Monday, June 15, 2009

Training Priorities

Horses are not good multi-taskers. They can really only focus on one thing at a time. That’s why you can’t pull on a cow horse all the time and expect him to hook onto the cow. If you’re pulling on his mouth, he’s thinking about that and he cannot possibly be thinking about the cow and what it’s doing and how he should move with him. Do you know what I am talking about? I see this kind of confusion in horses all the time, with or without cows in the picture.

Actually, as I age (and therefore get smarter), I have discovered that multi-tasking is not such a great thing for me either. When I had my office in my house, I was the queen of multi-tasking. Every time I was talking on the phone, I’d wander around my house starting projects. By the end of the day, I’d have about a dozen started and unfinished projects ranging from reorganizing cabinets to weeding the flower beds—and my house would be a wreck.

A few years ago, I moved my office out of the house to its own location nearby. At first I was at a loss not being able to check my email in the middle of the night, or work on the computer while Rich watched football or start working at dawn in my PJs. But it wasn’t long before I realized that the quality and quantity of my work was greatly improved when I went to the office and focused just on the task at hand, without all the distractions my home offered. And the quality of my home life improved too! Just ask Rich. Does multi-tasking work for you?

For horses, multi-tasking is pretty much an impossibility. Sometimes even a singular focus is difficult for them. One thing that I always talk about in clinics is that you can only train one thing at a time to a horse, so you have to know what your priorities are at that moment. For instance, if I am working on a prompt canter departure from the walk and my horse gives me a very good departure but takes the wrong lead, I cannot really correct him for taking the wrong lead without taking a chance that he thinks the correction is about the departure—maybe he shouldn’t have done that. Plus I have to take some responsibility for not setting him up well for the correct lead.

Here’s another example that always arises in clinics, during the ground work. We’ll be working on teaching the horse to walk beside you and behind you in a very specific place, so that he matches you step for step as you go and stop. We’ll correct the horses each time they step in front of the imaginary line that we have dictated and pretty soon, the horse starts watching you and thinking about where his proper place is and is no longer reliant on your holding him there. Then we’ll progress to the trot and at this point, lots of people will have trouble getting the horse to trot. Finally, the horse breaks into a trot, but the handler isn’t moving fast enough so that the horse ends up in front of the person; then the person turns around and shanks the horse for getting in front. That’s training two things at once (the trot departure and not getting in front) and the horse doesn’t know how to deal with that. Chances are, he learned that he was not supposed to trot at all. Have you ever made this kind of mistake in your training?

Horses learn by making associations. In other words, he makes an association between his actions and the release, reward or correction. It is only possible for him to make an association if the release/reward/correction comes within three seconds of the action—and the sooner in that three seconds, the more likely he is to make an association. The optimal time for the release or correction, according to research, is one half of one second. Wow. That’s good timing.

 Horses make incorrect associations all the time, like the ones mentioned above, and they make associations on their own that we never intended them to make, like if they pin their ears and bare their teeth at feed time, you will feed them. Or if they throw their head up, they get a momentary release of pressure from their mouths. Or if they buck when you ask them to canter, you’ll stop them.

The timing of the release is the essence of good training and whatever your horse is doing at the moment you release the pressure is what you are training him to do. Unfortunately, if you have to think about what the release or correction is or whether or not your horse did the right or wrong thing, you’ve already missed the optimal time for the release or correction and you risk the horse making the wrong association.

When I was a kid and got in trouble, my mother would send me to my room to wait until my father got home, so that he could dole out the punishment. The wait was agonizingly more painful than the spanking I would get when he finally arrived—I didn’t have any trouble at all making the association between my bad actions and my father’s punishment that came hours later. But horses aren’t like that.

You should always know what your training priority is as you are teaching your horse something new or working on improving an existing skill and focus on that. Don’t change priorities in the middle of an exercise. The only thing that trumps your training priority is obedience. When a horse becomes disobedient, you should immediately change your priority and work on that—you cannot teach something new to him anyway, if he is disobeying you or not listening.

Even if you are a good multi-tasker, remember that your horse isn’t. Try to focus on one thing at a time in your training sessions, starting with the most simple thing and moving toward the complex. Keep it simple. Little by little, you’ll get there.

Enjoy the ride,


For training tips from Julie, visit the Training Library at and check out her online store--full of training tools and DVDs-- at


  1. This reminds me of Randy Pausch (who gave "The Last Lecture" when he was diagnosed with cancer) and his time management talk. He talks about how many things that we think we're doing well by multi-tasking are really keeping us from our true goals. Our brains aren't set up to multi-task, either, we're just under the illusion that we can! You can watch it online at: It's long, but uplifting, thoughtful and worth the time! I set it to play and just listened as I did other work. Is that multi-tasking too much? :-)


  2. i was a multi tasker, most of my teen years and adult life. then my son was diagnosed with brain cancer. this has a way of stopping life in it's tracks, derailing things, scrambling it, and resetting things.

    during my son's treatments, i learned that it is ok to focus on one thing at a time...and very important for others like me...not to feel guilty for not multi tasking. now, i feel better than ever. i'm no longer using my horses as "stress management". we are all much calmer, and i find we have more fun playing. training has been much easier, as well.



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