Equine Psychology & Behaviour

The value of doing nothing

Experienced polo professionals that we know, consider their horses as children – scared, frightened, sometimes a little bolshy but needing a firm but fair parent/leader figure, so it’s apt that even Pooh Bear agrees that you shouldn’t  “…underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

Learning to do less, to get more ~ Tom Dorrance 

Tom Dorrance advocated ‘Do less to get more’ when working with horses.  Initially, this may seem counter-intuitive, yet it works over and over again.  As the horse’s survival instinct (fight/flight) is strong, and it is so near the surface in many horses, the desire to flee interferes with them concentrating and so learning.  By backing off (stepping further away), turning down the pressure, doing less in whatever form it takes, allows the horse’s preoccupation with his own survival to lessen and, therefore, his thinking to increase. Just as with the slowing-down suggestion, doing less may also improve the quality and accuracy of your performance, as well.”

Photographic Credit:  Casares Fine Art Photography

The slower you do it the quicker you’ll find it.

Firstly, practicing any­thing slowly is the way to master it. Speed comes naturally.
Secondly, when things aren’t going well, you may be going too fast for the horse, he can’t process it that quickly, or the quality of your ‘presen­tation’ is suffering because you are racing through it. Slowing down allows you to be better and the horse to keep up with what you’re asking him to do.  This cuts out the need for deadly boring repetition, which is yet more pressure for the horse.

Take the time it takes

Just as the horse is preoccupied with survival, the human is preoc­cupied with time, especially when owners are juggling full time jobs, families and horses. If you are worried about the amount of time a task might take, your body telegraphs it loudly and clearly to the horse. Rather than speeding up the process, worrying about time inevi­tably slows it down because it worries the horse, too. (Horses pick up on your emotions, facial expressions, body language and heart rate).  Conversely, letting things unfold at their own rate usually makes them go faster because the horse does not become worried about his safety.

If you act like you've only got fifteen minutes, it will take all day. Act like you've got all day, it will take fifteen minutes. MONTY

This next quote by Xenophon demonstrates that even 2500 years ago it was understood that the smart and obvious way to train horses is to reward the behavior you want.

[8.13] Now, whereas the gods have given to men the power of instructing one another in their duty by word of mouth, it is obvious that you can teach a horse nothing by word of mouth. If, however, you reward him when he behaves as you wish, and punish him when he is disobedient, he will best learn to do his duty. [8.14] This rule can be stated in few words, but is applies to the whole art of horsemanship. He will receive the bit, for example, more willingly if something good happens to him as soon as he takes it. He will also leap over and jump out of anything, and perform all his actions duly if he can expect a rest as soon as he has done what is required of him.