Bluebird Lane Blog
Bluebird Lane Blog

Set Your Goals and Know Your Priorities

by Lori Albrough

When training a horse, setting goals and having a plan is important. I definitely do that. But, it can’t be the most important thing. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” He said this in the context of preparing for battle, but it holds just as true in the context of preparing to make progress with your horse.

Horses being horses, things are not necessarily going to proceed 100% according to your plan every time you get out into the training area. You need to stay flexible in your approach when the horse doesn’t seem to remember what you thought he already knew, and therefore you can’t move on to introducing new material. The most important thing is to be totally in the moment with the horse and listening to what he is telling you when you ask him questions.

But the very act of having sat down to define your goals and make your plan helps to clarify in your mind exactly what you think the horse already knows, and what the logical next step should be. This clarity in your own mind is actually key to the success, even if the steps don’t go exactly one-two-three as you thought they would. By having a picture in your mind of what comes next you are putting into practice the success principle of “beginning with the end in mind”.

Horses are astute readers of our thoughts and intentions, and exactly how they do this I don’t know for sure. I just know it sometimes seems like they are practically telepathic, so getting clear in my own head of what my intention is for the week positions me as a leader (both to the horse AND to myself) and informs my whole approach, whether or not it actually pans out in the way I thought it would.

Let’s say I have the goal of trailer-loading my young horse. If getting him on the trailer was the most important thing, I could hook up a winch and crank him on and, voilà, my goal is achieved, right? But we all know that is ridiculous. Forcing him on is not teaching him anything that we want him to learn, it could damage his body, and start a cycle of fight and struggle.

So to teach him to trailer-load I will make a plan that will keep the horse safe and set him up for success. This means for example thinking of things like having the trailer securely hitched to the truck so it can’t move, parking the rig in an inviting open area on fairly level ground, away from fences, buildings and obstructions, opening the side doors and swinging wide the partition so there is a lot of light and space.

Then I want to think about my priorities. When introducing him to something new and potentially scary, my first priority is that he stay mentally engaged. By that I mean, he stays with me mentally, he stays curious and willing to investigate what I’m asking him to do, even if he’s not yet sure about actually doing it.

Before bringing him and out and asking him to get on the trailer, I will run through a little mental movie where he confidently marches along right beside me, up the ramp, and into the stall. That’s my goal and I want to make sure that my body language, my thoughts, and my belief system, are aligned with that (just in case he IS telepathic 🙂

But if it doesn’t quite go that way, I am going to be OK with whatever happens as long as the horse stays engaged in what we’re doing, because I have my priorities in mind. Because I know my top priority, I’m not going to do, or allow someone else to do, anything that pushes the horse over to the point of “I’m getting out of here, right now!”

If he’s mentally with me, looking at what we’re doing, stretching towards it, sniffing, and thinking about doing it, I am happy. Every step towards the trailer, I am happy. As long as he is considering what I’m asking, I’m happy. Then, I just have to be willing to take the time it takes. And usually, by having this willingness, it doesn’t take much time at all!

The last thing you want, is for the horse to think that YOU are his problem. The work before us might be difficult or scary, but the priority is that the horse feels that you, his trainer, are there to help him figure it out, to coach him through it, to cheer him on to let him know when he is getting it right, to ask him to try again when he’s almost there. My role is to be like the Home Depot slogan for my horse: “You Can Do It! I Can Help!”

If the horse stays mentally with me, I will consider that a success. In horse training, I consider every successful day — and even every successful experience — to be like putting “money in the bank”. My metaphorical account with a horse is credited every time he learns I can tell him what to do and he can do it safely and successfully. Each time he can do something which pleases me, and at the same time keep himself comfortable mentally and physically, he gains confidence in himself and in me as his leader. When this happens, our account balance goes up.

I know that when I come back tomorrow for our next training session, if I have had a successful day before, things are likely to come even easier and better today. My “money in the bank” has earned me interest!

A bad or negative experience, on the other hand, will result in a decrease to our account. If our priority was to get that horse onto the trailer no matter what, and we tried force and intimidation resulting in the horse getting fearful, rearing, pulling back, and running away, that is a big deficit. Tomorrow when we come out to try again, we are going to have to metaphorically earn all that money back first before we can even start again from zero.

So, know your priorities when going into a new training situation, in order not to create a problem or a deficit situation. Ask yourself, “what is the most important thing here?” We want to maximize our successful experiences, and avoid or minimize negative experiences, thereby building up a strong credit balance.

I you promise this credit will stand you in good stead in future situations, if they happen to be fraught with emotion and you require the horse to dig deep and trust!


One Response to “Set Your Goals and Know Your Priorities”

  1. Ellen Barry wrote:

    Hi Lori, thanks soo much for this wonderful account of events on Levi. I knew you could do this. And I knew that there was more to it. After all: he’s Fjord. No way a Fjord cann not be brought around. They are so loving and forgiving.
    Also thanks for your newsletter. I enjoy it every time.And I learn something every time.

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