Behavior as Information

In preparation for some fall clean-up work around here, I realized I needed to check in with my work pony Torrin.  We hadn’t done any harness work in quite awhile, so I took a halter and some lines down to see how ground driving would go.  I wanted to know how quickly we could get to work.  I was surprised by how badly that little session went.

Torrin pushed his head into the noseband of the halter, ignored the feel of the lines along his body, and generally didn’t go where I asked him to without extreme persistence on my part.  Torrin and I have been working on the farm and professionally in harness for over a decade, so this sort of performance was far from what Torrin has offered in the past.  After a few minutes, I gave up and let him get on with his day, and I began pondering whether Torrin had completely forgotten how to drive or whether something else was at play.

Around the same time I heard a news story about how teachers’ expectations shape the performance of their students.  Research results were shared, and it was amazing how differently teachers can respond to students in the classroom, based on their expectations, and how students respond back.  A teacher who expects a positive response from a student has a more open and positive approach, and it results in better performance by the student.  On the other hand, a neutral or negative expectation regarding a student results in poorer performance.  Teachers’ expectations were strong determinants of student performance.

I was struck by the parallels between that story and a chapter I recently read in Mark Rashid’s book Whole Heart, Whole Horse:  Building Trust Between Horse and Rider.  “[People] seem to lump most behavior into three categories:  good behavior (the kind of behavior we like), bad behavior (the kind we don’t like), and worrisome behavior (the kind that causes us to worry but we don’t do anything about).” (1)  Rashid challenges us to look at behavior differently.  What if, instead of looking at behavior as good, bad, or worrisome, we looked at behavior as information?  What if we dropped our expectations and instead opened ourselves to hearing and seeing with an open mind?

Rashid goes on to say about horse behavior, “Put simply, all these behaviors are nothing more or less than information the horse is offering.  A horse that offers us ‘good’ behavior is simply telling us he’s okay with what’s going on at that particular moment in his life.   A horse that’s offering up ‘bad’ behavior is telling us there’s a problem, sometimes a major one… that needs to be addressed.  A horse that is offering up ‘worrisome’ behavior is telling us he doesn’t understand something and is struggling with it.” (2)

When Torrin wouldn’t ground drive for me, I could have chalked it up to bad behavior.  Instead, I took it as information; Torrin definitely acted more like he didn’t understand something rather than that he wanted to misbehave.  I began by asking myself whether he had ever been driven in a halter.  At this point in my life, when I start my ponies ground driving, I start them in a halter with lines, only introducing a bridle and bit after they have the basics down so that I can use the bit for finer communication.  Torrin, though, was started before I understood these details, so I’d worked him from the start in bridle and bit; never in a halter.  Sure enough, the next day when I put his bridle on with the same lines attached, he ground drove like a dream.  As his ‘teacher,’ I dropped my expectations and took his response as information and was able to resolve the problem.

Rashid says, “[The] only thing that really makes [the behavior] good, bad, or indifferent is the perceptions and importance we put on it.” (3)  How a teacher expects a student to respond in a classroom or how a horseman interprets behavior in a round pen are choices.  Rashid continues, “[In] the end, the choice is entirely up to us.  We can either look at the behavior with a quiet mind and see it for what it is without judgment, or we can see it as something else.  Either way, we will end up responding accordingly, and either way, it will dictate the level of success we will ultimately have.” (4)  I am very glad that I was in the frame of mind to see Torrin’s refusal to ground drive as information.  Had I been in a more task-oriented, got-to-get-to-work frame of mind, which is not uncommon for me, I might have responded differently.  In the end, the right choice of response brought Torrin and I to a successful place more quickly.

  1. Rashid, Mark.  Whole Heart, Whole Horse:  Building Trust Between Horse and Rider, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, New York, 2009, p. 81.
  2. Rashid, p. 82.
  3. Same as #2.
  4. Rashid, p. 83.

(c) Jenifer Morrissey, 2012


About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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