Presentation given at the 2018 Conference
Are you one of the millions of people who suffer from back pain? No, this isn’t the start of a late-night infomercial. It’s just a question to help you understand what we are able to teach our horses. If you answered no, chances are you are actively doing something to keep your back in good shape. You’re doing something to learn how to move better. You’re taking pilates or yoga classes, or studying with a t’ai chi or Feldenkrais instructor. You’ve learned the value of good postural balance. You’ve learned to recognize the feel of good balance. You know how to release the old habitual patterns that keep so many people locked in bad posture. You’ve taken ownership over the process of keeping yourself in good skeletal health.
How does this apply to animal training? We can impose a particular balance temporarily on an animal, or we can teach our animals how to maintain their own good balance. When you put a dog into a show stack, moving his legs into the position that meets the standard for judging, you are imposing a balance on that animal. This is not a stance he offers on his own, even if he has learned to comply and let his legs be moved.
When riders use reins to hold a horse into a “collected frame”, they are imposing balance. Release the reins and the balance falls apart.
But what if we could teach these animals how to find and maintain their own good balance?
Through a series of micro steps we can teach horses how to find and release tension. We can help them to recognize the feel of being in good structural balance. We can help them find that orientation over and over again until it becomes their habitual way of being.
You can ask horses if they have back pain by running your hand along their spine. Through their response, a very large number will tell you the answer is yes, they hurt. A horse who has learned through these micro lessons to bring himself into good balance will give a different answer.
We can use clicker training to teach macro behaviors. We can teach our animals to go over jumps, to fetch, to walk beside us, to go out over obstacles, etc. We can do this without ever thinking in any detail about how they are using their bodies to perform these tasks. We can also teach the micro behaviors of core balance. Teaching good balance involves the use of a variety of shaping techniques. You can’t rely on one shaping strategy alone to bring you to the desired result – an animal who understands how to bring himself into good structural balance.
We’ll look at the process of teaching horses how to become inwardly focused on their own balance so they produce movement that is both breathtakingly beautiful to watch and that also keeps them sound. The result: an animal who can perform the macro behaviors with ease and precision because his good balance allows him to move with greater efficiency and comfort.