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December 5, 2011

Frustration Tolerance

Photo by Susan J. Stickle.

Last winter in Florida, I read a couple of Temple Grandin's books. Ms. Grandin is, among other things, a renowned animal behaviorist, and it was in one of those books that I first learned of the concept of "frustration tolerance." 

Ms. Grandin used it referring to dogs. She recommended fussing with a dog or puppy when evaluating it for adoption from a shelter—giving it food or a toy, then taking it away—to see what the dog would do. Dogs that don't really react have a high frustration tolerance, a high ability to just roll with being bothered by external stimuli. These are the kind of dogs you want if you have kids who try and ride the dog, dress the dog in tutus, and pull on the dog's tail.

Dogs that snap or growl are not such a good choice for the family because they have an inherently low frustration tolerance. And of course you can improve (or ruin) a dog's ability to deal with people, but starting with a good temperament match certainly makes life a lot easier.

I like the term for horses not so much when it comes to their natures—though certainly it plays a big role there, too—but rather in the training, particularly of flying changes. Since there are more than a dozen horses in my life learning or perfecting the changes this winter (15 and counting, please shoot me), I've had a lot of time to think about them (this is my third blog relating to them, I know).

I've found that most horses operate on the same general schedule: They figure out the basic idea of the change, start getting comfortable in it, and then about two weeks to a month later, they start doing changes ALL THE TIME. On the long sides. On 20-meter circles. Around corners. Ten years before you ask for them. All. The. Time. Once they're at that place, the only thing to do is start setting up for changes and NOT asking for them.

It's the exact same as test-driving that shelter dog. The changes are the toy. You give the horse the toy, let it play with it for a while, and then take it away.

Some horses stay pretty mellow. Lala, Cutter and Hannah certainly get a little anxious but don't overreact. The worst thing they do when the going gets tough is hop around a little bit, maybe get tight behind. No bucking, no hysterics.

Fender, Odin and Socket get anxious, but stay pretty rideable. They're the kind you can dig in and inspire a little bit, say "C'mon, baby, let's do this together," and they might bounce around a bit, but at the end of the day they show up with big horsey smiles on their faces when they get it right.

Bo and Vi? They get STEAMED. Vi drags her rider sideways, neck in the air, cantering at a thousand beats per minute. Bo kicks out for no reason at all (someone's lost his on-the-wall-next-to-the-mirrors privileges), and when you do get him settled enough to ride the change, the first one almost always is bucking behind.

The answer is the same to them all—stay cool, leg on, ride forward, breathe. Ride the good into them. And they all come around. But that building of frustration tolerance is as important, if not more so, than the change itself.

I see that same lesson, learning how to deal with movement-related anxiety, show up in the one-tempis and piaffe as well. Billy was a piaffe volunteer, one who would make half-steps and jig around in place as you approached the end of the walk tour in the old I2 test, which was the Brentina Cup qualifier back in the day. There was a transition from walk to piaffe, and it just turned him inside out. And Midge and Cleo both were super ticklish about the ones; on more than one occasion I have turned them onto a diagonal and produced upwards of 10 beautiful ones, all without me asking for a single change.

Part of teaching all movements is teaching the off button, but something about those three—single changes, one tempis and piaffe—makes life hell for a while. With those 15 horses (and counting, heaven help me) all learning the single changes, and with Midge finalizing the ones and Fender starting baby half steps, apparently it's going to be a frustration tolerance building winter for me, too.