Managing vs. Fixing in Horse Training

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How often do riders get in the habit of managing a problem with their horse rather than fixing it? Managing is the horse training equivalent of sweeping dirt under a rug. Fixing addresses the root cause of the problematic behavior. A problem that is fixed no longer needs to be managed.

Stock photo courtesy of Pexels.com

What does a managed problem look like in practice?

Managing a problem behavior can take many forms. I am thinking of the horse who ground ties so beautifully… because he has broken everything solid he’s ever been tied to. Or the horse who won’t get on the trailer, but it is never addressed because he has no need to travel. How about the horse who needs to be baited into being caught in the pasture? Or twitched into behaving for the vet or farrier?

Why might a training problem be managed instead of fixed?

Riders manage instead of fix their horse problems for a number of reasons, but most commonly they simply do not have the tools to fix at hand.

Sometimes this means a lack of physical tools, gear, or infrastructure. For example, if my horse refuses to cross a creek, that can be tricky to practice if I don’t have a creek on my farm. Or my horse refuses to load onto the trailer, but I don’t own a trailer to practice with. That being said, a little imagination can solve many of these lacks.

Sometimes a lack of tools is a lack of mental or experiential tools. The rider simply doesn’t know how else to ask the horse to do what needs done. If my horse refuses to cross that creek and I don’t know any other way to ask him to, I am out of tools. In this case, the rider needs a horseman with more experience to help. That help can be advice or physical assistance. In this case, the problem is (tough love time, here) with the rider, not with the horse. The horse and rider both need training.

Sometimes a lack of tools is a lack of emotional tools. In this case, the rider is apprehensive, maybe even fearful of addressing the problem. These cases are usually a bit more extreme or generalized in terms of the behaviors involved. Perhaps the horse bolts in canter… so the rider only walks and trots. The fix here overlaps somewhat with the fix for the lack of experiential tools, in that the rider needs help from a more experienced horseman. These are sometimes the hardest problems to fix, since these riders often know exactly what to do, but freeze instead of acting out of that fear. Here, the horse needs training, and the rider needs confidence, perhaps in addition to training.

When is it okay to manage a training problem instead of fixing it?

Sometimes it is okay to manage instead of fix. There are cases where working around a less desirable behavior is a more valid option than addressing it, especially as a short-term solution. These are usually cases where a gap in training is discovered in a situation that makes a fix difficult or dangerous. The managing is only happening to keep all involved safe until the training can be addressed.

Ideally, this situation is quite rare. We as horsemen don’t want to put ourselves or our horses in a situation where we don’t have the foundation in place to solve a foreseeable problem. We want to set ourselves and our horses up for success. But these are horses: anything can and will happen. Sometimes despite our preparation the situation dictates that we manage now and fix properly later.

Example:

Your horse loads nicely onto the trailer at home. You go to a show or event, you have a good day, but when you go to load up and go home the horse flatly refuses. You are unable to take the time it takes to work him through the task like you would at home. Maybe you need to clear your rig out of the barn area for the next guy to load up. So, you break out a carrot and bribe the horse onto the trailer.

We’ve all been there. A nonideal situation and a nonideal solution that works because the moment dictates. The difference here is that the savvy horseman realizes that he has discovered a gap, a point that deserves training review, and addresses it properly later. He doesn’t continue to substitute the bribe or the crutch for the training.

Conclusion

In an ideal world, horsemen never manage a training issue. They are fixed instead. Managing a training problem is typically indicative of a deeper problem, a lack in skill or tools to dive deeper and correct behavior at the source. Sometimes a particular situation dictates that a training gap be managed in the moment, but it is important to recognize a managed problem and take steps to fix it if at all possible. Horses with managed training issues are not set up for lifetime success, and the horse’s lifetime success is the responsibility of horsemen.

What about you? Do you have training gaps or problems that you manage day-to-day rather than fix? What kind of problems? Do you recognize that you are managing? If so, why do you manage rather than fix? What are situations where you have had to manage?

And those are the musings of the day. Remember, you should be riding!

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