The desire to learn and improve and grow is a fundamental part of each and every one of us. Some have it in greater measure than others. All children have it. Learning, when you are young, is fun and exciting. Somewhere along the line, many kids learn to associate learning with work and many then begin to hate school and want only vacation and fun time. When I tell a kid interested in being a vet that I went to school for 12 years AFTER high school I can watch their face fall. That sounds painfully long and impossible to many. The ones that I know will make it don't bat an eye. School is still fun for them.
In horses we call that drive to learn and grow, try. It's what keeps your horse actively participating in the learning process. All horses are born with some amount of try and if it is cultivated, it grows until a horse learns how to learn. Those are the truly great horses. They want to excel and learn new things. They are often described as having a lot of heart, or being super smart. I believe it all comes down to try.
There are so many things about the vaquero tradition that I love, but the attention and importance placed on maintaining try is one of my favorite. It's so much fun to work with a horse that is actively participating in the lessons and "trying" to figure out what is being asked of it. You can watch a horse with try search for the correct answer when they are asked to do something new. If you have good timing and feel and can release your cue and reward the horse when his try has produced the correct answer you are on your way to building a horse that is light, responsive and content in it's work.
I think one of the best exercises to demonstrate try in a horse is one that Buck Brannaman talks about. Your horse should already understand how to break the hind quarters over and how to flex laterally with the lightest feel on the reins to do this exercise. When you ask the horse to flex and follow that lateral feel over instead of releasing with the flex you just hold it. You don't change your body position, you don't pull harder, you wait for the horse to begin exploring. Eventually the horse will start to try other things to look for that release which he should know is the signal that he found the right answer. When the horse breaks that hind end over you release, pet him and do it on the other side. Eventually that horse will break his hindquarters over as soon as you lightly pick up on that rein. As soon as he is doing that you hold instead of release.
The idea is that the cue hasn't changed but the response that you are looking for with the cue has. Now you hold until your horse's feet stop and he just gives to you laterally and then you release. Eventually the horse will just bring the head around and flex and not move his feet. If you continue switching back and forth between rewarding for flexing and rewarding for breaking the HQ over what will happen is your horse will only wait a fraction for you to release before offering the other option. They begin to trust that you will provide the release if they provide the try. It also demonstrates to the horse that you will wait. You will wait, without punishment for them to figure it out.
The first time I watched Buck do this exercise I thought it would take a ton of time for my horse to figure out the difference and he would confused and anxious not getting the release of pressure. Not so at all. I was amazed at how quickly Moony figured it out. Maybe three attempts total before he was quickly switching from one response to the other. Not upset in the least, just searching for the answer when the first one wasn't right. Moony has a ton of try and trust that I will not punish him if the answer isn't the right one.
Chico, my older gelding didn't do as well with this exercise. I've been riding Chico since he was three and I haven't always done the best job with my horsemanship with him. I've cultivated braces and allowed for sloppy responses out of laziness and ignorance. Chico has been ridden in such a way that I do all the work and he just goes along. I hold him in place with my aids when I ride. It's not all bad and many many folks believe that's the way a horse should be. They believe the horse shouldn't take a step that hasn't been dictated by it's owner. You are responsible for each and every hoof fall. Essentially, that style of riding removes the responsibility from the horse. They give up and become drones. Chico is still enough of a goof ball that he isn't completely at the drone phase. He is in an unfortunate middle place as I try and bring him back into being responsible for his own body.
When I did this exercise with Chico and held the rein instead of releasing he did what he had been taught to do. He leaned on it. For a very long time. Took a little snooze as a matter of fact. He's so used to being held, drug around, and giving up the initiative in our activities that he just figured I wanted his head turned that way and he was totally okay with it. Eventually something caught his attention and he went to turn his head the other way, ran into the pressure there and thought, maybe he should try and do something to get out of it so he gave his HQ in an attempt to at least move in a circle so he could see the other direction. I worked on this exercise with him for about 20 minutes that day with very little change in his ability to try and search for a different answer.
Some might look at the difference in the two horses and say, Moony is just way smarter than Chico. I can tell you that isn't true. I know Chico is amazingly smart. He can reason out all kinds of things when he is left to his own devices. Unfortunately, because of the way I've ridden him for the past 8 years he doesn't always take initiative when we are together anymore.
Another reason that Chico has quit trying in our riding is that he often was punished for showing initiative or try. Many folks believe that you should never let your horse anticipate. If you are doing an exercise, say a figure 8 and the horse anticipates that turn you are supposed to go the other way. Never let the horse pick which direction you are going. You don't want that horse thinking for itself. I've ridden that way for years believing I was teaching my horse that I AM MASTER, YOU ARE HORSE. It's death on try. I've heard trainers actually say, "just keep doing this (banging, yanking, thunking) until the horse give up." Not gives, but gives up. That's the kind of training program that creates drones, not partners.
Most of the folks that train the try into the horse want that horse thinking. When the horse knows it's job and understand where it's supposed to be it makes the partnership that much more valuable. Even if the horse chooses incorrectly sometimes you don't punish the horse, you just say thanks, but no thanks, we're going this way this time. And then sometimes you go the way the horse is set up to go if there is no reason not to. Why punish the horse for being all set up to go one direction?
A good example of when you want your horse to be choosing where he needs to be is in trailing a cow. That horse can understand and read that cow better than we can. Their first language is body language and once the horse understands how to react and read a cow they will forever be better at it that we are. If the horse is taught that it's good to try and we want some initiative from them, they will be more confident and ready for taking the lead on working the cow.
My horses are a great example of the result of two different styles of training and horsemanship. For the most part I have brought Moony along using as much of the principles of what I understand of the tradition of Vaquero horsemanship sprinkled heavily with the teachings of Ray Hunt. Chico has had more conventional training and most of that done haphazardly and unorganized. While I have practiced some natural horsemanship on Chico with success it was more of the bully style. I'm now attempting to retrain him in some things to again learn to follow my feel and not my aids so much. I'm meeting with limited success.
Don't get me wrong here, Chico is an amazing horse. Very well broke in someways and there isn't much I can't do with him. It's just that once you've learned to ride a horse with light feel and try that holds itself together and ready to respond to your lightest touch, having to push one around and hold him in place all the time seems like an awful lot of work.
We are all inspired when we read about one of those older people that has decided to take the initiative and go back to school at 85 and actually excels. They are bright and engaging minds. They have try. If you keep the try in your horse he will continue to learn and grow his entire life. Who knows, maybe when your horse is 20 you'll decide you want to learn fox hunting, or mounted shooting, or jousting. If your horse still has try he'll be as excited about that as you are.