Experience is the Sum of our Mistakes

‘Experience is the sum of our mistakes’.

This gem of a quote was one of the pearls of wisdom from the super instructor, Russell Higgins.

I’d like to elaborate on this.

No matter how savvy you are, how much you know, and how much you do around horses, there will always be mistakes. No one is perfect, or precognitive (or at least perfectly precognitive!)

Being savvy is about knowing where to be, when, why and how, and like a horse, knowing what happens before what happens, happens.

However we all make mistakes. And thinking logically, we know that being around horses is inherently dangerous, especially when we are unaware of all the potential ways things can go wrong.

But even if you’ve years of experience, and know well what could happen, just because you’ve been doing it for a while does not mean you won’t screw up royally, at least occasionally.

Its actually quite possible to do things badly your entire life, if you won’t learn from your mistakes. Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect!

In fact, if you work with horses professionally it’s probably much more likely to get yourself in trouble, because the ways things can go wrong are infinite, and professionals don’t usually get to work with the easy horses. You are always, always facing yet another horse, and yet another opportunity to balls it up.

Like being more likely to be involved in a crash if you work as a full time driver over thousands of km; you may drive better than many, but every km still contains a risk.

How many times have I stood in the aftermath of a big mistake, rolling my eyes and thinking ‘I actually know better than this!’

Wearing my retrospectacles, I can look back upon many personal doozies that I know should not have happened. I’d like to talk about two standouts; both involving trailer loading/unloading.

Trailer loading is an art form. It can be sketchy, or it can be a masterpiece, no matter what your ‘method’ may be.

This blog is not about method, so please put that aspect aside when you read this. It’s about being mindful.

The first incident was with a student who had come for a lesson with her own horse and trailer.

That little mare did not want to load up after our lesson. It was getting late, the lessons had gone on longer than planned and dark was looming. There was also a child with us, and responsibilities for my student to get on with. We needed the pony to load.

First mistake- we left it too late to start.

Second mistake- we assumed that because the pony always loaded, we wouldn’t have a problem.

Once the mare said ‘not likely’ I offered to help. I’ve loaded a lot of horses, including this one, and I thought I probably would be more effective sooner, because of that.

Another assumption! Not to mention a tad arrogant. Had I butted out, its quite likely that my student would have come up with the solution that eventually saved the day much sooner herself, as she knows how food motivated the horse is!

The float was parked on a wide grass verge but it was not far off from the roadside. It’s a quiet road- a dead end; but still I had a niggle that said hmm, would be best to move this; but I didn’t act on it.

Another mistake.

This pony is not usually unconfident about loading. She’s had problems in the past but they were more about responding to a send forward than being scared. I assumed her reluctance here was the same deal, and used the technique that ‘always worked’ which was busy outside, rest when thinking about getting in.

At one point, she overshot the ramp and the verge to the side and momentarily was on the tar seal- and her foot slipped. I noticed and thought ‘ok best be careful’.

The next mistake! I should have thought ‘this isn’t a safe set up’ and actually moved the float, right then and there.

Then it happened again. The mare went wider, a foot met the tarmac, a slight skid occurred. It was less drastic this time, but instead of taking the hint, my thought was ‘this will work, I’ll just not let her go wide just there’.

Slow learner! Like I thought I was in control of the situation, right?

I was already feeling uncomfortable about it, my subconscious was hard out firing flares up from the basement, but time was ticking obliviously on, and this had worked before…

I should have listened to my gut.

This little mare had got to the point where she would go and stand on the ramp but no further, so I set it up that she could choose to go in or pass it by, and because she was typically quite confident, I was still treating her like we normally would. The game was ‘go in, or I’m going to playfully tag this spot behind you if you choose to pass it by’. This was sort of working, to the point that she would choose the ramp and a rest about half the time. Then it happened. She ‘passed it by’, I tagged the ramp behind her, and she got ‘playful’ back,aiming her butt to kick out at me in passing.

I couldn’t blame her. I had started it! However my self-preserving instincts kicked in and I automatically stepped forward to tag the foot coming my way and ‘finish it’ as well with a flick of the string.

She did what trained horses usually do, and went to yield her hq- and we ran out of grass. She was suddenly on the tar seal, and her back legs slipped out from under her and she fell on the road.

Thankfully, luck was with us and she was not badly hurt. She had though scraped her hip. I felt terrible, I was completely responsible, and we were very, very lucky the horse was ok.

