It is a common scene. You arrive at the stables, 10 minutes late for your lesson. You rush over to the paddock to grab your horse, but he runs circles around you. After struggling a further 5 minutes, you eventually catch your horse and lead him up to your car where you hunt to find grooming kit, tack and any other contraptions. Your horse is standing quietly considering the flustered state you’re in. You hear the instructor shout orders to other riders from the arena. More panic sets in. Forget about grooming, boots are more important. There is music blaring in the background and you are surrounded by vehicles (since you are tacking up in the parking lot). A group of riders trots past along a nearby road. Your horse calls and shuffles for a bit. After a further 10 minutes of frustration, you have successfully managed to tack up. You pray that your girth is tight enough, because your horse would not stand still when you mounted. As you near the arena, now a good 30 minutes late for your lesson, you contemplate slipping in quietly so that no one will notice your tardiness. You spend 5 minutes quickly warming up your horse and join the group. Throughout the lesson, you cannot seem to grasp how to do the leg yield your instructor is talking about. You imagine a banana, but which end leads? How far over? How fast? Why is it not working? Why can’t I seem to get it?
In an instance such as this, there are many factors which could be leading to the rider’s distraction. The instructor could be ambiguous in his/her explanations. The stress of having being late could lead to lowered concentration levels. The music could be too loud. There could be too much movement around the yard. The horse could struggle to understand the rider’s signals, because the rider is emotional. So which is it?
When we undertake the training of horses, we operate under the assumption that they are extrinsically motivated, by reinforcements. Recent research has shown that there is a level of intrinsic motivation in horses, but for the purpose of this article, we will assume that only we can be intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation involves being driven to achieve goals by internal motivation – by something inside of oneself. An example would be a music student wanting to create music which they find pleasing. Achieving good marks, followers or sales for said music is a benefit, but it is not the primary driving force behind wanting to create the music. There is something inside themselves which they need to release by tapping into their creative powers.
Extrinsic motivation involves a reaction to a stimulus – ie. I work hard because my parents give me pocket money when I achieve good grades. The major problem with being primarily motivated by external factors, is that we do not learn independence, curiousity or to set our own goals. Riders who are externally motivated often struggle to focus on their horse when there are plenty of distractions and they fail to focus inwardly in order to self-improve or to help their horse. These are among the most difficult people to teach. One of the biggest shifts in mindset I had to have, was to learn that distractions are welcome. Distractions test the connection you have with your horse. They test your ability to remain interesting to your horse and they provide an opportunity for growth, learning and a deepening of your horse’s trust in you.
Wanting to control the environment at show ground for example (“My horse spooked at that person removing their jacket and that’s why he ran out at jump 6. It was their fault. I wish they would be more considerate.”) is a sign that growth needs to take place. If you are distracted by external stimuli, why can’t your horse be? If however, you notice the loud spectator, tell your horse you’ve seen it and carry on as if it’s not an issue (it isn’t), your horse will slowly start to believe you. Even the most timid of horses can learn to believe that you have their back (excuse the pun) and that you can face whatever they deem scary, so that they don’t have to think about the horse-eating plastic packet. The key is mindset. Is that packet a distraction or an opportunity?