They say it takes 3 weeks to form a habit. Why is this? When we do something repeatedly, our brain makes it easy for us. It stores the task and it becomes a habit.
Our brain is a complex organ. Think about what I wrote above. It literally stores our repetitive actions and creates habits to make our lives easier! But what happens when we create habits that are not necessarily beneficial to us. Are we aware of these habits? Do our horses have habits?
Has your horse ever spooked in the corner of the indoor? What happens the next time you go towards that corner? Do you tense without realizing it? Does your horse spook because you tensed? Does that corner become an area of stress without you realizing it? Eventually you prepare for "that" corner because it is the scary corner. Can you see how a habit can form for both you and your horse without realizing it?
What about good habits? The second I put my foot in the stirrup I say a safety prayer. "May the infinite love of God surround and protect me from all bodily harm. Amen" I don't recall when I started this practice. I am sure it started when I was working through some fear issues. It has now become a habit and I say this prayer without thinking about it. I consider this a good habit. Other good habits may be checking our girth before getting on or tying a horse with a safety knot.
Are our bad habits really bad habits? Think about the spook in the corner. The habit started because we unconsciously were trying to protect ourselves. We were preparing for our horses to spook. Of course we know that tensing in the saddle sends the horse the wrong message and causes the horse to tense with us. What I want you to see is that this habit started to protect us, but actually could do the opposite.
Do horses have habits? I believe they do. My little Arab Tinsel tends to be a freezer. When something bothers her or she gets nervous, she stops in place with her head up. I won't go into how detrimental this posture is to her body in this article, but lets just say that it is the posture that will increase her sympathetic (fight and flight) nervous system. I believe this has become a habit of hers. I am working on helping her change this habit.
I started to think about horse habits when I was bringing her through the gate. She tends to get quite nervous. She rushes through and swings her butt around once she gets in the pasture. I decided to help her go through the gate with her head down. It was quite tough for her and I began to think about it. What was causing her to be so nervous? She's goes through this gate frequently. This is when I started to think about habits. Think about the corner. Did this habit of hers start with a bad experience of being pushed through thresholds and has now become a habit?
I asked her to walk through with her head down and than I stopped her half way through the gate and asked her to backup. Having her head down is key because it releases endorphins and starts to access the parasympathetic nervous system. Asking her to stop halfway through was helping to break up the habit. When I feel her start to stop and freeze in other areas, I try to change the pattern and help her create a new and more productive habit.
The big question!! What habits do you have that are not productive to your horse? I work with many different horses and I've found myself transferring situations between horses. I may have a horse that is nervous to step over the hose laying in the grass. It's become my habit to prepare this horse to step over the hose. What I've noticed is that when I have another horse I mentally prepare for the hose. It's nothing big, but in my head I say "there's the hose, are we going to have an issue?". This is not what I want to do because I don't want the horse who isn't worried about the hose to become worried. I have to be aware of my habits so that I don't accidentally cause a horse to have a fear or an issue.
My challenge to you is to become aware of your habits. Focus on the good and the bad habits. Which ones are beneficial to you and your horse? What ones may be causing an issue for your horse? Once you are able to recognize your habits, than you can change them. Awareness is key.