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Learning The Rotes
Some of us remember being read to as a child. We had our favorite books. We could say all the words on the coming page before the page was turned. But we were not in school yet and had not learned to read.

We learn a lot by repetition. The times table, the alphabet, the elements of the periodic table, to name a few. Learning by repetition or rote is acquiring a skill without the need to understand any underlying complicated theory. You do not have to “get it” to score a hundred on the test. This method can be good discipline, and sharpen your mind as you stretch you brain to receive series of numbers, formulas and laws. Game shows thrive on contestant’s expertise for rote.

In our computer age there is less reason to memorize- just look it up or type it into the calculator. Most people have not learned things that a generation ago were necessary or just plain common knowledge. (What is my body temperature supposed to be and my blood pressure is what?) A lot of tests in school were geared to those who could memorize the best and spill the same thing back on to paper in a limited amount of time. Those who did not excel at this method had report cards that made them look less than desirable to college scholarship awarders. Yet those same people will be repairing the computer the “smart ‘ person cannot fix. There is definitely a place for different forms of learning in our human world.

How now for the horse world? With what kind of learning technique do horses excel? Is that wood chewing a spiritual desire to be reincarnated as a termite? Does knocking down another fence rail show an innate longing to be an architect?

Years ago horses were used for agriculture, transportation and war mounts. I remember sitting astride a broad equine back as a tree was dragged from one lumberman to the other. The horse would work with purpose and wait while the log was hooked or unhooked, yet seemingly doing the job on his own. When cars made an appearance on the back roads, my grandparents had an awful time teaching their team to start working on the now “right “ side of the road.

Horse’s minds are very moldable to repetition. It seems to be the preferred method of learning and maybe indeed the most practical. They seem to want to adapt, and feel comfortable or content in activities that are constant. Even when it was a difficult and dangerous repetition. Take the charging into battle- not for the faint of heart. (Whips and spurs and strong bits were often introduced in these scenarios to encourage the animal to face the situation. We now use these tools to get around a dressage ring, hunter course or just down the local trail. Hmmmm.)

Horses that perform the disciplines they are presented with today may or may not be enjoying themselves. Is nonresistance proof of enjoyment? If a person with more power grabbed my arm, wrenched it behind my back, and told me to dance- I would dance. If he did that everyday for prolonged periods, I would eventually put my own arm behind my back when I saw him coming, to spare him the trouble. My arm would get used to the position and I would probably improve my dance steps. Can you picture this and extend the picture to horse life?

I have seen horses adopt positions on their own. When “waking up” from a standing sleep they will arch their neck until the head almost touches the chest, and a hind leg will come up under the body and then stretch out behind to full extension.

When a horse has practiced some activity or has been genetically endowed with traits- (where he should hold his head, how fast or slow to go, which stall is his) and has it down pat, is it desirable or beneficial to the horse to change that behavior? Or if the animal has not had certain body parts touched in their entire life- what kind of repetition is needed to get it to another comfort zone? Repetition can be severe, light or the whole gamut in between. To what extent should we go to retrain the animal? The gaited horses are a pleasure to ride but you do not see too many of those around here. They do not understand the need to change to a hunter/jumper or western pleasure mount. There is no shame in that.

I have feet that naturally turn out- but my left knee dost protest. I have been encouraged by a physiotherapist to practice moving straighter. Is this according to my natural bent - no. Is it beneficial - yes. So I do it.

Some habits that are dangerous can be remodeled or removed. A Chinese proverb says it takes 10,000 repetitions to form a habit and 30,000 to break it. Who’s going to be paying for that? Will it be the owner with money and time because the habit has been engrained for the last 2 years or the trainer and horse because he has to cure that habit in 30 days?

I believe that life is all about experiencing change and growth and that it is not always pleasant. I have also decided that there are certain things I will not do to get a horse or human to change. So there are clients that I will encourage to go elsewhere to achieve their goals.

I enjoy seeing an animal look a certain way that is appealing to my desires or do an activity that it is mentally and physically geared to do. They can learn and perform as designed. As long as the design is not too humanly contrived (some narrow headed dogs give me cause me for worry), I can usually watch the proceedings.

Two quotes help to dictate my actions. “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” “A righteous man regards the life of his beast”.

Success to me is not whether I am doing what those at the top of their game are doing. After the towers in New York were hit in September 2001, a lot of successful people were coming down the stairs to escape. Those on the way up were those I believe to be the great ones.

- Ann Allen

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