Winner of the 2008 USDF Newletter Award - General Interest Original Article
Anticipation - Both Natural and Needed
By Paul Kathen © 2008
Photography © Kelly McChesney
Imagine that you are driving down the highway knowing where you want to go. The next exit is the one you must take so you move over into the right lane, engage your turn signal, reduce your speed, and then exit. That is exactly how a horse feels as it approaches the corner of the arena. There is only one direction he can turn and he begins to prepare to turn by shifting his weight onto the inside shoulder and then he leans through the corner. That means to you, the rider, a loss of balance and control. You want him to turn the corner but you expect him to stay in balance. These examples show the difference between the driver in charge and in control of execution and in a horse that depends on a person in charge to direct him, but is responsible for the execution himself. While at the wheel we resent the back seat driver. Our horse, however, depends on us to prepare him for the corner and to tell him how to turn it. The horse, unless told differently by his rider, anticipates the turn and prepares to lean through it the way Mother Nature intended.
At first glance it appears as though this anticipation is a negative value in our daily riding and training. Let us think again and realize that without anticipation every move of ours and of the horse would be sudden. Nothing would be predictable and life, I believe, would be considerably shorter and less pleasant. That means that anticipation is necessary for our daily living and interactions with our environment. Not everything about anticipation is rosy, however, because she has a dark side by the name of apprehension. We must avoid that part of her at all costs because she can turn really ugly by slipping into anxiety and from there into fear and then into outright panic. I do like to be optimistic and, therefore, see anticipation as natural, positive, and necessary while I believe that apprehension and her even meaner sisters can be avoided since they are to a great extent learned behaviors.
The part of apprehension that is just as natural as anticipation is the consequence of your horse’s survival instinct. His temperament and personality will determine to what extent it is developed and how it expresses itself. All a rider can do to deal with this is to carefully introduce her horse to his environment and gain his trust through self-confidence, consistent behavior, and fairness. I like to employ the one trait that is just as strongly developed in the horse as fear and that is his curiosity. Once the horse has decided to face the object he worries about, he will soon want to stick his nose into it and sniff it. I assume that this behavior gave rise to the term, “nosiness.” While this apprehension is annoying it is natural and will moderate and, with some horses, almost totally disappear over time. The ugly dark side of anticipation I am talking about is the apprehension we as trainers create.
Roncalli belongs to Carol Judge. The picture on the left shows that he is not so sure about the letter K. In the next picture I ask him to face the box and urge him to move toward it. I give him time to investigate but insist that he move forward as shown in the next picture. As you can see his curiosity has won out and he is ready to eat out of the box.
For example, all we wanted was to teach the flying changes. We had him correctly prepared. He could counter canter in good balance and he was collected enough to execute simple changes so we cantered a half circle from E to X and proceeded on a diagonal from X to H. Just before H we asked for a change. That surprised him. He finally changed in the front in the corner but continued at a cross canter pulling pretty heavily on the reins. He was clearly confused. This he had not anticipated and the strong aid for the change frightened him. His anticipation was either counter canter or simple change. We try again. This time we are going to ask a little harder, particularly with our weight in hopes that the imbalance will cause him to change. On the diagonal toward H we can already feel his apprehension of not knowing what to expect or what we might want him to do. His back is becoming tense and he wants to speed up. This is a typical reaction of a flight animal. To continue to ask for the change with stronger aids would doom our plan to failure. Should we carry on with our plan anyway, the apprehension will turn into fear and learning is no longer possible.
Let us go back to the positive effects of anticipation. We ride a few simple changes anywhere in the arena, in this way settling his nerves by staying with the familiar. As soon as we feel the adrenalin is out of his system, we ride the same pattern as before but in another corner. This time we ask for a simple change instead of the flying change. If he stays cool, repeat it two or three times. Now his anticipation is, “change.” There is a good chance that when asked for the flying change he will change, maybe not perfectly but, hopefully, without fear. If that is the case, we stop. Let him think about what caused the work to end and try again tomorrow. Should he, on the other hand, become exited again we must stop what we are doing and proceed with some exercises he does well to settle his mind before we end our work. My grandfather once told me, “The way you put your horse away at night is the way you will find him the next morning.” We can see the effects of this when horses refuse to enter an arena. They anticipate another negative experience such as too hard work, rough handling, etc. This of course is easy to avoid. Most of us know why the horse resents the arena so stop it, work within the limits of the horse and teach instead of force and drill.
There are many methods of teaching flying changes. It is not my intention in this article to describe all of them or even to take this one to its conclusion. What I want to show is that anticipation by our horse can be helpful when we are teaching new movements. Dogs will do just about anything in anticipation of a treat. So will horses except our treat is a reward of a different kind, with rest probably being the strongest. Let us observe horses and we will notice that if left uncorrected most will gradually drift toward the gate of the arena. They anticipate that once they are out of that gate the work is done. While I was in school in Germany to study for my instructor’s license, Uwe, our teacher, during jumping lessons always had one fence facing the out gate just in case one of our horses refused to jump. He would then ask the rider to jump that fence and rarely did a horse refuse to jump going home. Uwe used the anticipation of rest to teach the horse.
