Insights & Opinions: The Smallest Change

Through the years, my job has presented me a lot of fabulous opportunities when it comes to horses. I’ve gotten to talk to the world’s best horsemen, and I’ve met some of the greatest horses across different disciplines and industries. One of my fondest memories, however, wasn’t work-related at all. It centered around a clinic.

Honestly, I don’t know what possessed me to sign up for a Ray Hunt clinic when I did. My mare wasn’t well broke – we hadn’t even cantered – but I had heard a lot about Ray. I guess the simple fact that he was going to be teaching at a location close to me was enough to convince me to sign up.

I learned a lot that weekend, but the biggest thing that stuck with me was Ray’s philosophy of noticing the smallest change and rewarding the slightest try. In the years since, I’ve learned it works in training horses, it works in training dogs, and it would probably work in training people if more people were open to giving it a try.

Last month, I was reminded of Ray’s philosophy in a rather unusual place – a board of directors meeting at the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Convention. AQHA President Ralph Seekins was addressing the directors in an open meeting on the final day of the convention.

Associations, it seems, are one place where people aren’t always willing to notice the small changes or reward the slightest tries. Too often, members seem to want an “all-or-nothing” solution to a problem, rather than realizing those small steps along the way add up to really big changes in the end.

Seekins may have had that in mind when he created a slide that showed everything the AQHA is doing right. It read:

  • “We listen to you better.
  • We are positive about the future.
  • Animal welfare…we are the model of other organizations. They are watching what we are doing. What we are asking you to change is not to hurt you.
  • Warm-up pen behavior is better than ever.
  • Stewards are doing a good job. Pro Horsemen have gotten behind the effort.
  • We aren’t home free yet, but progress is being made.
  • We are more friendly to new people. More encouraging
  • Some Western pleasure horses are better.
  • Halter horses are improving. Balanced, structurally correct and well-mannered.
  • Horses are less intimidated. More foreward.
  • Ranch horse classes and improving our image.
  • Judges are better trained than ever before.”

Now notice what Seekins didn’t say. He didn’t say the problems with Western pleasure horses or halter horses or intimidated horses have been fixed. He said they are getting better. He didn’t say you’d never again see a horse being treated in a questionable manner in a warm-up pen. He said it was better than ever. He didn’t say the problems that plague the AQHA (and every horse organization) were solved. He said, “We aren’t home free yet, but progress is being made.”

I think it’s high time we reward that progress by acknowledging it. Instead, here’s what usually happens: a video gets posted on Facebook. Let’s say it’s a Western pleasure class. Someone (and usually someone who doesn’t even show Western pleasure horses) posts a disparaging comment about the horses and riders. Someone else chimes in. Before you know it, the comments are full of people casting stones at Western pleasure horses, the people that show them and the AQHA for condoning such a class. (For the record, the same thing happens on reining, cutting and cow horse videos, sale horse posts and even trail riding videos. Western pleasure is just one example.)

The saddest part is many of those derogatory comments are made by horse people toward other horse people. I’m sure you’ve seen the inevitable social media fallout that happens next – name calling, personal attacks and a whole lot of bad publicity for the horse industry.

Imagine how much different the comments and the conversation would be if someone had posted a comment about the efforts the AQHA was taking to educate judges and exhibitors in an effort to change the Western pleasure horse. It’s hard to keep complaining (though some do) about something when presented with the evidence that steps are being taken to effect positive change. Is every class and every horse better? No. But some are, and that’s a great start! Recognizing that effort shows the rest of the world that we do care – about our sport, about our reputations, and most of all, about our horses.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. Psychologists say there are actually five stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance. It’s easy to want to jump to the fourth step, action, and want immediate change. It’s much harder to recognize and admit those first three steps are vitally important, and sometimes they are the “slightest tries” we all miss.

In the last two months, I’ve had the opportunity to sit through board of director meetings at the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) Winter Meeting and the AQHA Convention. In each, I’ve been proud (and sometimes pleasantly surprised) at the honesty and selflessness of the horsemen and horsewomen who volunteer to sit on those boards and steer our associations. I imagine I will feel the same way after the National Cutting Horse Association Convention in June.

Our associations are facing tough issues and often making even tougher calls. And while you may not agree with everything they do, they are our best line of defense against animal rights extremists, government intervention and a lackadaisical public that doesn’t have our best interests at heart. As Ray taught, we’ll get more accomplished by noticing the small changes and applauding the slightest tries. Why not give it a try?