Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Horse Problems: If What You're Doing Isn't Working ...

Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller
Over the years, I've had the honor of being asked to help a variety of people out with a variety of horses they were having problems with.  I preferred to do just that -- help the people with their horses, rather than working with a horse alone for a period of time and then returning it to the owner with the announcement, "He's fixed!"  When doing so, it often surprised me when I'd suggest a correction or a new way of doing things and the owner would hold their hands up defensively and say, "No, I always just do this when he does that!"  Pretty soon it became a standard refrain for me to reply, "And how's that been working out for ya?"

Here's what I'm going to rant about today:  when something isn't working for you, don't keep doing the same thing the same way and expect different results.  We all know that principle on a conscious level, but how many of us think about it and ask ourselves (with gut-wrenching honesty) if we're doing it with our horses? Instead,  we too-often continue to dig our heels in the dirt and repeat the same ineffective technique again and again, ad nauseum.

Consider, for example, the owner whose horse is sour about the trailer.  They have the battle down to a science:  they enlist the army of friends and neighbors every time they want to take sweet Princess for a drive.  Someone stands in the trailer holding a bucket of grain; someone else holds the rope through the escape door; another two people man the butt-rope; and the last person uses the whip and smacks sweet little Princess on the butt until she's a pissy, pin-eared basket case.  (I'm exaggerating to make the point, of course, but anyone who has dealt with owners of problem loaders will know where I'm coming from.)

By this time, someone like me enters the picture.  Owner tells me the horse won't load -- can I help?  And I happily say I can.  I show up, basket of magic in hand, and as soon as I start to explain the theory in retraining Princess, the owner holds one hand up, shakes her head and says, "No, I always just do this …"  Meanwhile, the horse has gotten worse every single time the Trailer Army has been involved. The horse is angry and getting angrier; the owner is at wit's end; and yet the owner steadfastly wants to continue doing things the same way.  If the owner doesn't change the way he or she does business, then where is change supposed to begin?  Is the horse supposed to spontaneously awaken one day and say, "Gee, I had a dream about just walking politely and confidently into the trailer.  I think I'll change the way I do it!"

This human tendency isn't limited to horse people.  I read the results of a study once in which it was found that the reason doctors often misdiagnose conditions is that they make an initial diagnosis and then interpret everything else from that point forward as being further evidence of that diagnosis.  They steadfastly clung to their initial diagnosis, disregarding everything contrary to it, and continued down the same path even if the treatment clearly wasn't working.

It's safe to assume you wouldn't like that as a patient.  Why would you want to do it to your horse?

Recently, I made the difficult decision to dismiss my shoer of five years in favor of having their shoes pulled and having a brilliant local hoof-trimmer try to get their feet back to the proper angles.  (If you've read my "Open Letter to My Future Horseshoer" post, you'll have some of my perspective on horseshoers.)  My shoer started out doing great things with my horses' hooves -- but suddenly they began to backslide.  Angles were bad; too much toe; crushed heels.  I had many candid (and sometimes contentious) discussions (arguments) with my shoer.  I'd point out that the horse's heels were getting worse every month; he'd always counter with an excuse:  "He has thrush," "He has white-line disease," "He won't grow heel," "His feet are too flaky to handle a change in angle," "You're not feeding hoof supplement," "You're not feeding the right kind of hoof supplement," and so forth.  Never was the problem with the angle of the trim, of course.  He continued putting wedges under the horse's heels and the horse's heels kept getting worse and worse.  It was heartbreaking.

Finally I ranted at him:  "If what you're doing isn't working, why are we still doing it?"  And I promptly called The Magician:  my new hoof trimmer.  It took me a while to  recognize that even though I was asking my horseshoer the right question, I was allowing the situation to continue:  we were doing the wrong thing the same way each time and expecting different results.

When I was a rookie patrol officer, I was introduced to a community-policing strategy called "SARA." Cops love acronyms -- and horse people don't them enough.  SARA stood for "Scan, Analyze, Respond, Assess."  Applied to horse situations, let's consider it "Watch," "Analyze," "Implement" "Evaluate" and "Refine." There:  we have our own acronym for solving horse problems:  WAIER.

If your horse is having an issue, watch and study that issue closely.  Whether it is the way they're traveling or the way they're changing leads, look at your horse.  Videotape if necessary.  Have others watch if you're the social type.  Whatever it takes, watch.

Now, analyze the situation.  What have you been doing?  Has it been working?  What's another approach that might work?  Try it.  Maybe just quit doing what you were doing before.  You switched bits and your horse tries to flip over every time you use the new bit?  Don't keep using the new bit -- at least until you've figured out what hurts your horse so much, or frightens him so irrationally, that he wants to flip over to avoid the contact.

Now implement the action (or removal of a previous action) in an effort to solve the problem.  If you're trying a different way of trimming his feet, do so now.  If you're trying a different training technique, get on it.  Do something different!  Your horse doesn't want to go through water and the many times you've spurred the ever-loving snot out of him and he still won't go through?  Try ponying him off an older, seasoned, water-loving tank of a horse.  Think outside the box.  Dare to be creative.

Now evaluate where your horse is with his issue.  If you've just trimmed his feet at a different angle, watch him walk again.  If you've tried a different technique of exposing him to the trailer, keep a notebook of his progress every time you work with him using that technique.  Here's the deal:  you should see improvement after a few sessions.  It may come slowly (as with fixing those under-run heels) or it may come dynamically (as with a horse who suddenly realizes the trailer isn't a scary bear-filled cave) but it should come. You should be going only in one direction with your horse:  the right direction.

I added a fifth dimension to this adaptation of the old SARA model:  refine.  After you've implemented the change and watched your horse's behavior again, and after you've assessed whether or not the change is helping, you must refine your approach.  Do you need to be more aggressive on correcting the angle of that hoof?  Or do you need to alter your trailer-training methods slightly?  Maybe you've been working on your horse's failure to collect properly and in doing so you've overworked him to the point he's sore and now he's stiff when you ask for collection.  Do you need to slow it down?

These are questions we should be asking ourselves to truly be an enlightened horseman.  And that good first question is:  Is what I'm doing working?

And if it isn't … why are you still doing it?

Copyright © 2014 by MJ Miller.  All rights reserved.  No part of this article, including photographs, may be reproduced without the express permission of the author.  If you are reading this somewhere other than on TheSaddleString.blogspot.com, you are reading stolen content.  Please notify me so I may take appropriate legal action.