Continued from last time…
13. Ensure planned redundancy
Honing a skill to the point of real efficiency had become my motto after I’d started working with Tom, something I admired and marveled at every time I watched him make a problem with a troubled horse disappear in a short time — after its owner had been struggling with it for years. I was to learn, however, that redundancy and efficiency are not opposing concepts, but emphasize varying aspects of problem-solving that when applied together, produce a far more well-rounded — and thereby dependable — solution.
In nature we see planned redundancy everywhere. To walk through a forest or any native habitat is to automatically be in the presence of immense biological diversity. Such diversity provides a wide variety of food for a wide variety of species, from mammals down to the tiniest microbe, ever interacting with one another to produce yet more life. In a healthy food system, if one food source is compromised there are other sources for sustenance and survival as most animals, even insects, are able to eat more than one type of food.
Other examples of redundancy can be found, for instance, in trees that develop the ability to absorb moisture through their leaves as well as their roots, such as coastal redwoods here in California, surviving drought conditions by “drinking” fog when rain is non-existent. Plants develop thousands of seeds, not just one, for self-propagation. Soil naturally renews its nutritional value through the “waste” or elimination of a
variety of sources such as fallen leaves, twigs, debris and animal feces. Water sources are delivered to all manner of flora and fauna through snow melting into streams, underground aquifers, rain, fog or moisture in the air, condensation, and the ability of the soil to harvest, store and spread water through earth particles.
In other words, planned redundancy ensures that all important functions will be met despite the failure of one or more elements. Systems that are based on this concept are less fragile and more resilient because planned redundancy is not repeating the same thing over and over and over again, rather, it is exposure to a variety of elements that lead to the same end. When working with horses, this is a crucial distinction!
For example, we will find repetition useful when we and our horse are learning a new skill. Repeating a task a number of times is a necessary component of practice and the ability to perform that task competently. However, if we get stuck in drilling the same thing over and over again, we and our horse are led to boredom, stress, strain and even physical symptoms related to overuse. Without a variety of other actions that support our efforts toward real proficiency, we actually limit ourselves to a narrow and superficial understanding of the task we are trying to hone.
Let’s say we have a spooky horse and that horse spooks at the same tarp that covers a hay stack at one end of our arena every time the wind picks up. Spending some time working out our horse’s fear of that particular tarp in that particular place is a good thing. But if they get to the point where they are no longer worried about that tarp, we will still not be assured that they won’t spook at something else at some other point in time or in some other place. In fact, we may be successful in getting our horse to be comfortable with that tarp today, only to find that they are spooking at it again tomorrow.
Why is that? we might ask.
It is an excellent question, and one we can better hope to answer for ourselves if we begin to observe where our horse’s attention goes before, after, and in between the moments they decide to spook at the tarp. Because we have the tendency to become fixated on the one thing we think is the problem, just as they can have the tendency to keep spooking at the same thing over and over, we miss everything else along the way. As mentioned before, nature is by its very nature complex and multidimensional. A true resolution to a problem is rarely accomplished by proffering simplistic remedies.
Learning to see where the origins of our horse’s spookiness really lie can be a tall order for those of us working on the less subtle challenges of basic horsemanship. So to start, it might be helpful to begin doing tangible things by, say, setting out a number of different items within the relatively controlled environment of our arena or usual riding area. Tarps in various positions, flags and flappy things, tires, logs, cones, umbrellas, things that create shadows, and other items easily obtained can all be used as props to expose our horses to objects they have the potential to be leery about. It will be
helpful to us to know that such reactions are perfectly normal. It’s a horse’s instinct to be suspicious of the world around them to one degree or another, as they rely almost entirely on fleeing from danger for their survival from predators.
Exposure to a variety of odd-looking objects might be the first step in helping our horse learn to assess when things are actually not a danger to them. In fact, for horses who basically feel comfortable in their own skin and have easy-going personalities, this might be all that is needed to take the edge off of a tendency to spook.
However, horses who persist in being spooky as a rule reveal an underlying sense of insecurity. We may notice varying levels of intensity with which they react to the differing objects, but each reaction, whether large or small or nearly imperceptible, represents a corresponding degree of disconnect with us (their person) in favor of an habitual sense of insecurity brought on by their interpretation of the object.
If our horse was at the top of the pecking order in a herd, this reaction would be a signal to its members to flee, and is therefore instinctually useful to them. So, if we don’t show up as the leader of our herd of two (us and our horse), then they will rely on their instincts to take over whenever they perceive something as threatening. If we take on the role as leader, on the other hand, our assertions, if applied consistently and persistently, can allow them to rely on us, giving them the confidence to drop their reactions to the once-scary objects.
Particularly with horses for whom an object triggers a sense of insecurity rather than merely a reaction to the object itself, the connection to “their person” is an essential component to overcoming a habit of spookiness or a tendency to flee.
How do we “show up” in a way that allows us to be the leader of our herd of two?
It’s another great question! Tune in next time for more thoughts on the subject. In the meantime and just for a bit of fun, can you tell where I used planned redundancy in the writing of this article? 😀