By Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
When Meredith Manor students first begin to work a horse using the training system we call "heeding," they think they are teaching the horse to pay attention to them. Actually, heeding teaches the students to pay attention to their horse. Heeding brings the horse and trainer together in the only place where any communication or learning can take place--right now.
The horse is already there because horses are masters of now. Their attention is always on what's happening right now, right this moment, and how that makes them feel. Whatever is going on right now reminds them of something that has happened to them before. They're thinking about whether that thing that happened before felt safe and comfortable or whether it was something scary or uncomfortable they'd rather avoid.
For a horse, yesterday doesn't matter anymore and tomorrow isn't here yet so why bother about it. The horse isn't thinking about what he had to eat for breakfast or what's on the menu for dinner. He isn't thinking about how what's happening right now relates to whatever event or action is coming next or how it fits into a sequence of events.
People, on the other hand, are big on process. They're standing there right next to their horse but their mind is on the great session they had with the horse yesterday or the wreck the day before or the show they're trying to get ready for next weekend. Their minds flip back and forth from what the horse is doing today to what they hope he's going to be like with another week or two of work.
Instead of staying mentally with the step the horse is taking right now, their mind is already jumping ahead two or three steps in whatever sequence of steps they want. Then when the horse does something out of that sequence, they call the horse stupid or stubborn or something else when the real problem was that they let their attention wander. When that happened and the horse took a stride that started a different sequence, they missed it.
The first thing any student needs to learn about training is how to be with their horse now, now, now, stride after stride after stride. They have to learn to pay attention to their horse if they want their horse to pay attention to them. If their attention wanders away from the horse, they can't blame the horse if his attention wanders to the horse working in an adjacent paddock or the one who just hollered from the other side of the barn or the dog that just scooted under the fence or the grass growing where the dog just scooted.
For example, let's say you're walking your horse back to his stall and a buddy comes alongside and asks you if you'd like to go for some pizza after you put your horse away. You ask the horse to stop and stand then start discussing the time and place and who else is going to be there, etc., with your buddy. You've just jumped ahead into thinking about the future. You've taken your attention off of your horse. You've left "now" and left your horse.
As soon as the horse feels your attention isn't on him anymore, he stops paying attention to you. He drops his head and starts cropping some grass or he gets antsy and starts shifting around at the end of the lead instead of keeping his feet still because your feet are still. When you finally come back to "now" and realize the horse isn't just standing there the way you asked him to, you probably do something totally horse illogical like yanking on the lead shank to get his head up or yelling at him to get his attention back on you.
Once they're both thinking about "now" and not about anything before or after now, the horse and trainer are focusing on the same thing at the same time. Now every little change takes on meaning to both of them. If the horse flicks an ear or holds his breath or plants a foot a little more to the inside or outside, the trainer sees it now and reacts to it now. While the change is still subtle. Before it becomes something big. And the horse being heeded in an arena or at the end of a lead rope notices the trainer turning his body in a different direction or speeding up the rhythm of her footfalls or change the pattern of those footfalls to indicate a change of gait and reacts now. So there's never any need for a big fuss to get the horse to do something. Staying in "now", giving your full attention to the horse so the horse gives his to you, just makes it happen.
Here's another example. You're jogging along and the horse notices a cougar-sized rock that triggers some primitive memory about something that feels scary. If you're thinking about how good that pizza was last night, you're going to be surprised by the big spook that's coming.
If, on the other hand, you were totally into "now" you would have noticed some subtle signal that the horse's "now"--his attention--had shifted from you to the rock. And you would have just as subtly shifted his attention back to you by asking for whatever shape you wanted the horse's body to have, rhythmically reapplying whatever corridor of aid pressures you were using at the time to get the horse's attention back to you. Assuming the horse feels safe and comfortable with you, he'll go right on by that rock without a fuss once he puts his attention back on you.
To control the horse's body, you must control the horse's mind. To control his mind, you must get his attention. To get and keep the horse's attention you have to be with him now. Then now. And now. And so on. If your attention wanders somewhere else in place or time, the horse's attention is going to wander, too.
Stay in "now" when you're with your horse. Then be consistent about how you show, ask, and tell the horse what you want him to do. Put those two things together and you'll train a confident, trusting horse.
Instructor and trainer Ron Meredith has refined his "horse logical" methods for communicating with equines over 30 years as president of Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre (Route 1, Box 66, Waverly, WV 26184; 1-304-679-3128; http://www.meredithmanor.com), an ACCET accredited equestrian educational institution.