Horse Training Tips that I use on People and you can too (but don’t tell them!)

You may have read the story about how my horse Max and I found each other.  I give Max full credit for teaching me how to be a better person.  When I first got him, he was so incredibly stubborn. If he wanted to go somewhere, he would GO, and it didn’t matter if you were riding him at the time, or if you wanted to NOT go with him.  He was a very strong (fat) horse and was pretty uncontrollable.  He was also extremely food-motivated, so if you tried to bribe him with treats he would go from completely ignoring you to absolute mugging you for ALL the treats.
He kept getting worse so I started hiring different types of horse trainers to work with him.  They would all get frustrated (it seemed like Max did it to them on purpose) and get more and more forceful until Max had enough and then he would LEAVE the arena, by just running right through the gates and back to his field.  He became so good at this maneuver, rearing up in the air, jerking the lead rope out of people’s hands and then running away, that I could see exactly when he was about to do it.  I would warn the Trainers, but he always (every single time) was too fast for them.  Someone told me about “natural horsemanship” which is like horse psychology (being a horse whisperer) and I found some home learning programs and really dived into them.  In one exercise I had to fill out this huge psychological test for both Max and for me.  It was kind of like Meyers Briggs for horses but incredibly in depth.  I was surprised to find that Max and had the same personality/horsenality type!  I’m laughing as I write this because it really is true.  We are both stubborn, introverted, like to feel safe, don’t like surprises and like to be in charge.  The training program helped me change MY behavior so that Max would want to engage with me, and it taught me how to be a better partner and less of a bossy pants.  During this process, as my relationship with Max started feeling easy and magical, I noticed that ALL of my relationships were getting better.  I was listening more, asking questions, and really looking for common ground.  I was so much better with my organizing clients, instead of thinking that “MY” filing system was the best and everyone should be using it, I was looking at how to create lasting success and really connecting with people’s needs in a whole new way.
18 years later, not only do I have an incredibly deep partnership with the fabulous Max, I also have changed drastically from the Type A control freak I once was, to a more mellow, go-with-the-flow but still get it done type of person.  I develop true friendships with my clients and am able to (mostly) drop my ego and follow the basic horse whispering concepts I learned so long ago.  So here are a few for you to try in your own relationships.
Always start and end with the “Friendly game”. The Friendly game simply means that you want to empower the other person to feel safe and confident.   Even if you are asking them to step outside of their comfort zone and try something new, you want to start the process by making sure they know they can do it, you believe in them, and you’re there to help.  Then you end the session the same way, making sure they feel taken care of.  If you want your kids to help you clean the house, for example, if you start off by making it fun, and you end it by making it fun, they will be much more likely to help out willingly the next time.
Drop the reins sometimes.  When I first got Max, I wanted obedience!  I wanted to be the BOSS!  Max also wanted MY obedience, he wanted to be the boss!  One riding exercise we would practice would involve me dropping the reins and letting Max walk (and eventually trot, and then canter) wherever he wanted to in the arena.  My job was to just be a riding partner and let him be the leader.  It was so fun!  I learned that I could trust him and Max also learned that I could trust him.  Many times in my life when I am focused on a goal, I find that letting go of my idea and following someone else’s instead, whether its a client, an employee or one of my kids, makes the whole process turned out so much better.
Reward the slightest try.  This is a basic training tip that works so well!  I wanted to teach Max a trick of how to step up on a mounting block and then stand still with his feet up there.  I taught him one little step at a time, rewarding him with a treat every time he even attempted what I was asking.  In no time at all, he would stand up on the mounting block the minute I pointed at it. (the problem with having such a smart horse is that when I am riding him, and he decides its treat time, he will head towards the nearest platform and attempt to climb up on it.  This can be startling to me AND other people if I am not paying attention.)  Perhaps you would like other people in your house to be a little tidier.  If you ask your children to put their laundry in the hamper and they start doing it “sometimes”, reward that slight try!  Tell them how much you appreciate that they really listened to you and heard your request and it means a lot to you.  Ignore the times they don’t get the clothes in the hamper but continue to reward each try.  Eventually, they will realize that putting clothes in the hamper is something that makes them feel good and they’ll keep doing it.  (their future roommate and/or spouse will thank you one day).
Your Relationship, not the Task, is the important Priority

