Degrees of Separation


This blog was originally published on our website a couple years ago. Lately we have had a number of folks ask about the subject of “degrees of separation” and so we decided to update the original blog and re-publish it here. We hope you enjoy it!


“Your focus needs more focus.” Jackie Chan – The Karate Kid


Lately I’ve been giving quite a bit of thought to the idea of connections – and separations – between horses and humans. I have always been fascinated by how easy it is to communicate with a horse when some type of meaningful connection is made with them. Of course on the other side of that same coin, I have also found it fascinating just how difficult communication can be when we form some sort of separation with them as well.

I know a lot of folks have heard me talk about connections with horses over the years, how to develop them and maintain them, etc.. So rather than focusing on that today, what I really wanted to do is take a look at the other side of the equation, the separation part. Now I suppose there are many ways that we can create separation between our horse and ourselves, but the most common, I believe, is the degrees of separation that often occur between the time we give a cue or an aid, and the time it takes for the horse to respond.

For instance, lets say that we give our horse a cue and the horse willingly, seamlessly and almost immediately responds correctly. For me, that would constitute little or no separation (zero degrees) between cue and response. On the other hand, lets say we give the same cue but the horse is distracted, or out of balance, or perhaps we were out of balance, or the timing of our cue was off a little. As a result, the response from the horse is slow to come. For discussion purposes, lets say that that distraction/timing/balance issue caused one degree of separation between cue and response. In this case, one degree of separation showed up as a slight disconnect, if you will, between when we gave the cue and when the horse was able to respond. Usually this is nothing serious and is almost always relatively easy from which to recover.

While I believe most of us are probably looking to achieve zero degrees of separation in our work with horses, realistically we will often settle for one degree simply because getting perfection (zero degrees) 100% of the time is nearly impossible to achieve. Frankly, there are simply too many variables in life, and in horsemanship, to expect that kind of performance and still leave some semblance of a willing horse under us. Besides, seldome do serious training issues occur within the zero to one degree of separation realm. Rather, it’s usually only when multiple degrees of separation show up on a regular basis that real problems begin to take place.

For example, here’s the type of situation that actually occurs quite often and that might help illustrate the point. Lets say a rider is in the arena working on transitions with their horse.Things are going quite well when suddenly, and just as the rider is about to ask the horse to, say, transition from trot to lop, the horse becomes distracted by something outside the arena and turns it’s head in that direction (one degree of separation). The rider’s focus very quickly goes from thinking about the transition to thinking about what is distracting the horse (two degrees of separation). Then the rider turns to see what the distraction is (third degree of separation).

Perhaps having seen and dismissed the distraction, the rider then attempts to get the horse’s attention back in the arena. The rider may do this by gently bumping the horse in the mouth with the rein, or nudging its sides with their leg or whatever (forth degree of separation). Finally, the horse’s focus comes back on the rider and back in the arena (five degrees of separation).

In the end, neither the horse nor the rider are thinking about a transition anymore, which actually creates a fifth degree of separation. In this particular case, the trouble would have less to do with the horse getting distracted, and more to do with what the rider did afterward. The rider allowed him or herself to get pulled into that distraction and off the original task. In other words, the rider put more emphasis on what the horse was “thinking” than on what they were trying to accomplish, and as a result, the transition simply never happened.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m certainly not saying that we shouldn’t be aware of things that might be causing our horses to become distracted, worried or troubled, or even doing something about it if and when it’s necessary. I’m simply saying that the more unwarranted focus we put on those types of issues, the more degrees of separation from our ultimate goal we are likely to end up with. In other words, the more we allow ourselves to become distracted and pulled away from the task, the more difficult it usually is for our horse to focus on what it is we would like them to do in the first place.

Not long ago a woman asked me for help loading her horse into a trailer. The woman led the horse up to the back of the trailer and tried to send the gelding inside.  The horse seemed uninterested and not at all concerned or worried about either the trailer or the request. He simply stopped at the back door and turned his head away. The woman responded by stopping her request, looking in the same direction as the horse, then telling me that the horse’s “thought” wasn’t in the trailer, which was why he wasn’t going in. In this case, there were three degrees of separation from the task. The horse looked away from the trailer, the woman’s focus went with the horse, and then the woman’s mind had to reason why the horse wasn’t going in the trailer.

In another situation, one of our riders was working on developing a rhythmic gait with his horse and the pair were trotting along the arena fence when suddenly his horse shied from a garbage can that was just outside the gate. The man stopped his horse and then tried to take the mare over to the garbage can to “show” it to her. The mare protested, the man insisted, the mare spun away, the man turned her. Just like that, they had seven degrees of separation from the main goal, which was simply to develop a rhythmic gait.

