We are all influenced by our past experiences: they create our habits which work either for or against us on our life paths. This is also true for our horses. Each experience is the catalyst for an equine habit.
A horse will move in a certain way, react in a certain way, approach us in a certain way depending upon the habits he has formed.
I personally drive a car the way I do because of past experiences (they collectively form my driving habits) and that recognition helps me understand my horses’ and my own behaviors.
The three glaring habits I have as an automobile “pilot” make total sense to me:
My first car was an old Mark ll Jaguar with brakes that worked intermittently (!!!), teaching me to pump the brake pedal immediately upon feeling it sink to the floor while I pulled up on the emergency brake lever in between the front seats. This is why, if driving a car with a brake lever beside my hip, I keep my hand on it the entire time I’m moving… not out of fear and not even with awareness, it is just a habit formed early on that kept me from zooming through intersections or spinning out on sharp curves should those old Jaguar brakes fail.
Many years and vehicles later I had both a VW Bug and an old VW Bus (on which I painted clouds and a third eye). Driving an air cooled engine, I realized that straddling a plastic bag in the road that I did NOT see in my rear view mirror afterwards meant it had been sucked up onto the engine and said engine would burn up… now, without thinking about it, I drive around plastic bags and if that’s not safe to do, always look to see that it is flapping around behind me. It’s a habit.
And one time I drove a 3 cylinder Chevy Sprint that got 52 miles per gallon (yes, seriously) and was an automatic (transmission) with A/C! The fact that it went from 0 to 60 MPH in 12 minutes was no deterrent for me, I just planned ahead – AND, when at a stop light, I would of course turn off the compressor to the air conditioning and turn it back on after gathering a little momentum when the light turned green. So… now, at stop lights, I do the same thing in my Camry and it baffles passengers. Yet I understand my own reasoning!
So, when working with a horse who, say, backs up three strides every time he halts – I figure it is some sort of habit he learned from another human or from a past situation and I just work to replace it with a new habit. When I’m with a friend who walks sideways 10 feet away from a fence with a dog on the other side, I figure there is a reason behind that habit.
Horses, Humans, Dogs – we all act the way we do with habits formed by past experiences. And we can all replace unwanted habits with new ones – yet, in stressful situations we most likely will revert to the old, familiar habits! Something familiar is comforting, even when it is as weird as dodging plastic bags on the road and stopping on the shoulder to look for them if they disappear beneath the car!