Don`t Read This

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It’s obvious that you’ve ignored the headline and you’re reading this anyway. You don’t take kindly to an instruction telling you what not to do, and in that way you’re not much different from your horse.

Humans (and other animals) seem to have trouble processing the word “don’t.” If your instructor shouts at you, “Don’t look down” or “Don’t move your hands” or “Don’t raise your heels,” your mind will ignore the world “don’t” and will focus on the more specific part of the phrase.

Thus the instruction has the opposite effect. While your increasingly frustrated trainer continues to shriek across the ring, your eyes remain focused on blue stone instead of tree tops, your hands seesaw the horse’s nose back and forth, and your heels rotate up around your knee.

There may be some complicated psychological explanation for this phenomenon, but we don’t need to know what it is in order to observe its consequences. We just want you to stop and consider changing your strategy when an aspect of your riding or training settles into a slough of frustration. Instead of always focusing on what you shouldn’t be doing, devise a positive mantra to drive the negative mindset out of your head permanently.

Say, for example, that your horse tends to shy at a certain spot in the ring. Each time you near that spot, you may be thinking “Don’t shy, don’t shy!” as the horse shoots his ears forward and starts to prance. The horse feeds off your own level of tension, and he becomes even more ready to flee the monster that you both seem to feel is concealed beneath that horrible towel hanging on the fence.

Instead, after you’re headed back on track around the ring, devise an action to which the horse can give a positive response. As your horse starts to approach that spot on the rail where he shied on the last circuit, be prepared to think “shoulder-fore” or “bend to the inside” or simply “steady.”

Practice this strategy on the others around you, to see how it can also work on yourself. When your overly friendly Corgi rushes to greet you, substitute “Down” for “Don’t jump” and then back it up with “good girl” for positive reinforcement. Instead of yelling “Don’t eat that!” at your four-year-old son, say, “That cookie got dirt on it when it hit the floor. Give it to me, and I’ll get you a new one.” (Or at least be prepared to follow the panicky “Don’t!” with a positive request.)

If your instructor has told you the same thing over and over, and it just doesn’t seem to be sinking in, stop and ask for a different explanation of the problem and also for a positive action that can become a substitute, such as: “Look over the ears” or “Thumbs level, thumbs level” or “Heels toward hocks.”

Erase the word “don’t” from your vocabulary. But, before you do that, don’t read the rest of this month’s Horse Journal.

-Margaret Freeman