This was a hard one for me because I wanted to “complete the task” and “reach my goal”.  I wanted Max to learn what I wanted him to learn, and I wanted to do it TODAY.  And of course  I had a lesson plan and a checklist and I wanted to cross something off so it had to get done.  So Max would leave. When I stopped listening and started bossing, Max would LEAVE the area and go back to his field. If he had to run over, or go through another horse, a person, fence, or a gate, that was fine with him.  If it wasn’t a fun or rewarding activity, he was going back to his field.  As always, he was a great teacher and I had to learn that having a great partnership with him was the important thing, and I couldn’t sacrifice that in order to check off my list.  The same lesson applied to my other relationships too.  Sometimes I really want a person to do what I want them to do, I want my client to get that closet sorted out, my kids to clean their rooms, my husband to fix the kitchen light, etc.  The minute I make the task more important than the person, I have to really look at my priorities.  I don’t want my clients to feel pressured by me, my kids to feel judged, or my husband to feel nagged, I want all of these people to feel supported and appreciated by me so I need them to know their feelings are important.

Here is a photo of me “asking” Max to walk across a wooden bridge. I have an oh-so-fashionable fanny pack on, filled with Max’s favorite treats which is his big reward at the end.  I am holding a stick with a string attached, which is NOT a whip, but rather something to wave behind him to put a little pressure on. (Punishment and fear tactics don’t work on horses, or people).  If I smacked Max with the stick, he would leave the area.  He would leave the area VERY FAST.  So I am rewarding the slightest try.  Will he put one hoof on the bridge?  Yes?  Great!  Thanks, buddy, let’s walk away and eat grass for a minute.  Then we come back. Will he put two hooves on the bridge?  Yes?  Great!  Let’s pause and have a head rub for a minute.

So how does this work with people? If I have a client who REALLY is motivated to go through some old papers but is dreading the bad memories that will come up (from a divorce, loss of a loved one, etc.) I use the same principles.  Can we get through one box? Great!  Now let’s go declutter some clothes, a kitchen cabinet, books, or whatever is easy.  Let’s talk and laugh and share stories while we do it.  Can we come back and do another box today? Yes?  That’s great!  The goal is NOT TO FINISH THE TASK but instead to gain self-confidence and mutual trust through the process!  We will complete the task eventually but build a foundation of trust and helping someone empower themselves to work through fear is so much more important than one simple task. )

Be interesting and be fun
This was a hard one for me because I’m not one of those creative, fun, extroverted people that will break into song at the drop of a hat.  I was at a horse training clinic one time and the Instructor said: “Raise your hand if your horse is hard to catch.”  I raised my hand, as did many of the people in the class.  The Instructor then said to all of us, “If your horse doesn’t meet you at the gate, and actually runs away from you, that means HE DOESN”T LIKE YOU!  You are probably boring.”   i was CRUSHED!  What an awful thing to say to people!  And I was paying her to say it because I was paying for that stupid class!  She went on to tell us that horses are curious and want to learn new things, they are attracted to laughter, they are playful creatures.  But sometimes people just want to get on them, ride them in a circle and then put them back in their stall and why should they want to sign up for that? I realized she was right and that I would try to always do fun and interesting things with Max.  Since I made that change, Max has never run away from me, and he will meet me at the gate (unless there’s fresh hay, he’s not walking away from that for anyone).   If you are dreading cleaning out the garage, think about how you can make it more fun.  You can play music, you can make into a game, set a timer, reward yourself with a treat every 15 minutes, have short-term milestones (I am going to go through these 5 boxes in 10 minutes), etc.  If you have people helping you, you can have dance contests or races with your helpers “Who can be the first one to put 5 things in the trash?”, reward helpers with candy or something every 15 minutes, or set a timer.  There are so many ways you can make an organizing project be fun and interesting.  I love to listen to audiobooks while I organize a space and that makes it fun for me.
Now you are ready to train a horse, clean out a garage, improve your relationships, you are AMAZING, I knew you could do it!  (see what I did there, that was the Friendly Game!)
(thank you to Pat and Linda Parelli from Parelli Natural Horsemanship for all you have taught about horses, and myself).

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