In yet another instance we had an owner whose horse, a youngster of three years old, seemed to be having trouble following his owner while being led. The owner would begin leading the gelding, the horse would stop and then the owner would stop. The owner would then look behind the horse to see if it was trying to urinate. Then she would ask the horse to move again, upon which the horse would refuse. The owner would release the pressure on the lead rope, and then re-apply it. This would go on for quite some time, and sometimes the horse would end up moving – sometimes it wouldn’t. Again, the owner was unwittingly building in at least six degrees of separation between what she wanted and what she was getting.

In each of these cases the “fix” was actually quite simple. With the horse that spooked at the garbage can, we asked that the rider ignore the can and continue to ride past it. If the horse’s gait changed rhythm or if the mare veered away from the gate, that was okay as long as she kept moving. Within three laps, the mare was ignoring the can and her rhythm had improved. With the woman whose horse wouldn’t load into the trailer, we simply asked that she keep her horse’s head facing the trailer while asking the horse to move forward. Within less than a minute the horse was loading. And finally, with the horse with the “leading problem”; instead of stopping every time her horse stopped, I suggested the owner simply keep moving, even if that meant she had to walk back toward the horse’s hind quarters and bring the horse’s head back over its own shoulder, doubling its body back on itself. By doing so, she was able to keep the degrees of separation to one and within a short period of time her horse was following without incident.

In all three cases we limited the degrees of separation between cue and response to one, which was basically the horse’s initial refusal. With the owner staying on task, even if it took more time than they would have initially wanted, the task eventually came through with very little effort on either the horse or owner’s part. Whereas by allowing several degrees of separation to occur between cue and response, the task usually became more and more difficult to achieve. In other words, our goal while working with our horses should be to stay focused on the solution rather than the problem.

Lets look at it another way. Lets say that we are walking down the street and someone suddenly comes up and attacks us. Obviously, at that point our attacker’s thought is on the attack itself. Now, we can try to talk the attacker out of striking us, but there may not be enough time to do so. We could take a second or two and wonder why the person is attacking us, what their thoughts are while they bring their hand up to strike, what could have possibly happened in their life that caused them to turn to such behavior, etc., but that will probably do little to change the situation. On the other hand, we could place our focus on defending ourselves anyway we see fit, which still might do little to change the attacker’s reasons for coming after us, but most certainly will give us a better chance at changing the outcome. By focusing on the solution rather than the problem, we are more likely to stay ahead of the situation rather than getting behind it.

It’s very much the same when working with horses. By focusing on what our horse is thinking, doing or reacting to in any given situation, we will almost always end up behind the problem. However, by calmly and assertively (when necessary) staying on task when such things occur, we run a much better chance of limiting degrees of separation between cue and response and ultimately end up getting out ahead of the issue rather than being behind it.

In our Aikido for Horseman Workshops, we have a specific movement exercise that we teach the students. This particular exercise is little more than stepping with one foot, then pivoting on the same foot so that we are facing the opposite direction, and then stepping and pivoting back into the original direction. When described as I just did, this exercise sounds quite simple, and for the most part, it is. However, in most of the workshops it often takes close to an hour and a half spread out over three days for most students to be able to perform the exercise proficiently. On the last day, we team everybody up with a partner, and then while facing each other, we ask them to perform the exercise.

When done correctly, both partners face each other, take one step forward at the same time and pivot 180 degrees just missing each other as they pass, and end up still facing each other. Everybody in the class performs the exercise at the same time, and almost without fail, problems begin. People run into one another, or can’t figure out which foot to start on, or have to look at some of the other people to get their bearings, or any other number of issues seem to occur.

Even though everybody in the room has been practicing the exercise for three days and is proficient at it, some still allow themselves to get distracted by things that have no bearing on what they are trying to accomplish. In other words, they allow degrees of separation to come between them and their task. Yet, when we instruct all of the students to only focus on themselves and their own movement, not their partner, not the people next to them, not the instructors…only themselves, within thirty seconds of beginning the exercise again, all of the students will have unknowingly synced up their movement with  everybody else in the room! It is harmony of movement between a room full of individuals generated simply by the clarity of thought.

In horsemanship, the main goal is to get two individuals to harmoniously do the same thing at the same time. In order to achieve that harmony, at least one of the individuals must first possess that clarity of thought. When things aren’t going as we plan, it is usually the horse that has the clarity of thought and our thought ends up matching theirs. When things are going well, it is usually our thought that is clear and the horse that matches us.

As a natural follower, it is this clarity of thought on our part that initiates the kind of direction the horse is most often looking for. It is also quite often the one thing that, over time, keeps the horse’s mind from wandering so much in the first place. If we want our horses to be good partners that will willingly take direction, then it is up to us to offer that direction. After all, it is very difficult to follow someone that isn’t leading. And one of the easiest ways that I know of to start becoming a good leader in any situation with anybody is by us looking for simple ways to limit the number of degrees of separation that come between us.