By now we are talking about two different kinds of anticipation. One is the anticipation of a reward for work well done and the other is the anticipation of what to do next. Both are helpful in the teaching of horses. However, as soon as the horse understands the exercise and the signals we use to prepare him for it and to tell him to execute it, we must no longer rely on his anticipation. He must focus on his rider and act according to the demands of the rider. You have more than one subject to talk to him about so he must learn to listen instead of to act from memory. My challenge to you is to try and ride a medium canter to a collected canter to a medium canter on the diagonal on a horse trained to race barrels. This horse is a specialist. He knows how to do but one thing and does not need a rider to tell him what to do. He also will not listen to anything contrary to what he anticipates hearing. Your dressage horse must know everything about the subject of riding. Drilling means training towards specialization and is, therefore, not helpful.
While we want the help in training that anticipation gives us, we do not always want it in the way horses offer it, like leaning through a corner instead of staying balanced while bending through it. Horses are creatures of habit so if we then anticipate the lean and prevent it and instead bend the horse through the corner every time we ride it, soon he will adopt this new way of turning as second nature and stay balanced. What we have done by this is change his unwanted natural behavior and replace it with a desired learned behavior. Horses will at times resist this change and it is up to the skill and patience of the trainer to avoid creating apprehension while dealing with this resistance. It is so much more difficult to overcome the resulting tension than it would have been to have removed the resistance.
As our horses progress in their training the patterns we want them to work become more difficult, the demands on strength become greater, and the aids are more complicated. Anticipation will no longer suffice alone. We must now direct anticipation with preparation. This means we, the riders and trainers, must accept a great deal more responsibility for what the horse will anticipate. Take the example of a turn onto the centerline in the trot at third level. You can go straight, leg yield, half pass, shoulder-in, traverse, or you can ask for a medium trot, a canter, a halt, etc. What is your horse to anticipate? What should he prepare for? Here is where the so often heard lament comes in, “He must wait for me!”
What exactly do we mean by that? We are saying that we have taken charge of the ride and the horse must execute our demands as we want him to and when we want him to. This makes it easy on the horse. Now we must know in advance what we want and then communicate this to the horse. As you can see by the example in the previous paragraph, when we are entering the centerline we must be very precise or risk being misunderstood. Our seat must be secure! Our horse is focused on us and any movement, deliberate or unintended, means something to the horse and he will act accordingly. I believe that an experienced rider no longer needs to think about the act of communicating with her horse. Actions and reactions are automatic. The rider’s mind is now involved in thinking about the steps ahead and analyzing the horse’s reaction to the rider’s demands. This we call feeling, or in communication terms it is listening.
The anticipation now is ours. We must anticipate what the horse would do if left alone and if it wouldn’t be the desired act, to prevent it. In most cases that becomes a part of telling him what to do next. In listening to him he will tell us what is in his mind and in that way dictate our answer to him. This dialog between horse and rider must be constant. If we want him to wait for us we must not just leave him hanging in a vacuum. He must at all times know that he is being guided or else he will return to relying on his own anticipation. Imagine the anxiety you would feel if you were driving down the freeway and the person knowing where you are going would only tell you at the last minute where to turn. On top of that she would scold you if you almost missed a turn or took it with much too high a speed.
“He must wait for me!” It is absolutely necessary but do we make it possible for the horse? If we are late or imprecise the horse will do what he thinks is right. The problem was not that he did not wait but that the rider made him wait too long. Remember our first example about traveling down a known road and taking the exit that we knew in advance to turn off on. Now you drive down a busy highway with many exits and a Mixmaster coming up. You must find your exit so you can move into the correct lane to be able to turn onto it. At first you are looking for exit signs and arrows indicating how to get to them. What if you do not see any signs at all? What if you have a hard time reading them? Apprehension about this stretch of the road has turned you into a bundle of nerves and you are about to panic. This translates into a horse that has to deal with a rider who only rides from exercise to exercise instead of riding in between exercises to prepare the horse for the next one, or a rider who is imprecise with her aids. This horse is often unable to obey because he is off balance (in the wrong lane) and must first prepare himself for the exercise. We often perceive this as laziness or disobedience and correct it harshly. The next time instead of waiting he will feel apprehensive about such a correction and in order to avoid it he will act too soon or incorrectly and is punished again. This can easily turn into a vicious cycle unless the rider realizes that she must have her horse balanced at all times. She must be very precise and prepare him correctly for the next movement in order to expect a prompt and accurate execution.
Jane Minarovic's horse, Merino, is entering the arena for a Training level test as shown in the left picture. Matt Cunningham is up and finds himself with a great deal of horse in his hands. Merino has moved onto the forehand and trots off balance. This does not allow for a good halt as we see in the next picture. Matt obviously is aware of it and hides behind his cap. Much to Matt's credit he improves Merino's balance during the test as is shown in the following picture. This correct preparation allows for a proper execution and Merino Halts in balance and square in the picture on the right.
Remember when you first started to train your horse? Communication was like a game of Charades. You set the stage and gave a signal and let your horse anticipate. Every time he guessed right you rewarded him. As he learned to understand more and more of your signals his guessing improved and that is a good thing since your game also became more complicated. Now you have so many signals that he understands and you can combine them in so many ways that your communication has evolved into a continuous dialog. Your constant fine tuning of the aids has him focusing to a degree on you that allows him to ignore his own anticipation. Now the prior guessing at what you expect from him has turned into knowledge. This gives him a sense of confidence that elevates his performance into art because to the spectator it appears like he answers to your thoughts. He feels like you would as you travel down the same stretch of busy highway that I mentioned earlier. You encounter the same Mixmaster but a knowledgeable guide sits next to you constantly telling you well in advance what lane to drive in, how far to the next exit, etc. This way all anxieties are removed. It turns into an enjoyable trip and you arrive relaxed.