “Just stand back and watch the flypaper of a horse's mind capture everything that rubs up against it.” The discussion then goes on to HOW the horse learns stuff.

Then comes the part on training the horse, including negative reinforcement, release, punishment and then on to the more productive training by reward. She is very clear that food rewards are only for super important breakthroughs. If you are an adequate horseman you really won't need to deal with food rewards unless you get your hands on a truly messed up horse. ONE food reward is enough and any more food rewards are a really, really, really bad idea. But there are plenty of rewards that do not include food, and she lists twenty non-food rewards.

When I got to this particular part of this book I stopped feeling uneducated, unqualified, ineducable and totally unfit as a horseman. I've been doing all this stuff for many decades. I learned to do all this stuff by LISTENING TO MY HORSES and changing my riding methods and training methods to suit the horses. I rewarded the horses with my voice, I would croon to them, I would praise them to the skies when they got something right, essentially I trained my horses by seducing them with a loving voice and plentiful praise (interspersed with an emphatic NO if necessary, not often). It was a good thing that this worked because usually I did not have a teacher or trainer when I got a horse. Horses are expensive and I just did not have the money for lessons or training sessions for the horse.

I also have done pretty well in the subject of Chapter Thirteen, “Seeking the Good”. She explains how the set up of the human brain means that the rider must train themselves to see and reward both the good and the ABSENCE of bad behavior. When a horse in training offers the trainer a response that pleases the trainer, reward. When the horse who once “misbehaved” and otherwise gave voice to his fear, confusion, and uncertainty starts behaving well that also needs to be rewarded, otherwise the horse won't know that this response is definitely the response the rider wants.

And all the time you are handling, training or riding the horse you need to remember this, “the equine brain is built to learn. It is an ability that horses are very good at, for natural reasons, and cannot simply turn off.”

And there are a hundred more pages to go in this book.

This book is the only one that is BETTER than “Common Sense Horsemanship” by Vladimir Littauer. In my opinion, after 50 years of riding and training horses, every horseman, either beginner, experienced or in between, NEEDS to read these two books. There are a few more excellent books that explain the minutia of horsemanship once past the initial training of horse and rider, but without learning what these books teach the rider will make serious mistakes that will ruin the wonderful partnership between horse and rider that makes riding a horse the sublime pleasure that can be replicated in no other partnership in the Universe. The partnership between horse and rider are unique, and these books will show you how to achieve it.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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