By Hans-Michael Schoebinger
That’s a big one. For me it holds several important trains of thought. Firstly, “little by little” constitutes Atli Gudmundsson’s hands-on instruction of how to work with the horse. In fact, I have heard that statement from him so many times that I would call it the motto for his entire horsemanship.
He always encouraged me to proceed one small step after another, so that progress is made continuously, albeit in small increments. “You can never do too little with a horse” , as another one of my teachers put it. After a while I would then look back and be astounded as to how far advancing little by little had gotten me.
On the contrary I have noticed that I was up for trouble whenever I tried to skip something in order to make this or that huge step forward. Not only did I have to introduce each omitted step later, on top of that I then had to help the horse unlearn each step introduced in the meantime. All of them had been built on shaky ground and had to be demolished to give way for a mentally stable structure. For the horse they simply consisted of untrustworthy “bits and pieces of information that don’t make any sense because they aren’t hooked up to any corresponding chain“ of knowledge, as Mark Rashid describes such a state of psychological affairs.
Trailer loading comprises a prime example: sometimes it happens that by chance the horse just walks into the trailer. Because having the horse inside the trailer would constitute the desired outcome, I often succumbed to the temptation of simply closing the door and get going. I have found that such lack of intermediate steps will usually the next time see her having become uncomfortable with that trailer business, because she has not been properly prepared for it psychologically. Her confusion by then will have led to worry, and worry to defensiveness. Finally, I end up with the extra work of re-establishing a good feeling towards the trailer, something unnecessary had I proceeded little by little.
So that explains why the horse loves to do things in this manner. But there is something in it for us as well: things do get done little by little, whereby each of the baby steps we take is just that – a baby step, which means it inherently should be relatively simple and not requiring a lot of effort. That explains that no matter how much I had lacked in skill, nor how little time I had, nor how lazy I had been, I was still able to make steady progress.
And best of all: The horse’s resentment against giant leaps on her side and the lack of skill, time or stamina on the side of the human just so happen to fit together, thereby constituting the perfect recipe for success. It is just like Shunryu Suzuki’s thorough analysis of Zen training, which let him conclude that “after you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. So there is no need to worry about progress.”
I also love Suzuki’s comparison of proper training to picturing a man walking in the fog – little by little he gets wet, without really noticing it until he is completely soaked, completely trained that is. If the short chapters in this book were to have the same effect on you, that would be wonderful.
To make this statement work for you most efficiently (little by little):
Do not worry about progress, “do not even expect to make progress. Just to be sincere and make our full effort in each moment is enough“. In taking this literally you will notice that each moment is a very short time, so you cannot squeeze in more than a baby step anyway. How fortunate, were it otherwise you would disturb the horse!
Break up each exercise into small pieces. When you have done that, break these pieces into smaller pieces still. Repeat this procedure until each specific piece is really simple and you consider it effortless for everybody to achieve. Only then confront the horse with your exercise, of course one step at a time. You will notice that more often than not you would have omitted a necessary step, were it not for the breaking down into small elements that had made you aware of the missing link in the chain.
Only proceed to the next step, once you are sure that the step you just made has been fully accepted and understood by the horse. This includes taking advantage of ‘lucky’ circumstances where the horse by sheer chance happens to perform the desired action. If there is the slightest inkling of “feeling that something is Not Quite Right” , go back and check whether you have made a mistake in demonstrating the step to the horse or, as is very often the case, the step you are asking for is too long a stride, or, as is also very often the case, you have already omitted a necessary step before the step you just tried to make.
If you are feeling worn out and tired, consider making only one itsy bitsy tiny baby step today! For that, next to no effort is required from your side (else it would not be a baby step) while at the same time it is an indispensable part of your sure road to perfecting your horsemanship.