She loaded quietly after that, with her owner in the float holding a bucket. Much less drama and I was kicking myself. Why did I not think to just suggest that in the first place? Was it pride, some sort of chauvinism about ‘doing it correctly’ while actually dropping the ball entirely? Pride before a fall..?

There were so many ways I could have handled this better. This was before we had a good alternative strategy to pressure/release training confidently installed as well. Today that student, that mare, and I myself are better educated in positive reinforcement for example. That method with a confident, food motivated horse ended up being a far superior ongoing choice for that mare especially.

Much licking and chewing on my part after that incident. However, plainly not enough. The next incident was just a couple of months later, and whilst it was a different scenario, different horse, different person, and a truck instead of a float…there were many similar themes.

I went in my truck to pick up a horse for delivery to a nearby clinic. The TB mare lives locally, and originally was going to be walked to the nearby venue, but had suffered two abscesses recently and so I was asked could we truck her round.

We also had a timeline- I had another horse to go fetch after this one. First mistake.

At loading, the area outside the truck was sharp metal gravel and we were very aware that the mare was still a bit tender. The owner couldn’t move her around on it much in general, much less now in terms of approach and retreat, because of the sore feet.

Second mistake. Set up the environment so you can do what you need to.

In approaching, the mare told us she was not keen on just getting in. She had been in the truck a couple of times previously and loaded and travelled easily. Today though, she was showing signs of lack of confidence.

Third mistake- we assumed today would be the same. Is this starting to sound familiar?

For whatever reason, it wasn’t. The mare did not actually take long to load, but in the back of my mind tickled a little thought that she definitely wasn’t happy about it. She was not feeling safe, and it was obvious. No amount of buckets would have worked in her case, because she was not at all calm. I myself would have liked to do much more subtle approach and retreat outside to raise her confidence before asking her to load, but the ouchy feet and the gravel allowed minimal outside movement, we were on a schedule, this was purely a truck loan, not a training session with me, and I had other horses to collect.

Everything was low key, at a walk, no dust flying or undue pressure.

I had actually worked with this mare before. A couple of times, I have ‘squeezed’ her between myself and an obstacle, and she had tried to shove me with her shoulder. I knew she has this tendency, and that it was a work in progress. I should have paid more attention.

This was another mistake.

She loaded after about 10 minutes or so. She went in, with momentum, in one go. I didn’t step up and do what I normally would, which would be to take her out and do it again until she was able to load completely calmly.

I knew she was a bit tight. But we had jobs to do, and we closed the door.

Third mistake!

On arrival a few minutes later (literally a couple of km away) we opened the door to see a sweaty, frozen horse. Another sign of how stressed she was.

My truck is an angle load so she was facing outwards and to the right. As it is my truck, I knew the best way to undo and safely get the partitions out of the way, so I went in, undid the side bar, put on a long lead rope ready for the owner, and unclipped her from the truck tie, and stepped aside to the far left of the ramp to allow room for her to unload.

She had the entire width of the ramp in front of her to walk out.

There were people I knew there, and for a moment I took my mind off the horse, the owner, and the situation to greet them.

Last mistake!

The mare panicked. She ignored the open expanse of ramp in front of her, and her beckoning owner at the foot of the ramp, and instead bounded right at and over me. Perhaps she thought of safety in numbers, and I was in closer proximation at that point than her owner, as I was tucked inside the truck at the top of the ramp and her owner was at the foot. Whatever, I was thrown off the truck, onto my hands and knees on yet more metal gravel as she bowled right over the top of me, bouncing off her owner as well for good measure, and was away.

We were all incredibly lucky. The horse and owner were unhurt, and I was only scraped and bruised myself.

The picture I chose shows a similar move by a kaimanawa mare disembarking from the same truck. In that case, curiousity had gotten her in the truck in the first place- she had broken into the front yard, and (typical Kai) had gone exploring. The dramatic exit that I caught on camera was initiated by the inexplicable (to her) appearance of a casual Dalmatian strolling by wearing a bucket on her head…now that was a severe error in controlling the environment!

So what have I learned?

  • Always set them up for success.
  • Always ensure the horse is calm.
  • Always be open to using different means if it would mean the horse is calmer. In the case of the first pony who was not usually worried about loading, had we offered the bucket first we would have avoided the entire drama.
  • Never just shut the door because the horse is finally in!
  • Don’t leave it until it’s too late to take the time you need.
  • Don’t make assumptions.
  • Like many things, until they happen to you, the risks do not always seem real.
  • Always pay attention to my intuition.
  • Always set up the environment as best as possible before I fetch the horse.
  • Never stop paying attention.

Experience is the sum of our mistakes!

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