Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Rider’s Wednesday: The Power of Reverse Psychology

You can use reverse psychology to great advantage when working with horses. (Actually, many psychological principles are useful and applicable to equines, instead of just the people who own them. I don’t care what Tom Cruise says…)

I heard from Fancy’s owner, Paula, this past week. Fancy is at a Western Pleasure trainer’s facility to perfect her lope. Soon, Paula hopes to feel confident enough to move out of the walk / trot classes and start competing in the classes that require all three gaits.

Paula said that the trainer and Fancy had to reach an understanding. They butted heads at one point, when the trainer was trying to speed her up in order to slow her down. In other words, he had to get the horse moving faster before he could begin to rate a nice, slow lope.

Paula and I exchanged a few e-mails on the subject. The trainer told her that once Fancy got moving (“I didn’t know she could go that fast!” she said), she would eventually be able to go slower, and slower, and slower.

Now, on the surface, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. But when viewed through the filter of a horse’s brain, the whole fast for slow thing makes perfect sense.

You've got to "get the handbrake off,” as Clinton would say. The first step is to get the horse moving, using his whole body, and doing a true three-beat canter (as opposed to that weird half canter / half jog shuffle thing you see all too often).

Then, when the horse realizes that he might be asked to really MOVE and move for any length of time, he will start to rate himself, using as little energy as possible. That's when the lovely little rocking-horse lope comes in.

Clinton is a great believer in the power of reverse psychology to fix a myriad of horse problems. After watching his methods at work, and using them on my own horses, I’m a believer, too. For instance:

* If you have a horse that is herd bound or barn sour, if he refuses to leave his friends or his home, let him go where he wants to be. And then put him to work when he gets there. Work him at a trot and a canter, doing lots of changes of directions right by his object of desire. Then take him some distance away and let him rest.

If he tries to run back to his beloved, let him – and put him to work again. Soon, the horse grows tired enough to realize that he’s not really enjoying himself when he’s near his obsession. And his whole outlook changes.

* If you have a horse that backs up in avoidance, back him up – a lot. Don’t pull so hard on the reins that you flip him over, but don’t play into his hand by trying to make him go forward, either. Back him up until he tries to stop. Then back him up some more.

After backing, circle him around a bit, and ask him to go forward. Before he even tries to back up, ask him to – for several hundred feet. Eventually, backing up will start to seem too much like work, and not enough like getting away with something.

* If you have a horse that won’t get on the trailer, work him in the immediate vicinity of the trailer. Lunge him near the trailer. Don’t just swing him around you in endless circles. Instead, trot – a lot -- and do a lot of rollbacks and changes of direction. The only place he is allowed to rest is on the trailer.

Of course, if your horse is terrified of trailers, every little step he takes near the freaky vehicle should be rewarded with a short rest. But once the fear is overcome, the inside of the trailer is the only place where his feet get to stand still.

Using reverse psychology taps into a horse’s innate laziness. It is amazing how quickly this sort of thing can change a horse’s attitude.

Furthermore, since you’re just making the horse move until he decides it’s easier to do what you’re asking of him, all frustration and negative emotion are removed from the equation. It’s easy to say, “Ok, Fizzbomb – you can either trot and canter here while we work on your rollbacks, OR you can choose to walk calmly across the stream. It’s all the same to me. It’s your call.”

Sorry, Tom. It works.