Tell Me With Anticipation

I first learned the nature of the best horses from Tex. We were doing circles and as I came through the center of the arena, I felt his hip twitch, and as if he had spoken, it said to me “do you want to change leads here, Boss? I can do it if you do.” I didn’t take his offer that time, but I did the next time around – I wanted him to know I might or might not want to.

A year or two later, when that sensitivity and ability to learn had shaped my purchase of Lensman, I was working with him to fix his anxiety about lead changes and each time we would do one, I would trot him out afterward to help him understand to not rush off after changing. Then I found I created a “training shadow” on one part of the circle, where he would slow slightly, as if to say “I can drop to the trot here if you’d like, Boss.” I started to not always take the offer, and gradually it disappeared.

Lensman’s lead change anxiety itself was a great example of a fearful anticipation. Apparently his previous owner would spur him into the change and then yank on his face when he rushed through the change. When asked to change, he would go inverted, throwing up his head and tail in a frightened “U” shape. I had to simply ride him through the change again and again – and always be soft and leave the reins slack through the change. With all that, it still took almost a year to get rid of this negative anticipation.

As I went into training an off the track thoroughbred (OTTB), I saw more of this darker side to anticipation. She would throw up her head and prance, dangling her tongue from the side of her mouth. I realized that this was a behavior she had learned when being ponied to the starting gate and that the conflicts of inconsistent riding and lack of retraining had not only left this untouched but led her to anticipate a whole complex of stressful treatments of which this was the expression.

It’s in the nature of horse learning to be anticipatory.Once a horse learns a behavior past “basic attempt”, it will try that behavior repeatedly in the same context and even in inappropriate contexts until shaping by the trainer encourages connection of the response to specific aids and discourages connection to space and time. In cases like the OTTB mentioned above, it was necessary to remove a number of contextual cues (snaffle bit, riding at hard contact) and replace them with a different context (mullen bit, loose rein / touch contact and immediate release on stop) and do this long enough to ensure the extinction of the negative anticipation.

When this same horse started to walk more rapidly to the mounting block, her head low and eye soft, it was a sign that she anticipated something good would happen there – otherwise, why rush? There was nothing behind her to be afraid of and she was not worried.

When we first trotted, it was a disaster – her walk had become very good and and her head was down and she would lower her head further and yawn during rests. The anticipatory deranged headset was gone and her rhythm and straightness were good. But at the onset of the trot, her head flung up and twisted, she jigged crazily and with no consistent rate or rhythm. We trotted fifty feet like this and then dropped to the walk. Once again, an anticipatory landmine. In the style of a typical meltdown, this conflict shocked back through the quiet of her still shallow walk training and disrupted relaxation, rhythm and straightness at the walk through to the end of the session, even with no additional trot. It took a week to bring back the good walk and then be able to try the trot again. Gradually the trot improved and now it is just an inverted horse doing an OK trot – one of the best OK trots I’ve ever ridden because of how much underbrush had to be cleared away to make it possible.

I love horses that anticipate – they are vigorous learners who are willing to offer behaviors that may work when they are asked for things they don’t know. But this willingness also creates anticipation of negative consequences and conflict behaviors or other undesirable context sensitivities will arise unless properly dealt with.

Some rules can help:

  • Obviously, watch yourself for habits that can create inappropriate or negative anticipation- always doing lead changes in the same place, always stopping on the same trajectory, always changing gait at a particular place, frequently correcting even when the horse is performing correctly, punishing (rebuking or correcting beyond the 3 second effective window or the 10 second causal connection window).
  • Tend to not take up the offer of a maneuver during a regular session; only accept during training. In a regular session, do the opposite of what’s offered – turn left if the anticipation is to turn right, back up if the anticipation is to go forward.
  • Look for negative anticipation – locations or other context that make your horse feel a fear or conflict or elicit a negative behavior. Either remove the context to allow extinction of the behavior, overshadow the conflict with a variety of requests or ride the negative anticipation without reacting in the way the horse may expect in order to allow the anticipation to self-extinguish.

Horses are wonderful creatures but their minds work in ways that are like and yet unlike ours – and anticipation is a two edged sword in their cognition. Under saddle, they can only communicate with us by the shape of their form, the barely perceptible movements of major muscles and their head position. If we are not listening, anticipation can undermine training – so pay close attention to what your horse is telling you and know when to go along and when to go another way.

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