Wendy Jago, NLP Master Practitioner and coach, explains how Neurolinguistic Programming “presuppositions” can be helpful in developing more successful human-equine partnerships. According to Presupposition 3, effective individuals base their understanding of themselves and others on “useful lies” because these working assumptions tend to produce better results than judgemental or snap opinions. Wendy then goes on to explore the related Presupposition 4 in the “Blame game”.

HOW CAN lies be useful? Well, it’s not just because they are “positive” but because if this is our starting point we are much more inclined when confronted with odd or puzzling behaviour in others, to ask ourselves “what kind of sense does this make to this individual?” or “how might this be functional in their map of the world?”. This goes way beyond “giving them the benefit of the doubt”. It invites us to consider that the doubt might be in our way of thinking, or our lack of understanding — or perhaps show that we’re curious about the other person or what they are doing. If you like, we are teaching ourselves to regard others as though they are worth serious enquiry. As individuals we know that we would prefer to be treated like this — and would be more likely to respond well to it.

BD List 3A judge Wendy Jago with her husband and judge’s writer, Leo, at Hickstead

If your horse only rarely spooks, and then mostly at something unfamiliar, noisy or sudden, you will probably excuse or laugh at him if you’re just riding at home. But if you are doing something that you consider important — such as riding a dressage test — and your horse spooks, you are more likely to get cross or be disappointed at the loss of important marks.

Booting him in the ribs or circling because he “ought to” face the scary object — an expression of your feelings and beliefs — could cause you to throw away three or four movements’ worth of marks. If instead, you tried to minimise his alarm and helped his concentration by putting him into shoulder-in to pass it, you would only lose a mark or two.

If your horse regularly spooks you might think that he’s trying to take the upper hand in your relationship or taking advantage in order to evade what you are asking him to do. Your interpretation of his behaviour will depend on your personal presuppositions about horses in general, about him, about what you think he is supposed to do, or about what is important to you in riding and so on.

Many riders attribute human thoughts and feelings to their horses, especially in the heat of the frustrating moment. And so the age-old black and white judgements about leadership/followership, obedience/disobedience, submission/resistance and so on are perpetuated. From such “framings” as they are called in NLP can follow a related set of options about punishing, ignoring, explaining, reinforcing and so on.

The opposite may also be true. There can be a danger in attributing to the horse the importance humans attach to individualism, authenticity, freedom and so on. These are no more characteristic of a horse’s needs than ideas about resistance, defiance and obedience. The horse is a herd animal, and (despite his ability to associate past pain or trauma with specific stimuli and react with alarm when they recur) his normal focus is on the here-and-now, not on yesterday or tomorrow. He reacts in the moment, with purposes that make sense to him — to avoid what seems frightening, dangerous, painful, confusing or too difficult. Some of these adjectives could be applied to what we are asking of him…

Because he is always in the moment, there is no point in us trying to bribe him with treats, or praise, in advance of the behaviour we want. For him, a treat by the mounting block in the hope that he will stand still is actually a reward for not doing so. A treat that regularly comes after desired behaviour will be associated with that behaviour, becoming a reinforcement for it.

The “blame game” helps no-one
Presupposition 4 is that individuals work perfectly: no-one is wrong or broken. Don’t blame your horse for his failure to do what you want. Don’t blame yourself either for your inadequacies as a rider. Instead, let yourself be guided by what actually goes on between you, rather than what you think should go on.

NLP EMPHASISES the critical value of understanding communications and what they mean to both sender and receiver. It asks, “what is it that shapes dialogue and makes it effective or ineffective as far as those involved are concerned?” The conclusion that it draws is that “good” dialogue rests on assumptions that attribute purpose and inherent “okayness” to each participant.

As a coach, I have often been asked to “fix” the attitude or behaviour of someone who is in trouble at work; the assumption being that they are the cause of the perceived problem. Naturally the person who is scheduled for such “fixing” can feel inadequate, angry, depressed… Why wouldn’t they? And why wouldn’t a horse scheduled for “fixing”, because his owner or trainer finds him difficult, resistant, slow or lacking talent, be getting a message that provokes something in him that is, at the very least, confusion?

If you love him and pet him in his box, pat him when he gallops and jumps effortlessly out hacking, but cram him into an uncomfortable shape and give him endless instructions when he’s in the school or the arena, then he will draw some conclusions about the experience. He will have his own presuppositions, even if they aren’t formulated in words!

