Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : One Thing at a Time, Please

One Thing at a Time, Please

Horses don’t multi-task well. The way their minds are wired, they can only focus on or pay attention to one thing at a time. Fortunately or unfortunately, we humans seem to multi-task most all of the time. We will be thinking of one thing and doing another. Or, we will be trying to do several things while thinking of something else. It seems to me, this is the way it is for us much of the time. We tend to project this ability onto our horses by the way we communicate with them (providing too much input at once). This is an erroneous projection onto single-minded specie.

Horses don’t even process information much at all while they are in motion. Like all prey animals, they just run from danger when triggered to. They can follow their leader(s) at full speed and usually watch out for where they are stepping, but that’s about it. They observe motion very well and process ‘feelings’ attached, almost like computer files, to their observations. If the motion/action of the others around them is calm, they most often respond in a like manner. If the motion around them is fast and quick, they can become fearful quickly, as ‘fast/quick’ action most often is associated with scary occurrences.

During times of general training and schooling of horses we humans need to be extremely thoughtful of our communications and our own thoughts as well. We should stop all extraneous thoughts, mind wandering and focus on the best way to communicate the requests we have for the horse. One good way to assist ourselves doing that is to visualize exactly what we want the horse to do. Holding that image will immediately quiet our minds somewhat and allow us to focus on the desired result. From that image we will often receive the information we need to communicate the appropriate request to the horse. An example of this is; if you were painting a picture and you manage to hold an image of the picture in your mind, you would probably also have the brush strokes needed, in a step-by-step process, in the present moment, to produce that image.  The quieter the mind, the more enhanced it’s ability to focus and produce a desired outcome. Steps to materialize that outcome almost magically appear or just seem to happen. This is the result of not being so multi-task orientated and quieting our minds. However, turning off the constant chatter we have going on can be a daunting proposition. But it really helps to try to do so when working with horses.

Actually, the horse is a perfect attention grabber for us. It has such physical presence that most often, just being them helps us to stop multi-tasking and focus on them and the task with them at hand. Such is the case when grooming. We are supposed to be very ‘present’ with the horse in order to tune into how the animal is feeling. This alone may prevent injury to the horse or us. Likewise, it will assist us in having a better outcome from the grooming experience and enhance our connection with the animal all at once. The ability to get fully present and focus is a trait of very highly functioning individuals. Horses are that way naturally providing they are not processing fearful feelings. When we over-input our horses by confusing signals, frustrating them or being too ‘unsure’ ourselves about which way to go or how to ask for something, we produce fearful and insecure feelings within the horses. In situations like that, the first thing we should do is to stop all motion and consciously breathe. This alone will quiet our minds and assist us in focusing on what is needed in the present moment to accomplish a goal with our horse. Conscious breathing will help everything tremendously and do so immediately.

When I train/school horses I begin by asking for one step at a time. Receiving that ‘one step’ produces an immediate reward for the horse of a release of the pressure of the request (leg cue, hand cue or whatever) and a bit of praise (“Good Boy!”). That’s it! That is all that is required in that moment. I will then go on to requesting the next step. After a short bit of time the ‘steps’ become like links on a strong chain. One step becomes many steps performed confidently and without any confusion (fear) within the horse as to what I want. By having that image of the first step as the focus of my mind, my mind is quiet and able to produce the exact thing I need to do to make that request happen. The process becomes ‘naturally logical’, as our minds tend to provide us with all that is needed in the moment when the mind is calm and focused in the present. There is huge benefit to us when we do not multi-task. For our horses it makes our requests much easier to understand and respond to.

I know many people very attached to their multi-tasking ways and busy minds. They say they get more accomplished in their day-to-day lives. Their minds always seem full of dialogue and thoughts, which, they feel, puts them on the fast track to getting things done. To me, this is not how I wish to live my life. I know horses do not exist that way at all. I have come to understand that enduring, successful relationships with horses are forged over time through one’s ability to be present, calm and focused when with them. Irregardless of the tasks or goals at hand, a calm presence, quietly strong and confident, is a sure fire way to gain a horse’s trust and receive willing compliance to most all requests skillfully made. Couple this with a one-step-at-a-time way of asking for something from a horse, will lead to great success with the animal in all situations. “One thing at a time, please” works wonders with horses. It also helps humans live more fully in the present moment and have enhanced abilities to create specifically that which they desire to have in their lives.