Let’s take a contrasting example of a rider/trainer I know. She is very skilled and experienced, and has the ability to relate to the horse she is actually working with while keeping clear in her own mind how she would like it to develop its inherent physical and mental abilities. Her training is in the classical riding tradition but, in addition, she has an outstanding ability to refine how she uses her knowledge on that day, with this horse, or with this rider, in respect of both their today and future needs and taking the opportunities presented by each riding experience.

As a judge I have seen her on a very talented but very spooky horse which at one moment reared vertically, and yet a couple of minutes later, with her help, focused sufficiently to produce a fluent and quite complex sequences of movements including lateral work.

Apart from skill and experience, which of course vary according to the individual rider, the key thing here, I think, is the presupposition that the horse’s behaviour is meaningful, and purposeful to the horse. Where our Mouse would stop to assess the situation, this highly-strung, or finely-tuned individual, though similarly alert to all kinds of possible danger, is too alarmed to wait and see. With the support and consistency of its rider/trainer, its ability to trust its rider has increased over time and its marks, which were fours and eights, or even threes and nines, are all now consistently nearer to the top end of the range.

When I meet a new coaching client for the first time, they are often unsure what coaching involves, and indeed they may be quite right to assume that their behaviour in some way has caused someone to want them “fixed”. My initial explanation nowadays is to address this quite explicitly by saying something like: “People often think that coaching is about fixing something that’s wrong. In my experience it’s more helpful to assume that we can each learn to understand and better manage the kind of person that we are.”

Nothing needs fixing, but we can usually learn to be more aware of how we and others habitually think and react and the different ways this may affect our communications with each other.

If we know more about each other’s strengths (which can sometimes blinker us, too); if we know more about each other’s limitations and seek to understand or work round them — then we can make life simpler, smoother and more productive. Seek to understand in what way each of you is being purposeful in situations of difficulty — and also in those of fluency and harmony. Explore those situations.

Aim for greater understanding, because that way you will open up more options. Experiment with new solutions, new attitudes and new behaviours. Do more of what works. Do less of what doesn’t.

Perhaps the simplest way of keeping this in mind is the idea of aiming for respect. “That’s all very well,” you might reply, “But what if I really do need to explain that something is wrong, or even give a reprimand? What happens to respect then?” Respect is still the key, and at times when correction is needed it’s even more essential because it helps take emotion out of the exchange. I’m sure we have all been involved in situations where a telling off led to responses that were heated — leading to an escalation of hostilities — or else resulted in sullen compliance or barely disguised defiance.

In human communications, we are much more likely to generate a successful outcome if we can manage to explain in objective, impersonal terms why things need to change, without making generalisations or seeming to attack the person as a whole (as in “you always… you never…” “you just can’t seem to [ understand ] …”!).This calm clear issue statement is known as “bottom-lining”. It’s like those bank statements that show the end-of-day figure for your account. There is no debating it, but there can be a number of options facing you and your bank as a result.

Telling your colleague, your partner, your offspring, your trainer — or your horse — just how the situation seems to you is to make clear, simply and without emotion, what the bottom line is as far as you are concerned.

As our first trainer taught us, a quick finger-flick on the neck or nose explains instantly to a nippy youngster that nipping hurts, whichever one of you is doing it. It’s both a tit for tat and a learning experience.

I can remember an occasion when Mouse and I were out hacking and met a steam engine in a narrow lane. Even though the driver stopped to allow my husband Leo, who was walking with us, to lead Mouse past, Mouse couldn’t bring himself to take the risk. And when I rode him into a deep gateway at the side of the lane, he was still terrified. I could feel his hind legs readying themselves to jump the five-barred gate we were facing… While he, as a terrified ex-eventer, could probably have cleared it from a standstill, I knew I couldn’t. In desperation I shouted “No! Mouse! No!” And his learnt understanding of the word helped him to respond and wait until the steam-engine had gone on, even though I could still feel his heart thumping through my legs for another 20 minutes.

After the “no” should come the “yes.” After the half-halt, the rewarding release. After something done wrong, should come the patient deconstructing of the movement into its constituent pieces so that they become building blocks to help him learn before asking him to put them together again with a better chance of success. For the “good try” which wasn’t enough, or not quite what you wanted, there should be acceptance of what was offered because he did offer something. You also make a mental note to self to explain more clearly what you want next time.

© Out and About Dressage Ltd, January 2018

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